Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.
What Is Name Calling Propaganda?
Name calling propaganda occurs when complementary or pejorative words that usually appear in other contexts are instead used to label and shape your opinion of a particular person or group. The purpose is to subliminally manipulate or influence public opinion in order to generate conformity with the opinions of those producing the propaganda.
For example, names such as terrorist or insurgent carry negative connotations, leading to their prolific use by Western governments when describing any individual or group that they oppose. Conversely, when a government wishes to praise or support a group, titles such as freedom fighter or rebel are used instead.
When these names are used prolifically in media broadcasts, they can be referred to as name calling propaganda if they are likely to influence public sentiment in the desired direction (e.g., Islamic terrorists, or Syrian rebels).
Name calling propaganda is often used by governments and their media allies to describe foreign groups. This is because news about foreign groups can usually only come from governmental or media organizations with the connections, permits, and funding to operate abroad.
With little chance of verification by the viewing public, international news can be easily distorted to suit a particular agenda. As a general rule, the further a news story is from its audience, the greater the level of propaganda.
The more often a group is described in a particular way by the media, the more likely it is that media organizations have received instructions to do so. Thus, the popularity of a name may demonstrate government interference in the dissemination of information to the public.
Name Calling Propaganda Examples
The Western media have been known to use the following list of names to differentiate foreign groups. The choices appear to reflect the extent to which the U.S. government approves of a group's activities.
- Terrorists. This title is reserved for the pinnacle of evil. It is used when a government wants public approval for an armed assault on another nation. It generates fear and hatred by placing the group in the same category as the culprits responsible for the September 11th attacks. For this reason, it is more easily applied to Islamic groups, such as Hezbollah or Hamas. It was famously used by G.W. Bush as part of his justification for the Iraq War, despite belated confirmation that Saddam Hussein had no links to terrorism.
- Insurgents. Slightly less condemnation is demanded for groups that are placed in this category. They may not be planning to incinerate Western civilization, but they are certainly thinking about it as they sit around a bonfire fueled by American flags.
- Guerrillas. Use of this pejorative has reduced since the fall of communism in Russia. When used, it suggests dirty savages with bandannas and AK47s. It is an attempt to revive "red scare" fears that are still pervasive in the Western world, but it can be directed at any unsavory group, regardless of their political objectives.
- Militants. This designation is becoming increasingly popular due to the liberalization of the West. It implies a group that desires military conflict, regardless of their true motives. The name makes it easy to portray such groups as warmongering, anti-pacifist, aggressors, which exposes them to negative sentiment from all who oppose war.
- Soldiers. This is a neutral description for individuals who serve a cause by participating in armed conflict.
- Rebels. This name was used in the popular Star Wars films to describe a righteous force fighting a powerful and evil empire. It is therefore used whenever a propagandist wants to create public support for a group that is attempting to thwart a powerful and supposedly tyrannical regime. It has recently been ascribed to groups fighting against the "regimes" of Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi in Syria and Libya, presumably because of US opposition to these governments.
- Freedom Fighters. This unctuous title is usually reserved for smaller groups of rebels because of their greater underdog status and because they have less capacity to commit frequent or large-scale barbaric acts. These factors allow for a more plausible distortion of their status. The most obvious example of this name calling propaganda occurred when the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a terrorist group opposed to Iran (see video below), was taken off the US terrorism list and was subsequently referred to as freedom fighters.
- Activists. This term is commonly used by well-intentioned domestic groups who are seeking social, economic, or environmental change. Thus, propagandists also use it to invoke this same image for some foreign groups, regardless of whether they are mercenaries armed with weapons.
- Protesters. Coming into common usage during the Arab Spring (it has also been applied to Ukraine and Hong Kong), this term depicts the pinnacle of innocence. When used by propagandists, the purpose is to confuse Western and foreign definitions of a protest. For example, when an individual in a crowd of protesters shoots a police officer with a rifle, and the police return fire, the media might only report the state retaliation. Westerners are left to believe that their kind of peaceful protest would have received the same retaliation. Eventually, when enough "protesters" pick up AK47s, and the media can no longer categorize them that way, they become freedom fighters or rebels.
Venezuela: A More Recent Case
As the U.S. government pushes for regime change in socialist Venezuela, and their subservient media toe the line, name calling propaganda is being used to legitimize the Venezuelan opposition and denigrate President Maduro and his supporters.
The following tweet from the political commentator and comedian, Lee Camp, gives specific examples of the name calling propaganda that is being used.
The Evolution of Name Calling Propaganda
In recent years, the public have become wise to hackneyed terms such as terrorist and freedom fighter. In some cases, these names have been replaced with less extreme alternatives (e.g., militant and rebel).
In other cases, infrequently used synonyms such as extremist or fundamentalist are becoming more common. In time, they may become the preferred pejoratives. Unfortunately, society tends to lag several years behind when it comes to developing skepticism for the latest names.
Eventually, the current wordage will fall out of favor. Perhaps, in decades to come, opposition groups will be called mercenaries, belligerents, or antagonists. These words have yet to be deemed suitable for mass-consumption, presumably because the current terms are still an effective way to generate conformity.
Unfortunately, name calling propaganda of one form or another will endure for as long as the public are largely oblivious to the technique. We cannot expect those who use it to grow a conscience.
Instead, individuals must learn to be skeptical, and perhaps even cynical of those with the power to disseminate information on a massive scale. This can only be achieved by educating people to think critically and objectively about the information they digest and the motives of those who produce it.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2013 Thomas Swan