I think there's a lively debate to be had around whether or not this is actually a bad thing. Here is my argument for why it might a positive force in society. Let's focus on the "torches of freedom"  event.
The key thing that Bernays did was associate a physical symbol (cigarettes) with a much deeper need/desire: women's rights. What if this really did lead a lot of women to advocate and assert their rights more? What if lighting up that cigarette was the first symbolic act towards deeper change? For a personal example, a year or two ago I felt I needed to make some radical changes in my life, and one of the first things I did was dye my hair blonde. That physical change paved the way for some deep psychological changes. It's very easy for us to judge the torches of freedom thing as "bad" because we now know that cigarettes are bad for health. But they didn't know that now. Actually, we can replace cigarettes with another consumer product that served the similar purpose of women's empowerment (without any of the health problems): jeans. Women wearing jeans was a big political act of rebellion back in the day. If the jeans makers capitalized on that and associated themselves with women's empowerment, is that a bad thing? I think the counterargument here is that people take on these symbols (cigarettes, jeans) as part of their identity and stop there. I.e. it's not the first step of a deeper transformation. You just get a surface level symbol of the identity you want to portray and then stop there.
The most important thing to remember about Propaganda is that it, too, is propaganda. Bernays wanted this book to help normalize the use of propaganda within the commercial sector since this is how he made his living.
> The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
> We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.
It's pretty clear he is talking about propaganda in the modern sense - using rhetorical and persuasive techniques to bypass the target's rational decision making procedures in order to achieve specific policy goals.
Remember Bernays was an alumnus of the first truly industrial scale propaganda effort, the Creel Committee, set up to convince US citizens they should support US entry into WWI.
According to him, it
> bombarded the public unceasingly with enthusiastic reports of the nation's colossal war effort [...] Dissenting voices were stilled, either by agreement with the press or by the persuasive action of the agents of the Department of Justice.
> Intellectual and emotional bombardment aroused Americans to a pitch of enthusiasm. The bombardment came at people from all sides - advertisements, news, volunteer speakers, posters, schools, theaters; millions of homes displayed service flags. The war aims and ideals were continually projected to the eyes and ears of the populace. These high-pressure methods were new at the time, but have become usual since then. [...]
> The most fantastic atrocity stories were believed.
(- Bernays, Public Relations, 1951, via )
Bernays indeed saw this as desirable and necessary, and very much cast himself as a member of the "invisible government."
If you grant impeccable intentions and absolute probity to the "invisible governors" this might still seem a cogent viewpoint, though offensive to most modern sensibilities.
Realistically, though, modern history should have taught us the devastation that can result from adoption of propaganda as the primary tool of government, and its inimicability with true democracy.
Democracy proper relies on informed consent, and consent under a propagandising state can only ever be misinformed consent.
What he's expressing is a structural property ("logical consequence") of representative authority, applied to information, much like it is applied to power in democracy.
The point is that there's always a limit to informed consent, and that technocracy/"government of experts" is more or less an inevitable property of ("true") democracy itself rather than a choice.
That consent can only ever be misinformed is the point or at least the argument debated here.
Companies today frequently posture as supporting sociopolitical movements as a sales technique. Ex. All of the rainbow capitalism during pride month - even from companies which give money to anti-lgbt politicians.
Did Bernays invent this too?
Bernays' nephew... first CEO of Netflix.
"The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes."
― Benjamin Disraeli
A theme worth exploring...
And then there's always this quote:
Edwards : Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
Kay : A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.
For me, it really taps into the terrible misfortune caused by those who think they are smart enough to attempt to enforce how other people should live/behave.
This attitude is what makes me wary of the current top-down attempts to rein in misinformation on the web. There is a visible assumption that people are not to be trusted and must be lead somewhere. If necessary, by a bit of force. (Deletions, bans.)
Trading misinformation for a nanny-knows-best authority that manipulates you into its preferred position is not much of a trade at all. Either we accept diversity of humanity (including morons), or we will edge our societies towards benevolent informational autocracy that won't stay benevolent forever. I strongly prefer the former, dealing with morons, even though it is not pleasant.
I also think that more and more, I disagree with the book's outlook that people are more or less like putty and can be bent into doing anything you want - I've come to see people as strong in their fundamental convictions yet open to things they don't have any fundamental disagreements with. And more than willing to let you guide them in the direction of things they already wanted. Sort of an Adam Curtis outlook I guess.
Whether that makes propaganda of any given form justifiable is another matter.
IMO, if we were capable of decentralizing more of our systems, that might help. Reduce the efficacy of these tactics and you might be able to starve the beast.
Culturally, I think doing away with hero worship could go a long way towards mitigating Bernays-style influencing. But then, how do you execute on that?
If I could fix just one problem, I wouldn't be upset if it were this one. It's such a sticky mess, though.
By the way, "if then" by Jill Lepore is a great book about how tech translated this approach even in the 60s. (https://scholar.harvard.edu/jlepore/publications/if-then-how...)
I'm curious - do you think it isn't true? I see it every day.
Mass psychology at the beginning of the 20th century thought so, and some research throughout the 70s and 80s continued to do so. Recent works have been less eager to assume a distinct "mass identity", and I'd also be hesitant to assume one exists (beyond corner cases such as mass panics).
Mass marketing as of the style he did had a profound impact on our lives. Even until this very day. But think about this. Why are companies like facebook, google and others hoovering up whatever data they can about you? Because while the 'mass' part works up to a point. If they can also add in targeted information they can add a few % to whatever they want to convert you to. The mass marketing primes you to take in the targeted bits. It is quite a clever manipulation.
I suppose my point is: you're implying FB is converting you to a behavior (FB retains agency in the action), but I'm more curious on whether they're "just" helping that behavior cascade through a cohort (the 3rd party advertiser retains agency in the action since they're designing the ads and expecting a return.) I suppose that if it did exist, this distinction probably gets blurred a bunch in reality (sometimes FB themselves might really want you to convert! e.g. antitrust or whatever)
Lets say I want you to buy my product XYZ. Run an advert campaign talking about some issue, that XYZ just happens to solve. But do not mention XYZ at all. Now that may seem counter intuitive. But it is priming you. Now I make sure I have that splattered everywhere. Get different groups arguing about it? Even better. I now get my product into the hands of someone who is considered an authority (4 out of 5 doctors agree) or popular in some way. Get them to talk it up. By itself that is meaningless. However now my 3rd set of ADs can combine the two. Our brains will not connect the two but the 3rd ad puts it together for us. XYZ fixes 'problem'. We are primed to see the connection and conclusion for us.
FB and google have their cohort groups. They can help build all 3 parts of that campaign for you. Making sure you target the correct set of people at each stage and not waste advertising dollars. This is especially important in the first two parts. The third part if you do it right will bleed over into others as the final targeted group will talk it up for you.