DEFINITION AND MAIN CHARACTERISTIC OF PROPAGANDA
“Propaganda”, as used in this article, is defined as purposeful lying—by omission, misdirection, or flat out not telling the truth—that plays to our fears and hopes so as to motivate us to take some action that the propagandist wants us to take.
The main characteristic of propaganda is its slick and blatant manipulation of our emotions and feelings targeting some group, individual or issue. Effective propaganda is designed to shut down our critical thinking abilities and drive us to action based on our feelings, our fears, and/or our wants. It’s usually very negative in tone, but occasionally can be positive. We all too readily rely solely on media outlets or Web blogs for information to help form our opinions on. We all, too often, don’t question the information being provided. Propaganda obscures The Truth by playing on this.
Propaganda is common in advertising, religion, politics, and the media. And It appears in many forms, such as the written word, the spoken word, and video. It’s everywhere. And if you’re not aware of this, you’re probably being subtly influenced into believing in, and taking action for, causes or people you’d otherwise not be associated with …if you had all the facts presented neutrally.
HOW CAN YOU DISCOVER “THE TRUTH”
You can’t very easily. To get the best “read” on what’s fact and what’s not, you have to do some work. You’ll need to search out primary sources (e.g., data reports, independent assessments, etc.). If you can get numbers from sources that just collect data and have no agenda (e.g., U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census.gov, U.S. Bureau of Economic Statistics, etc.), then do so.
Seek out other sources, not just US ones, for your US news. The ones I recommend are overseas news outlets such as the BBC (Great Britain), Reuters (Great Britain), the Sidney Morning Herald (Australia), the Korean Times (S. Korea), and Deutsche Presse-Agentur aka DPA (Germany). See what they’re saying. Typically, their journalistic approach is less biased than the media in the U.S; they tend to be old-style, “just-the-facts” reporting.
To get context and perspective on an issue, check sites with obvious biases on all sides of the issue and then go looking for the “primary source” information that supports their viewpoint(s). A good way to go about this is to use the polurls.com web page; it lists, conservative, moderate, and liberal biased we pages with links. Also use Poynter.com, Fullfact.org, Politifact.com and PolitifactBias.com.
Keep in mind at all times: what you see, read, and hear is not necessarily the truth; and that people who take the opposite stance from yours are NOT dumb or evil. They may not be critically thinking, and may have been sucked into believing the propaganda; they’ve been fed. All webs sites are biased,: some are propagandistic. All blogs are biased; some are propagandistic. Some media outlets tend to be propaganda promoters; TV outlets like Fox News, MSN, etc. Usually, I stick with the big 3 networks: ABC, NBC, CBS, for TV news. They tend to lie in the middle as far as political bias is concerned.
Talk to friends and acquaintances with varying views on the subject. Ask them where they get their information; this will sometimes lead you to good sources of information that will help. Don’t argue with them. Don’t fight with them. Learn to listen so you can research what they know that you don’t. Listen to them to find out what other possible perspectives (Frames) might be operating that lend new insights to what you’re investigating. Ask questions to clarify what you think you’re hearing.
Remember, every person is an individual, not a clone in a group. Any attempt at lumping them into groups is artificial. All Republicans aren’t the same. All Democrats aren’t the same. All Christians aren’t the same. All Atheists aren’t the same. Any attempt to lump them together for purposes of heightening your anger and frustration toward them is a clear sign of propaganda at work. Don’t succumb to it.
To counter propaganda, you have to think critically and doubt everything you hear and read until you can find data that provides you with some indication of what the Truth might be. It’s critically important to explore alternative perspectives of each issue so that you understand how many different interpretations (explanations) of what you hear and read there can be. The Truth lies somewhere in that collection.
HOW DO YOU DETECT PROPAGANDA?
First, you have to recognize the strategies they use.
Campaign Strategy of the Propagandist
The campaign strategy of the propagandist follows all or some of the following sequence of tactics–
- Draw attention
- Prime the audience so they’re receptive. Establish a favorable environment. Use special effects to impact the audience positively (e.g., music, art, sounds other than music, glitz, etc.)
