“People Are Really Smart” Not The Most Compelling Explanation For Why Rank Propaganda Fails

PsyBlog calls out Fahrenheit 9/11 for being bad argumentation and open propaganda, and then goes on to ask why Bush still lost:

Some saw it as a brilliant indictment of the lead-up to an unjust war. Others saw it as unfounded liberal/left-wing propaganda designed to give the Democrats a boost in the lead-up to the 2004 US presidential elections. At the time Dr Kelton Rhoads, an expert in the psychology of persuasion, wrote a piece detailing the psychological techniques of persuasion used by Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11. Although I wrote a summary of Rhoads’ article, due to website re-organisations it got lost so I’m reposting it here as it provides a good introduction to propaganda techniques… “…is Fahrenheit documentary, or is it propaganda? Call it as you will. For my part, I see a consistent, effective, and clever use of a range of established propaganda tactics. If only a few of these tactics were used, or if the attempt to deceive weren’t as apparent, I might equivocate…I feel safe in applying the rule: if it flies, walks, swims, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.”… So if Fahrenheit 9/11 was such a successful piece of propaganda, how come George Bush went on to win the 2004 presidential election?

In a different post the suggestion is made that Moore failed because he wasn’t subtle enough. That’s probably part of the answer. Rank propaganda is probably not effective for capturing undecided citizens in the context of deliberative controversies (and there’s an interesting rhetorical analysis to be done about battles to label argumentative texts as “propaganda”). But agitprop is still wildly effective for rallying people around the flag when they want to be rallied – Hitler’s Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl was effective and not exactly subtle. So why didn’t F9/11 manage to rally the Democratic troops to go out and outvote the Republicans?
It seems at least part of the answer has to be that both sides had unreformed propaganda working to get voters to the booths. Goodnight has been pushing this line for at least a couple of years in the context of his broader work on celebrity advocacy in deliberative politics. His paper in the American Behavioral Scientist on F9/11 as the mirror-image of The Passion of the Christ is to the point here, and the PDF of his presentation at the Lear Center is here. So there are at least a few reasons to be suspicious of PsyBlog’s potentially heartening “people will see through bad propaganda” declaration.
References:
* 9 Propaganda Techniques in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 [PsyBlog]
* The backlash against Fahrenheit 9/11 [PsyBlog]
* The Passion of the Christ Meets Fahrenheit 9/11 [G. Tom Goodnight]
*
Previously:
* What Isn’t Argument?
* Habermas: The Ideal Speech Situation Is A Bad Model For The Ideal Speech Situation
* Social Science Partisan Attacks Critic For Lack Of Social Scientific Rigor

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