Propaganda is biased, misleading, untrue, and used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. It is widely popular, written by thousands, hated by hundreds of thousands and devoured by millions all over the world, every day. Propaganda writers include notable politicians, admitted tyrants, easily recognized fraudsters, grifters, egotists, current and former office holders, and rogues on every continent. And that’s just the writers. The believers are incalculable.
Propaganda is read daily, openly, proudly, and bought lock-stock-and-barrel by the extremes of both major political parties in the U.S. It can be found every day on hugely popular venues like Facebook, now owned by Meta, Instagram, also owned by Meta, Twitter, now owned by Elon Musk, and Fox, still owned by Rupert Murdoch. We are awash in propaganda platforms.
This blog was prompted by a November 2022 headline; Platforms of Propaganda: How Social Media Sites Facilitate and Spread Disinformation. The headline is concerning, the article alarming, and the reality difficult to believe. Every writer in America knows we’re living in interesting times. We know politicians will say and do whatever it takes to get elected. But even so, fraud, grifting, and obvious lies used to be limited to places like the former Soviet Union. In today’s America, the debasement of the written word and the rule of law is at genuine risk—fed by propaganda—and devoured by a populace willing to ignore the lie and adopt the strategy.
“Social media has revolutionized communication through the immediate transmission of information to anyone with access to the internet. Propaganda has been used for thousands of years to manipulate public opinion, yet disinformation on social media is perhaps more dangerous than any other form of propaganda. The structure of social media is intentionally designed to grab the user’s attention with irresistible intensity. It feeds its audience content, which is repeated incessantly with the purpose of inspiring belief in the message, whether it is true or not. The idea of ‘flow,’ or maintaining the attention of the user, is particularly significant in the dissemination of political news and controversial issues. A 2018 study from MIT found that, on social media sites like Twitter, disinformation travels faster than fact. The study notes that ‘false news stories are 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true stories are. It also takes true stories about six times as long to reach 1,500 people as it does for false stories to reach the same number of people.’ This speed of transmission may be beneficial because it is conducive to free expression and allows individuals to share their experiences, thereby forming communities of interest and extending social contacts. On the other hand, unfiltered information disseminated instantly also has the potential to destabilize democratic institutions and democratic processes because of the rate at which it travels.”
Another headline adds fuel to the proverbial fire in American politics; Disarming Disinformation: Our Shared Responsibility. “Disinformation is one of the Kremlin’s most important and far-reaching weapons. Russia has operationalized the concept of perpetual adversarial competition in the information environment by encouraging the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem. This ecosystem creates and spreads false narratives to strategically advance the Kremlin’s policy goals. There is no subject off-limits to this firehose of falsehoods. Everything from human rights and environmental policy to assassinations and civilian-killing bombing campaigns are fair targets in Russia’s malign playbook. Truth disarms Russia’s disinformation weapons. The Kremlin creates and spreads disinformation in an attempt to confuse and overwhelm people about Russia’s real actions in Ukraine, Georgia, and elsewhere in Europe. Because the truth is not in the Kremlin’s favor, Russia’s intelligence services create, task, and influence websites that pretend to be news outlets to spread lies and sow discord. Disinformation is a quick and fairly cheap way to destabilize societies and set the stage for potential military action. Despite having been exposed for engaging in these malign activities countless times, Russia continues to work counter to international norms and global stability.”
For nearly a century, we have relied on honest journalism to draw strong lines between truth and propaganda. But today’s truth is elusive. “Journalism is in a state of considerable flux. New digital platforms have unleashed innovative journalistic practices that enable novel forms of communication and greater global reach than at any point in human history. But on the other hand, disinformation and hoaxes that are popularly referred to as “fake news” are accelerating and affecting the way individuals interpret daily developments. Driven by foreign actors, citizen journalism, and the proliferation of talk radio and cable news, many information systems have become more polarized and contentious, and there has been a precipitous decline in public trust in traditional journalism.”