- Make the presenter appear likable and authoritative.
- Control The Frame. Focus the target audience’s attention. State the case—controlling the information presented so it favors the agenda being pushed
- Arouse, capture and manipulate the emotions of the the target audience: play on fears. Employ stereotypes and use evocative, disparaging labels to denigrate the target(s) of the agenda.
- Use false information if need be; repeat often to make that information seem “true”. The information only has to seem credible.to work; it does not have to be the truth.
- Employ fallacies to misdirect the reader and shut down critical thinking
- Employ pseudo-science to back up the case; lie with statistics to support the agenda
- Motivate the target audience to act, controlling and limiting the apparent options to those actions which support the agenda
Second, ask the following questions:
- Does the communication get you thinking about both sides of an issue? Or is the presentation one-sided?
- How does the communication play on your emotions? Do you feel worried and angry as you read, hear, or view it? Do those feelings increase as you read the article or listen to the presentation?
- What purpose does this article or presentation serve? Is it designed to make you feel “superior” to some named group? Does it play on stereotypes and prejudice? Or is it motivating you to think about the details and nuances of an issue?
- Does the communication imply that you’re dumb if you don’t agree with the stance presented?
- Is the communication, loaded with adjectives, adverbs, similes, metaphors, etc., used to paint a target group as people to loath or the target group’s agenda as something “evil” or “warped” in some sense?
Propaganda is designed to shut down critical, fair and balanced thinking. It generates feelings of dislike, fear, hatred, and worry. It plays to our need to feel like we’re a part of something greater than ourselves. It provides overly simplistic solutions to problems that are very complex.. It’s flush with colorful, flamboyant adjectives, adverbs, similes, and metaphors and with strongly evocative nouns and verbs.
Fair persuasion, on the other hand, attempts to push one side, or a comparison-contrast of both sides of an argument in an attempt to get us to think or do something, but it does not lie, play on worries or fears, or target any person or group. It shows advantages that outweigh disadvantages to sell or convince us to do something. It often comes across as somewhat bland writing (e.g., lacking descriptive adjectives, adverbs, similes and metaphors).
Third, read the article or listen to the presentation first, then dissect it:
- Look at the Headline. Is it provocative, inciting? Does it have one or more exclamation points? Does it look like Internet “click-bait”? Some examples of headlines that may be telltales of a possible biased and, propagandistic presentation are:
- The Truth About _________
- What ____ don't want you to know
- What ________ don’t want you to know (fill in the blank with a nebulous "They" or the name of the target or target group)
- What _________ believe
- They're trying to take _____
- _____'s secret agenda
- ___'s Dirty Little Secret
- ____ is a farce
- The Raw Truth About _______
- Look at “The Frame” of the article or presentation. The Frame is what you’re supposed to pay attention to; it sets what you pay attention to and what you—without thinking—ignore. What is its main focus? What issues and facts does that Frame ignore? Identifying The Frame will put the article/presentation in context
- Look at the tone of the article. Is it sarcastic? Snarky? Belittling? Poking fun? If it's any of these, and not satire coming from a site like The Onion, it has a high probability of being propaganda
- Is the article or presentation trying to impart info neutrally . . . or is it attempting to influence your feelings, opinions?
- Does the article make you feel angry or resentful?
- Does the article play on your fears?
- Have you or some other reliable source(s) authenticated the "facts" presented in the article?
- Look for an overabundance of evocative adjectives and adverbs. Typically, such an overabundance is designed to manipulate your feelings
- Look for adjectives describing numbers; numbers have no qualities, just dimensions. Differences are only "overwhelming" or "crushing" in the eyes of the person who likes or dislikes the direction of the difference.
- Look for evocative metaphors, similes. These are typically used by the propagandist to influence your attitude and emotions toward or away from something or someone. They over-simplify a complex issue by focusing comparison on what the propagandist needs you to focus on while ignoring other, possibly more important aspects of an issue that would run counter to the his agenda.
