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Against Propaganda

Communications we read or see produce four kinds of changes in our beliefs:

  • Random – uncorrelated with much else of interest,
  • Info – more correlated with the world as it is, vs. as it might be,
  • Persuasion – more correlated with beliefs authors prefer us to have, and
  • Other – correlations with anything else of interest.

When choosing what to read (or see) how carefully, many of us prefer info to persuasion, and weakly dislike random and other changes. So we watch for signals indicating lots of info relative to persuasion. In contrast, readers who prefer persuasion over info seek signals indicating their favored mixture.

For example, consider contexts where people reaffirm their religious and patriotic allegiances, where coaches inspire teams or warriors inspire troops, or where "inspirational" speakers persuade folks to stick to their diets, try harder to succeed in their careers, or hold out for their romantic ideals. In such propaganda contexts, impressive charismatic leaders tend to speak in simple repetitive eloquent poetic vague emotional language, often with rambling structures, engaging stories, vivid colorful flashy emotional music and visual aids, and artistic impressive comforting communal surroundings.

In contrast, when possibly-hostile and expert critics are addressed by lawyers supporting clients, engineers presenting designs, accountants presenting financial accounts, or academics presenting analyses, styles are more "no-nonsense."  They avoid colorful flashy emotional visual aids and music, use precise concise technical and unemotional language, make structured and standardized arguments, explicitly summarize and address opposing views, make methods and premises explicit, and warn early of conclusions and structures.

These differing styles occur not just because differing communication contexts have differing style requirements, but also because authors try to credibly signal their intentions. Authors who want to be seen as minimizing the propaganda element of their communications avoid using flashy styles, eloquent language, or compelling stories, even when such things would make it easier for readers to assimilate the presented info. After all, readers who cannot easily see that deviating from the usual non-nonsense style here actually promotes info may think worse of them.  One must furthermore worry about being quoted out of context by hostile parties.

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