TV brain washing
Illustration by David Dees

It’s not really deniable that western civilization is saturated with domestic propaganda geared toward manipulating the way the public thinks, acts, works, shops and votes. Mass media employees have attested to the fact that they experience constant pressure to administer narratives which are favorable to the political status quo of the US empire.

The managers of empire have publicly acknowledged that they have a vested interest in manipulating public thought. Casual naked-eye observation of the way the mass media reliably support every US war, rally behind the US foreign policy objective of the day, and display overwhelming bias against empire-targeted governments makes it abundantly obvious that this is happening when viewed with any degree of critical thought.

To deny that these mass-scale manipulations have an effect would be as absurd as denying that advertising — a near trillion-dollar industry — has an effect. It’s just an uncomfortable fact that as much as we like to think of ourselves as free-thinking sovereign agents immune to outside influence, human minds are very hackable. Manipulators understand this, and the science of modern propaganda which has been advancing for over a century understands this with acute lucidity.

By continually hammering our minds with simple repeated messaging about the nature of the world we live in, propagandists are able to exploit glitches in human cognition like the illusory truth effect, which causes our minds to mistake the experience of having heard something before with the experience of having heard something that is true.

Our indoctrination into the mainstream imperial worldview begins when we are very young, largely because schooling is intertwined with the same power structures whose information interests are served by that worldview, and because powerful plutocrats like John D Rockefeller actively inserted themselves into the formation of modern schooling systems.

Our worldview is formed when we are young in the interests of our rulers, and from there cognitive biases take over which protect and reinforce that worldview, typically preserving them in more or less the same form for the rest of our lives.

This is what makes it so hard to convince someone that their beliefs about an issue are falsehoods born of propaganda. I see a lot of people blame this problem on the fact that critical thinking isn’t taught in schools, and I’ve seen some strains of Marxist thought arguing that westerners choose to espouse propaganda narratives because they know it advances their own class interests, and I’m sure both of these factor into the equation to some extent. But the primary reason people tend to remain committed to their propaganda-installed perspectives actually has a much simpler, well-documented explanation.

Modern psychology tells us that people don’t just tend to hold onto their propaganda-induced belief systems; people tend to hold onto any belief system. Belief perseverance, as the name suggests, describes the way people tend to cling to their beliefs even when presented with evidence disproving them. The theory goes that back when humans lived in tribes that were often hostile to each other, our tribal cohesion and knowing who we can trust mattered more to our survival than taking the time to figure out what’s objectively true, so now we’ve got these brains that tend to prioritize loyalty to our modern “tribes” like our nation, our religion, our ideological factions and our pet causes.

This tendency can take the form of motivated reasoning, where our emotional interests and “tribal” loyalties color the way we take in new information. It can also give rise to the backfire effect, where being confronted with evidence which conflicts with one’s worldview will not only fail to change their beliefs but actually strengthen them.

So the simple answer to why people cling to beliefs instilled by imperial propaganda is because that’s just how minds work. If you can consistently and forcefully indoctrinate someone from an early age and then give them a mainstream ideological “tribe” with which to identify in their indoctrination, the cognitive glitches in these newly-evolved brains of ours act as sentries which protect those worldviews you implanted. Which is exactly what modern propaganda, and our modern political systems, are set up to do.

I often see people expressing bewilderment about the way the smartest people they know subscribe to the most ridiculous propaganda narratives out there. This is why. A smart person who has been effectively indoctrinated by propaganda will just be more clever than someone of average intelligence in defending their beliefs. Some of the most foam-brained foreign policy think pieces you’ll ever read come from PhDs and Ivy League graduates, because all their intelligence gives them is the ability to make intelligent-sounding arguments for why it would be good and smart for the US military to do something evil and stupid.

The Oatmeal has a great comic about this (which someone also made into a video if you prefer). Importantly, the author correctly notes that the mind’s tendency to forcefully protect its worldview does not mean it’s impossible to change one’s beliefs in light of new evidence, only that it is more difficult than accepting beliefs which confirm one’s biases. It takes some work, and it takes sincerity and self-honesty, but it can be done. Which is happy news for those of us who have an interest in convincing people to abandon their propaganda-constructed worldviews for reality-based ones.

Sometimes just being patient with someone, showing empathy, treating them how we’d like to be treated, and working to establish things in common to overcome the primitive psychology which screams we’re from a hostile tribe can accomplish a lot more than just laying out tons of objective facts disproving their believed narrative about Russia or China or their own government or what have you.

And above all we can just keep telling the truth, in as many fresh, engaging and creative ways as we can come up with. The more we do this, the more opportunities there are for someone to catch a glimmer of something beyond the veil of their propaganda-installed worldview and the cognitive biases which protect it. The more such opportunities we create, the greater a chance the truth has of getting a word in edgewise.


Caitlin Johnstone, an independent journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Her website is here and you can follow her on Twitter @caitoz or You can read more about her project HERE.


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