- Look for name-calling– tagging a target with evocative names, names that stir up negative feelings in the target audience. Typically such labels have nothing to do with facts. They're used to bias your feelings toward or away from an individual or group without having to provide facts to support those feelings
- Look for lots of loaded/powerful nouns & verbs (e.g., thugs, liars; lying, abusing, etc.)? Any of these words have such heavy "connotative baggage" that they imply that the target "always" or "most of the time” does "something" objectionable. No one is always a liar. No one always does "something".
- Look for stereotyping a group to frame them/ portray them as an implied or explicit enemy. The propagandist typically wants you to think that all members of the targeted group all think the same way. Them vs. us. No group is that homogeneous; their members are not clones of one another.
- For every "they" there's an "us", Check to see if the "us" is an artificial, non-existent group. Take for instance the group "Real Americans". No such group exists. It's a group the propagandist creates and makes you want to belong to . . . with the implication that only those with the beliefs that propagandist is spouting are "Real Americans".
- Look for simplistic, all-or-none, black-and-white, there’s-only-one-right-way-to-do-things logic. There's typically more than one way to do things. Ask what are the other ways?
- Look to see if a “magic bullet” solution is presented (a key phrase that often gives this away: there's only one way to solve this . . . ). There are no magic bullet solutions. Most situations are typically complex and need careful consideration before they're effectively dealt with, and there’s often more than one way to solve a given problem. Magic bullet solutions hide complexity in favor of destroying the target of the propagandist’s agenda.
- Check for one-sided presentation of beliefs, facts and statistics. Every issue has two or more sides. If the presentation or article doesn't represent all positions, it's inherently biased . . . and may be propagandistic.
- Look for severe exaggeration (hyperbole)— It’s designed to grab your attention. It’s designed to make you feel you’re involved in something greater than yourself. It’s targeted at the opposition to make their views seem far out, bizarre, wonky, crazy, etc.
- Look for sarcasm and ridicule. They're signs of a propagandist manipulating your feelings. They're a way to disparage groups or individuals without going near the issues that motivated creating these groups.
- Look for assertions without supportive data. Phrases like “everybody knows that it’s . . . “ are dead giveaways of this. They’re also attempts to make you feel dumb if your disagree with what “everybody knows”.
- Look for “hammering by repetition” to “override” the opposing view(s). Continuous repetition of an assertion does not make it true.
- Look to see if opinion is stated as fact
- Ask yourself: are they avoiding the main argument? Are they sidestepping to some other issue that can be argued more strongly by the author (aka Red Herring argumentation)?
- Look for endorsements from one or more experts who have no actual expertise in the field of focus. If they’re not true experts in the field, they’re no smarter than you are on the issue and their endorsement is nothing more than their opinion.
- Look for celebrity endorsements and "people just like you" narratives. They're unscientific. Psychological research shows that we tend to agree with those who we feel positively towards. This tactic is an attempt to "convince" without having to present any arguments or facts. It wants you to buy into thinking that if so-and-so agrees with something, it must be right instead of checking all the pros and cons of an issue.
- Look for: misapplied attribution–ascribing something said or written to a target who really didn't say or write them. Clearly this is tactic used to destroy the target of the propagandist’s agenda.
- Look for: motivation attribution—stating that someone (the target) thinks a certain way—all of the time—based on one or two instances. If one could read another's mind, you might be able to determine this; but otherwise, it's inference serving the propagandist's purposes. In a statistical sense, this amounts to generalizing from too small a sample.
