How propaganda works, an interview with Tamara Eidelman
Interview by She’s In Russia, co-hosted by Olivia Capozzalo and Smith Freeman.
Tamara Eidelman is a teacher, author, historian, and translator from Moscow. Her most recent book, How Propaganda Works (Как работает Пропаганда) was just published in Russian by Individuum. The podcast She’s In Russia spoke with Tamara about her new book, the characteristics of propaganda throughout history, and how the Russian parliament uses propaganda to pass laws and sway public opinion.
Olivia: Could you just speak briefly about who the book is for and sort of what you were hoping to leave people with?
Tamara: Well this book is well for anybody who is interested in these questions. This is not real sociological research, it’s kind of popular book. How do you say it in English? I don’t know. It’s for adults, but for teenagers for sure too. The owner of this publishing house, Individuum, is somebody I have known for many years. And so he told me that, “Write about things you do every day at school”. We decided that it will be a book about methods used by people who make really impressive propaganda. How do they make us believe in things that theoretically you cannot believe?
So when I started looking into it as I am a historian, I started with examples from 18th century, 19th century. We didn’t even have mass media at that time so there was not as much propaganda as there is today. But all methods — they were more or less the same. In Nazi Germany, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and today.
The idea is that you need to create the image of your enemy. Show that he is very different from your public. That this person or these people are really different and very unpleasant and that they are dangerous. And in all countries, every time, there is a consistent way to show that the person is dangerous. He or she looks differently, very ugly, and smells bad. And I thought, “Why is it always about smell?” And then I understood, because the smell is the least rational of all our senses.
So what does it mean for people to be “dangerous”? First of all they are aggressive toward our women. In the 19th century the Ku Klux Klan said that about African Americans, that they attacked white women. That is something that the Nazi Germany said about Jewish people.
That’s what it was said all over the world now about migrants. They attack children and women. And they take our workplaces. Which means that we do not have enough money to protect our women and children. The main thing is to make your enemy as disgusting as possible. But disgusting in irrational ways because as soon as you start thinking you can already find a lot of arguments against the depictions of the other. But no, you don’t have to think, you have to believe. That’s why propaganda uses images which are much stronger than words. And that’s why propaganda, since Nazi times, tries to say maybe very stupid things but repeat them a lot, until people believe it.
Olivia: You have given an explanation of some of the key methods used to create propaganda in the creation of the external enemy. I’m also wondering if we could come to a succinct definition of propaganda throughout history?
Tamara: First of all, it’s usually biased. It’s not about real ideas, whatever they are. Good or bad. But it’s biased. Professional journalists must present different points of view in their articles. They can favor one point of view but they have to give all kinds of points of view from different sources. If it’s propaganda, it’s usually one sided presentation. So there are sources that all say more or less the same. Even if they present somebody who thinks in a different way, it’s usually just for show.
Second of all, In Russia, it’s usually a restriction of access to information and the monopolization by state propaganda that doesn’t let other political sources present their way. On our television, almost all news channels say more or less the same thing. And you can’t find a state channel which gives another perspective. I suppose you have heard about private TV news channel Dozhd. Two years ago it was one of the most popular TV channels and it was growing very quickly and getting a bigger and bigger audience and then the State took several steps. And this channel was removed from all television packages. So now you can see it only on the Internet. There are still many people who watch it, but it is a much smaller audience. And it’s a different audience. Those are people who are really interested who want to hear, to watch just this channel. But the State didn’t let it grow because they presented different views.
Smith: I have a question about the idea of positive propaganda. You’ve discussed the methods of propaganda that aims to other, but what about propaganda like, in the US for example, “supporting the troops” or maybe images of Putin being some sort of wilderness strongman. Do those types of propaganda have a similar political goal or are they just there to create an atmosphere?
Tamara: If you have an enemy and this enemy is very bad and disgusting and evil, you need somebody who will protect you. Because the main point of all propaganda is not just to show how bad your enemy is, it is to show that there is somebody like Stalin or Hitler or many many other people where you can say “Here is our hero! He can protect us. He likes women and children and protects them. He will help you to find your job” and so on. And he’s usually the contrary of the evil.
