Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero discusses the role propaganda has played in maintaining societal power structures.

Producer: Elena Walsh Ferré
06/20/2022 • 05:00 AM EST

Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero, professor and propaganda researcher at the University of Seville in Spain, discusses the key role propaganda has played throughout history in societal power structures, particularly of those in democratic societies. He also makes the linkage between propaganda efforts of the allies surrounding WWI and the influence it had on Hitler's vision for the future Nazi propaganda machine. Pineda concludes by discussing the vertical nature of propaganda communication and how the Internet, a platform capable of horizontal dialogue and interactivity, has not altered but only perpetuated top-down propagandist messaging.

0:00: Elena Walsh Ferre:

With us today, we have Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero, professor at the University of Sevilla in Spain. Dr. Pineda specializes in advertising, public relations, and propaganda theory. And he's here to talk to us today about the evolution of propaganda, commercial advertising, and the relationship between ideology and popular culture. Professor Pineda thank you so much for joining us today.

0:23: Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero:

It's my pleasure to be here with you.

0:26: Elena Walsh Ferre:

You've written about how power and ideology is to essential concepts in propaganda. Could you elaborate on this?

0:33: Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero:

Yes, I understand propaganda theory is an effort to shed light on the causal principles, the generative principles that underlie the generation of a certain kind of messages. If we study the history of propaganda, it is very easy to arrive at the conclusion that power is much more than an element of this kind of communication. Power is the main causal principle behind propaganda. In other words, the intention of achieving keeping, or even expanding a position of power in society, that's the causal explanation. That's the reason why, if you like, of propaganda actions and campaigns.

In this regard, I think that this theory, this intentional theory also explains the fact that propaganda has been going on for thousands of years. It also explains its universality and the fact that it appears in all cultures and societies. Why? Because power structures have also existed for thousands of years and they are also present in every society. I think that the first time in history when some individual or group tried to convince the tribe, that primitive tribe that he or she or they should lead the tribe, that's the moment when propaganda was activated for the first time in history.

And since we are talking about power, it's very important to stress that the role of power in propaganda has nothing to do with the degree of brutality or authoritarianism with which power is implemented. Propaganda is very important in totalitarian states and dictatorships. Of course, that's undeniable. That's a fact. But it is also very relevant in democratic societies, as the PropWatch Project tries to prove. And actually all time theoreticians like Walter Lippman and Harold Lasswell and Edward Bernays acknowledge this fact now, the relevance of propaganda and contemporary democratic societies. And the reason is that obviously, we still have power structures, very strong power structures in democratic societies.

And in spite of the fact that they don't work the same way as they do in authoritarian systems, they still produce propaganda. They generate propaganda as well. I think that, and this where the crucial question is, as George Orwell pointed out, that the instinct of power has not been eliminated. If our societies keep being built on power systems, on the notion that a few ones give the orders and all the rest obey, propaganda will be with us forever, it will be here forever.

That's about power, as to ideology, the other concept you mentioned, it is also very important when analyzing propaganda, but in my opinion, it is somehow a secondary factor. Quite, because the role of ideology has to do primarily with the sets, with the groups of ideas or the political ideologies that propagandists employ to achieve their ends. Liberalism, conservatism, fascism, libertarianism, their ideology of democracy, whatever. Okay, these ideas are used in a pragmatic fashion as instruments to achieve power, but power institutions and power structures don't regard those ideologies as ends in themselves. They are just tools to obtain something else.

What is more, we can find examples where ideology has been regarded as a problem by propaganda makers, and therefore it hasn't been used. In this line, we might find many, many examples in contemporary political marketing and political campaigns, where it would be extremely difficult to find one single, consistent political idea. I think that's happened in Spain. I'm sure also happens in the States. What we find are these flip-flopping candidates that veer from one ideology to the other, if it's necessary, showing no clear principles. Total relativism.

