External contribution

Nudging, propaganda and democracy: what lessons can we learn from the work of Edward Bernays?

In a previous article(1), I described the technique of nudging, what it consists of and why I consider that this technique, applied to the political sphere, goes against what constitutes a democracy. Here, I develop this thought by linking it to the work of Edward Bernays, a figure largely ignored by the general public but who nevertheless had a considerable influence on modern society and the evolution of our democracies. To understand this, we can quote Normand Baillargeon’s very pertinent analysis: « We can measure the influence of Bernays’ ideas by recalling Alex Carey’s striking remark, suggesting that « three phenomena of considerable political importance have defined the 20thThe progression of democracy, (…) the progression of corporate power and (…) the massive deployment of propaganda by corporations in order to maintain their power under the shelter of democracy(2) « . The importance of Bernays lies precisely in the fact that he has, in a preponderant way and perhaps more than anyone else, contributed to the articulation and deployment of this third phenomenon(3).

In this article, I will briefly present who Bernays is and I will try to show how the techniques he described in his book « Propaganda », published in 1928, are related to the situation we are living now and are in the same way in total opposition with a democratic ideal. My goal in this article is to arouse curiosity and the desire to know more about this work.

Edward Bernays was born in 1891 in Vienna and died in 1995 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the double nephew of Sigmund Freud. He had a very long career as a « public relations consultant, » which he began sometime before the 1920s with his active participation in the Creel Commission(4), and then more formally with the opening of his « Public Relations Office(5). » After his participation in the Creel Commission, and the success it achieved thanks to the propaganda it put in place, Bernays would spend his entire career developing these mechanisms and putting them at the service of firms that wanted to change public opinion in a certain way that was of course favorable to them. These techniques are called « social engineering ».

If one could think that this has nothing to do with democracy, here is what Bernays thinks about propaganda and the role it can play in the political sphere: « In the past, those who governed were guides, leaders. They steered the course of history by simply doing what they wanted to do. The current successors of these leaders (those who exercise power by virtue of their position or abilities) can no longer do what they want without the consent of the masses, and have found in propaganda an increasingly reliable tool for obtaining this consent. Propaganda therefore has a bright future ahead of it.(6) »

If this seems like a random remark in an old book, it is very important to understand that using propaganda to manipulate public opinion is the core of Bernays’ work, and what he devoted his entire career to, until the 1990s.

To better understand Bernays’ thinking, let’s read what he has to say about crowd psychology and the influence one can have on crowds: « The systematic study of crowd psychology has revealed the potential for the invisible government of society by manipulating the motives that guide human action in a group. (…) Hence, naturally, the following question: if we were able to understand the mechanism and mechanisms of the collective mentality, could we not control the masses and mobilize them at will without their realizing it? The practice of propaganda has recently proven that this is possible, at least to a certain extent and within certain limits(7).

One wonders what Bernays means when he speaks of an « invisible government ». This is explained very clearly in the very first lines of his book, which again shows how central this idea of mass manipulation is in Bernays’ thinking. Here is what he thinks: « The conscious, intelligent manipulation of the opinions and organized habits of the masses plays an important role in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this imperceptible social mechanism form an invisible government that directs
really the country(8).

We can also quote this passage which further illustrates Bernays’ vision of democracy and the role of politicians: « A community can be persuaded to accept good government as it can be persuaded to accept any product. This is so true that I often wonder if the political leaders of tomorrow, who will be responsible for perpetuating the prestige and effectiveness of their parties, will not undertake to train politicians who will also be propagandists(9).

Let us recall that this text was written in 1928. What echo does it still have today? We can see that Bernays’ idea of democracy is quite simple: it is about having a small minority of people who have enough power to influence the rest of the population and steer it in the direction they want. The opinion of what Bernays calls « the mass » is only a hurdle to overcome in order to reach this goal, and propaganda is the tool of choice to get around it. Note that Bernays presents these ideas not as his own vision but as an inevitability, and the use of propaganda as something inevitable in view of the evolution of modern societies (Western, Benays does not speak of the application of these techniques in other cultures). Here, at some length, is what he says about it: « The steam engine, the tool press and public education, which together form the trio of the Industrial Revolution, took power away from the kings and gave it to the people. The latter did receive the power lost by the royalty. Indeed, economic power often drags political authority in its wake, and the history of the Industrial Revolution shows how the former passed from the throne and the aristocracy to the bourgeoisie. Universal suffrage and the generalization of education then came to reinforce this movement, to the point that the bourgeoisie in turn began to fear the little people, the masses who, in fact, promised to rule.

