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Propaganda can promote all manner of causes but becomes dangerous when it embodies disinformation that spread like a wildfire across the digital universe.

Simplicity, Symbolism, Emotion and Repetition Can Turn Lies to ‘Truth’

Propaganda spreads on social media like a plague – by design. Propaganda isn’t accidental; it’s intentional. And it has a long and sometimes sordid history.

Propaganda played a prominent role during both World Wars as a tool to recruit soldiers, mobilize industry, entice workers and demonize enemies. Germany did it and so did Britain and the United States.

The history of propaganda stretches back much further than world wars. In 1622, a conclave of Catholic bishops formed the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, Latin for “The Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith”. The enemy was Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Propaganda has shown itself adaptable through history to different times, technology and media. Egyptian hieroglyphs depicted pharaohs as divine and their warriors invincible. During the world wars the media of choice for propaganda was film, radio and posters. During and after the Cold War, television has offered an accessible avenue for propaganda posing as paid advertising. Now digital media has become the milieu for transmitting propaganda to echo chambers to reinforce disinformation and recriminate against supposed enemies.

The difference in the digital age is the awesome ability to create disarming disinformation and disseminate it rapidly to far-flung audiences. Propaganda messages are beamed into smart phones, laptops and car radios at unprecedented scale and speed. You can drown in misinformation before you know it’s raining.

The principles of propagandists haven’t changed much over eons. Big lies are more believable than little ones. Repetition of big lies normalizes them as “truth”. Complex issues are reduced to binary views ­– good versus evil. Simplification makes big lies easier to grasp. Stir in some emotion and you have a lethal brew of propaganda.

As much as people need financial literacy, they also need the analytical capability to recognize propaganda when they see it, hear it or feel it encircling them. This skill is multi-partisan. Propagandists come in all political flavors. They also can wear the robes of religion or masquerade as journalists.

In the digital age, where the lines between information and propaganda can be blurred, critical media literacy is necessary.

Selective Seduction
Elvis Hsiao, a UX designer from Vancouver, BC, who writes for Medium, has described how propaganda can be seductive. “The effectiveness of propaganda lies not just in its message, but in its design. The way information is packaged and presented can greatly impact our perception and reception of that information. Misinformation and disinformation on the web is designed to spread like wildfire.”

“The effectiveness of propaganda isn’t just a result of its design principles,” Hsiao explains. “It also taps into the underlying psychological and sociological processes that control our behavior in the world.” The mission of propaganda is to reinforce a belief, make lies seem truthful despite evidence to the contrary and idealize some views while demonizing others.

According to Hsiao, confirmation bias is a Swiss knife in the hands of a propagandist carving information to reinforce a target audience’s existing beliefs while diminishing opposing views. To a purveyor of propaganda, Hsiao says polarization is an opportunity, not a problem.

In a way, propaganda is successful because people need validation. Social identity theory posits that “individuals derive significant parts of their self-concept from affiliations with certain social groups”. This is an open door to propaganda that parses “us” versus “them”.

Long-term exposure to propaganda can shape – or warp – a person’s or group’s perception of reality. It can make them uncritical of some facts and hyper-critical of others.

Coping with Propaganda and Falsehoods
Hsiao offers thoughts on coping with the effects of propaganda:

“Propaganda, in its many forms, is an undeniable reality of our socio-political landscape. Throughout history, it has proven to be a potent tool, capable of swaying public opinion, shaping national narratives and influencing the course of events. With the rise of digital technology and the sophistication of psychological techniques, its reach, and impact have only grown.

However, understanding the design principles of propaganda, the psychological and sociological mechanisms at play and the strategies for counteraction empowers us to navigate this sea of persuasion with a discerning eye. It invites us to question the information we consume, the emotional reactions we experience and the beliefs we hold.

In the digital age, where the lines between information and propaganda can be blurred, critical media literacy is necessary. It is our compass in the complex, often overwhelming world of modern communication.”

The design principles Hsiao identifies – simplicity, symbolism, emotional appeal and repetition – are used every day to inform consumers, engage stakeholders and share insights. The principles are valid because they work.

“These design principles, while powerful, are not intrinsically harmful,” Hsiao asserts. “They become a cause for concern when used deceptively or maliciously to manipulate public opinion, spread misinformation or incite hatred. Recognizing these principles in the information we consume is a critical first step in discerning propaganda and guarding against its influence.”

How Greeks Grappled with Truth
The Greeks offer one of the first recorded efforts to parse truth and untruth. Their arguments from Socrates to Plato to Aristotle informed the structure of democracy before there was fact-checking or content moderation.

“America embodies a version of democracy embraced by Aristotle, which combines the best of Plato and the Sophists. Aristotle explained that rhetoric (Phronesis) is the counterpart of dialectic (Sophia). Both methods of truth-seeking are necessary to solve political problems and arrive at the truth.

The problem is that propaganda and disinformation lie outside either of these models. When we encounter propaganda and disinformation, its origins – the sources that produced it and the method used to arrive at the result – are typically obscured.

Neither propaganda and disinformation offer a skilled argument, nor do they invite rigorous testing. Propaganda and disinformation are persuasion without consent: In fact, by offering new versions of ‘facts,’ their authors try to hide that they’re persuading us at all.

These forms of communication provide a conclusion based on manipulation rather than reason. Propaganda and disinformation create a realm where disbelief is disloyalty, rather than a shared attempt to search for truth. In short, the goal of propaganda isn’t persuasion, but rather compliance.”

Quotes from a 2020 essay by Asha Rangappa and Jennifer Mercieca appearing in Arizona State University’s Zocalo.