Scapegoating as Propaganda

The Scapegoat, by William Holman Hunt, 1854 – Public Domain

Scapegoating is a propaganda tool that singles out a specific group of people, a targeted ethnic group, an outsiders’ group, or a group that can be constructed as the enemy. These groups are targeted for unjust blaming, accusations, negative, and ultimately violent, and often brutal treatment. Propagandistic scapegoating can be conducted by a state, a political party, a PR/propaganda organization, and individuals. In general, it sets an in-group against an out-group.

For example, the power of the 1%the political and corporate elite – often depends on convincing the rest of us to accept the demonization of some enemy: militant trade unions, even more militant anarchists, unruly women, conspiring Jews, treacherous communists, Islamic terrorists, etc.

Propagandistic scapegoating is widely understood as a metaphor for targeted blame-shifting. In historic terms, the idea of scapegoating originated from the religious scripts of the Bible. Initially, it meant as the purging of a sin (as defined by the church). Such cleansing of a sin (including, of course, lust and fornication!) was often “achieved”(!) through a ritual sacrifice.

In modernity, scapegoating became increasingly associated with propaganda, political and corporate public relations, and political ruses. Propagandistic scapegoating serves the political and ideological agendas. Yet throughout history, three well-known periods of propagandistic scapegoating can be identified:

+ the European Witch Hunts – approximately from 1350 to 1750,

+ the Cold War – approximately from 1919 to 1989, and

+ the War on Terror – approximately from 2001 to 2013.

In all three cases, a carefully engineered witch panic, communist panic, and terrorist panic invented an enemy. This provided the ideological mechanism that set the mills of mass hysteria in motion – often leading to the desired violent outcome. Yet, propagandistic scapegoating can also operate through the invention of problems.

This allows those who setup propagandistic scapegoating to style themselves as the solution – often the “only” solution to a problem. Importantly, it is the solution to a problem – whether true or not – that they have invented in the first place. The Catholic Church and its Inquisition, for example, presented itself as “the” solution to a problem that never existed: the problem of witches when some women had to endure 63 rounds of torture before being killed. Yet, it senselessly tortured and murdered thousands of innocent women.

Since the Russian Revolution, propagandistic scapegoating also furnished the hunting of communists – orchestrated over many decades. The Reds under the Beds were hunted, tortured (by Italian fascism, German Nazis, South American dictators, etc.), prosecuted, and regularly killed. In the USA, the propagandistic scapegoating of communists – and those thought to be communists – became HUAC. Worse, in 2016, Newt Gingrich was still dreaming about re-establishing the propagandistic scapegoating of communists through a new HUAC.

Quite independent from Gingirch’s madness of a plan to re-create the 1950s-style persecution of communists in the USA again, the state-sponsored maltreatments of communists continued in the USA and elsewhere. Yet, the propagandistic scapegoating of communists can have very serious consequences. A UK propaganda outfit deceptively called Information Research Department (IRD) once joined the Cold War to hunt for communists. At one time, IRD had set its eyes on Indonesia.

It was in the year 1965 when anti-communist’s scapegoating brochures were cooked up by the IRD. They supported the government’s call for the elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party. The deaths that followed has numbered in the hundreds of thousands – estimates have reached up to a million.

Propagandistic scapegoating achieves its ideological goals by doing two things. In the one case, the propagandistic elements used for scapegoating may be entirely true. In other cases, and this is more often the case, these propagandistic claims are entirely false. Yet, in most cases these are entirely false – women are not witches, communists are not evil, and Muslims are not terrorists. Undeterred, one of the keys to propagandistic scapegoating is that some form of an ideological quest alone, and almost single-handedly governs the choice of means.

This can well mean, stirring the hateful pots of racial tension, creating instability, and fostering social and political madness. These had been the signifiers of old propagandistic scapegoating throughout history:

+ the mass slaughter of women labeled as witches;

+ the mass slaughter of ordinary people called communists; and,

+ the recent torture of another group of people called Islamic terrorists.

In all of this, propagandistic scapegoating has remained an extremely powerful instrument capable of molding – if not manipulating – public opinion, as well as creating behavioral change. In any case, propagandistic scapegoating is always a carrier of an ideology that paves the way for brutality.

Yet, one of the most significant ideas behind propagandistic scapegoating is that it impedes critical reflection. Simultaneously, propagandistic scapegoating helps to bring a population together for important events like witch hunts, persecuting communists, engineering election outcomes, orchestrating nationalistic celebrations, erecting memorials, and other functions that unite the so-called “people” behind a leader, or an ideologically-defined cause.

Prior to all that, a suitable theme to be used in propagandistic scapegoating is selected with the single-minded purpose of bringing a pre-defined target audience to embrace specific attitudes, political convictions, and ideological beliefs. These ideological themes are chosen in advance, by those who sponsors a specific ideology.