In this case, we could say that propaganda is empty of ideology and probably we could find, and this is a paradox, we might find some commercial adverts that communicate more ideology than some political campaigns. I just mentioned Orwell and this relativism of ideology in propaganda has a perfect example in a novel in 1984, as you know, where Orwell takes to the notion that ideas and ideologies can be manipulated, changed, and even forgotten, dismissed, if it is necessary. Power interests are what sets the tone, ideology just follows it.

6:58: Elena Walsh Ferre:

You've written extensively about Nazi propaganda. Can you tell us more about its origins?

7:05: Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero:

Well, it is undeniable and at the same time, it's very sad that Nazi propaganda is one of the most relevant examples of contemporary propaganda. I would even say that if nowadays, if people think of propaganda, the image of Hitler addressing feverish masses of people, that's one of the first things that comes to mind. The Nazi's were also pioneers in the technology of propaganda and their psychology of the crowd is still very, very influential. I haven't studied Nazi propaganda from a historical viewpoint. There are many excellent books about that, but on the grounds of the theoretical factors that influenced the Nazi conception, the Nazi idea of propaganda, mainly formulated by Hitler himself.

And in this regard, you should mention that the classic theory of mass communication was very influential on them. I'd say propaganda was heavily influenced by the writings of a French author, a French ultraright author, Gustave Le Bon who despised democracy. And he formulated a reactionary psychology of the masses. One of his main ideas was that the mass, the crowd was basically irrational and that they felt the need to submit to some strong leader. In this regard, Le Bon was formulating the psychology of fascism. And that was very useful for the Nazis, obviously. Actually later German philosopher Theodor Adorno from the Frankfurt School, he would also write on this, but the psychoanalysis of this extreme right-wing propaganda was already advanced by Le Bon.

However, the historical factors are much more interesting when it comes to shedding light on the people that influenced Hitler. Hitler was fascinated by the propaganda activity developed by the Allies in World War I, and he even accused German propaganda of not being as effective as British and American communications. Hitler thought that British propagandists were right and won. And they won because they wanted to control the psychology of the masses. They wanted to exploit irrationalism instead of appealing to the intellect. Appealing to the intellect was a mistake for the Nazis. And he also appreciated the fact that Anglo-American propaganda kept talking about the same issues again and again, and again; repetition as a technique.

As you can see, what we are talking about here is the modern theory of propaganda. Ideas that we find day-in, day-out, in a lot of election campaigns. And it's very, very worrying that democratic propaganda has assimilated theories that come from radically totalitarian sources. And in this line, the conclusion is pretty horrible, but it cannot be avoided. The Nazi theory of propaganda was the product of the communication behavior of Western powers in the first World War.

11:00: Elena Walsh Ferre:

Can you tell us more about the cultural model of propaganda and the power of subtle messages?

11:06: Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero:

Subtle messages in propaganda have to do with culture, of course. Propagandists tried to adjust their messages to the culture of their publics. We were talking about Hitler a minute ago, and sometimes this is done in a very subtle fashion. When Ronald Reagan, for instance, spoke about the "welfare queen," that it's low income women that were able to buy Cadillacs with their welfare benefits, it was a thinly veiled message to refer to African Americans, obviously, which were leading off the taxpayers. Besides that kind of coded messages, there is also the enticing phenomenon of covert propaganda, where the aim and the identity of the propagandists are not explicit. This is the case of the so called black propaganda phenomenon, which is very usual in times of war, we're watching that at the moment here in Europe with a war in Ukraine. It was very important in World War II as well.

But it is also the case when propaganda instrumentalizes culture. There are many, many fascinating examples. The most amazing of them, in my opinion, being when the CIA, the American CIA, organized exhibitions of American abstract paintings, abstract expressionist paintings, specifically during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a way of fighting the artistic credo of the Soviet Union, that is socialist realism. And it's fascinating. It's absolutely enticing. Abstract expressionism was being used to communicate the idea that American art was the art of freedom and Liberty, while socialist realism was a very regimented government-controlled artistic trend. In my opinion, this case shows that in propaganda, everything is possible. Everything can be instrumentalized.

