The extent to which propaganda shapes the progress of affairs about us may surprise even well informed persons.
Ideas rule the world.
If you can sell your idea to a large group of people, you can become rich, you can get elected, you can remove your enemies from positions of power.
I used to think that power came from soldiers, missiles, and tanks, but I was wrong. Power comes from the ability to convince a friend—or maybe a nation—that something is good and something else is evil. All the major forces around us are ideas. Democracy is an idea, so is racism.
Powerful people know where their power comes from, and their priority is ideological warfare.
There is a war going on right now to place specific thoughts inside your head. It is fought by anyone with the motive and resources to change public opinion. It is being fought by political parties, governments, dictators, corporations, terror organizations, intelligence agencies.
The weapon for fighting this war of information is called propaganda.
Golden Age of Propaganda
Propaganda is nothing new; it has always been a part of society.
Everybody loves a good story and all good propaganda is essentially that—a story. There will be monsters and a saviour. A group of people will be blamed for all your troubles and there will be someone who can save you.
In the past, this story was spread through posters, speeches, and films. Today, however, we find propaganda online.
The internet has made our lives better in so many ways. Ironically, it is now being used as a tool for spreading disinformation. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, blogs, discussion boards, newspaper sites are all full of propaganda.
As it gets tougher every day to tell fact from propaganda, it’s time to expose the tricks that are being used on us.
The art of propaganda lies in understanding the emotional ideas of the great masses.
We like to think of ourselves as perfectly rational and reasonable, but are we really?
The propagandist knows that people are emotional creatures, who can be ruled through emotional persuasion. Consequently, his first task is to attach our emotions to his cause. It will then be child’s play to manipulate us into acting irrationally.
No political party wants supporters who rationally analyse the actions of the party. Instead, they want supporters who are emotionally invested. The most valuable supporter, therefore, is someone who has made the political party a part of his identity.
Emotional persuasion uses communication to form opinions rather than increase knowledge. Its arguments rely heavily on exploiting logical fallacies and cognitive biases.
A logical fallacy is a sneaky error in reasoning. The propagandist loves fooling us with his flawed logic, and his favourite fallacy, by far, is ad hominem. That’s when he attacks the character of his opponent, instead of attacking his opponent’s argument. The result is political discourse filled with name-calling and ridicule.
Cognitive biases are errors in how our brains interpret information. One such bias is the confirmation bias, which is the desire we all have to protect our existing beliefs. The result is that we end up sharing stories on social media that support our views—even if they are fake news.
Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Everyone falls for fake news. (I know I have.)
We are talking about stories that are completely false but packaged to look like credible news. This is an organized activity that employs thousands of people and is well funded. The authors of fake news are experts in digital marketing, who have studied our psychographic characteristics and know how to make a topic go viral.
Disinformation goes by several names. The US military calls it psychological operations. The Russians call it active measures. The media calls it fake news. You can even call it digital deception or, simply, lies.
The first step is to look for cracks in society that can be exploited. These social divisions will then be emphasised by mixing truth with lies—Outrageous lies seem to work the best. The truth will bring the credibility and the lies the virality. (The social media expert Claire Wardle explains that a news channel that does quality journalism 80% of the time, can effectively hide 20% fake news.)
In the next step, the propagandist would ‘conceal his hand’. In the days of the KGB, this concealment was done by bribing journalists to publish fake stories, notes NYT. Today, the propagandist would instead rely on social media: Fake news, rumours, and conspiracy theories to support his ideology will be released into the wild of the world wide web by thousands of coordinated social media accounts, seemingly unrelated to the propagandist.
Experts would be paid or coerced to support the campaign—these biased experts would be projected to be independent experts in interviews. The campaign may even be supported by useful idiots—influential individuals who genuinely believe the propaganda to be true and support it enthusiastically.
The more a fake story is repeated, the more it starts to seem real to us. Accordingly, a massive amount of fake news is created and is repeated over and over. In The Crowd, the polymath Gustave Le Bon describes the awesome power of repetition:
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. . . . 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.
If a section of the population is brainwashed into believing ‘2 + 2 = 5’, it would be the death of democracy. Because a democracy ‘can’t function unless we all agree on a basic set of facts’, says NYT. ‘We can’t debate anything . . . unless we are aligned—left and right—about what is actually true’.
The final step, for the propagandist, is to be patient. Ideological subversion takes immense resources and time.
The propagandist won’t wield just a handful of social media accounts to spread disinformation, but tens of thousands. The people who argued with you in the comments section could have been paid trolls. The story that outraged you might have been fake news. And the tweet with a hundred retweets was probably just the work of bots.
The propagandist realises that to orchestrate maleficent social change, he would need to steadily poison society for decades.
Denial of Truth
Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.
Welcome to the nightmarish land of post-truth politics, where the denial of truth is an acceptable political strategy.
A leader can boldly claim ‘2 + 2 = 5’ on TV and get away with it. He can insist that climate change doesn’t exist, violence is justified, and discriminatory laws are fair.
We are required to believe that the truth is unpatriotic—or worse, irrelevant. In return, we are offered a flood of half-truths, contradictions, paradoxes, misdirection, exaggeration, and bias.
Any inconvenient fact can simply be denied. There are familiar tricks for doing so: The propagandist can simply pretend to not understand an uncomfortable question, give a vague response, or go off on a tangent.
Post-truth politics is creating a society where people believe that truth—concrete, measurable, and absolute— doesn’t exist at all. A society where a point of view matters more than reality, where we talk of ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth’.
And this would be the ultimate victory for the propagandist. He would have convinced us that truth itself is a lie. In other words, rational political discourse would be out of the question.
Fight Against Propaganda
We cannot hope for all propaganda to go away, because that will never happen. Propaganda is found in all societies, all over the world.
At the same time, healthy societies aren’t built on a foundation of disinformation and lies. We have to ensure that the ideas in our heads match reality. That’s the only way to know which policy is in our best interest and which isn’t.
The fight against propaganda is not a mass movement, but an individual one. You need to take responsibility for what you believe, and everybody else needs to do it too.
Let’s start by realising that language can, and has been, weaponized. Can you identify the hidden bias in the articles that you read?
And the next time you feel like sharing something on social media, pause for a moment. Have you read the story or just the headline? Are you sharing it because you believe it is true or merely because it supports your beliefs?
Disinformation is only effective if we react to it. If we ignore it, it will die a swift and lonely death.
Insist on verified news, not breaking news. There is no point being the first to report a story that is fake.
The final step in the fight against propaganda is the hardest. You need to look closely at your own opinions and ask yourself, ‘Where do these opinions come from?’ There are only two possible sources: reality or propaganda.
Over to You
Congratulations! By becoming aware of these manipulative techniques, you have already joined the fight against propaganda.
1. Here, I have skipped one of the steps from the KGB’s strategy: ‘Deny everything’. I have, instead, given the denial of truth an entire section of its own.^