Mark 3:25 – And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand”.

We are often warned of the threat that is external enemy propaganda: how Daesh is using it to recruit; or how Russians are influencing popular opinions via disinformation – to name a few. Yet, propaganda targeting an audience abroad is the most challenging form of systemic persuasion. Given cognitive biases and entrenched beliefs, to name just a few impediments, swaying the minds of opponents is extremely difficult. The more likely chance of being mislead or swayed by propaganda is at home – in the relaxed environment of your own backyard where the worldviews we adopt or shape seem natural, familiar and, thus, less threatening. Never is this misconception more dangerous than in highly politicised environments when these viewpoints diverge into extreme partisanship, breaking society down into groups, which can no longer understand one another. Such divisions make a society a much easier mark where enemy propaganda is concerned.

This, unfortunately, appears to be the case in the United States today. While some might call the battle between Republicans and Democrats simply politics, or even a form of democracy, the party-based divisions are leading to competing narratives among followers that are perilously pitting American against American. No amount of enemy propaganda could have hoped to achieve the hostile divisions that are growing today in the U.S.

Why Enemy Propaganda is not the Real Threat

The problem with external propaganda is that it usually aims to bring the target audience around to the propagandist’s perspective – which is counter to what the target audience already believes. This fails for a number of reasons.

Due to the cognitive bias of Selective Exposure, people are more likely to accept information based on how it conforms to their existing beliefs. New information – even if it presents a superior argument – is less likely to be accepted by an audience already ‘won over’. Furthermore, if this new information is presented in a way that insults the audience, or fails to resonate with their existing ideology or beliefs, it will have the opposite effect causing the audience to become further entrenched in their existing perspective.

Studies also suggest “that likeable sources and sources that share characteristics with the message recipient” are more likely to be accepted by the target audience. Thus, messages that come from a detested enemy, or are at all connected back to that foe are highly unlikely to be accepted, much less adopted.

Furthermore, a recent study has found that social media is, in fact, creating echo chambers around communities of interest that reinforce their understanding of the world. Moreover, if the information to which individuals expose themselves is not accurate, they are also not likely to be exposed to the relevant corrective information.

In short, the odds of an average citizen self-selecting to be exposed to enemy propaganda are slim – yet, conversely, people are far more likely to limit their frames of reference opting only to consume information that conforms to their existing beliefs. In essence, people in a society devoid of an overarching cause or ideology that can mitigate individualistic preferences fuel their own divisions and polarizing perspectives – a situation that actually makes that society more vulnerable to enemy propaganda.

Arguably, the very patterns of information consumption that shelter an audience from enemy propaganda, are the same barriers that prevent different domestic political camps from hearing each other’s messages and coming to a mutual understanding.

Sociological Propaganda & How We Shape Our World

The narratives forming our understanding of the world are derived from the self-reinforcing realm of what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul termed Sociological Propaganda, a sum total of predominant notions, ideas and worldviews actively propagated by interested parties to ensure normative cohesion within a society.

For Ellul, there were a variety of propagandas. The more obvious form is that which is direct, “aimed at modifying opinions and attitudes” held by the public through top-down messages, slogans, and run of the mill brainwashing tactics. However, this Direct Propaganda, Ellul argued, could not succeed without a more subtle form of manipulation occurring beforehand preparing fertile soil (hearts and minds) for incoming direct information campaigns.

Sociological Propaganda is a subtler, bottom-up endeavour that when it takes root, makes the public more susceptible to direct propaganda. As Ellul explains:

“…in sociological propaganda the movement is reversed. The existing economic, political, and sociological factors progressively allow an ideology to penetrate individuals or masses. Through the medium of economic and political structures a certain ideology is established, which leads to the active participation of the masses and the adaptation of individuals.” [1. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Vintage Books; New York, 1965, p 63-64.]

Sociological Propaganda creeps into a society and its hold strengthens as more individuals absorb mainstream messages, internalize information, and form opinions (soon to become “I always said so”) that conform to their existing beliefs:

“…it is based on a general climate, an atmosphere that influences people imperceptibly without having the appearance of propaganda it gets to man through his customs, through his unconscious habits. It creates new habits in him; it is a sort of persuasion from within. As a result, man adopts a new criteria of judgment and choice, adopts them spontaneously, as if he had chosen them himself.” [1. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Vintage Books; New York, 1965, p 63-64.]