Self-evidently, propagandistic scapegoating uses tactics like simplification, appealing to emotions, cranking up exaggerations, and high-pressure advocacy to further an ideological agenda. This means that propagandistic scapegoating is used to incite Le Bon’s masses of pre-defined ideological ends.

Perhaps, one might argue that there are two types of propagandistic scapegoating: white and black propagandistic scapegoating:

+ White propagandistic scapegoating occurs when the origin of the information used is known, and the content is considered truthful.

+ By contrast, in black propagandistic scapegoating, the origin of the source remains unknown, and – more importantly – the information used that is being transmitted, is false.

Yet, both forms of propagandistic scapegoating can also have problems. Black or white propagandistic scapegoating can fail if their ideological message falls outside the accepted socio-cultural and political frameworks of a targeted audience. Today, it would be virtually impossible – in most parts of the world! – to burn women at the stakes, after accusing them of being witches – even when accused by Orwell’s Anti-Sex-League.

Yet, one of the keys of propagandistic scapegoating is the use of a technique called simplification. This method reduces the propagandistic material to easily digestible and clearly understandable sound bites. These are small portions of information rooted in the overall ideology. Key to this is that it leaves little – or better virtually no – room for a logical dialogue.

An adjacent scheme is known as hot potato strategy. This is designed to discredit one’s opponents by entrapping them inside a communicative situation that is viewed by most people in a negative way. A hot potato event does not need to be untrue.

Hot potatoing blames an individual or group for something that was beyond their control. This is followed by a second step. It forces them to answer for it – in an attempt to embarrass them. An example might be the question, have you stopped beating your dog? Basically, hot potatoing is about an inflammatory and often almost always untrue statement or questioning. The idea is to throw opponents off course, put them into a defensive position, and to embarrass them. The fact that it is utterly untrue is most irrelevant. The goal is to bring controversy to an opponent.

Yet, with the advancement in communication technology – from hand-written and printed leaflets to radio to TV, and eventually to high-speed Internet access – the reach, cost-effectiveness, and speed of messages enticing propagandistic scapegoating has been cranked up significantly.

Turbo-charged by the Internet, propagandistic scapegoating works better than ever before. There is absolutely no doubt about that.

Beyond advances in technology and the use of the Internet, propagandistic scapegoating works even better when it builds on pre-existing attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and misbeliefs. Worse, it works even more effective with negative beliefs. In other words,

+ once women were portrayed as evil, witch hunts followed;

+ once communists are presented as dangerous, persecutions can be orchestrated;

+ once Muslims are defined as bad, violence can follow.

Key to all of this is the process of dehumanization. Of course, all this also means that the legendary “red panic button” that cranks up dehumanization is pressed by those in positions of power and privilege. They tend do so, whenever they feel their power and privileges are in danger. Quickly, women, communists, people who believe in Islam, and even the free press are defined as the official enemyTrump’s enemies of the people.

Bush, Trump, and many others – and, propagandistic scapegoating itself – live from mobilizing sections of society against those used as scapegoats: the free press (Trump), the election of Joe Biden (Trump), etc. Half-truths are exaggerated for the creation of an imaginary enemy and all too often, for a sheer endless litany of wars, pogroms, and the annihilation of those defined as a menace to the public.

Propagandistic scapegoating can indeed be said to involve such things as victim-blaming, playing the victim, and the engineering of a hate campaign to absolve oneself of all responsibility. The campaigns employ an ideologically-sanitized language (e.g. Lingua Tertii Imperii) to their own advantage.

Almost self-evidently, propagandistic scapegoating uses conspiracy theories in the construction of suitable targets. Such conspiracy fantasies are also useful in the construction of suitable pretexts for actions to be carried out in the name of responding to an alleged threat – whether internal or external.

Once the machinery of propagandistic scapegoating is set in motion, the next step is the blame-shifting through the construction of an acceptable ideology. Lastly, the execution phase follows. In this phase, an elite – the Catholic Church in the case of witch hunts; the state in the case of communists and Islamic terrorists – cast themselves as the only solutions to a crisis. This is framed in such a way that it supports their own interests. In other words, women, communists, and so-called Islamic terrorists die while the power of the perpetrators is cemented.

In short, propagandistic scapegoating is a visible reminder of what we should not be. Beyond that, propagandistic scapegoating remains a form of social control – capable of controlling a population.

Yet, propagandistic scapegoating starts almost innocently. It often begins with the power to impose their very own definition on a publicly-traded belief system – of course, for their own benefit. This is not unconnected from a hegemony often established with the help of corporate mass media – even when it means helping to reduce democracy to a manageable entity.

The twentieth century has indeed been characterized by three key developments of great political importance, the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy. In protecting corporate power against democracy, propagandistic scapegoating remains a highly useful tool for the powerful – to maintain power and privilege.


Thomas Klikauer is the author of German Conspiracy Fantasies.