Information, Misinformation and Disinformation
Editor’s Note: This article was posted before the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. Unfortunately, collusion, corruption and technology have taken the art and science of propaganda to new heights.
Propaganda and censorship are nothing new, but the art, science and motives have evolved tremendously in the past decade. Freedom of speech and democracy aren’t what they used to be.
Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause, position or movement. During the 20th century, there was plenty of public discourse about propaganda. Unfortunately, in recent years, the study of propaganda has diminished in many educational settings. Meanwhile, we’re surrounded by more messages than ever with near-constant exposure to advertising, news, and mobile media. With so many messages coming from so many forms and channels, it’s difficult to recognize the various forms of propaganda.
“Propaganda is a form of information that panders to our insecurities and anxieties,” Jacques Ellul
“Propaganda is indifferent to truth and truthfulness, knowledge and understanding; it is a form of strategic communication that uses any means to accomplish its ends,” Walter Cunningham.
“Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist,” said Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell.
Propaganda is a form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels,” Richard Alan Nelson
“Propaganda is intentionally-designed communication that invites us to respond emotionally, immediately, and in a either-or manner,” said Neil Postman.
Everyone participates in the process of persuasion. But the term propaganda is generally used when someone is aiming to reach a large group of people, not just a few.
As an activist, you may have created propaganda yourself. People who create propaganda have a specific goal and design a communication message that is intended to circulate among a large group of people and create a reaction. Propaganda involves reinforcing existing beliefs, changing perceptions, activating an emotional response or provoking a behavior.
Today, social media makes it easy for ordinary individuals to create and disseminate propaganda. Of course, communication is always oriented to a specific goal or purpose, as people use symbols to build relationships, convey information, entertain, inspire or teach. But the propagandist does not aim to encourage deliberation or reflection. The propagandist does not encourage independent judgment by presenting a variety of viewpoints and allowing the audience to determine which perspective is correct. Instead, the propagandist uses facts and information selectively, transmitting only those ideas that help accomplish the goal.
Today, propaganda is everywhere – in news, information, advertising and entertainment. Much of it is driven by politics and our governments are part of the equation.
Today people might feel overwhelmed by all the media in our lives, which can lead to a “tuning-out” phenomenon where we are exposed to propaganda but do not actively recognize how it is influencing our emotions, attitudes, knowledge and behavior. Critical thinking about propaganda and understanding propaganda’s intent are crucial responsibilities of citizenship in the twenty-first century. Entering into a discussion about contemporary propaganda invites us to think about the power of communication and our responsibilities as authors and audiences. It raises questions about the use and potential impact of new media and technologies.
Propaganda is not the same as brainwashing or mind control. These terms refer to psychological tactics, sometimes used in warfare, that are designed to subvert an individual’s sense of control over their own thinking. Brainwashing usually requires isolation of the individual from his or her social group. By contrast, propaganda is often so ordinary that it becomes enmeshed with “common sense.”
Although propaganda sometimes involves deception, most forms of propaganda use well-verified, factual information. Propagandists may use partially true or incomplete information that comes from a source that looks authentic, but is controlled by sources that are disguised. These disguises come in many forms. Businesses often provide funding to sources (like researchers and other professional communicators) to create information and transmit messages that align directly with their interests and goals. For example, in 2014, the government of Norway paid $5 million to a nonprofit organization to produce information designed to influence top officials in the White House. Online, the term sock puppet refers to the use of online sources that are specifically created to praise, defend or support a person or organization. When such efforts mislead the public, they can be called propaganda.
Propaganda plays on human emotions—fear, hope, anger, frustration, sympathy—to direct audiences toward the desired goal. In the deepest sense, propaganda is a mind game — the skillful propagandist exploits people’s fears and prejudices. Successful propagandists understand how to psychologically tailor messages to people’s emotions in order to create a sense of excitement and arousal that suppresses critical thinking.
Effective propaganda conveys messages, themes, and language that appeal directly, and many times exclusively, to specific and distinct groups within a population. Propagandists may appeal to you as a member of a family, or your racial or ethnic identity, or even your hobbies, your favorite celebrities, your beliefs and values, or even your personal aspirations and hopes for the future.
Propaganda may use accurate and truthful information, or half-truths, opinions, lies and falsehoods. Successful propaganda tells simple stories that are familiar and trusted, often using metaphors, imagery and repetition to make them seem natural or “true.”
Propaganda can serve as a form of political and social warfare to identify and vilify opponents. It can call into question the legitimacy, credibility, accuracy, and even the character of one’s opponents and their ideas.