Fake news is propaganda disguised as actual news. News literacy has been in a downward spiral since the 2016 presidential election. In past national elections the news industry mostly provided high-quality journalism and avoided fake news. But for the last decade, perhaps two decades, disinformation is part of the daily flow. “Technology companies should invest in tools that identify fake news, reduce financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation, and improve online accountability. Educational institutions should make informing people about news literacy a high priority. Finally, individuals should follow a diversity of news sources, and be skeptical of what they read and watch.”
On March 13, 2023, The Seattle Medium ran an op-ed titled, The Propaganda Machine Called Fox News. It centered on a congressional bill submitted to Congress to award gold medals to the U. S. Capitol Police officers who responded to the J6 insurrection. Rep. Andrew Clyde argued a month before the vote that the riot at the Capitol was nothing more than a “normal tourist visit,” regardless of the multiple photos of Clyde helping barricade the doors of the House chamber after rioters breached the Capitol building. With the help of Fox News, Clyde’s assessment later proved to be part of the GOP’s ongoing narrative in recreating the events of Jan. 6. Fox News is a cable opinion outlet rather than a pure news outlet. CNN and MSNBC are also cable opinion outlets rather than traditional TV networks. All three cater to the political interests of their viewers.
The Seattle Medium op-ed emphasized, “For entertainment purposes, each cable network presents stories with opinions, facts, and a degree of conservative or liberal spin. But the manner of omissions, outright lies, and the sacrificing of facts for extreme political spins separates Fox News into its own special category. . . Fox News viewers are more likely to accept and believe misinformation than viewers of other opinion outlets. Fox News may have once been an outlet for enjoyment and entertainment, but it has now evolved into a propaganda machine disguised as an entertainment outlet. . . Donald Trump uses the network to disseminate information—facts, arguments, rumors, name-calling, half-truths, and lies—to influence conservative viewers’ and voters’ opinions and beliefs.”
Theoretically, this may be the pot calling the kettle black, but there is little doubt about sourcing and dramatizing at Fox News. The Washington Post headlined the issue this way in April 2022, The Unique, Damaging Role Fox News Plays In American Media. “There are four elements . . . that make Fox News a uniquely damaging part of the American news landscape: (1) its strength on the political right, (2) the demonstrated way in which it shapes its viewers’ beliefs, (3) its grip on Republican power and (4) the views of its leadership. . . In December, The Washington Post and University of Maryland conducted a national poll that included an assessment of where people get their news about politics and government. Among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, a variety of sources — CNN, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, the Times, The Post — were identified as a main source of news by at least 3 in 10. Among Republicans, though, only two were: local television and Fox News.”
Fox News has been described by academics, media figures, political figures, and watchdog groups as biased for the Republican Party in its news coverage, as perpetuating conservative bias, and as misleading their audience in relation to science, notably climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. A political bias is not necessarily propaganda, but misleading its audience on national problems is.
The problem with Fox News, the cable TV channel, isn’t just what it is — it’s also what it isn’t. NBC called Fox News “A purveyor of propaganda and misinformation.” NBC based its reporting on a study done by Brookman and Kalla. They examined the manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes. Its authors differentiated between ‘traditionally emphasized forms of media influence,’ like agenda setting and framing, and what they call ‘partisan coverage filtering—the choice to selectively report information about selective topics, based on what’s favorable to the network’s partisan side, and ignore everything else.”
Looking back in time, the U.S. government used “good” propaganda to influence specific national policies and goals. Two examples of propaganda include the Uncle Sam army recruitment posters from World War I or the Rosie the Riveter poster from World War II. Both examples use symbols to represent strength and a sense of urgency as they encourage United States citizens to join the war effort. Propaganda during the Cold War was at its peak in the early years, during the 1950s and 1960s. The United States would make propaganda that criticized and belittled the enemy, the Soviet Union. The American government dispersed propaganda through movies, television, music, literature, and art. The United States officials did not call it propaganda, maintaining they were portraying accurate information about Russia and their Communist way of life during the 1950s and 1960s.”
