Introduction

Propaganda is a well-known and effective tool for manipulating public opinion. We are familiar with the term, but many associate it — especially in Germany — primarily with widespread inflammatory and racist poster campaigns, Sports Palace speeches, hate-filled tirades in newspapers, media synchronization (“Gleichschaltung”), and the imprisonment of dissidents.

But Propaganda, or “Public Relations” as the method was renamed after World War II, now also sometimes called “PsyOp” (short for “psychological operations”), can be much more subtle and is also used by Western governments, intelligence agencies, and corporations.

Though we often assume — as the public/media discourse is dominated by them — that autocracies or dictatorships have a monopoly on this method, propaganda and disinformation techniques can and are used deliberately in democracies as well to stoke fears, establish enemy images, and manipulate public opinion. Or, as Noam Chomsky put it harshly but succinctly:

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”

Therefore, in a series of articles, I will present some of the most important but not always well-known or easily transparent propaganda methods, starting appropriately with the following method:

The Primacy Effect – or the Power of the First Story

A particularly effective tactic used in propaganda is the exploitation of the “Primacy Effect,” i.e., the exploitation of the power of the first impression. This psychological phenomenon describes the tendency of people to value the first information they receive about a topic or situation much highly more than information that they receive later on.

When little is known about a situation, one can very effectively and almost imperceptibly steer the perception of recipients by planting some narrative “stakes” right from the start and anchoring a few fixed basic assumptions before people are even aware that their perception is already being controlled.

The way this works is that at the beginning of a new situation, we are — like Neo in the empty white room in the movie “Matrix” — cognitively and emotionally so dependent on and thus grateful for any orientation, that we quickly adopt the first information we receive as our own and later are reluctant or unwilling to question them because they represent our mental and psychological “guardrails” for understanding a situation. These first assumptions become our premises and thus are “invisible” to us and guide our perception without us being even aware of it. People therefore often react emotionally and “defensively” when these basic assumptions are later questioned, because they gave them emotional security at the beginning, and they do not perceive them as imposed from outside. What this means is: Whoever tells the first story “wins.” The sooner after the event and the more widely it can be spread, the stronger this effect of “first makes right” works.

The Primacy Effect is particularly strong immediately after traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, actual or alleged massacres, or when people are confronted with a new, threatening and emotionally disturbing situation, leaving them confused, shocked, full of fear, and thus neuropsychologically in a state where critical and rational thinking is almost suspended for a short time and they most need and want orientation.

Since the Primacy Effect is amplified by a shock event, these events are sometimes even artificially created. In other cases, the natural occurrence of such a shock event is exploited to spread a certain narrative and then initiate, otherwise unacceptable measures based on this narrative — or, in the words of Obama’s Chief of Staff, Emanuel Rahm: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

If the shock event is planned, this narrative can even be prepared in advance and pulled out of the drawer immediately. If the shock event occurs “naturally,” time is of the essence and there is usually a flurry of activity with the help of communication professionals to exploit the crisis as comprehensively as possible for one’s own goals. The important thing is that only minutes after the shock event enters public consciousness or even directly with the news about it, one’s own narrative is communicated as uniformly as possible by all actors and the media and as widely as possible to create an all-encompassing narrative “blanket” over the situation.

This method can be used, for example, in war propaganda, to accuse the other side of a war crime and, thus, motivate one’s own population for entry into war or further arms deliveries. Or domestically, to push through unpopular legislative proposals that significantly restrict civil rights in the (alleged or actual) fight against crime, terrorism, disinformation, or radical forces within.

The Burning Towers

A good example of the power of the first story is the communication surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and its impact:

The world, especially the American population, was in shock in the moments, hours and days directly after the attack, due to the live images of the burning and collapsing Twin Towers, people running from the site, people falling or jumping out of the burning buildings, and the iconic images of the planes crashing into the towers. Then there were the reports of another plane crashing into the Pentagon and other disturbing happenings. Everyone was in a state of fear and panic.

In the reporting on these events, the story and framing were established astonishingly quickly. The elements of this narrative and framing were: Islamists, terrorist attack, “Act of War,” indicating a declaration of war — which a terrorist attack actually is not, as a war can only be declared by another state, not by a terrorist group. From this, the “War on Terror” quickly emerged. Thus, a strong “war and threat-scenario” was immediately developed, the enemy was quickly identified (the 19 Islamists under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan).