Smith: that makes sense especially in the American context with the troops.
Tamara: Yes yes yes of course, they will protect you against the terrible migrants and so on. It’s the same story unfortunately.
Smith: When you’re in a very heavy propagandistic environment does it make it more difficult to discern between propaganda and what is information?
Tamara: Well I suppose it is a psychological phenomena. One of the ways propaganda works is that it is constantly repeated. And when it is constantly repeated, every time, it’s harder and harder to stand against it. There were psychological experiments when people were shown, let’s say, black objects and twelve people had to look at them and say what color this thing is. And eleven people out of this twelve were specially placed by the organizers and they were instructed to say the object was white, even though it was black. And one person, who didn’t know that they were lying, almost always ended by saying “Yes it’s white. I think something is wrong with my eyes.” That’s how propaganda works.
But of course we know people who can still preserve their reason, their intellect. You know there was a famous photo from Nazi times. It’s at a very very big Nazi gathering, I think in Nuremberg, and everyone is Sieg Heil-ing to Hitler. And in this great great great crowd there was one person who is not doing it. You can see him in this photo. You can imagine how great was the pressure on him at that moment, when thousands of people around him were greeting Hitler and he was not. We even don’t know his name, but he’s a real hero.
Olivia: Do you think that you could give a specific example of a position that’s being repeated, like that, in contemporary Russia?
Tamara: Unfortunately I can. Since 2014, all state media keeps repeating that in Ukraine, it’s a fascist government. It’s an absurd idea to say in this country, that fought against fascism. People know here in Russia what fascism is because we all learned it at school. We were taught about the Second World War and so on. And you can like what’s going on in Ukraine or not, but it has nothing to do with fascism. But this statement, that the Ukrainian government is fascist has been repeated so many times that millions of people believe it and they repeat it without any doubt at all. “Yes of course, Ukrainian fascists.” That’s crazy. Especially if you think how close Russian and Ukrainian people are, how intertwined. Many families are. And yet this idea is shared by millions, not but everybody thank God. But by many many people.
Olivia: In your book, How Propaganda Works, you detail the role of propaganda in passing adoption laws in Russia that prevent Americans from adopting Russian children. Could you explain what happened there?
Tamara: Well first of all, of course, those who passed this law, most of them never cared about children. They cared about their own security because the law was a response to the Magnitsky Act that was passed in the American Congress. Sergei Magnitsky was a person who died in Russian prison and because he couldn’t get the medical care that he needed. He was more or less killed, maybe not killed by a revolver, but he was killed by absence of medical care. We was a man who tried to expose severe corruption to the state. And American Congress passed this act putting very severe restrictions on the American visas and bank accounts and so on of the people associated with this corruption. And in response these people in Duma, the Russian parliament, they started “protecting” children. It’s a crazy reaction.
In order to pass the law, they wanted to show how terrible American people are because they kill Russian children. And the story they used and repeated was a very tragic one. A father forgot his child [adopted from Russia] in the car and he stayed in the car for many hours in the heat and he died. It’s a really strange story of course.
Of course he was heartbroken and full of guilt. And there was a long process in America and he was acquitted. But the Duma used it as a way to ban the adoption of children from Russian orphanages by American people. The thing is, the State always gives precedence to local people to adopt children, so Americans were mostly adopting children who were really very very ill or disabled with terrible illnesses that couldn’t be cured here in Russia. And there we have a lot of examples of children who are brought to America and they were cured and they became successful people and athletes and so on and they lived normal lives.
All that stopped and it was part of this great anti-American hysteria, that has going has been going on for several year now. I must say that there were many marches against this law and a lot of people took part in them because many people understand how dangerous this act is. But at the same time the image of America has already been so damaged that too many people said “Well really Russian children are in danger there.” And many people agreed with this decision, which is terrible because we know already about many children who died in orphanages because they couldn’t be cured here.
This was an abridged version of the interview. It has been edited for clarity.
Listen to the full interview below