Today, however, a reaction has begun. The minority has discovered that it can influence the majority in the direction of its interests. It is now possible to shape the opinion of the masses to convince them to commit their newly acquired strength in the desired direction. Given the current structure of society, this practice is inevitable. Nowadays, propaganda is necessarily involved in everything of social importance, whether it be politics or finance, industry, agriculture, charity or education. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.(10) »

It is important to note that, for Bernays, the term « propaganda » does not have a negative connotation and simply means the act of propagating an idea, whatever it may be. This word comes from the Latin propagare, which simply means « to propagate ». Of course, this term has acquired a very pejorative connotation today, which Bernays regretted(11).

We can at least give Bernays credit for the clarity of his opinion and his position. A reading of « Propaganda » leaves no doubt as to what he proposes and how much he values propaganda and its usefulness to society. Moreover, the purpose of his book is written very clearly at the end of the second chapter: « This book proposes to explain the structure of the mechanism of control of public opinion, to show how it is manipulated by those who seek to arouse general approval for a particular idea or product. At the same time, he will try to specify the place that this new propaganda should occupy in the system
and to give an overview of the progressive evolution of its moral code and its

If we think about it, we can rightly say that this vision of democracy is in total opposition to the very concept of what a democracy is. In this regard, let’s read an excerpt from Norman Baillargeon’s excellent analysis in the preface of the same book:  » It is crucial to recall how much what is proposed here contradicts the modern democratic ideal, the one bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment, to recall to what extent Bernays, like the industry he shaped, must demonstrate an astonishing aptitude for mental duplicity to simultaneously proclaim his concern for truth and free discussion and accept that the truth will be stated by a client at the beginning of a campaign, which will have to do everything in its power — including, if necessary, the truth itself — to
to arouse an adhesion to a thesis or behaviors in people of whom one has postulated in advance that they are incapable of really understanding what is at stake and to whom one thus feels entitled to serve what Plato called « pious lies » (…). The ethics of discussion and rational persuasion, which democracy presupposes, are then opposed by a‑rational persuasion and a determined intention to convince, even if it means manipulating; the requirement to practice epistemic virtues such as intellectual honesty, debate, listening, modesty, and the exhaustiveness of information, is opposed by lies, partiality and the concealment of relevant data. To the idea that any collective decision taken on each of the innumerable difficult questions posed by life in common can only be obtained in the transparency of the participation of the greatest number of people and in the sharing of common interests, is opposed the idea that the truth is either what is decided, in the opacity of their private interests, by those who pay for the costly services of public relations firms, or what the members of the « intelligent minority » want.(13) »
« .(14)

I couldn’t be clearer myself and I would now like to draw a parallel with the situation in
crisis that we are living in 2021.

Reading this book and the analysis made by Baillargeon allows, in my opinion, a much more relevant analysis of the current situation than any conspiracy thesis can do. We are not facing a pandemic organized by madmen who want to eradicate half of humanity. It seems much more likely to say that we are in a democratic drift where the propaganda organized by the industries and by the politicians has reached its paroxysm. I think it has also reached its limits. Why? For propaganda, as Bernays explains so well, is based on the premise that the « masses » are not aware of the deception and influence to which they are subjected. But I think that this has changed with the covid crisis, and indeed that this process has already started long before. Indeed, the lies of the industries are more and more exposed. Books such as « Merchants of doubts » by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway Conway(15), highlight the lies of the industries and the manipulation of public opinion knowingly organized by them to protect their private interests and to hide the truths that threaten them. We can also mention the recent Arte documentary that deals with the same theme(16). So I think that this model is threatened by the fact that the general public is beginning to realize that these deceptions have been organized by states and industries for decades, and perhaps much more so than at the time of Bernays and the publication of his book in 1928.

This assertion is not without foundation, and this allows me to make the link with my previous article and nudging: the Belgian government has used manipulation techniques, including nudging, to shape public opinion and make it more favorable to covid vaccines. Moreover, and this is a point that makes me say that this fight is far from over, these techniques are used in a way that is completely assumed by the social psychologists who conceive them, and who see nothing wrong with them. Only the opposite! In their view, they help politicians to govern better and to make the « right » decisions, which only they can foresee; citizens do not have these capacities.

