Howdy partners, glad you could saddle up and join the posse. We’re heading out into the badlands searching for outlaws, so let’s ride!
Sorry, I ended last week comparing today’s post-truth world with the Wild West and got carried away with the analogy. I’ll stop now, not least because I want to talk about Hitler, and how he makes outlaws look like saints. Quite a leap from the Wild West, ain’t it?
So, why Hitler? Well, have you ever wondered how it was possible that a character as strange and personally inadequate as Hitler ever gained power in a sophisticated country at the heart of Europe, or how he came to be loved by millions of people?
He was a badly flawed human being who couldn’t form intimate relationships, he was unable to debate intellectually, he instilled fear in those around him and flew into manic rages at the slightest provocation. He had a pathological need for dominance and superiority, and to take revenge on anyone who critisised him. He had no conscience, no empathy.
We should be grateful we don’t have any world leaders like him any more. 😱
Anyway, here’s how it happened. Back in the late 1930s Germany was still making hefty reparations to the countries it had fought during the First World War. This was taking a heavy toll on the finances of wealthy businessmen, one of whom was a guy named Alfred Hugenberg. It just so happened that Hugenberg was a powerful industrialist with a huge media empire and, seeing how Hitler and the Nazi Party were pledging to stop these damaging reparation payments should they come to power, he decided to throw his weight behind them. He was even quoted as saying that “Hitler would be his tool”.
The 1930s saw the beginnings of ‘celebrity culture’. The new ‘talkie’ movies were creating global film stars and the masses developed a craving to know more about the personal lives and lifestyles of these new ‘celebs’. These cravings extended to all public figures, including politicians, so Hitler’s propagandists got to work taking advantage of it.
Here are a couple of snippets from lifestyle magazine articles published at the time:
On Aug. 20, 1939, the New York Times Magazine published an article describing day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain chalet. This was 12 days before Germany invaded Poland and started World War II.
The article commented that Hitler’s estate on the Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat near the Austrian border, was “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions.” Unstained wainscoting and handwoven rugs combined to “create an atmosphere of quiet cheerfulness” in the Führer’s study, the New York Times reported. It went on to tell its readers that Hitler had a tomato garden and a fondness for chocolate. That he was a man “who can eat a gooseberry pie or a well-done pudding with relish.” And that he liked to take an afternoon nap.
Here’s another from a 1938 issue of the British publication Homes and Gardens:
The piece, a three-page feature on the same estate, related that the home was “bright” and “airy,” with a jade green colour scheme. It noted that Hitler “had a passion for cut flowers,” and considered his gardeners, chauffeur and air-pilot not as servants, but as “loyal friends.”
Yep, those propagandists knew what they were doing, and who was the mastermind behind it all? You may have heard of him. It was a chap named Paul Joseph Goebbels. He was one of Adolf’s closest and most devoted associates, and Reich Minister of Propaganda from 1933 until he and his wife committed suicide in Hitler’s bunker in April 1945, right after they poisoned their six children; a lovely chap.
Here are a couple of things he said (and remember, this was 80 years ago):
“It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and a psychological understanding of the people concerned, that a square is in fact a circle. They are mere words, and words can be moulded until they clothe ideas and disguise the truth.”
“Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play”.
He was undoubtably a genius when it came to mind control, we can only imagine what he could have achieved if he’d had access to the social media tools we have today.
Thank the Universe we don’t have any such ruthless political puppet masters controlling our leaders and media today eh?
Wasn’t there a fella called Steve Bannon who had something to do with Trump getting elected? And what about Dominic Cummings in No10? Wasn’t he there helping Boris Johnson during the Brexit campaign and now as Prime Minister?
Surely they can’t be compared to Goebbels, can they?
Here’s another quote from the evil genius:
“The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly — it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over”.
Any of these catchy phrases ring a bell?
Make America Great Again
Build The Wall
Lock Her Up
Take Back Control
Get Brexit Done
Leave Means Leave
Hmm, seems like Mr Bannon and Mr Cummings might have studied some German.
This flavour of mind control has been around for decades, and the undoubted past masters have been the advertising agencies. How many of these can you match to companies or brands?
‘The best a man can get’
‘Finger licking good’
‘Because you’re worth it’
‘Just do it’
I’m guessing you got most if not all, and they’ve become etched in your memory without any effort on your part.
Have you ever wondered why those TV ads come round so often? Well. Now you know.
There’s no doubting it, there are folks out there who, just like Goebbels, are experts in getting whatever message they want to communicate implanted into your brain, and they’re not using the Dark Arts to do it, they’re using science.
They’re using something called the Illusory Truth Effect, that’s a fancy way to describe our tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.
The phenomenon was first identified in a 1977 study. The researchers discovered that when deciding if something is true or not, people rely on whether the information they’re assessing is in line with their understanding or if it feels familiar. The first makes sense, as we’re inevitably going to compare new information with what we already know to be true. But the researchers also discovered that repetition makes statements easier to process relative to new, unrepeated statements.
In a nutshell, the more we see and hear something the more we start to believe it.
There’s a wealth of research out there which shows that the illusory truth effect plays a significant role in such fields as election campaigns, advertising, news media, and political propaganda.
And, as we saw last week, in 2007 the door opened on a world Herr Goebbels couldn’t have imagined, even in his wildest dreams. A world in which any message could be instantly delivered to tens of millions of people over and over again.
This last decade has seen the greatest change in communication and information distribution in history. Is it a blessing or a curse?
Next week we’ll try to find out.