Later, many facts and circumstances came to light that raised doubts about this story or made the situation seem much more complicated and unclear, but by then it was too late. The official narrative was firmly established, emotionally and cognitively entrenched, and any new theory or differing element to the story now collided with the majority’s narrative “defense system” and could be readily dismissed as a “conspiracy theory.”

Here, one can see why such exploitation of the “Primacy Effect” is so helpful for any circles wanting to impose a certain narrative: If the story were not clear right at the beginning and everyone was “groping in the dark,” theories or speculations would be both natural and justified. The space would be opened for discussing various possible sequences of events, perpetrators, motives, etc..

But this is exactly what is prevented. The very quickly presented and almost word-for-word repeated “first story” on all channels and by all actors bypasses this phase of an open debate space. The space is now closed. Everything is resolved. New theories or speculations now suddenly face much more difficulty and encounter emotional resistance because it is taxing for most people to give up an old position once taken. The burden of proof is thus almost reversed. Whereas the first story needed hardly any solid evidence and is barely scrutinized, any new story or theory wanting to dislodge the first needs many times more evidence, and much higher standards are set for this evidence.

Of course, it is possible that the U.S. intelligence services were indeed so well-informed and could present the “solution” and the “perpetrators” so quickly because they had done their work well. Or, at least, it’s possible that they genuinely believed they were reporting the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It is possible that the simple narrative of the deed and the “War on Terror”-framing was merely an emotionally and tactically inevitable and logical reaction of the U.S. leadership personnel around President George W. Bush to an extreme threat to their country, stemming from their national character and foreign policy stance. Similarly, it is possible that all television channels and newspapers worldwide conveyed the same message in unison and asked no critical questions, because they were supplied by the same news agencies and were themselves so shocked that their critical faculties, like those of the citizens, were suspended for a short time.

It is equally possible, however, that American citizens were being prepared through the way the event was presented to them — the strongly emotional and inflammatory rhetoric and the suppression/non-communication of certain aspects and facts of the acts—both for the adoption of the “USA PATRIOT Act,” which would severely limit many fundamental rights and liberties and the introduction of a new surveillance architecture, which had been prepared long beforehand, as well as for large-scale military activities (Afghanistan War, Iraq War), which had also been planned for geopolitical reasons long before, but had lacked political support from the population before the terrorist attack.

It will certainly take some time before we fully uncover what really happened back then; perhaps we will never know. But it is clear from the communication surrounding September 11, 2001, how effective the Primacy Effect is, especially in connection with a shock event.

Democracy in Flames

For another example of the power of the first story, I want to take you further back into history: To the events following the Reichstag fire of 1933 in Berlin, Germany. This event and the reactions to it marked the transition from a democracy to a dictatorship — made possible also by a shock event and the accompanying propaganda.

What happened? On the night of February 27-28, 1933, the Reichstag (Parliament) building in Berlin was in flames, and the plenary hall was completely burned out. That very night, the Dutch bricklayer and communist Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested at the Reichstag. The background and details of the act and the fire are unclear to this day. Did the strongly visually impaired young man act alone? Did he collaborate with or act on behalf of the Communists? Or was it a “false flag” attack, i.e., were the SA (Sturmabteilung, Storm Division, Nazi paramilitaries) or NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) forces involved in instigating Marinus van der Lubbe, driving him to the Reichstag (as one witness testified), and actively assisting in the arson to provide a pretext for a harsh crackdown on political opponents (the Communists) and the eventual seizure of power in Germany?

In any case, the narrative of the NSDAP was immediately clear. On the night of the fire, Hermann Göring, acting as the Prussian Minister of the Interior, stated:

This is the beginning of the Communist uprising; they will strike now! We don’t have a minute to waste!”

And they didn’t. That same night, raids, arrests, torture, and murders of Communists and other critical politicians and intellectuals occurred. Tens of thousands of opposition members were taken to improvised concentration camps within the next few weeks.

The very next day, the “Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State” (the so-called Reichstag Fire Decree) was issued. This emergency decree enabled the massive expansion of the persecution of political opponents and led to a permanent state of emergency and the extensive suspension of political rights. One could say that it was only through this shock event and the subsequent communication and legal changes that the Nazi seizure of power became possible.