There is a clear parallel here with Bernays’ work and the extent to which his ideas still have considerable influence in the political sphere today. I am concerned that academics, some of whom teach at a university that calls itself « free », that has free inquiry as its flagship value, and that writes on many campus and auditorium walls that « thought must never submit », can support such methods of governance, which I see as nothing more than an evolution of the propaganda techniques described by Bernays, and therefore in total contradiction with democracy. I am surprised that no ethical consideration is made on the use of these techniques on a large scale, but perhaps this is normal because it seems to me difficult to consider that it is ethical to manipulate people. Baillargeon’s analysis, quoted above, is again highly relevant and could be applied to the management of the covid crisis and media manipulation without changing a single line.

What to conclude now? As they say, « criticism is easy but art is hard », and I don’t want to end up giving the impression that I’m only criticizing without proposing alternatives. I think that nowadays, we can no longer remain in front of a simple statement, we need innovative solutions to move forward. I think that our democracies, in which I believe deeply, have reached a limit and that they must evolve towards much more participative forms. It is urgent to put the citizens back at the heart of politics, and in my opinion elections no longer fulfill this role.

I advocate much more direct democracies, even more direct than Switzerland already does, by forming assemblies of citizens drawn by lot from the population and who are informed by independent bodies, protected as far as possible from all forms of influence and manipulation. Transparency must be at the heart of these processes. To dream even bigger, we should abolish political careers. I think that politics should never be a full time job but should be done by citizens who stay in touch with the field, and who have no other interest than the collective one. Being a politician would thus become a part of everyone’s life, who would be called from time to time to assemblies to express their opinion on various themes, to debate subjects of interest to society and some would temporarily take on more important functions, without totally pausing their activities, to which they would return fully once their mission was completed. A sweet utopia? Maybe, but in any case, it makes me dream a lot more than a system where a minority of privileged people, rich and with immense powers, manipulate with full knowledge of the facts the overwhelming majority of human beings to serve only their own personal interests. It is selfishness pushed to its paroxysm, perhaps it has never been equaled in the history of humanity. What would a society look like where altruism and solidarity were pushed to the limit? For my part, it is to the construction of such a society that I want to contribute. 

Ludwig Hemeleers

Notes et références
  1. https://www.kairospresse.be/nudging-et-consentement-eclaire-un-duo-qui-ne-fait-pas-bon-menage/
  2. Alex Carey, « Taking the risk out of Democracy : Propaganda in the US and Australia », University of New
    South Wales, Sydney, 1995, P.18.
    In : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique
    en démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.6.
  3. Normand Baillargeon, in : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en
    démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.6
  4. Commission on Public Information, plus communément appelée Commission Creel du nom de George Creel
    qui l’a dirigeait. Cette commission a été mise sur pied par le président Thomas Woodrow Wilson le 13 avril
    1917 dans le but de faire changer d’avis la population américaine sur l’entrée en guerre de son pays, qui y était
    largement défavorable. Normand Baillargeon, In : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler
    l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.12
  5. Normand Baillargeon, in : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en
    démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.14
  6. Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de
    Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.45.
  7. Edward Bernays, « Propaganda: Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de
    Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.60.
  8. Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de
    Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.31
  9. Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de
    Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.101
  10. Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de
    Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.39
  11. Normand Baillargeon, in : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en
    démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.19, note de bas de page n°21.
  12. Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de
    Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.38.
  13. Aristote avait d’avance répondu à ceux qui contestent l’idéal démocratique par l’objection selon laquelle
    seule une minorité peut accéder à la vérité : « (…) cette objection n’est pas très juste (…) à moins qu’on ne
    suppose une multitude par trop abrutie. Car chacun des individus qui la composent sera sans doute moins bon
    juge ceux qui savent ; mais, réunis tous ensemble, ils jugeront mieux ou du moins aussi bien » (Aristote,
    Politique, livre III chapitre 6), par Normand Baillargeon, in : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment
    manipuler l’opinion publique en démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.22, note de bas
    de page n°24
  14. Normand Baillargeon, in : Edward Bernays, « Propaganda : Comment manipuler l’opinion publique en
    démocratie », 1928, préface de Normand Baillargeon, 2007, p.20, 21 et 22
  15. Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway, « Merchants of doubts : how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on
    issues from tobacco smoke to global warming », Bloomsbury press, 2010
  16. « La fabrique de l’ignorance », documentaire Arte, 2021, disponible sur youtube ici :

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