Is It Truth, or Propaganda? Part 3
In part 3, we’ll examine some propaganda techniques developed by the Soviet Union (and used very effectively for decades) that are now being adopted by U.S. groups. Leading up to the 2016 election, foreign powers found that social media was the ideal environment through which to anonymously – or disguised as a friend or family member – influence people with disinformation. Be alert to them!
- Watch out for the firehose of propaganda. This is a Russian propaganda technique in which a stream of falsehoods never stops. When one lie is refuted, three more pop up to take its place. It’s like playing “whack-a-mole” with the truth. People eventually become tired and start accepting what they are told.
- A second cousin to the “firehose of propaganda” is rapid fire conspiracy theories. A part of all of us wants to believe in a conspiracy – it’s information that we have that no one else does, we’re special because we know the truth, and we can imagine we are protected with this knowledge. When these theories are shot off rapidly, there’s no time for the truth to respond. As researchers at RAND put it, “Don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth.”
- Be on the lookout for “whatabout-ism”. This could be defined as a counterattack to an argument that points to one situation to refute an entire argument. For example, citing one instance of welfare fraud to say that people on welfare are lazy and dishonest. Or pointing to one incident of violence involving a homeless person to say all homeless people are dangerous.
- Information that suggests a “possibility” is more easily believed than persuading someone on the rightness of a position, which requires critical thinking. That’s why it’s been said that facts don’t influence people. Evaluate these “suggestions” very critically – what are the facts that back them up?
- Be aware of any of these techniques used on social media that spread disinformation. Information can come from someone posing as a friend who communicates false information. Propagandists are online, finding out how people are connected, and using this information to spread falsehoods.
Here’s an example. I got an e-mail from a friend I’ll call Bill; we were in a prayer group together. His e-mail encouraged me to vote in the upcoming election. That was nice; voting is important although he had never mentioned anything about it before. I got several more e-mails from him about voting, and then one that he and his wife had voted in a small town and all the votes came in for a certain candidate, even though the town was equally divided between Democrats and Republicans. He implied that they had used markers for ballots and this was why the count was inaccurate.
Wait a minute. Markers that invalidated ballots was a rumor that was starting to be circulated, without any evidence, implying voting fraud. My friend didn’t live in a small town, and his wife’s name was wrong in the e-mail. It was a plant to convince me that voter fraud was occurring. Had my antenna not been out there, and I been less aware of facts about voting, I might have been taken in.
- Good old-fashioned character assassination is still a highly effective propaganda technique. That is not to say that all accusations of bad behavior are false. Claims should always be backed up by facts and evidence. Slogans are easy to chant; applying the brainpower to find and evaluate facts is much harder.
- Again, in large part due to social media and digital communication, false information spreads like an wildfire in a dry forest. Always, the question should be “where is the evidence?” Here’s an example of one notorious fiction and the damage it did. Some computer geeks in Eastern Europe were looking for a way to make money with internet “clickbait.” They concocted a story about a real pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. that they said was a center for pedophilia, involving a political candidate. This story spread over the world and is still believed by many people. One man actually went into the restaurant with a gun, determined to free the enslaved, abused children he was convinced were hidden there. This is a prime example of how anyone can spread disinformation on the Internet, and not only get away with it, but to financially profit from it.
- If you search for a certain topic online or in social media, you may be inundated with more content and opinions about it. This is how the social media algorithms work. And if people seem angry about something, it pushes more outraged content to them. An example is a woman having a child who was researching information on vaccines for her baby. She was flooded with misinformation on the “dangers” of the COVID vaccine. So, it’s important to take in all the information we find, or that is pushed to us via social media or the Internet, with a very critical eye. It isn’t that this information is true or what everyone is talking about; it’s about how social media companies make money.
Looking for facts, monitoring strongly emotional appeals, being wary of exaggeration, and bringing a skeptical eye to social media, can help guide you toward the truth. Your question should always be, “What is the evidence?” Pass it on!
And YOU can help stop disinformation in its tracks and help protect innocent people from having their reputations damaged by slander or propaganda. Take the “Truth in Discourse” pledge. Make a promise to yourself that you will only share information that you know is true – based on sound evidence. If we all took that step, so much harmful disinformation would die in an Internet graveyard, and good people will be protected.