A subsequent trial convicted Marinus van der Lubbe but, despite significant political influence on the proceedings, found no sufficient evidence for the complicity of the accused Communists. In this case too, it is at least possible or conceivable that Hitler, Göring, and other high-ranking NSDAP officials genuinely believed in a dangerous Communist uprising and therefore, in line with their conviction, took extensive measures to ensure the safety of “Reich and people.”

But it is more likely that they exploited or even caused this fire themselves. Our suspicions should be raised by the following factors: It was too early on the night of the fire to have any investigation results. How could they know of a Communist involvement? The night raids and arrests were part of a large-scale police operation — which requires some preparation.

Likewise, an extensive political decree cannot be written in a few hours, so it must have been prepared. Additionally, the attack occurred during the heated phase of the campaign for the Reichstag election on March 5, 1933. The fire played perfectly into the hands of the Nazis, as it gave them the opportunity for radical violence using state power against the left-wing parties and was also used as a pretext to revoke the mandates of all Communist deputies. The most important clue may be that none of these arrests or measures were reversed after a regular court could not prove that a Communist conspiracy was behind the arson. As so often, the “first story” had won.

How to Counteract

It is always notable and should raise public suspicion when, after a terrorist attack or another sudden large-scale threatening event, such as a war crime or atrocity, the “story” seems remarkably well-established in its essential outlines and even details within the first minutes or hours, and is uniformly disseminated across all channels with identical phrasing, interpretations, and conclusions.

The natural sequence of events usually requires that the reporting or statements from politicians or investigators be more reticent with premature conclusions and accusations. We know this from less spectacular and less political events: “The police cannot provide any information about the perpetrator yet.” “Due to the ongoing investigation, no details of the incident can be communicated.” “We ask the public for patience.” “It is still unclear what exactly happened and who is responsible.” “We ask the public for patience and to remain calm,” etc.

Such statements and the gradual release of details and theories/speculations about the course of events and those responsible are the organic result of actual investigations, which, accompanied by investigative hypotheses, eventually lead to a final resolution.

However, if this solving of the case happens very quickly, with many details and especially the perpetrators or responsible parties appear to be known within minutes after the incident, and the event is surprisingly quickly presented as fundamentally clarified, it strongly smells of the exploitation of an actual or even the staging of a shock event and the use of the Primacy Effect method for propaganda purposes. In such a case, caution is advised to avoid falling into the psychological trap of blindly believing these first pieces of information and not questioning them critically later.

In conclusion, here is a checklist of elements that should raise your suspicion:

  • The story about the course of events seems to be established almost immediately after the incident.
  • Blame is assigned hastily.
  • The story is told in a highly emotional manner.
  • No doubts about the first (necessarily still) hypothesis seem allowed, or they are immediately dismissed as “conspiracy theories.”
  • The media coverage is conspicuously uniform, down to specific words and phrasings. The statements sound like those of politicians or corporate spokespersons following a PR “script.”
  • The “narrative” is conspicuously simple and has a “Hollywood-esque” structure.
  • New terms are created that did not exist before. These are repeatedly used (such as “War on Terror,” “Axis of Evil,” “Zeitenwende”).
  • Legislative proposals or other regulations/measures are presented immediately afterward, which must have required some preparation and were obviously already “in the drawer” before the event.

Sources:

  • Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman:  Consent – The Political Economy of the Mass Media, 1995
  • Michael Dunker: Beeinflussung und Steuerung des Lesers in der englischsprachigen Detektiv- und Krimiliteratur, 1990
  • Naomi Klein: Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, 2007
  • Rainer Mausfeld: Angst und Macht – Herrschaftstechniken der Angsterzeugung in kapitalistischen Demokratien, 2019
  • Johannes Menath: Moderne Propaganda – 80 Methoden der Meinungslenkung, 2022

    (Featured Image: “WTC on fire 1” by Goosefriend is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Cropped by Propaganda In Focus.)

Author

  • Maike Gosch

    Maike Gosch is a communication strategist and former lawyer. She is the founder and director of story4good, where she has led communication and strategy projects for leading NGOs and political entities in Germany and Europe. Her extensive experience includes advising the German Green Party, Wikimedia Germany, the Stopp TTIP Campaign and the European Parliament on high-stakes issues such as Green Energy Transition, European Trade Agreements and multiple election campaigns. Maike's articles have been featured in prominent trade publications such as Politik + Kommunikation. She has taught storytelling and political communication at institutions like Quadriga Hochschule and Hamburg Media School.

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