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If we look at some of the biggest issues and campaigns of recent years—national-level elections, the Brexit vote, even debate around coronavirus restrictions—there is one constant element they all share: the presence of political propaganda. Driven by a changing media landscape and the rise of social media, political propaganda has never been more used. And that’s very bad news for democracy because political propaganda isn’t just inflammatory rhetoric aimed at weakening a political foe. It’s a much larger force that is intended to increase fear and anxiety and divide society against itself.
What is political propaganda?
Political propaganda is false information that is distributed to cause harm and advance a political cause. If you’ve read our previous article on misinformation and disinformation, you already have a pretty good idea of what propaganda is, because it is a form of disinformation. That is, it is false or misleading information that is deliberately shared to skew people’s understanding of an issue and advance a cause, in this case a political cause.
Misinformation, which is false information that is shared without the deliberate attempt to mislead—that is, the person sharing the information does not know it is false—is protected free speech. But disinformation, which can have severe negative effects on our democratic processes, may not be free speech. So propaganda, as a form of disinformation, is not protected speech.
What is political propaganda today? How did it change?
Political propaganda is nothing new. Governments have spread propaganda to advance a political cause since ancient times. More than 2,000 years ago, Octavian ran a harsh propaganda campaign to destroy his rival Mark Anthony and become emperor of Rome.
The biggest difference in today’s political propaganda is not necessarily in the material itself, but in its reach. Thanks largely to the internet and social media, but also to a media sector driven by sensationalist reporting (solely because it is profitable), political propaganda can reach more people faster and far more easily than ever before.
Some governments that regularly use propaganda, like the Orbán regime in Hungary, have taken control of state and private media outlets, so they are able to pump their political propaganda through these outlets, giving it a false sheen of legitimacy. But we’ve seen that you don’t need the media behind you to do this. Donald Trump used social media and the help of only a select few friendly media groups, like Fox News, to spread his propaganda. The mainstream media did play a role, though, picking up on the disinformation and sharing it. Even when this is done to invite criticism of his messages, the simple act of sharing them helps them spread, regardless of the context.
But political propaganda is not just a tool to mislead people. A key element of propaganda is that it sows distrust, confusing people about what to believe and what not to believe. In the medium and long term, this causes many people to tune out of political debate altogether because it becomes too hard to figure out what information should be believed and who should be trusted.
When this is coupled with the declining state of independent media in so many countries, it means that people have a much more difficult time getting good and accurate reporting. News aggregators like Google and Facebook have squeezed the revenue streams of independent outlets, so they have to piggyback on the reporting of other outlets. Taken together, what this leaves is a citizenry not knowing who to trust and propagandist media looking more similar to good quality media on the internet.
Political propaganda techniques with examples
Political propaganda tends to be fear-based, stoking uncertainty and unease in its audience. The current governments of Poland and Hungary use political propaganda to tell its people who to be afraid of and create an “us vs. them” narrative. Migrants, the LGBTQI community, human rights and environmental groups, even the EU itself are all portrayed as evil outsiders wishing to do harm to the country, and the government is cast as the protector of the people. This is similar to how propaganda’s been used throughout the last century, from the Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to today.
Political propaganda tends to target the fears and anxiety that most people view as fundamental. When people are in fear for their religion, personal security, traditions or economic security, they tend to be highly motivated to vote for those they perceive as protecting their way of life. Over time, this will shift the populace toward supporting authoritarian tendencies, as they are deceived into believing these threats and are then willing to trade some of their own rights and freedoms to help the government defend the country from these contrived threats.
Another key, if related, element of propaganda is that it is often sensationalist. The “threats” from the “outsiders” that propagandists manufacture tend to be intentionally extreme in order to provoke anxiety. The idea that the presence of a gay couple in your neighborhood could tear it apart and destroy your life is absurd. But when it’s couched in the right way, disseminated widely by friendly media and social media, and not effectively rebutted in a way people can hear and understand, it can become quite easy to believe.
There are a few tried-and-true techniques that political propagandists use in order to make their propaganda more believable and better supported. They are:
-Bandwagon technique: Political propaganda cannot be successful unless it’s believed, and so it’s critically important that propagandists’ material isn’t seen as some weird, minority-held conspiracy theory. The bandwagon technique helps—propagandists suggest that their position is supported by the majority, and so the reader should support it too. Basically, it’s a rationale along the lines of, “everyone is voting for this candidate, so he/she is the best candidate.” The name of the technique refers to the term “to jump on the bandwagon,” which means to support something or someone simply because others do.
-Fear technique: Also known as “appeal to fear,” the fear technique is perhaps the most common form of propaganda and the one described above. By making people afraid of the alternative, they naturally tend to support your position. It’s actually a logical fallacy. The argument propagandists are making is this: “Either A or B is true. B is scary. Therefore, A is true.”
-The big lie technique: By repeating a certain narrative over and over, it becomes easier and easier to believe. If propagandists can convince people to believe a certain “big lie” they can use this support to justify further action. The “stabbed in the back” narrative that proliferated in Germany after the First World War gave air to the Nazi Party and helped it take power. Today, Trump’s supporters have pushed their own big lie about the 2020 election being stolen, and this was then used to justify the January 6th insurrection.
How does political propaganda use social media?
The rise of social media has been a boon to political propaganda. They use these platforms as an alternative outlet to traditional news media because it is free, easy, and allows them to reach certain segments of the population that the propagandist believes will be predisposed to supporting their propaganda. There are also techniques within social media that help, such as the use of fake accounts or troll farms to help spread their message or lend it credibility.
Another reason that political propaganda is so prevalent on social media platforms has to do with the latter’s business model. The more sensationalist a post is, the more likely it is to be read and shared by others. This drives revenue to the platform at the same time that it helps spread the propaganda. So it’s fair to say that social media companies have been complicit in the growth and spread of political propaganda.
How can you spot and resist political propaganda?
Increasing people’s media literacy, making them more aware of the process that leads to the news they consume and informing them of its sources, is a good way to help people spot political propaganda. So too is fact-checking and flagging articles or social media posts that may not be credible. But these things can only do so much. People tend to seek out information that conforms to, and therefore validates, their own views. This means they are likely to be less trustworthy of “fact-checkers” and other voices that cast doubt on the political propaganda. The aforementioned things are also time consuming, and using algorithms to identify and flag political propaganda will just lead to a lot of free speech being banned as well.
So the best thing we can do is to change the environmental factors that allow propaganda to flourish and reach people who may be susceptible to it. Properly enforcing data protection rules would help because it would prevent social media companies from providing micro-targeted advertising adapted to the way an individual thinks. Changing the way that algorithms promote content would help too. Instead of pushing people toward “popular” but sensationalist stories, social media companies could just promote content that fit with interests users have disclosed to them voluntarily.
Fixing the financial model for quality private media would help increase the quality of reporting, which could increase trust and make good outlets easier to recognize. That means shifting money back from aggregators to outlets, perhaps by reforming the tax code. Having good quality, well-resourced and independent public broadcasters also helps because it makes private media work harder to compete with them, and increases the likelihood people will consume quality, factual news. And an important part of all of this is having independent regulatory bodies to make sure that outlets adhere to high standards of reporting.
Ultimately, a strong media means a strong democracy, and this is something that should enjoy broad public support. But in order to create that, political propaganda has to be countered in a way that can reach people and that those people can understand and identify with.
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