The 1970s propaganda effort ushered in the half century-long War On Drugs. It began under President Richard Nixon in June 1971, when he initiated the first federally funded programs aimed at drug prevention in the U.S. The 1960s had seen the rise of a rebellious youth movement that popularized drug use. With many citizens using marijuana and other drugs, and many soldiers returning from Vietnam with heroin habits, there was widespread drug use in the U.S. One tactic of Nixon’s initiative, still used today, was a national anti-drug media campaign aimed at youths. The government used posters and advertisements to scare children and teenagers into avoiding drug use.
In 1990, the Gulf War spurred propaganda shortly after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The organization Citizens for a Free Kuwait was formed in the US. It hired the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton for about $11 million, paid by Kuwait’s government. Among many other means of influencing US opinion, such as distributing books on Iraqi atrocities to US soldiers deployed in the region, “Free Kuwait” T-shirts and speakers to college campuses, and dozens of video news releases to television stations, the firm arranged for an appearance before a group of members of the US Congress in which a young woman identifying herself as a nurse working in the Kuwait City hospital described Iraqi soldiers pulling babies out of incubators and letting them die on the floor.”
Most recently, the government propaganda effort to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic began in April 2020, when then-President Donald Trump and the United States government played a campaign video for the Republican Party, which was widely regarded as a propaganda video. This video referred to a timeline of the U.S. government’s response to the pandemic, only displaying favorable moments. Some commentators and analysts believed this was to protect President Donald Trump and his government’s reputation, especially before the country’s 2020 presidential election. Trump allies maintained it was to combat widespread media criticism stating that he did not act quickly enough to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The ethics of propaganda is under deep study at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas. Historians and ethicists agree it is profoundly disturbing, insidious, and designed to persuade otherwise reasonable people to act in horrific and tragic ways. The behavioral ethics parameters include moral muteness, moral myopia, and ethical fading. They call their assessment Ethics & Propaganda. The three-fold mantra is, “First, propaganda is ubiquitous and dangerous. Second, the media is doing an inadequate job of policing propaganda in modern political campaigns and of informing the electorate regarding substantive policy issues. Third, it therefore becomes incumbent upon individuals to educate themselves so that they may vote in an informed way. Citizens must demand more of their candidates, of their media, and of themselves.”
In August 2018, Cambridge University Press published a long essay titled, “The Ethics of Countering Digital Propaganda.
The abstract poses a pivotal question and provides an evocative answer. “How can a state react to being a target of disinformation activities by another state without losing the moral ground that it seeks to protect? This essay argues that the concept of moral authority offers an original framework for addressing this dilemma. As a power resource, moral authority enables an actor to have his arguments treated with priority by others and to build support for his actions, but only as long as his behavior does not deviate from certain moral expectations. To develop moral authority, an actor engaged in combating digital propaganda must cultivate six normative attributes: truthfulness and prudence for demonstrating the nature of the harmful effects of disinformation; accountability, integrity, and effectiveness for establishing the normative standing of the actor to engage in counter-intervention; and responsibility for confirming the proportionality of the response.”
The only addition I’d make to that nearly perfect list of ethical norms is credibility. The only person I could imagine having the intellect, courage, and moral authority to fully answer that question is Ralph Waldo Emerson. He famously said, “A man is what he thinks about all day long.” My readers no doubt think I should do more thinking and less politicizing.
 Platforms of Propaganda: How Social Media Sites Facilitate and Spread Disinformation. https://www.mironline.ca/platforms-of-propaganda-how-social-media-sites-facilitate-and-spread-disinformation/
 Rowse, Ted (1992). “Kuwaitgate – killing of Kuwaiti babies by Iraqi soldiers exaggerated”. Washington Monthly. Archived from the original on May 29, 2012. Retrieved June 20, 2021.
 Analysis by Brian Stelter. “Propaganda on full display at Trump’s latest coronavirus task force briefing”. CNN. Archived from the original on October 9, 2020. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
C-SPAN, Source (April 14, 2020). “The coronavirus ‘propaganda’ video Trump played to media”. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Archived from the original on January 8, 2021. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
Blake, Aaron (April 14, 2020). “Trump’s propaganda-laden, off-the-rails coronavirus briefing”. The Washington Post. Archived from the original on October 8, 2020. Retrieved October 15, 2020.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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