How identifying key aspects of propaganda and fake news—and where they overlap—can help in spotting what is real before important decisions are made.

Propaganda does exist on all sides of us, and it does change our mental pictures of the world. Even if this be unduly pessimistic—and that remains to be proved—the opinion reflects a tendency that is undoubtedly real. In fact, its use is growing as its efficiency in gaining public support is recognized.

Edward Bernays, 1928

The term ‘Propaganda’ was coined in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV proposed an addition to the Roman curia. The word retained its Catholic aura until the 19th century, and prior to the 1920s its derogatory use was far less common than its natural denotation.

The 1928 book “Propaganda” by Edward Bernays was an effort to sell propaganda as a necessary tool for business and politicians. Bernays did not succeed in redeeming the word, not that this was a realistic possibility. From the Twenties up until the start of World War II, the word was even more pejorative, as it suggested not just lying, but betrayal.

Propaganda is very much alive and well today, and whilst it is usually based upon real accounts, albeit incomplete, it retains only the information that is favourable to the actors that commission the campaigns. The primary intention is however to mislead audiences.

Fake news has also been around for decades in various forms. Purposely false information has been impacting organisations, brands and governments well before the second communications revolution in the 1950s, when television entered our homes and changed every aspect of life. Digital communications would soon follow, and the invention of the WWW in 1990, followed by IP, TCP, FTP and email made an even greater impact on the communications revolution.

An enduring example of fake news is that of General Motors in the 1970s, who were hit by the rumour that its newly release Chevrolet Nova was suffering poor sales in Spanish-speaking markets due to Nova sounding similar to the Spanish for “doesn’t go.” Fake information in the guise of hoaxes and rumours flourished during the early days of email. Charity scams and websites that we produced after Hurricane Katrina, and the Tsunami in Asia deceived thousands of people. E-mail rumours such as spray deodorants causing liver, kidney and lung damage, even breast cancer were common. The Nigerian email scam, phishing, various hacks, and rogue blogs and websites are early examples of electronic deception used to defraud and damage individuals, products and companies.

Some of these forms of deception are now easy to detect, many are familiar, and have telltale signs that they just aren’t what they are supposed to be. We have become fairly immune to email scams and requests to divulge our bank or credit cards number online. Can we do the same for propoaganda and fake news?

Propaganda is as dangerous today as it has always been, but not in its original form. In some ways, this ‘dark art’ is getting a free ride because of the attention being paid to fake news. It is however, just as insidious, particularly in its new “computational” form that we will get to later. In some ways, propaganda is easier to identify, because its essential characteristics—in terms of composition of message—have been outlined for almost a century.

The essential publication, “Propaganda, How To Recognise It and Deal With It” from 1938 has been archived as a PDF (41MB) at https://ia800601.us.archive.org/35/items/ipa_whatispropaganda/ipa_whatispropaganda.pdf and will frame much of the information you are presented with day to day in a new light.

Many of the forms of propaganda are in use around the world in all forms of communication, but my top 3 are:

  • Glittering Generalities: national security, democracy, choice, freedom, science—evoke an emotional response around a principle that is difficult to challenge;
  • Fear: Use of spurious claims and/or data to elicit uncertainty, heighten risks about future impacts on items of mainstream concern, such as economics, health, security, jobs etc;
  • Joint 3rd: “Bandwagon” and “Plain Folks”: Trying to sell an idea as being one supported by the mass is one form of abuse of social proof, but is extremely common in political discourse. As is, “Plain Folks,” a speaker is a man/woman of the people, the masses. Politicians slipping into a local accents, taking public transport, dressing down etc.

I discovered this list many years ago and it has been extremely useful in identifying those who want to abuse principles of influence, or use heuristics and biases to get instinctive reactions on topics that require much more deliberation and reason. Look debates in the mainstream media (Brexit, US politics) and spot the ten characterisations of propaganda at work. Perhaps at the top of the list is “name calling.” Ready any news site and see how many times this very basic act is used today, how protesters are “extremists,” how liberals and socialists are “communists.”

Fake news is more of a threat to society today, possibly in concert with propaganda, because of how news consumption has changed and how the globally interconnected nature of society has impacted its propagation. Fake news is used to refer to various forms of content, from political satires and news parodies to state propaganda and false advertising. At its core is its form, that of new media content. The nature of fake news is to present itself as reliable news media content act people absently accept as fact. Pennycock (2018) defined fake news as “entirely fabricated and often partisan content that is presented as factual.” In essence, fake news refers to a specific type of misinformation. It is false, intended to deceive people, and mimics real news content.

Combatting fake news has proven to be difficult, particularly for organisations defending products. False information can be dealt with easily but when presented as fact in news media, counter claims are not so easily accepted and can fuel the false story being more widely spread. A broad array of solutions have been proposed, ranging from making digital media literacy part of school curricula, to the automated verification of rumours using machine learning algorithms to conducting fact-checks in real-time.

As with the many crises started with hoaxes and rumours in the early days of the digital communication revolution, and as with crisis situation in general, it is far better to mitigate a risk than deal with its fallout. Thus the difficulties associated with “after-the-fact” approaches to combatting misinformation have prompted some researchers to explore preemptive ways of mitigating the problem. The main thrust of this research is to prevent false narratives from taking root in memory in the first place, focusing specifically on the process of preemptive debunking or so-called “prebunking”.

Proposed in the 1960s (McGuire & Papageorgis, 1961), the process works by cultivating ‘mental anti-bodies’ against misinformation. Reviews have found that inoculation messages are generally effective at conferring resistance against persuasion attempts (Banas & Rains, 2010). As with the IPA analysis of propaganda, even appreciation of an agreed definition of fake news and the techniques commonly used in the production of misinformation is a big step forward. Six commonly used techniques are employed:

  1. Polarisation;
  2. Invoking emotions;
  3. Spreading conspiracy theories;
  4. Trolling people online;
  5. Deflecting blame;
  6. Impersonating fake accounts.

One can see overlaps with the IPA list (1,2) and with some elements of crisis management theories (5). Items 3, 4 and 6 are the result of social media proliferation and the advent of computational propaganda—the use of algorithms, automation and big data to shape public life. This social media manipulation is on the rise, and like the IPA in the 20s, various organisations are building an inventory of the evolving strategies, tools, and techniques of computational propaganda in the public interest.

Producing interactive tools, particularly aimed at school curricula is an on-going activity for Reciprocom. We view this as an important aspect of risk mitigation. The serious consequences that fake news have on polarisation of society and evidence-based decision making are worthy of efforts to prevent challenging societal issues and changes in behaviour being further damaged by misinformation.

Once again however, we return to the foundations of who and why we believe. Trust and credibility of information sources is the true barometer of any news media source, especially given the volume of information we are presented with. What are intentions of those providing information? What are your past experiences with this source and what are others saying about it? What promises have they made in the past?

Even the most simple questions around reliability and integrity can point citizens in the right direct, and that is increasingly in the direction of a healthy amount of scepticism and distrust. In concert with inoculation efforts, we are producing materials and interactive games that help people understand the roles that motivations and intentions play and how these factors must be taken into account when important opinions are being considered and decisions contemplated.

Andrew Roberts

Author Andrew Roberts

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