Combating propaganda

A new era of information flow

“There has never been a time in our history when there was so great a need for our citizens to be informed and to understand what is happening in the world. The cause of freedom is being challenged throughout the world today, and propaganda is one of the most powerful weapons they have in this struggle. Deceit, distortion and lies are systemically used by them as a matter of deliberate policy.”

These words were spoken by U.S. President Harry Truman in 1950. It seems that his words are as vivid today as they were 70 years ago. Although the tools, channels and means of communication have changed dramatically, information warfare and propaganda remain the same. If anything, they have become even more important, since information flow and access to information — be it true or false — can’t be compared with the situation just 10 years ago, let alone 50 or 70 years ago.

There are many studies that support this claim. One, conducted by Roger Bon, who led a group of researchers at the University of California San Diego, shows that people receive 34 gigabytes of information every day. During waking hours, the average person receives as many as 105,000 words through mobile phones, television, newspapers, radio, the internet, email and books — the equivalent of 23 words per second. When videos, games, pictures and other media are added, the sum reaches 34 gigabytes of information each day. This information overload inevitably affects attention spans, leading people to modify the way they process information. It impedes reflection and deeper thinking. Faced with a need to process so much information from so many directions, sources, devices and channels, people lose the ability to think clearly and rationally. They treat the information superficially and fail to apply a thoughtful analysis or double-check facts.

In his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams says: “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” It can be argued that this is even more true when it comes to propaganda, especially with regard to the research findings previously referenced in this article. Studies show that propaganda — especially in its newest form, fake news — travels faster and penetrates deeper than the truth, especially on social media. A comprehensive study conducted by three scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that fake news travels and spreads six times more rapidly than real news. The study analyzed more than 126,000 stories shared by more than 3 million Twitter users over a 10-year period. The results show that it takes real news six times as long to reach 1,500 people on Twitter than false news, and that fake news is 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than truthful news. This especially applies to fake news about politics, which is most likely to go viral. But all types of fake news typically reach more people than real news, even on topics such as terrorism, natural disasters, etc. With the increasing attention being paid to fake news, the astonishing number of people it reaches, and its ability to affect politics, economics, security issues and public opinion, it’s time to consider it propaganda.

A key research finding is that humans, not computer bots, are primarily spreading the misleading information. In fact, automated bots spread both true and fake stories at the same rate, whereas humans tend to share false stories at a much higher rate. This finding is in direct contradiction to what is usually presumed and may be a key point to reflect upon when considering new and innovative strategies to fight propaganda.

With the influx of new information channels and the increased amount of information being received, it may seem that this new propaganda cannot be fought with old means. But that presumption would not be correct. The best way to fight propaganda is the way it’s always been fought — with the truth. It is correct, however, that new means and channels must be created. This calls for developing new strategies that consider every aspect of how these new forms of propaganda are spread and which of those strategies will prevent, counter and stop its spread.

To do that, states and global organizations should conduct a comprehensive analysis of the tools and channels used to spread propaganda. This is the best way to mitigate and marginalize the devastating effects of lies and mistruths. The methods used to spread misinformation have changed dramatically over the past few decades. Although traditional media continues to be the main source of information, even in countries that are technologically literate, special attention needs to be paid to social media. There are clear reasons for this. Before the internet, it was easy to detect propaganda sources. News and propaganda originated from known resources — TV, newspapers, radio, official and unofficial statements, journalists, press releases, speeches and other single-based sources.

This changed when the internet became a main source of information, and even more so when social networks turned ordinary people into creators, sources and/or channels of communicating and spreading news. First, it is difficult these days to determine the origin of propaganda and, subsequently, it is a challenge to classify and detect all the channels through which it is being spread. It also may be hard to distinguish whether the propaganda is being spread through an organized effort or by ordinary people sharing information they find interesting and believe to be true. If the latter is the case, can it be considered propaganda? This poses yet another question that needs to be answered in the light of new methods used to spread propaganda, which the Cambridge Dictionary defines as “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.”

Therefore, it is appropriate here to make the distinction between propaganda, as defined above, and fake news and disinformation. According to the University of Michigan, fake news stories “are false: the story itself is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes.” Fake news, the same as propaganda, is not a new concept. For example, articles about UFOs and famous quotes such as Marie Antoinette’s “let them eat cake” are known to be false. It wasn’t until the 2016 U.S. presidential election that the debate over fake news crossing the line and becoming propaganda took the spotlight. It can be concluded, then, that fake news and propaganda share many features, and that sometimes it is easy to consider them one and the same.

Recognizing the differences is important. The differentia specifica can be found in the motives behind their use, rather than in any clear or obvious differences. We can say that not all fake news is propaganda because its motives are usually financial, not political, and it is usually not tied to a larger agenda. But when political fake news is created to affect political opinions, positions, affiliations and the feelings of the people, when it is orchestrated and fabricated to influence elections, it definitely can be considered propaganda. Whether those who share and spread political fake news do so intentionally or without knowing the news to be fake makes no difference to the news being considered propaganda.

