Propaganda vs. Disinformation vs. News

In his book Warriors of Disinformation, Alvin Snyder notes that, back in the 1980s, new developments in broadcast technology were making it difficult for Soviet and Warsaw Pact authorities to control the flow of information into their respective countries:

“The increasing accessibility of images, ideas, and information, facilitated by the rapid development and deployment of communications technology, presented closed societies with a Fustian bargain. On one hand, the new technology provided totalitarian governments with a new tool with which to control and manipulate public opinion, on an unprecedented scale. On the other, using the new technology meant those same governments would be subjected to greater domestic and international scrutiny, reducing their ability to control what their citizens saw and heard.”

These leaders knew that information coming from the outside world would clash with their own version of events and they were worried that the government-controlled media would lose its credibility if citizens were allowed to see and hear other opinions. They made it illegal to own things like satellite dishes and they jammed communication signals coming from across their borders. Meanwhile, the U.S. Government expanded its programs through the U.S. Information Agency’s Voice of America (VOA) and WORLDNET Television network and built ever more powerful radio and TV stations to broadcast American propaganda throughout the region. It was an arms race of sorts, only with the deployment of lies and exaggerated versions of the truth instead of tanks and missiles.

Although the Cold War is over, propaganda – officially defined as ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause – is still big business. BP tripled its advertising budget during this summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to minimize the damage to its reputation. Estimated spending on advertising during the U.S. mid-terms topped $3 Billion as politicians fought to determine the outcome of the election. Lobbyists, non-profits, think tanks, and grassroots organizations all try to use propaganda to influence public opinion on any manner of topics — from tavern legislation to global warming.

In fact, propaganda is so pervasive in today’s culture that most people now assume that there is some level of bias behind almost every statement … even the straight presentation of facts. This loss of credibilty has been particularly damaging to traditional sources of information because they must now compete for attention with alternative media sources that are not bound by journalistic standards. In a world where accuracy of reporting must be balanced with speed of dissemination, the introduction of the Internet and modern social networks makes it much easier for false statements to spread unchecked.

The University of Wisconsin’s Center for Journalism Ethics sums up the issue facing journalists as follows:

“One of the greatest benefits of online journalism is its ability to reach millions of people almost instantaneously. But the pressure to keep news current — online within minutes of an event’s occurrence — can jeopardize the accurate reportingof even the most ethically-conscious journalist. Furthermore, the proliferation of news outlets — bloggers by the millions, of course, but also cable television, satellite television, web sites, and web broadcasts — has resulted in a multi-media race to get ‘the’ story 24 hours a day. As the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners.”

A prime example of this occurred recently when an unsubstantiated rumor about the cost of President Obama’s trip to Asia took hold in the blogosphere and then migrated to the talk show circuit and, finally, politicians eager to score some points with their constituents. It took an unusual stand by CNN’s Anderson Cooper to actually trace the rumor back to its source and call the whole charade into question. This neglect of basic fact-checking by pundits and major media outlets skirts dangerously close to disinformation — the deliberate spread of false information in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

Thomas Freidman responded:

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

I think it’s refreshing that Freidman places the onus of determining the validity of these rumors on the people receiving the information. Think of how futile it would be for any authority to try and block these sources. It would be similar to the Soviet government’s attempts to insulate its citizens during the Cold War. The challenge for our society than becomes: how do people prepare themselves to handle this influx of facts, opinions and outright fabrications?

The American Historical Association has published a great series of G.I. pamphlets that were originally prepared under the direction of the Army’s Division of Information and Education to help increase the effectiveness of American soldiers during and after World War II. One pamphlet deals directly with propaganda and tackles the concepts of “good” and “bad” propaganda as well as the difference between propaganda and news. This document also lays out the division of responsibility for interpreting information:

“The journalist of today has a responsibility to report facts as accurately, objectively, and disinterestedly as is humanly possible. The newspaperman who respects himself and his work — the average newspaperman — accepts this responsibility. The honest, self-disciplined, well-trained reporter seeks to be a propagandist for nothing but the truth.

“Of course propaganda does bet into the press. Sometimes it is presented in the guise of impartial fact because the newspaperman is not sufficiently trained — or smart enough — to recognize it for what it is. Sometimes the newspaper is a conscious propagandist — in news and headlines both. And sometimes propaganda is so obviously news, and so obviously a matter of importance to the newspaper’s readers, that the paper presents it knowing that the readers themselves will recognize it for what it is and evaluate it for themselves.

“All this imposes a responsibility upon the newspaper reader, and it is with him that the responsibility of judgment ultimately should and does lie. The good newspaperman does his best to confirm the news, to weed out propaganda that isn’t news, and to present whatever propaganda the citizenry ought to know about. Having done that, he leaves it up to the reader for evaluation and criticism. He knows that the critical reader — one decently supplied with facts and having some knowledge of propaganda methods and purposes — can do his own job of separating the wheat from the straw, the important from the unimportant. That is the citizen’s responsibility and his privilege in a democratic society.”

In other words, you are your own filter and you need to develop the skills and skeptical attitude that can help you cut through the BS. The GI pamphlet suggests a few simple questions that the “thinking citizen” can ask themselves when they see or hear a piece of information:

  1. Is it really propaganda? Is some individual or group consciously trying to influence opinion and action? Who? For what purpose?
  2. Is it true? Does a comparison of independent reports show that the facts are accurate? Does such a comparison show that the suggestions made are soundly based?
  3. Which fact or set of facts in a piece of promotion are really important and relevant? Which are irrelevant?
  4. If some individual or group is trying to influence opinion and action, is the effort selfish or is it unselfish? Will action resulting from the propaganda benefit the individual or group responsible for it? Or will it benefit those who act upon the suggestion given in the propaganda? Or will it benefit both?
  5. What is likely to be the effect of the action or of the opinion that the propaganda is trying to set in motion?

They also added:

All these points boil down to some very simple questions: What is the source of the propaganda? What is its authority? What purposes prompted it? Whom will it benefit? What does it really say?

This is timeless advice … maybe we should develop an advertising campaign to support the development of this skill.

Further Reading:

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