While Dunn called Fox News channel an arm of the Republican Party, others have gone so far as to label its content pure propaganda—and incredibly effective propaganda at that.
“This is very, very sophisticated propaganda,” Bryant Welch, a clinical psychologist, author and expert on political manipulation, says. “I don’t think progressives really get it that it’s a technique being used all the time.”
Welch says when he began working as a Washington, DC lobbyist on behalf of the American Psychological Association years ago, he started observing the tricky political maneuverings at play in the nation’s capital through the eyes of a psychotherapist who had spent some 30,000 hours helping patients confront their deep-seated hang-ups.
To his surprise, Welch found that some of the most successful right-wing political operatives also seemed to have an understanding of psychology—although they use the knowledge very differently. “A lot of it is psychological manipulation,” Welch asserts.
George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, offers a similar analysis. He says Republicans approach issues as a marketing challenge. “They’ve learned from the cognitive scientists. Even if they don’t understand the science, they know how to do marketing.”
In his book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind, Welch, who is also a lawyer and Huffington Post blogger, provides an analysis of how the right wing gets its message across. He argues that public relations professionals, right-wing commentators and others in the business of shaping public opinion are skilled at tapping into widespread feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
“In this world, things are confusing,” he explains. “You’ve got to be constantly adapting and assimilating new information. When times get confusing, people have a hard time forming a sense of what’s real.”
Right-wing television and radio personalities like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh prey on this widespread uncertainty, Welch argues, by providing viewers and listeners with an absolute version of reality that is easily grasped, neatly divided into right and wrong, and spelled out in very certain terms.
“The thing that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity do is, they sound very powerful, certain and aggressive,” Welch says. “[Viewers] identify with that strength. They draw a sense of security from someone who has certainty about what is real.”
Viewers who find that their anxiety subsides when they tune in are hard-pressed to go back and reexamine their views later on, Welch adds, because they’re satisfied with the answers they’ve been given. And in right-wing messaging, those answers consistently cast government as the enemy.
On Fox and AM radio, the use of repetition helps drive home an idea until it becomes a conviction in the mind of a listener. Television reinforces those key phrases with patriotic color schemes. The whole package is designed to transform an audience’s sense of bewilderment over a complex world into trust in spokespeople helping them make sense of it.
The right-wing commentators’ success lies partly in their ability to harness core human emotions such as paranoia or envy, Welch says. He points to the health care debate as an example, noting how Fox News has repeatedly played up the false concept of “death panels” to create fear.
To counter this tactic, Lakoff suggests the left would do well to learn how to frame things in moral terms instead of playing defense against right-wing spin masters.
President Obama’s problem, Lakoff says, is that he is still trying to unify the country.
“More power to him, but I don’t believe it’s possible,” Lakoff says. “Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain got 47 percent of the vote, bad as he was, and given how terrible a campaign he ran and given that Obama ran a perfect campaign. So Obama’s election was not a landslide, even though he had one of the best campaign organizations and one of the best-framed campaigns ever.”