Another important issue in creating comprehensive strategies to combat propaganda is the distinction between two main sources of propaganda — propaganda coming from nation-state actors and propaganda coming from nonstate actors. Each of these propaganda types has numerous subtypes, and it can be very difficult to differentiate between them. Different strategies for combating these types of propaganda have to be developed and applied with an understanding that nonstate actors can be the instruments of states. Nevertheless, different strategies are needed. It is evident that both state and nonstate actors use propaganda, especially social networks, to influence public opinion. Nonstate actors in this sense include national and international organizations, political parties, lobbying groups, media, as well as violent nonstate actors such as paramilitary forces and terrorist groups.

When it comes to the media, there is one thing that deserves mention. It is often believed that only noncredible, nonmainstream and little-known media are used to spread fake news and propaganda. But the opposite often is the case. It is quite possible that credible, mainstream media can be sources of fake news, propaganda and mistruths. It can be difficult to recognize as propaganda or fake news the articles that include credible sources and data and appear to be researched, especially if they appear in media that is considered credible. It is unrealistic to expect average people to thoroughly analyze the news they are consuming, especially if they have seen or read it from a trusted source. This is why it is important that each malevolent actor be treated separately and on its own merits, with an understanding of the audience being targeted.

It is also important to consider the origin of a propaganda threat when deciding how to respond. For example, it may be more effective, credible and trustworthy to counter state-originated propaganda with messages from nonstate actors such as the media or other organizations. Great care should be taken when dealing with propaganda spread by violent organizations. That propaganda should be answered in a very stark, resolute and determined way, with as many facts and as much data as possible, and with a combination of state and nonstate answers. State actors should respond to such propaganda in a very official manner, while nonstate actors should play a role in affecting peoples’ feelings, opinions, positions and fears.

Furthermore, it is essential to realize that there is no universal way to fight propaganda. It is crucial to develop strategies for respective actors and respective countries. The strategy for each country should be unique and in accordance with the audience that needs to receive the message, the goals that have been set, and the messages that need to be countered. Similar to the political adage that all politics is local, counterpropaganda needs to be local as well — not only geographically, but tailored to specific groups within countries. It is important to note that this is not just a state issue. This also applies to extremist groups or other threats. Counterpropaganda messages cannot be mirror images. Strategies cannot presume that a targeted audience knows what is known by the government, and they must be designed in a way that is plausible and clearly understood by the people who need credible information.

This is where the fact that most of the propaganda on social networks is spread by real people, rather than computer bots, comes into play. People tend to share fake news and propaganda that they find interesting. It is often surprising and immediately draws attention, leading to a snowball effect in the way it is shared. Counterpropaganda strategies should produce content that is as interesting and eye-catching as the propaganda, and that will prompt people to spread the message. Of course, competing with fake news is difficult because stories based on lies are generally more interesting, tempting and appealing and can be more shocking than stories based on truth. Nevertheless, successfully countering fake news can be done when there is an understanding of the message that resonates with the targeted audience and is likely to be shared. This requires a detailed analysis, thorough planning and constant monitoring of the success or failure of counterpropaganda efforts.

Strategies must be realistic in terms of the credibility of the messengers. Oftentimes, the difference between success and failure when countering propaganda lies in the answer to the simple question: To what degree do people believe what we have to say? It’s possible that some messengers will be wrong for certain messages but fully credible for others. Although it is tempting to fight fake news with fake news, there are many reasons to reject that impulse. First, there is the considerable risk of being exposed as the source of noncredible information. Once that happens, it is almost impossible to regain the public’s trust. It will cause people to question previous instances when the truth was told to combat fake news. It is very difficult to build public trust but very easy to lose it. That is why fighting propaganda with truth always works best and why that strategy might be the only sustainable one.

Finally, not all counterpropaganda has to be organized or orchestrated. Some can spontaneously come from free media, universities, think tanks, various societal actors, etc. Which is why free media is key to fighting propaganda. Breaking news quickly goes viral, and it is up to the free media and other public stakeholders to warn the public if the news is not entirely true or if it is fully based on lies. It is also helpful to teach the public to differentiate between real news and propaganda. This can be done relatively simply, since there are not many questions that need to be answered to distinguish between propaganda and truth. Some have to do with news sources (Where is the information coming from? What sources are being used to back up those claims? Did any other media cover the story? What did they say about it?), and some have to do with the objectivity of the news (Was it clearly intending to sway the audience to one side?), and some have to do with emotional reactions that the news evokes. In other words, the public needs to be educated about fake news and aware of the importance of thinking critically. People should be forming judgments based on an objective analysis and evaluation. Having said that, it is important to consider these questions when consuming news, especially with propaganda getting more difficult to recognize and emanating from all kinds of sources, even those traditionally considered credible and trustworthy.

To conclude, there seems to be an easy answer to propaganda, and that answer has been the same for centuries. The only way to fight propaganda is with truth. This truth, however, needs to be presented in a way that is understandable, credible and interesting. A lot has been said and written about propaganda. Although at first glance it seems that articles, books and speeches written decades ago are now outdated and not applicable, the essence remains the same. The only thing that has changed is technology and the speed with which information flows. Everything else remains the same.  ο

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