Ellul referenced “the great American way of life” as an example of Sociological Propaganda when writing in 1965. Back then, the United States had an overarching Sociological Propaganda model based on the American dream and propagated by a panoply of marketing, PR and advertising firms, as well as Hollywood that by and large succeeded in galvanizing society as a whole. Today, on the other hand, many competing narratives are taking root and, in fact, creating what will likely be permanent, animus divisions preventing any future hope of social unity. Such narratives are not born out of a void, but based on and reinforced by what is perceived to be happening around an affected group. For example, those who support Donald Trump could have an entirely different worldview from Occupy activists. As such, the norms and ideas constituting the body of Sociological Propaganda can vary widely depending on the given circumstances and levels of discourse, even within one country. The issue, of course, is that while a multitude of opinions can be seen as a sign of a healthy democracy, the absence of an overarching Idea for the country ensures that such a nation remains divided.


An Environment to Trump

Ellul argued that in societies where propaganda was used, the execution of it could not be ceased. Propaganda provides an audience with certainty in the form of easy answers and simple directions. A society once exposed to propaganda, but is no longer, will experience a sort of withdrawal where people will no longer want to partake in things such as community or politics. For Ellul, no matter how much we want to believe ourselves brainwashed from above (and desirous to break free from the hold propaganda has on us), we seek and need propaganda to make our lives easier.

From this perspective, the Cold War period, as a conflict of ideologies offering alternative worldviews, was a battle of propagandas. Propaganda was used as much to sway the enemy populations, as it was to keep domestic audiences in line, constantly ready for hard work at home or mobilization to the frontline. When the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, decades of propaganda suddenly ceased, creating an ideological void. After all, if democracy had triumphed, how could it still be under threat? Without some greater cause in which to believe or fight for, Americans (and indeed the West) were left directionless. The euphoria of Communism’s collapse hid this uncertainty, but as some sociologists noted in the ensuing years, American society did appear to retreat into itself – at least for a while. This change in circumstance has had an impact on patriotism: in a recent poll, 59% of respondents thought that the U.S. was either no longer or had never been the most powerful country in the world.


This lack of a cause or greater role in the world was soon buried by the attacks on 9/11. Now terror became the idée fixe for many Americans. Fear and uncertainty encouraged the passing of rather draconian security laws – which in turn, when exposed by Edward Snowden, began to erode the trust of many in the government.

Following closely behind increasing terror attacks was the global economic collapse of 2008, which added economic hardships, a sense of lost opportunities for old and young generations alike, to a previously experienced lack of a greater cause, growing uncertainty, and fear – not to mention further diminishing faith in government. Americans are increasingly disgruntled. Only 35% of Americans polled say they make enough money to save and buy some extras. More than 60% of respondents felt that the American dream of working hard and getting ahead was either now dead or never true at all. 54% are worse off financially than they thought they would be. And 74% believe that the gap between the wealthy and everyone else is getting larger.

Fear, loss, and uncertainty – none of these states are experiences humans cope well with psychologically:

  • The wish to avoid loss leads individuals to faulty decision-making through a cognitive bias known as loss aversion – whereby people will take increasing risks simply to gain back that which they are losing. Loss is experienced in a variety of ways, including anger, fear or anxiety, shame, and depression.
  • Similarly, most people abhor uncertainty. As a result of the cognitive bias of ambiguity aversion, people will favour known risks over those that are unknown. Ambiguity tends to provoke anxiety and stress in humans.
  • Fear encourages very poor decision-making, it provokes the in-group cognitive bias to make people feel more closely to things that are already familiar, and encourages us to accept any measure – no matter how unreasonable – so long as it promises to prevent that which we fear.

And as if to fill the void and ease uncertainty, social media emerged providing the most soothing of distractions: a mirror. Into this distorted looking glass, society poured itself, its fears, and fostered explanations for the changed world in which they found themselves. Governments, media, businesses, civil groups, and individuals themselves – all engaged in this cornucopia of information production, laundering, and distribution competing with each other for Joe America’s attention – all the while producing a new Sociological Propaganda realm – a chaotic and confusing world where the majority herds itself into many divided cells in the absence of a nobler cause.

This unstable environment with resulting cognitive and psychological dissonances that cause a sense of loss, malcontent, and suspicion accentuate two critical points pertinent to this discussion:

  1. American society’s current Sociological Propaganda paradigm is comprised of a multitude of highly fragmented information loops ensconcing the population into deeply divided echo chambers preventing any greater-than-themselves political purpose that might unite them.
  2. This is the perfect environment for “saviours” to emerge, particularly those who can grasp the sentiments and undertones prevalent in the current Sociological Propaganda milieu, and identify a target for the masses to vent pent-up anger and frustration (quite likely, away from the genuine causes or creators of this environment).

 The Trump Card

Enter Trump. He is not alone in using populism to gain attention (and quite possibly power), but for the sake of brevity, let’s consider his campaign as a our sole example – plus his name is so perfect for puny titles. Similar analysis can easily be applied to other candidates, such as Bernie Sanders or Ted Cruz, but Trump does display a superior skill at capturing attention and support if polling numbers and news coverage are to be considered.

