Understanding the Methods of Propaganda

It is hard to imagine how we can preserve our democracy unless we come to terms with the corrosive effects that the onslaught of propaganda has had on our public discourse. The partisan divide that has deepened over the last few decades has been infinitely dissected. But the truth is that it wouldn’t be so destructive were it not for the constant stream of lies and distortions that lead to “asymmetric polarization.”

Jane Mayer recently exposed the ways in which Fox News has gone from being a partisan outlet to a purveyor of propaganda. Carlos Maza took it one step further and explained the method of propaganda used by Fox News and its premiere pundit Tucker Carlson: false consciousness.

The reason why Carlson has become the favorite TV personality of white supremacists is because, as Maza suggests, he has bombarded viewers with an endless supply of culture war bullshit. That is how a propagandist uses false consciousness to pretend that they are a populist when, in fact, they are an elitist attempting to distract people from right wing economics. If that doesn’t remind you of the guy sitting in the Oval Office right now, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Since Donald Trump was elected with an obvious assist from Vladimir Putin, there has been a lot of talk about how he incorporates the new methods of “information warfare” coming from Moscow. Here’s a summary of those methods from Peter Pomerantsev.

[Information warfare] reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action…In today’s Russia…the idea of truth is irrelevant…

The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative…This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.

It is worth pausing for a moment to notice that both false consciousness and this new method of information warfare are ultimately aimed at distraction. That is their goal.

The Rand Corporation calls this new method of Russian propaganda the “firehose of falsehood.”

We characterize the contemporary Russian model for propaganda as “the firehose of falsehood” because of two of its distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions. In the words of one observer, “[N]ew Russian propaganda entertains, confuses and overwhelms the audience.”

Contemporary Russian propaganda has at least two other distinctive features. It is also rapid, continuous, and repetitive, and it lacks commitment to consistency.

The pace of lies and outrageous behavior we’ve been exposed to over the last two and a half years demonstrates that Putin isn’t the only one using the firehose of falsehood method of propaganda. Here are some of the findings from the Rand report about why it can be effective.

When consumer interest is low, the persuasiveness of a message can depend more on the number of arguments supporting it than on the quality of those arguments.

When information volume is low, recipients tend to favor experts, but when information volume is high, recipients tend to favor information from other users.

When processing information, consumers may save time and energy by using a frequency heuristic, that is, favoring information they have heard more frequently.

Information that is initially assumed valid but is later retracted or proven false can continue to shape people’s memory and influence their reasoning.

Stories or accounts that create emotional arousal in the recipient (e.g., disgust, fear, happiness) are much more likely to be passed on, whether they are true or not.

Given all of that (and a lot more that is included in the report), the authors suggest that dealing with the firehose of falsehood by combating each lie individually is pretty useless. Instead, they offer these suggestions.

  1. Don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth.
  2. Forewarning is perhaps more effective than retractions or refutation of propaganda that has already been received…Find ways to help put raincoats on those at whom the firehose of falsehood is being directed.
  3. Don’t direct your flow of information directly back at the firehose of falsehood; instead, point your stream at whatever the firehose is aimed at, and try to push that audience in more productive directions.
  4. Increase the flow of persuasive information and start to compete.

We are currently under assault by levels of propaganda most of us have never experienced before. As Kamala Harris said recently, it can drive us to shout at our television sets and into the office of our therapists. But the first step in maintaining our sanity is to recognize the strategies being incorporated. To rationally name what’s happening has a dampening effect on its power.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.