Definitions and Resources

Definitions and Resources

System 1 versus System 2 Thinking

Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel award, defines System 1 and System 2 thinking styles in his book “Thinking Fast and Slow”, based on decades of psychological research.

  • System 1 is fast acting, quick, intuitive and effortless
  • System 2 is slow, methodical, rational, based on evidence

Many of us (perhaps most) use System 1 thinking styles most of the time. This means we apply a very fast pattern match to a situation, potentially substituting missing bits to create a coherent story or scenario. Propaganda almost always targets the System 1 thinking style, providing us with just enough information (“what  you see is all there is”) to quickly reach a conclusion, decision or understanding (all of which may be wrong). We see an emotional message and graphic of photo on Facebook and quickly click Like and Share without pondering whether the message is true, accurate or even plausible.
When a tiger jumps towards us in the jungle, we need to engage System 1 thinking and quickly make a decision!
System 2, on the other hand, is when we try to apply analysis and skeptical inquiry. We must slow way down, gather information, think, consider alternatives, question the assumptions – before reaching a conclusion or understanding. Propaganda tends not to appeal to System 2 thinking styles. Indeed, it is slow and deep System 2 thinking that is needed to defend ourselves against propaganda messaging.
System 2 is probably not much good when the tiger jumps towards us in the jungle. For this reason, we all apply a mix of System 1 and System 2 thinking styles.
When engaging in social media, we often place far too much trust in the content and quality of the posts that cross our news feeds and evaluate them with our System 1 thinking style. Yet it is exactly these types of posts that demand System 2 thinking to prevent ourselves from being duped. But because System 1 is easy and effortless, we mostly succumb to System 1 – and allows ourselves to be manipulated by online propaganda messaging.


Hate Group: “A hate group is an organized group or movement that advocates and practices hatred, hostility, or violence towards members of a race, ethnicity, nation, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other designated sector of society.” – Wikipedia

1    to dislike (something) intensely; detest  
2    intr   to be unwilling (to be or do something)  
3    intense dislike  
4    Informal   a person or thing that is hated (esp. in the phrase pet hate)  
5    modifier   expressing or arousing feelings of hatred  

Methods of propaganda

Primarily from Shabo, Magedah E., Techniques of Propaganda and Persuasion, Prestwick House, 2008. A quick read on the subject, intended as an entry level high school senior or early college text on the subject. This is an excellent starting point for an introduction to the field of propaganda.
The following are popular methods used by propagandists that appeal to our own emotional needs.