With regard to tapping into a particular Sociological Propaganda developing as outlined in the section above, Trump’s campaign is directly responding to these issues by:

Providing Direction

Trump’s campaign is built on the idea that America has lost her way, with the main slogan of “Make America Great Again!” Not only does this address the void created after the Cold War ended and decades of propaganda ceased to lead the nation, but it is deeply rooted in the long-standing Sociological Propaganda of “the great American way of life”.

Fighting Terrorism & Feeding Islamophobia

On the fear and uncertainty caused by increasing acts of terrorism, Trump’s campaign responds directly with “a temporary shut down of Muslims entering the US” and a promise to “cut the head off ISIS and take their oil”. These solutions exploit the in-group cognitive bias, whereby people fear those whom are not familiar, as well as the Ambiguity Aversion, encouraging us to accept easy answers, much like Direct Propaganda. This isn’t to say that Trump supporters are manipulated either, just that such messaging reflects pre-existing biases. Indeed, 65% of Republican voters polled agree with Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.

Economic Scapegoating

Foreigners are widely blamed by Trump for the U.S. economic decline. And 46% of Americans asked tend to agree saying immigrants are a “burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care”.

China has repeatedly been featured in Trump commentary, but Mexicans are also scapegoated for “taking jobs” and causing an American drug problem. Thus Trump’s campaign promises to build “a wall on our southern border that Mexico will pay for” to stop illegal immigration. This rather unreasonable solution (given the length of the wall) feeds on the cognitive bias of loss aversion, as well as poor decision-making as a result of fear – it doesn’t matter how impossible the solution, if it is simple and promises to easily prevent perceived fears, supporters will readily support the measure.


Independent Anti-Hero & the 1%

As others have noted, Trump has carefully fostered an image that appeals to the American pathos, especially that based on “the great American way of life”. Trump has positioned himself as the quintessential American anti-hero, the underdog taking on the establishment. Media coverage dedicated to reasoning why Trump couldn’t possibly win the election only reinforces this idea. Even his business failures are used to feed into this message of an all-American man who knows hardship and has persevered. The approach appears to be succeeding, with a 42 point gain in just 10 months in the percentage of Republicans who “could see themselves” voting for Trump. And when finally leading the polls might jeopardise his underdog status, Trump finds new reasons to appear persecuted, thus missing the Fox News Republican debate citing differences between him and news personality Megyn Kelly.

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Trump has used anchoring – most frequently noted in his declaration of personal wealth – to foster the image of a successful, self-made businessman, who isn’t beholden to anyone. Moreover, he repeatedly claims to be self-funding his campaign, short of the smaller donations made by his supporters, so as not to be bought like other candidates.

TrumpStatsTrump also speaks unlike other politicians, in a very clipped, direct manner that is easily understood by the average listener – in a way more reminiscent of classic marketing or sales speech, rather than the usually opaque talk of most candidates. Trump clearly understands his audience and is investing into infrastructure that will enable further insight and community building to lever this support. Like him or not, Trump has charisma and a presence in any room – he is said to learn everyone’s name whom he meets, addressing them by it personally, as any solid salesman would do.

In summary, Trump is carefully crafting the image of a rugged independent American anti-hero – of the Daniel Boone or Wyatt Earp variety – telling it how it is, or at least how an estimated 11-20% of (or 25 million) American voters view the world through an altered version of “the great American way of life”. This new take on an old example of Sociological Propaganda says that America is lost and must be made great again, foreigners are the cause of this unjust decline, the government (beholden to the 1%) is incompetent and fails to find solutions, and all Muslims are to be feared. And indeed, more Americans yet might buy in, if polls such as Esquire and NBC’s survey on American Rage are any indication.

While the Trump campaign effectively feeds off, creates, and plays on existing sentiments and undertones constituting the current Sociological Propaganda environment, it is the next stage – that of Direct Propaganda – where tensions really rise.

Trumped Up Charges

While Sociological Propaganda takes hold of people within the context of a particular environment or situation, Direct Propaganda takes advantage of such prevailing thoughts to incite action within the affected population. Most obvious in this specific example will be Trump’s election campaign calling on people to vote for him. However, this is not the only messaging that is developing as a result of the burgeoning Sociological Propaganda considered in this article.