Propaganda can be found in news and journalism, advertising and public relations, and education – and in all aspects of daily life. It is present in information from government, business, religious and non-profit organizations, and in many forms of entertainment including music, TV shows, movies, video games and social media, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
- Journalism and Public Relations: Public relations is the term used for communication professionals who seek to shape perceptions and influence public opinion on behalf of a business client. In the U.S., there are four public relations professionals for every working journalist. PR people feed journalists based on their agenda. They may aim to get information and positive opinions about a business into the news media by using events, video news releases, blogging, newsletters, policy documents, and social media. In general, people are not aware of how public relations efforts have shaped the content of newspaper articles, blog posts or other online information.
- Advertising: There is a big difference between advertising and propaganda. Advertising supports sales and marketing goals. For example, McDonald’s spent $998 million to buy advertising placements in television, outdoor advertising, radio and magazines in 2013. Advertisers want to generate increased consumption of their commercial products and services by using a variety of forms of mass media and digital media to persuade readers, viewers, users or listeners. The public is generally aware of advertising and recognizes its purpose. Many forms of free mass media, including broadcast television, radio and search engines depend on selling advertising, which enables businesses to sell products and services.
- Government: Throughout the 20th century, the United States has generated war propaganda by defining battles as conflicts between good and evil. Propaganda is also used to help improve public health. You may be familiar with public service announcements (PSAs) that aim to alter your behavior. For example, when researchers found that college students overestimated how many of their peers were involved in binge drinking, they designed messages that showed that binge drinking is not as common as many people think. By reshaping perceptions of social norms, the campaign had a beneficial impact in helping lower the rate of binge drinking among college students.
- Education: From kindergarten to college, some forms of education are explicitly designed to lead people to accept a particular world view. Education can be a form of indoctrination when certain doctrines, ideas, information, values and beliefs are not permitted to be questioned. Propaganda enters the classroom in many ways. Many businesses and technology companies provide curriculum materials to educators which are explicitly designed to promote a particular point of view. For example, Monsanto and other biotechnology firms provide videos, lesson plans and other materials for science teachers. In Illinois, a state law mandates that schools promote a positive image for coal mining.
- Entertainment: Some stories are just entertainment, but many stories are also a form of propaganda. Stories offer ideas and information about good and evil, right and wrong, thus embedding values and ideology into narrative form. For example, as early as the 1930s, Warner Bros. movies offered stories that interpreted contemporary life by presenting a specific point of view on current events, often indirectly through the lens of history. In many American movies and video games, violence is depicted as justified and morally courageous, which is a value message that is generally not questioned in society. Another way that propaganda is embedded in entertainment is through native advertising or sponsored content, where a company’s view is presented as a form of entertainment. In 2014, the restaurant chain Chipotle launched an online comedy series about the agriculture industry on Hulu. Using comedy, the show reflected the company’s values about sustainable agriculture and the humane treatment of animals used for meat.
- Advocacy: People who are trying to improve society or create social change use propaganda to influence public opinion. Activists try to promote social, political, economic or environmental change through using communication activities and public events that attract attention and influence people’s knowledge, attitudes and opinions.
Fake news isn’t anything new. Neither is censorship. With social media engineering, however, the national conversation can now spin on a dime. Sometimes the information is accurate and sometimes it isn’t.
One day, NFL players are kneeling in defense of innocent, unarmed American citizens who have been killed by corrupt police officers and the departments that defend their own interests instead of the communities that they serve. The next day, the corrupt machine paints these brave citizens as traitors for exercising their First Amendment rights to defend their fellow Americans. Thousands of soldiers have died defending our constitution and our citizens. But athletes who fight the same battle domestically are demonized?
The fascists are framing their accusers of being unpatriotic and disrespectful to the flag and our veterans. Remember, this is the corrupt machine that kills veterans while they are denied care at the VA hospitals (no one has been prosecuted). This is the corrupt machine that has abandoned our veterans on the streets of America where they are homeless and suicidal. In fact, more than 20 of our war veterans commit suicide every day because they have been left behind. The corrupt machine has become more brazen than ever with one of the great propaganda ploys of all time. These wars to nowhere have blinded politicians, corporations and many individuals with wealth. Meanwhile, we all have been encouraged to lose sight of the truth and our compasses as our nation and our planet spin out of control. Answers begin with the truth and it’s up to all of us to cut through the smoke and mirrors before it’s too late. Our nation is just a few months from bankruptcy at all times. Bankruptcy is the greatest threat to our constitution, nation and citizens. It’s obvious that we can’t trust our politicians to do the right thing anymore.