How Opportunists Manipulate Us to Further Their Own Goals

As already discussed in the columns of this blog and in the title book, we are being influenced by others at every turn these days, and often not at all by fair means. The practitioners of existential opportunism, whether occasional or frequent, use a wide range of manipulative techniques in essentially all walks of life to make us conform our own views to theirs, or to persuade us, on one or more occasions, to do something we would not necessarily do on our own.

In the economy, this can be seen essentially in the form of advertising and marketing, as well as other business practices (such as the way shelves are arranged in stores) that encourage the purchase of different products and services, which is the driving force behind today’s consumer society. However, far from being confined to the economy, similar instruments are commonly found in relation to politics, religion, sport and other areas of public life. And although in principle they work on the same basis as marketing, when it is not about money or the promotion and sale of specific products, but the dissemination of ideas and thoughts, we usually talk about propaganda being in action.

Unsurprisingly, the term ‘propaganda’ itself, which comes from Latin, means to spread something, so the object of propaganda is whatever thing, ideology or view is being propagated. The aim is, of course, to persuade others to adopt the views that the propagandist is trying to convey. Today, in the wake of the information revolution, this is increasingly being done in a consciously organized way, using the oldest as well as the most recent findings from psychology, communication and other disciplines. To achieve their goal, the propagandist person or organization often uses manipulative means, i.e. they try to influence us without our knowledge.

In order to be aware when manipulation is attempted through propaganda, it is important to be familiar with its methods used, which are broadly as follows:

  • simplification,
  • misinterpretation and misexplanation,
  • magnification,
  • scapegoating,
  • influencing our emotions (e.g. fear),
  • raising injustices and promising to redress them,
  • identity-based manipulation.

Simplification basically means that manipulative content – whether it is live or recorded speech, a newspaper article, an internet post or anything else – presents a certain topic in a way that omits or overlooks many details that could significantly distort the picture and the target audience’s opinion. There are countless examples of this in public life today, but in the case of political parties, it is mostly manifested in the classification of everyone into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, in such a way that they are of course the good guys and their political opponents are the bad guys, who do not represent the real interests of the people. Such black-and-white labeling, for example, is that while they are pro-war, we are pro-peace, they deny and we respect the sovereignty of others, they are oppressors and we are helpers of the poor, etc.

Misrepresentation and misexplanation is also a method whereby the manipulator ignores certain facts, while stating others in such a way that it does not completely correspond to reality. For example, to say that the United States of America dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945, killing masses of people, solely to end the war and save more lives, is not entirely true. For it is a well-known fact that the decades-long confrontation and arms race between the US-led capitalist West and the Soviet Union and its ‘communist’ allies, later known only as the Cold War, had in essence already begun, and the bombs were used as a show of force and deterrence to the latter as much as to the reluctant Japanese leadership.

The purpose of magnification is usually to overstate the seriousness or danger of something, while any positive aspects are generously glossed over. This was partly the tool used by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify his offensive against Ukraine, when he referred to the ‘denazification’ of the neighboring country, even though clearly only a very small percentage of the Ukrainian population could be considered extreme nationalists. The rhetoric that Islamic immigrants want to take control of Europe in a conscious and organized way is based on similar arguments. While there is no doubt that Muslims make up an increasing proportion of the population in some parts of the continent, especially in the West, the majority have no intention of doing so. But, for example, it is also a frequently used phrase on the part of political forces that if you don’t vote for us, then the other party or parties will (or won’t) do this and that and ruin the country.

Scapegoating is another method that can quickly and effectively centralize our negative feelings about a problem by naming a specific person or group as solely responsible. Thus, depending on your orientation and political convictions, you can scapegoat the leader of your country or the opposition, liberals or conservatives, Jews or Arabs, capitalism or communism, or even Freemasons or extraterrestrials. As with simplifying things, scapegoating is a successful and often used technique because it is much easier for the average person to accept a simple explanation or a person or group as guilty than more complex contexts and detailed analyses that require more rational thought and are usually more reflective of reality.

In fact, in forming our opinions, we tend to rely much more on our emotions than on our logic or common sense, which plays a decisive role not only in scapegoating, but in many other cases as well. And one of the most basic human emotions is fear, which can be used quite spectacularly, either to scapegoat one (or more) person(s) or to get people to side with you directly. Thus, for example, emphasizing the negative consequences of immigration or referring to the past or expected actions of our political opponents (e.g. withdrawal of benefits, imposition of taxes, etc.) may turn many people against or at least discourage them from supporting the people being criticized. To add to this feeling, manipulators often try to make you believe that they will help you solve the problem. (Which in fact they often don’t do in the end).

This kind of rhetoric can be particularly effective if its disseminator is aware that the sense of justice of those targeted by the propaganda has been damaged by something, and makes a concrete promise to redress the grievances. Whether it’s racism, discrimination, shame, poverty, lack of opportunity, or even loss of privilege, our emotional response to real or perceived injustice can be as powerful as fear, and therefore essentially as manipulable. Our identity, that is, our identification with one group of people or another, or our definition of belonging, is also a point that can easily be exploited to incite anger or even enthusiasm through our emotions. Moreover, experienced opportunists in this regard often use the above techniques simultaneously, which is very easy to fall for, especially if we do not even try to understand what is happening to us, or maybe to see the subject of the rhetoric from a broader perspective.

We also need to see that, regardless of our political affiliation, we are virtually all targets of opportunists, and that both the left and the right have propaganda to convince us to adopt one or other of their views and ideologies. Nowadays, conservative forces are increasingly using populism as a tool, usually based on the assertion that they are defending and representing the interests of the ordinary man, the majority of the population. In this rhetoric, traditional values, traditions, religion, nationalism and the use of enemy images are common, but the emphasis on sovereignty, for example, is also increasingly prominent. At the same time, populism can also be seen in action on the liberal side, among other things in the form of spreading the principles of gender ideology and libertinism, which are increasingly being forced in the name of freedom.

So whether it is your political and world views, your beliefs, your skin color, your gender, your occupation, your financial situation, your social status or virtually any attribute that is linked to some kind of identity, grievance or even simple interest on your part, opportunists are able and often willing to exploit it. And whatever they claim, it is often not in your interests, unfortunately, but in their own, so you should always be on the lookout for manipulation, however nice or tempting what they say may sound. It can be really helpful to consider: how much of what you think is your own opinion, or how much are your opinion and actions, directly or indirectly, formed through the highly manipulative influence of others?

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