Unseen Propaganda


"For an agitator who shows himself capable of expounding ideas to the great masses must always be a psychologist, even though he may be only a demagogue. Therefore he will always be a much more capable leader than the contemplative theorist who meditates on his ideas, far from the human throng and the world. For to be a leader means to be able to move the masses. The gift of formulating ideas has nothing whatsoever to do with the capacity for leadership." (Mein Kampf, Chapter XI)

(This page is a work in progress.)

What is Unseen Propaganda?

Unseen propaganda is any kind of material that is not obviously propaganda but whose origin is obvious and undoubted. The item is accepted for something other than what it really is. Unseen is not a commonly used term for propaganda - we made it up. Demagoguery fits this category. It isn't black propaganda - there you don't know the source.

Unseen propaganda is everywhere in political campaigns, although that is certainly not the only arena where it is used. It is particulary dangerous because the target audience is, just as with black propaganda, unaware of being influenced by propaganda.

We wil reference the important book How Propaganda Works by Prof. Jason Stanley of Yale. If you are seriously interested in the subject, this book should be on your reading list.


  • Common Ground: Philosophers describe the "common ground," which also can be "common knowledge." This is a body of little bits of information, factoids, assertions, etc which enter into your knowledge base unquestioned. Philosophers call this "not at issue content." "Not at issue" means that the item is not the subject of debate or question; it is simply assimilated into the common ground, even if it is misleading. One good example (of many) is the "death panel" working its was into the common ground during the healthcare debate. Read the Brendan Nyhan paper linked in References at the bottom of this page. A false perception was deliberately placed in the public mind by one person. That misperception was extremely difficult to clear. There has been a lot of research on this subject. It will be very worthwhile to understand something about it.
  • Demagogue: A demagogue is someone, usually a politician, who plays on the ideologies, desires, emotions and fears of the audience. Rational argument is not used. Adolf Hitler, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Gov. George Wallace, and lately Donald Trump are examples.
  • Ideology: The set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party. (learnersdictionary.com) These beliefs can strongly influence thinking.
  • Flawed Ideology: One or more beliefs in an ideology that are not true in the real world. Such beliefs, strongly embedded, are considered to be disabling, meaning that they prevent the individual from learning about the real world. They often originate in a flawed social structure.
  • Undermining Propaganda: A narrow definition of this, according to Stanley, is "A contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals." Here the action called for does not match the goal given; it will actually produce effects, possibly damaging, that oppose the goal.able to
  • Vehicle of Propaganda: Stanley defines this as "An institution that represents itself as defined by a certain political ideal, yet whose practice tends to undermine the realization of that ideal." A news organization that biases its coverage of issues by omitting important details becomes a Vehicle of Propaganda even if they didn't intend to do so.

How Does it work?

Preparation and presentation of this material requires deep knowledge of the ideologies, beliefs, fears, and education level of the target audience. There is more than one basis for this type of propaganda.

All of this will affect your thinking and reactions, and you will not be aware of why you think or react as you do. That's why we called it "unseen;" you react without being aware of it although you know exactly where the message is coming from.

Ideological Beliefs

This propaganda is based on ideological beliefs embedded in the mind and able to prevent one from perceiving the real world clearly. These beliefs are almost completely resistant to evidence or obvious facts. When you see someone who steadfastly refuses to accept clear and solid evidence for/against something you are likely seeing a manifestation of what Jason Stanley (How Propaganda Works) has described as "flawed ideologies." Such beliefs may not be rational; they don't connect with the real world. They, in fact, can prevent one from learning about the real world; this is described as "epistemologically disabling." This means that such beliefs can literally prevent one from learning real truths about the real world. The affected person will reject quite solid evidence that their belief is wrong and will intensify their belief in something which does not match the real world.

The beliefs may be induced by the subject's social structures and therefore be deeply embedded in the psyche. Acknowledging that the belief is faulty can involve acknowledging something that severely challenges the subject's self-image or identity. Keeping the belief, although it is not representative of the real world, is easier than giving it up.


Everyone is afraid of something, and these fears make a real basis for propaganda. This is one manifestation of demagoguery; it is used by some political candidates. It can be described like this:

  1. Candidate stokes the fears of the audience, frightening them with ideas of bad outcomes if they don't act.
  2. Candidate then promotes him/herself as the solution to those fears. "Elect me and I will solve that problem. I will eliminate the source of your fear." This works. Donald Trump provides an excellent recent example of this. After winning the Republican nomination, he said in his speech: "I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people that cannot defend themselves. Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it. I have seen firsthand how the system is rigged against our citizens, just like it was rigged against Bernie Sanders – he never had a chance." (transcript on politico.com) After describing the USA as being in a crisis he promotes himself as the only solution.
The reaction to this is unconscious and extremely dangerous. Manipulating fear is one effective method of moving the masses as Hitler wrote. It is possible to "move the masses" in some desired direction and get yourself into a position of power; Hitler did it.

Fallacies of all Kinds

Forms of Unseen Materials

Political campaigns are an obvious setting for this sort of material; speeches, debates, and interviews are good media for it. Apparently extemporaneous remarks may seem unrehearsed but can carry a large influence. Any speech, campaign ad, public statement, or anything else can be used. Anti-something campaigns may use such tactics to produce false impressions. The article in quackwatch by Dr. Paul Lees-Haley referenced below is required reading if you are interested. We'll draw from it here.

The idea here is to surreptitiously alter your perception of something. Tactics include confusion, distraction, over-generalization, "everybody knows," misrepresentation of risk, sensational rhetoric and more. All of these are familiar propaganda techniques. Unless you are familiar with propaganda techniques, you may not recognize these tactics. If you don't recognize the propaganda it may influence you, and this stuff will not be recognied by the uninitiated. That's why it is so manipulative.


  • Misleading tweet in Iowa.

    Carson looks like he is out. Iowans need to know before they vote. Most will go to Cruz, I hope. https://t.co/lW5Js50EMA

    — Steve King (@SteveKingIA) February 2, 2016

    This tweet was sent out at 8:20 PM the evening before the Iowa caucuses. Its source was Rep. Steve King (R). The source was visible. The assertion that Dr. Carson was dropping out was false. The Ted Cruz campaign ultimately apologized for doing it. The false tweet likely influenced the outcome in Iowa, which was its purpose.

Undermining Propaganda

According to Prof. Stanley, this is (as defined above)

"A contribution to public discourse that is presented as an embodiment of certain ideals, yet is of a kind that tends to erode those very ideals." (p. 53)
One variety of this is seen frequently: A legislative acton is promoted as doing great things according to public values and ideals but actually erodes those ideals by doing things which run directly against them.

This kind of thing involves a contradiction - the propaganda says one thing but the action does the opposite. Interesting note: A disabling ideology can blind you so that you cannot see the contradiction. Someone who is not ideologically blinded will easily see it.


This type of propaganda is extremely manipulative; that is its purpose. If your beliefs and fears fall in the target group, the propagandist is likely to play you like a fisherman plays a fish, or a violinist plays the instrument. You will usually do what the propagandist wants you to do without being aware of it.