How to Tell a Big Lie: Assertion, Repetition & Contagion

Those who wield great influence on humanity unfailingly understand some truth about the nature of human collectives. It could not be otherwise. They are able to hold power over the masses because they know — consciously or not — how to manipulate them.

Every individual is unique. Any and all of his mental and physical attributes may lie anywhere along the spectrum of human variations, not duplicated in its entirety in any other person. The individual person is idiosyncratic and unpredictable in his actions. But the masses behave entirely predictably. Humans are rational but only boundedly so. Psychologists who study group behavior have identified biases and systematic deviations from rational behavior. Those who rule the masses have necessarily to be experts in mass psychology.

One such truth about humans is that they are persuadable. The sheer size and influence of the advertising industry attests to that fact. People can be made to believe anything at all, including all sorts of obviously false notions and lies. What’s more fascinating is the phenomenon that is usually (perhaps mistakenly) associated with Joseph Goebbels, one of Hitler’s closest aids and the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945. It is the idea of the big lie, variously stated as:

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.

Not just any old lie, it has to be a big enough lie. Repeat a big lie and you will be believed.

Goebbels of course was not alone in recognizing this feature of humans. Although a skilled practitioner of the art of propaganda and persuasion, he was merely using what others before him had also known. For instance, in his 1895 book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon (1841 – 1931) wrote that “to imbue the mind of a crowd with ideas and beliefs”, leaders have to use three clearly defined expedients: affirmation, repetition and contagion.”

Affirmation pure and simple, kept free of all reasoning and all proof, is one of the surest means of making an idea enter the mind of crowds. The conciser an affirmation is, the more destitute of every appearance of proof and demonstration, the more weight it carries. The religious books and the legal codes of all ages have always resorted to simple affirmation. Statesmen called upon to defend a political cause, and commercial men pushing the sale of their products by means of advertising are acquainted with the value of affirmation.

Affirmation, however, has no real influence unless it be constantly repeated, and so far as possible in the same terms. It was Napoleon, I believe, who said that there is only one figure in rhetoric of serious importance, namely, repetition. The thing affirmed comes by repetition to fix itself in the mind in such a way that it is accepted in the end as a demonstrated truth.

The influence of repetition on crowds is comprehensible when the power is seen which it exercises on the most enlightened minds. This power is due to the fact that the repeated statement is embedded in the long run in those profound regions of our unconscious selves in which the motives of our actions are forged. At the end of a certain time we have forgotten who is the author of the repeated assertion, and we finish by believing it. To this circumstance is due the astonishing power of advertisements. When we have read a hundred, a thousand, times that X’s chocolate is the best, we imagine we have heard it said in many quarters, and we end by acquiring the certitude that such is the fact. When we have read a thousand times that Y’s flour has cured the most illustrious persons of the most obstinate maladies, we are tempted at last to try it when suffering from an illness of a similar kind. If we always read in the same papers that A is an arrant scamp and B a most honest man we finish by being convinced that this is the truth, unless, indeed, we are given to reading another paper of the contrary opinion, in which the two qualifications are reversed. Affirmation and repetition are alone powerful enough to combat each other. [Link.][Emphasis added.]

It is very important to fully understand that crowds can be manipulated by simple means. Actually, only through simple means. The assertion has to be simple and should be presented without burdening it with proofs. Most importantly, you must not subject the crowd to what in modern parlance is called “cognitive overload.” The crowd will be turned off if you throw too much information at them. Demand that they think and you have lost the plot. The KISS principle — keep it simple, stupid — at play. (I have a story to tell which rather neatly illustrated the KISS idea to me. I will tell it upon request. Well, here it is since you asked: The Fenwick Weavers’ Village.)

Repetition is critical. “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over,” wrote Goebbels.

Back to Le Bon. About “contagion” he writes:

When an affirmation has been sufficiently repeated and there is unanimity in this repetition . . . what is called a current of opinion is formed and the powerful mechanism of contagion intervenes. Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.

Microbes. Genes. And the analogue of genes in the mental space that Richard Dawkins so poetically named memes. See how the same idea occurs to different people at different times. That hints — if not attests — to the truth of the idea.

* * * * *

The Nehru-Gandhi-Maino Congress has been so spectacularly successful in holding on to power in India because they fundamentally understand how to manipulate the masses into believing big lies. They are the inheritors of Goebbels’ propaganda ministry. They know that first, they have to have assert without proof or reasoning, and second, they have to repeat the lie. They also know that it cannot be just a small lie. It has to be a preposterously big lie. A small lie one can dismiss because it is possible to discern the motive behind it. But a big lie gets through that filter because of the cognitive overload it demands to figure out the motive. In effect the mind says, “That has got to be the truth because no one can be so demented as to make that up out of whole cloth.”

The Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan led Congress has mastered manipulation and wield the weapon of the Big Lie superbly. There are two basic methods they use. First of course is the Le Bon-Goebbelsian “repetition of a few points”. The other is the control over the channels of mass communications. It is often repeated that India enjoys a free press. That is another of those lies that become the truth through assertion without proof and endless repetition.