- Does the article/presentation assert or imply that a vote on a bill indicates acceptance or rejection of the bill’s main thrust? A congressman may have voted for (or against) a bill based on what riders were inserted . . . or based on provisions being too weak or too strong or too scant. In the main, such assertions serve to undermine the Target’s credibility while serving the Propagandist’s agenda
- Question all survey and poll results. Surveys, and particularly straw polls, are some of the weakest forms of research that can be done. When people volunteer to be surveyed or polled, the survey or poll is essentially biased. Anybody can survey. Most cannot do it so it stands scientific scrutiny. Suspect the results of any survey. The best ones give you a “margin of error” figure stated in +/- numbers. Apply that figure to each of the numbers given as results of the survey or poll, and then draw your conclusions. Example: if the poll says 52% for some issue and 48% against with an error of +/- 5%, then the true results are: The number of people for the issue lies between 47% and 57%, and the number against the issue lies between 43% and 53%. This could represent a situation where the actual vote could go either way or actually be tied.
- Look for misdirection using Graphs. Look for:
- Graphs without zero points (Actually trivial differences can be made to look like very large differences with graphs like these)
- Graphs without axes labels (The title and pictorial elements infer a result that serves the propagandist's agenda)
- Biased scaling–graphs with expanded y axes showing small differences as huge
- Cutesy cartoons as graph symbols. Note the nature of them, if they provoke feelings, they may aid the propagandist’s agenda
- Selective time scale (choosing start and ending points that support an argument, when a slightly different set of choices would yield the opposite or different result)
- Look for lying with statistics (See also Statistics Don’t Lie, People Do):
- Be wary of percentages—always look at the raw numbers, excluding percentages Percentages can make small differences seem huge (e.g. 2 is 100% better than.); raw numbers give you a more accurate perspective.
- In articles quoting percentages, reverse them, then reconstruct the sentence. For example,"40% against" reversed is the same as "60% for". Ask yourself how do you react to the article when the percentages are reversed?
- If you see a something is greater or less claim, ask the question "than what?"
- Look for “small sample” causality assertions. Look for narratives or small sample experiment results used to reach a conclusion that's then generalized to a larger population (e.g. Democrats, Americans, Republicans, Women, Millenials, Seniors, et al.). Generally, the rule of thumb, in statistics, has been to require a sample size of 30 or more-and this is important–drawn randomly from the population you want to generalize to.
- Look for correlation inferring causation that serves the propagandist’s agenda. Correlation means there's a possible link. Also, depending upon the strength of the correlation that link might be weak or strong. The degree of correlation is usually reported in a range of 0.00 to 1.00. If the correlation is 0.3, it's weak. If the correlation is 0.9, it's strong. 1.00 is perfect correlation and seldom, if ever, occurs in the real world. A link does not mean there's necessarily any causality at all; it may be just coincidence . . . or it may mean there are one or more causal factors linking both factors.
- Look to see if the presentation attributes to a single person actions that can actually only be done by a group he or she belongs to . . . or doesn't belong to. Typically a single person has no jurisdiction or control over the actions of the group cited (e.g., blaming POTUS for actions that only the House or Senate can legislate).
- Ignore narrative and celebrity endorsements–they're almost always non-scientific, based on small sample size and given by people who have no expertise in the area the propagandist is trying to push.
- Ignore the results of any straw poll, internet poll, or any other poll that is NOT constructed and administered scientifically. Typically, the more scientific polls will have selected their participants randomly and will state a “margin of error” when they announce their results.
- In Medical advertising, look for the words "clinically proven". "Clinically proven" has no precise meaning. It means somebody in a lab did some testing, usually someone employed by the propagandist. “Clinically proven” does NOT mean proven.
- Look to see if the data is "cherry-picked" to support the premise of the article. If the span of time used was increased, or if its starting point was changed, would the result be the same?
- If it's media you're watching, pay attention to the auditory and visual cues used to present an issue. If it's writing you're seeing, look for the visual add-ons associated with the article. Effective manipulation of these are bread-and-butter strategies for the propagandist. Color and music are key factors used to influence your thinking (Psychologists refer to such as "affective conditioning"). Examples of such manipulations are the TV commercials touting various drugs–there's always pleasant surroundings, smiling people. and very pleasant music in the background–while the pitch is made . . . and the possible negative effects are quickly read so you can't easily concentrate on them.
Note that political ads, and commercial advertising are also forms of propaganda, both try to manipulate your "Frame" using many, if not all, of the above tactics.