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Sociological Propaganda spreads when a group of people adopt similar viewpoints in a given circumstance. Such perspectives are further cemented by the echo chambers people create through selecting information that conforms to their own worldviews. The Social Propaganda loop is closed when personal views become an entrenched “fact” after media and other opinion shapers reflect this perspective back to the affected audience. As Ellul explains:

“This is the feeling that propaganda must generate. My opinion, which society once scorned, now becomes important and decisive. No longer has it importance only for me, but also for the whole range of political affairs and the entire social body. A voter may well feel that his vote has no importance or value. But propaganda demonstrates that the action in which it involves us is of fundamental importance, and that everything depends on me. It boosts my ego by giving me a strong sense of my responsibility; it leads me to assume a posture of authority among my fellows, makes me take myself seriously by appealing to me in impassioned tones, with total conviction, and gives me the feeling that it’s a question of All or Nothing. Thanks to such propaganda, the diminished individual obtains the very satisfaction he needs.” [1. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Vintage Books; New York, 1965, p 150.]

And to a large degree, this is what Trump and supportive media are achieving. Take the issue of banning Muslims from the U.S., for example. Trump has been quite clear in expressing his distrust of Muslims – a fear, alas, shared by nearly two-thirds of Republicans. In his recently launched campaign ad, the narrator pointedly remarks: “The politicians can pretend it is something else, but Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism.”

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Media is reinforcing the suspicion that Muslims are to be feared – and thus deserving of attack by the U.S:

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Some media personalities are making more personal calls to action, encouraging individual Americans to take up arms to protect themselves from such threats:

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When such perspectives move beyond the dining rooms and into the public domain, particularly across mass media and channels, such thinking transforms from Sociological to Direct Propaganda, and begins to demand action from its followers – which can have terrible consequences. This shift also leads to an entrenchment of perspective that is extremely difficult to unseat – creating divides across political lines that can be easily exploited by external forces. Whether Trump wins election or not, these divisions will lead to grave problems for the United States as a country and society.

You’ve Been Trumped

Unfortunately, for those who find Trump alarming, much of their approach to hindering his successes are destined to fail. As noted earlier in the context of adversarial propaganda, being insulting or dismissive will not dissuade followers from supporting their leader. Blocking Trump from your newsfeed or web browser might help reinforce your own points of view (congratulations, you successfully built your own echo-chamber!), but it will not address the fact that some 25 million people in the U.S. support the man and his messaging. Foreign parliamentarians calling Trump names and seeking a ban on his entry into their country will only make his supporters believe in him more – after all, it fuels the underdog anti-hero image. And this is to say nothing of the fact that Trump receives more nightly network news coverage than all of the Democratic candidates combined – even if loathed, the man still demands everyone’s attention.


As with any attempt at countering propaganda, success can only be achieved through understanding why an audience believes what it does. Being horrified or outraged is not a great vantage point from which to foster an understanding. This does not mean that one must come around to accepting the other’s viewpoint, but that they must be capable of putting aside their own biases to understand the other. Clearly, there are grievances – perceived or otherwise – that are leading millions of Americans to support Trump’s campaign. Without finding ways to address these issues, no amount of negative coverage will dissuade Trump supporters.

As the average person struggles economically, 1% of the world owns more than the other 99% combined – with just 62 people owning as much as the poorest half of the planet. Regardless of Trump succeeding or not, at some point a populist will come along who will tap into these frustrations and gain power.

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The Only Way to Stump a Trump

So what is to be done? Anyone truly concerned about the stability of the U.S. should be seeking to bridge divides and make reforms.

Leaders must look to common threads that concern people across political divides. Issues such as massive consumer fraud, wealth inequality, and government dysfunction tend to transcend party lines. It isn’t enough to pay lip service to such issues; leaders must address them with effective and tangible measures. If leaders are unable to truly tackle concerns such as consumer fraud or wealth inequality given loyalty to the likes of campaign donors, it might be time that the entire structure of elections in some democracies be reviewed, if not overhauled.

People need a greater cause in which to believe. What is the American vision for the future? Being great again is pretty vague, but in the absence of anything else being articulated that inspires people to sacrifice or action, it is the only thing for many to grasp onto. Following decades of conditioning during the Cold War period, Americans (and indeed most in the West) need a new ideal for which to strive. Rampant consumerism and Hollywood entertainment will only provide a distraction so long as people can continue to afford to partake – what happens afterwards?

Voters must begin to accept responsibility – not in the sense that they must vote for the candidates put up by parties – but in looking beyond the illusions that are party politics or many of the notions that constitute the current Sociological Propaganda milieu in the United States. It is up to all individuals to understand how information is manipulated and how they contribute to self-deception. Suspend judgement or aversion when people say something with which we disagree, and try to understand where they are coming from. Consider if what we believe is rooted in a similar bias, just from the opposite perspective. More importantly, the answer might not be to convince those who have already drank the political Kool-Aid, but to work with others seeing beyond the populism that every political platform is, and build solutions that facilitate change, that lead to results which will attract other supporters. Words they may be mighty, but ultimately action trumps.

In a Digital Age, there is no excuse that can justify failing to pull back the curtain on Sociological and Direct Propaganda.


About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.