Are We Gullible and Susceptible to Lies and Propaganda?

By | November 6, 2013

Juan Bernal


Do people sometimes confuse fiction for fact?   Yes.

Do they sometimes confuse fantasy or myth for fact?   Yes (see ‘religion’)

Do governments lie to their citizens and others?   Yes,  of course.

Does all this lead to undesirable consequences?   Yes.

Would a healthy does of skepticism and critical thought help to remedy the situations?   Probably.


Gullibility, Fiction and Reality:

In a 1938 radio program, Orson Wells dramatized a fictional Martian invasion of earth, based on the fictional literature, “War of the Worlds.”   Surprisingly, he fooled thousands of the radio audience into thinking the alien invasion was really happening.  In a recent PBS documentary on this episode we learn part of the explanation for this mass confusion.  Many people had tuned in late to the Wells program and missed the introduction which informed the audience of the fictional drama.  They tuned in to hear the authentic-sounding, fictional news bulletins – which were convincingly done by the production staff –  and thought they were hearing some real news bulletins.  Thousands of people were sucked into a state of great fear and even panic, which was relieved only when authorities required that Wells interrupt his program to inform people that the “invasion” was a fictional drama, not the real thing.

Even Wells was surprised with the degree to which people in his radio audience brought his piece of fiction for fact.

What does this say about the general gullibility of people?

Does it also say something about the power of propaganda?

Surely it seems that a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking on the part of ordinary people could have averted this social embarrassment, one in which so many people came out looking so stupid and gullible?

Since the time of Wells’ radio dramatization, the technology by which people can be induced to believe falsehoods has increased and grown in sophistication.  First, we saw the development of film entertainment, followed by television news, entertainment, and documentaries.  And in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the revolution brought by the internet, and computer-generated virtual reality.  It has become such that the ‘world’ of entertainment and celebrities (whom we never see in the flesh) becomes just as real as the world we really inhabit. In extreme cases, that fictional world seems more real than the real relations of a person’s life.


Sometimes it would be a healthy exercise to step back and reassess our situation.  Just what in our world is real and what is make-belief?   And how much of that which is make-belief is just harmless entertainment?  How much is potentially harmful?

Tragedies Caused by Official Deception and Mind control:

The well engineered lies and propaganda perpetrated by European governments in the early decades of the twentieth century persuaded most citizens of those nations that war was necessary for national honor, leading to the tragedy of the first World War.  Here we have an unnecessary war which resulted in death, suffering, and disruption for millions of people.  Only after the suffering and deaths of entire generations of young men did people ask themselves what was the point of the war and mostly regretted getting sucked into the war fever generated by their own governments.

But in a few decades, in the 1930s, people’s memories of the tragedy of WWI had faded enough so that fascist governments in Europe could convince their citizens that, not only total war was necessary, but in the case of Germany and Central Europe, that the extermination of many humans living in their midst, was an acceptable national priority.  Hence, we had the tragedy of World War II on a global scale, with the additional features of the Nazi Holocaust, various genocides, and the start of the age of atomic bombs and nuclear warheads.  What lies, deception, and propaganda did Hitler and his Nazi order perpetrate on ordinary, decent-minded people to induce them to accept the barbarism and atrocities carried out in the name of national security and purification of the race!


Dare we say that maybe, just maybe, a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking on the part of ordinary people could have averted these tragedies?

In the United States …

 we did not carry out a systematic extermination of undesirable minorities in the twentieth century.  But long-held, false social and religious beliefs concerning Jews, Blacks and other minorities clouded much of the thinking of the majority of citizens and resulted in great social injustice for the victimized minorities.  These included the blight of anti-Semitism in many areas of society, the continuing segregation of Negroes in the South and the stamp of inferior status for various other minorities (e.g. Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asians).

In the 1940s, our government sent tens of thousands of Japanese-American citizens to relocation camps where they were incarcerated as criminals and subversives.  Again, the official propaganda and false beliefs of the majority of citizens resulted in great injustice for innocent victims.

In the 1950s we turned our attention to the communists:

The anti-communist scare and witch hunts of the early 1950s led by Senator McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities led  most people in the US into the false belief that subversive communists were active in many of our institutions.  This resulted in the persecution of many people of liberal and socialistic sympathies.  This happened as the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union was developing.  Mostly everyone, including our governmental officials, educational, and religious leaders, believed that the only thing that mattered in our foreign policy was the defense of the free world against communistic aggression.  This pattern of group thought,  resulting mostly from official propaganda,  had detrimental effect for both our domestic well being and international relations.


Maybe, just maybe, a healthy dose of skepticism and critical thinking on the part of ordinary citizens, instead of the usual embrace of fantasies and myths, could have averted these national pathologies?  Can we conclude at least this much?





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