Let’s talk about the Indian media: print, radio, television and internet. In theory, the government allows (except when it censors) the print media to print what it likes. In practice, however, the government exerts control over the print media through the (public) funds that it uses to advertise and promote its objectives. No newspaper can afford to actually oppose the government because if it did so, it would find itself financially insolvent and its owners would suddenly wake up to find themselves the objection of unwanted attention by government agencies. Full-page ads on the government’s great achievements, huge announcements on the birthdays of the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan members, etc., are the prizes that newspapers receive in exchange for the cooperation of editors.

To quote our favorite master of propaganda Herr Goebbels, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.”

Now about radio. That comes under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. A more truthful name would have been “Ministry of Propaganda”. In a largely illiterate country, print is not as effective radio. Anyone — literate or not — can listen and understand the spoken word. Therefore the government does not allow anyone to provide news and analysis on radio. You can play songs, carry on inane chatter and sell soap but discussing any serious idea is verboten.

Private television and radio channels require huge license fees. Which means that only those with very deep pockets can afford to have them, and also that unless they toe the government line, they can be shut down under some pretext or the other.

The internet is of course a growing threat and the government is doing all it can to throttle it. I think they are mostly successful in controlling the industry. Finally, the new kid on the block is the so-called social media. Thankfully, for the government, internet penetration is in the single-digit percentages and therefore social media will not make too much of a difference anytime soon. Of course, it is thanks only to the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan-led Congress that Indians are so desperately poor that internet penetration (like literacy) is low.

* * * * *

The big lie that the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan-led Congress is into relates to Shri Narendra Modi. I can relate to that because if I were in their shoes, I too would focus exclusively on the one person who poses the greatest existential threat to me. The asymmetry is evident: the opponents of the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino family don’t have a single target. They have multiple moving targets. Each day brings a new scam to light, every day there’s another report of gross public indecency. The opponents of the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino family are continually shifting their aim to different bits of the scene. The net effect is that there’s never enough concentrated fire to bring down the lynchpin — the central element that holds the entire mechanism together. The Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan, in contrast, has been forced to recognize that Modi is their nemesis. Modi is the one and the only one who poses an existential threat to them. Naturally therefore they focus on him. Their relentless hounding of Modi is evident and revealing.

If you are convinced (as I am) that the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan (and the UPA) are fundamentally to blame for India’s lack of development and for India’s slide into deeper poverty, and that Modi represents one desperate hope for India, then you will readily appreciate that Modi indeed stands for everything that the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan hates. Modi stands for a resurgent and powerful India; the NGM clan wants a poverty-stricken country so that they can continue to rule and loot India.

The techniques the NGM-clan employs is straight out of Le Bon’s book. The opposition (and I wonder if there is any real opposition other than Modi) either does not know or is in cahoots with the Congress busy looting the nation. I really don’t know and I would not want to conjecture there.

Modi’s goals are antithetical to the NGM-clan-led UPA. That rather parsimoniously explains why the big lie that their propaganda machine manufactures. Goebbels would be proud of Digvijaya Singh, Shashi Tharoor, Sagarika G, Rajdeep S & the rest of the unmentionables.

In conclusion, let me just recall that Goebbels, Hitler and the Nazi did have it good for a while. But eventually they ended up in a mess and the end was not pretty. They thought they were invincible and in their hubris they did what eventually doomed them. Let’s recall that all of history’s tyrants — Mussolini, Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, take your pick — ended up reviled and hated by humanity. The more power they had when they were at the top, the more they did that earned them universal revulsion. I am absolutely convinced that the NGM family will be the most hated bunch in time to come. Today they rule the roost — but so did every ruthless murderous dictator.

Those mass murderers had a good time while it lasted — but not forever. We know what happened to the autocratic Indira and Sanjay (wasn’t he named Sanjiv to start off with?) and then the clueless Rajiv. Rajiv of course justified the murder of 4,000 innocent Sikhs by Congress goons, but met with a gruesome death. Wonder what’s in store for the others.

It’s all karma, neh?

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “How to Tell a Big Lie: Assertion, Repetition & Contagion”

  1. Would love to read that story, Atanu.
    Also, while the problem is clear and we may hope for an eventual outcome for the ruin of the clan, what is clearly more important is to fight this propaganda in favour of Modi. There aren’t many Modis in this trade and a nation has to have that exceptional bit of good luck which a Singapore or a US or UK had at different times. So, we really cannot afford to lose the battle this time around. Given this, Modi and the enlightened well-wishers of this nation must figure out how to fight this propaganda. Otherwise, bit-by-bit and with continuous reinforcement of a anti-Modi propaganda, the clan and its minions may cheat India of the only chance it had in a long long time. It’s an asymmetric war- time to fight propaganda with propaganda.


  2. Another brilliant post, Mr. Atanu Dey. Love your blog and writing.

    I fear even if Mr. Modi comes to power, he may find it hard to impose his style of leadership in the coalition-politics of current India.


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