Finally, Look for “Warning Words and Phrases”.
If an article or presentation contains a large number of the following words and phrases, you can be pretty sure it’s biased and may be propagandistic.:
Look for the following words. They all too often indicate more certitude that data typically warrants:
Look for common, familiar phrases that may indicate a strong negative bias. Ask yourself: who or what is it that directed toward? They’re the “bad guys” as far as the article or presentation is concerned. Phrases like:
- . . . those who . . . (Possible Straw Man attack)
- . . . only your opinion . . . (In response to Facts or logic). . .
- Everyone (or everybody) knows . . . Or We all know . . . (So how does the speaker/writer know this? This is an attempt to make you feel dumb if you don't believe what everyone knows) "we all know" is a variant of this.
- He/she is lying or a liar (Everybody's lied at some time. Usually this term is loosely used and really seems to mean they made an error when saying something, rather than with criminal intent, attempting to mislead. It's an ad Hominem attack designed to besmirch some target's honesty and imply they're not to be trusted)
- Hitler and the Nazis . . .
- Let's Face It (implying that we usually avoid facing it . . . and that what follows it the truth)
- Let's be honest here (implying we're not usually honest . . . and implying that what follows is truly honest)
- There's an epic battle raging between . . . (political propaganda directed toward getting donations)
- it's always been done this way (if used in the sense of "since it's always been done, it seemingly is obvious to anyone with any smarts")
- only those who . . . (attempt at intimidation)
- pungent odor
- thirst for power
- throwing good money after bad . . .
- we (or you) have the "right" to . . .
Look for specific words that may indicate a negative bias. The more of these you find, the stronger the negative bias. Look for words like:
|Crime||Cripple (the verb)||Criticize|
|Disaster, disastrous||Disrupt||Distorts, Distortion|
|Duplicity||Embarrassing||Epic (as in failure)|
|Far Left, Far Right||Fascist||Fear Mongering, Fear Mongering Diatribes|
|Fiction||Forcibly||Holier than thou|
|King, Czar||Lie, Lies, Lying, Obfuscate, Obfuscation||Lose all sense of proportion|
|Mock, mockery||Nuts (the adjective)||Oozing disdain|
|Outrageous||Punish||Puppet, puppet master|
|Short-sighted||Slams or slammed (in the sense of attacking in an overwhelming way amounting to overkill or even wrongly)||Socialist (this one Is a real hot button for some people; all to many of whom don’t know what it actually means. It’s used in such a way as to mean “evil”)|
|Suppress, suppression||Surrender our ____rights||Swaggering|
|Terror, terrorize||(The Left) (The Right) is Freaking Out||Threatens|
|Unrealistic||Weak||Whoppers (in the sense of “big lies”)|
|Woeful, Woefully||Wonk, Wonky||Worse|
|Yapping, Cannot Stop Talking, Yammering|
Look for specific words that may indicate a positive bias. The more of these you find, the stronger the positive bias. Ask yourself: Who or what is thought of so positively? They’re the “good guys” as far as the article or presentation is concerned. Look for words like:
|Coherent||Constitutional||Democratic (except when referring to the Party—then it could be positive or negative depending upon your political stance)|
|Epic (as in success)||Fact||Fair|
|Forthright||Freedom||Genius (as an adjective)|
|Liberty, Liberties||Powerful||Right, Rights|
|Sacred, Holy, Revered, Hallowed||Standup||Stunning|
|Successful||Values||Win, Winning, Winner|
These are just some of the possible words that might be used, there are many others.
Your strongest preliminary indicator of propaganda is the emotional reaction it draws from you. The second is if the presentation shows a lot of the features mentioned above—provocative titles, slanted reporting, misuse of statistics, loaded words/phrases, etc. In short, to not be victimized by propaganda, you have to do exactly what propagandists are hoping to prevent you from doing– you must critically think about all issues, collecting information from sources as unbiased as possible, whenever possible; and questioning everything you hear, see, and read.