An Uncomfortable Truth About the Power of Repetition

Donald Trump instigated a war with the news media.  He and others in his regime seem befuddled that the media won’t knuckle under.  It seems incongruous in view of the fact that the very same news media, by virtue of their all Trump, all the time coverage of his campaign, helped propel his candidacy.  Rather than display even a tiny degree of gratitude, he chooses instead to denigrate the press as “fake news” and “dishonest”.

trump-negative-polls

It’s interesting that in the above tweet, he specified “negative polls”.  It’s a different story when the polls are positive.  During his campaign, he bragged about favorable polls, sometimes even quoting them during stump speeches.  Apparently, they weren’t “crooked” or “rigged”.  Are we to believe then that only positive polls are “real” news?  No, the real news is that polls can be inaccurate and, in some cases even biased, but they are not fabricated.

Indeed, President vs. press has been a staple of American politics throughout our country’s history.  Even Thomas Jefferson, steadfast champion for a free press, grew to despise newspapers once writing, “As for what is not true you will always find abundance in the newspapers.”  But, despite this view, he never abandoned the principle of an independent press:

“And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” – Thomas Jefferson

Recently, Trump went even further and declared the news media “the enemy of the American people.”

trump-enemy

The phrase “enemy of the American people” is potentially rife with nasty implications. Chris Wallace of Fox News (a network conspicuously absent from the majority of Trump’s media diatribes) characterized the statement as one that “crosses an important line.”  This is where it gets potentially dangerous.

The constant and repeated characterization of the news media as dishonest and fake is, in itself, rather unsettling.  Aside from his Twitter tirades, he rarely misses a public speaking opportunity to drive the point home yet again.  In as much as he has already let the entire country know his opinion of the news media, what motivates his incessant compulsion to pound the point at every opportunity?

You’ve probably heard the saying (or some variant), “If you tell a big enough lie and repeat it often enough, the people will begin to believe it.”  Often erroneously attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Master Propagandist for the Third Reich, the concept was first described by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.  Isn’t that comforting…

In Chapter 6 of Volume I, Hitler wrote:

“Propaganda must be limited to a few simple themes and these must be represented again and again.”

…and:

“The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.”

In his book, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II And the Holocaust, Jeffrey Herf describes how Goebbels expertly employed this technique to persuade the German populace that Jews were to blame for the war and had initiated a “war of extermination” against Germany, thereby justifying German persecution of the Jews.  Goebbels also understood the power of emotion.

“…the purpose of propaganda, it must appeal to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning powers.” – Joseph Goebbels

But can our minds really be that easily manipulated by mere repetition?  Turns out, there is research which says yes, they can (within limitations).  In psychology it is referred to as the “illusion of truth effect”.  A basic explanation for those of us lacking a Psychology degree can be found here.

Slogan #1 – Fake news.

Slogan #2 – Dishonest press.

Slogan #3 – Lying media.

Over and over, again and again.…

Be aware of the repetition.

Beware the repetition.

 

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