On the basis of this and other examples, I formulated the concept of propagandist cultural molding as a particular type of covert communications. I tried to explain that the institution that it's being propagated, cannot be clearly identified, and it employs contents that wouldn't be regarded as propagandistic at first sight. Like hybrid culture, the fine arts, even popular culture. Consequently, this propagandistic cultural molding would imply a deliberate will to influence and shape culture, to mold culture in order to benefit some power institution.

14:14: Elena Walsh Ferre:

Could you touch upon how the two-way horizontal medium, like the web and social media, have not necessarily fostered politician - citizen relationships, as might have been expected?

14:26: Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero:

Well, we are living in the middle of a technological revolution of social media and the web and big data and stuff. And obviously the implication of propaganda regarding the internet and political communication, they are very, very appealing. On the one hand, we have a communication form - Propaganda is vertical, it goes from the top to the bottom. And which is not really interested in interaction and dialogue with the citizens. On the other hand, we have a technology, the internet, whose political possibilities have been related to concepts like dialogue, proximity, interactivity, horizontal social relationships. There is an enticing question here. What happens if we put together a horizontal, a two-way bidirectional technology, like the internet, with a vertical top-down, one-direction communication form. It doesn't seem to fit.

Well, the answer to that question is enlightenment. When we see the relationships between propaganda and the media. The web has been related to ideas like potential increasing contact with the voter, facilitation of engagement in politics, and even there's some, little tone of technological utopia. Actually some versions of these early hopes, early theories still remain. There is a new wave of technological optimism regarding social media, like Twitter or Facebook, YouTube, and all the rest of it.

The problem is that such expectations are very exaggerated. Studies suggest, empirical studies I mean, they suggest that the offline power structures are mirrored online. This is a so-called normalization hypothesis. Those supporting these hypothesis affirm that the web is shaped by the features of society. So political parties use the internet just to replicate what they do offline. In contrast to this normalization hypothesis, there is the innovation hypothesis, which states that the specific characteristics of ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) lead to a fundamental change in the way politics is presented. I'm afraid that so far, the normalization hypothesis is winning. The world hasn't changed necessarily for the better, thanks to the web, social media, or TikTok or whatever.

Propagandists are using the web and social media, just like they are using traditional media. Take for instance, the question of interactivity and dialogue. Interactivity means that communication is two-way. So horizontal dialogue. And this generates in theory, this would generate a substantial change in the way campaigns are managed. I remember Hillary Clinton, this was the democratic primary with Barack Obama. She said, Hillary said, once that she wasn't starting a campaign, she was beginning a conversation with America. Well, all this sounds really good, very interactive, but the truth is very different. Many empirical studies indicate that enthusiasm for political interactivity on social media is not excessive, to put it mildly. Politicians don't use the web primarily to interact, but to broadcast, to convey campaign information. And that is a very, very traditional use.

Consequently, the interactive political potential of social media has been exaggerated, I think. Many empirical studies, and I have performed a few of them, suggest that the use of the new media represent a continuity with that of the traditional sort. In the case of Twitter, for instance, which has aroused a huge academic interest, Twitter, the literature indicates that politicians don't put it to interactive use. Very, very, very seldom, very seldom. Why? Because one more time, the nature of propaganda sets the scope and the limits of what can be done in this regard. Propaganda and political campaigns work for power, and powerful institutions are not interested in interaction and dialogue. They don't believe in that. They just want to put their message across.

In a final analysis, we could say that metaphorically speaking, that the king of the castle never asks the people, whether he should be the king of the castle. He just tries to make them believe that he should and must be the king. And that's the story of propaganda.

20:36: Elena Walsh Ferre:

Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. We've been talking to Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero, professor at the University of Seville in Spain, and expert in the field of advertising, public relations, and propaganda theory. Professor Pineda, thank you so much for joining us today.

20:51: Dr. Antonio Pineda Cachero:

Thank you, it's been a pleasure.