  • Appeal to Authority – Doctor X says so, therefore it must be true. This is why TV drug ads, especially for the miracle cure products, feature a doctor wearing a white coat, endorsing their product. Government policy prescriptions are often presented by persons with impressive titles. Therefore, the statement must be correct. However, as Bertrand Russell noted, a statement is true or false regardless of who makes the claim. Arguments, he said, rest on the truth of facts and logic, nothing else. The Appeal to Authority is a poor argumentative form but is frequently used in propaganda because it is effective.
  • Assertion – make a statement that something is true; people tend to believe what they are told. Even better if an expert says it. Propagandists know that the first messages people receive are those that will stick with them the longest, even if the message is later shown to be false.
  • Bandwagon – people prefer to be part of the group and not left out. Present the subject as being part of the mainstream thinking/group versus being an outcast (e.g. denier). The propagandist wants you to adopt their agenda – and will suggest that not doing so will leave you as an outcast.
  • Card stacking – use a respected individual to present your case, and provide a nobody to present the other side. Whose views are likely to be taken seriously? The propagandist can create a winning argument by intentionally biasing the case – its basically a form of Appeal to Authority with the addition of using someone that might even be viewed as a flake, as the only person opposed.
  • Civic Responsibility – your neighbors are doing it (get on the bandwagon). You don’t care about your community?
  • Dehumanization – the “other” side is evil. Just ask any Democrat. Or Republican. Online social media propaganda is absolutely filled with dehumanizing messaging to reinforce the point that “the other side” is awful. In fact, many such groups often present the other side as “intolerant” and “hateful” – while being intolerant and hateful themselves!
  • Glittering generalities – meaningless and vague statements. As Chomsky notes “Support our troops” is meaningless, as is “Support freedom”, “Oppose inequality”. They are phrases that are easy to accept but accomplish little.
  • Guilt – your community has gone to hell – what are you doing to fix that? Our community has over x hundred homeless war veterans. Children are starving. Drug addicts need your help, why are you not helping?
  • False dilemma – You support my cause 100% or you are a denier; intermediate and alternative perspectives are not considered.
  • Fear – create a culture of fear. Fear is a powerful motivator. Evil is lurking outside your door, around the corner, and “they” are out to get you. This can be used to self security systems, insurance, or policy (e.g. terrorists are out to get you).
  • Lesser of Two Evils – Politicians like to use this one a lot – to present their policy option, which is not actually very good, and compare it to an option that is far, far, far worse, thereby making the politician’s policy option look better in comparison. This is similar to Card Stacking.
  • Logical Fallacy – here is an example from an actual FB social media propaganda poster: “A man died in a bridge collapse. Republicans voted down a $700 B infrastructure bill. But the U.S. spends $700 B a year on the US Dept of Defense”. Each of the statements are true but are linked through a logical fallacy. The man who died was a construction worker demolishing a highway bridge as it was no longer needed as a new bridge, costing $91 million had just been built. The Republicans did vote against the infrastructure bill – but did so 2 1/2 months after the man died. The two are not linked in anyway. A viewer of the poster will reach a conclusion that is not supported by logic.
  • Name calling – refer to those who disagree as commies, deniers, intolerant, incompetent, gender oppressive, privileged, out of touch. Calling climate change skeptics “deniers” is a form of name calling, as well as transference, in an attempt to associate climate change skepticism with holocaust denial.
  • Focus the discussion on an enemy – Goebbels used this method to rally Germans against the Jews (making the Jews into a focused enemy). Obama rallied the public around ObamaCare by focusing on “evil” insurance companies and “evil” pharmaceutical companies. Bernie Sanders, in his 2016 campaign spends a lot of time talking about the “billionaire class” (which is not very big). This is known as “personalizing the opposition”. This often serves to distract the discussion from substantive issues to get everyone to focus on one subset issue.
  • Plain folk – most politicians adopt this strategy of trying to present themselves as just being a plain, ordinary, hard working, blue collar American. When George H.W. Bush ran against Bill Clinton for President, each ran TV ads focusing on their “small town” connections. Each was trying to present themselves as just an ordinary “every man”. Politicians use this a lot – watch the photo ops at BBQs and county fairs, and opportunities to wear blue shirts with the sleeves rolled up. This method often uses the “Transfer” method too, by, say, imagery involving the flag, or their kids playing in a park.
  • Testimonial – Usually has someone prominent, a celebrity, or a group of experts, proclaim the greatness of the subject or policy, as an endorsement. This is also similar to “Appeal to Authority” although the person involved might be a celebrity and not an expert.
  • Transfer – a politician wrapping themselves in imagery, such as the flag, or families playing at the lake, is trying to transfer your positive feelings about something else, on to themselves. The idea is to associate other positive activities with the politician (or policy initiative or organization). Other examples include politicians hanging out with a celebrity or sports figure – the idea being to transfer your positive thoughts about the celebrity to the politician.
  • Sympathy – appeal to the desire to help the “underdog”. Non-profits use this method a lot to solicit donations.
  • Desire for prosperity – buy my product or service and you will be rich! Extremely common in advertising propaganda.
  • Fear of Powerlessness – fear is a powerful motivator. If you do not support this … then face the consequences.
  • Fear of death – self explanatory. Buy our meds or die. Allow corporation X to continue “business as usual” and your kids will die from pollution. Agree with the hypothesis that human activity is causing catastrophic global warming or your grandchildren will be roasted alive.
  • Fear of rejection – desire to be wanted. Think of TV ads – our product will make you beautiful (or lose weight). You do not want to be turned down by the opposite sex. Much advertising is based on this idea – if you buy our product, you will not be rejected.