How Propaganda Works to Divide Us

Trump protest in London

Political propaganda employs the ideals of liberal democracy to undermine those very ideals, the dangers of which, not even its architects fully understand.

In the early years of DeSmog’s research into anti science propaganda, I thought of energy industry PR campaigns such as “junk science,” “clean coal,” and “ethical oil” as misinformation strategies designed to dupe the public.

Although that’s obviously true, I now understand that propaganda is far more complex and problematic than merely lying about the evidence. Certainly propaganda is designed to deceive, but not in a way you might think. What’s more, the consequences are far worse than most people who produce and consume it realize.

My deeper understanding evolved after I interviewed Jason Stanley and read his important book How Propaganda Works. The American philosopher and Yale University professor will speak about the history and dangers of demagogic propaganda at UBC’s Point Grey Campus in Vancouver on April 27 (7 p.m. Buchanan A210, 1866 Main Mall).

According to Stanley, the danger for a democracy “raided by propaganda” is the possibility that the vocabulary of liberal democracy is being used to mask an undemocratic reality.

In a democracy where propaganda is common, citizens believe they live in a liberal democracy; they have free speech. But this belief masks an illiberal, undemocratic reality. In his rich and thoughtful book Stanley defines political propaganda as “the employment of a political ideal against itself.” DeSmog stories about groups concealing ideologies and financial interests behind cloaks of alternative science, and offering “facts” designed to undermine real science, are paradigm examples of this type of propaganda.

Propaganda that is presented as embodying an ideal governing political speech, but in fact runs counter to it, is antidemocratic …  because it wears down the possibility of democratic deliberation,” Stanley writes.

He dismisses the idea that deception is what makes propaganda effective. Instead, Stanley argues what makes propaganda effective is the way it, “exploits and strengthens flawed ideology.”

This sometimes involves outright lies, but Stanley points to a bigger problem, “that sincere, Tweet: '... well-meaning ppl under the grip of flawed ideology unknowingly produce & consume #propaganda http://bit.ly/2oxuizh @jasonintratorwell-meaning people under the grip of flawed ideology unknowingly produce and consume propaganda.”

In his introduction to a recent reprinted edition of Edward Bernays’ classic book, Propaganda, Crispin Miller agrees. The professor of media studies at New York University says behind-the-scenes wirepullers are often prone to losing touch with reality themselves because in their universe “the truth is ultimately what the client wants the world to think is true.”

It’s an occupational hazard facing all full-time propagandists, he warns, but the greater risk is to the public since a slick propaganda campaign can squelch any inconvenient investigation or journalistic enterprise, so that early warnings fail to resonate and escalating ills receive no mass attention.

With this in mind, my worry is that when we cannot spot propaganda or don’t understand how it works, democracy is damaged to a point where we cannot tell truth from fiction or make evidence-based collective decisions.

Jason Stanley. Photo: Carol Linnitt/DeSmog Canada

Authoritarian Propaganda Undermines Democracy

We saw the emergence of dangerous propaganda in the United States recently, during the presidential campaign when Trump branded Latino immigrants as criminals and rapists. His efforts to whip up fear and anger about race and religion were highly successful and he is now in the White House — despite the fact many people in his own party see him as unstable, untrustworthy and unpredictable.

Trump’s warlike attack on the EPA, the FBI, the CIA and even the Pope is classic authoritarian propaganda. It is an attempt to concoct an alternative reality through the creation of enemies. In Russia they call it theater craft and Putin has been fine-tuning this choreographic approach to authoritarian propaganda for decades.

Donald Trump’s dispute with science and facts is less about old-fashioned misinformation propaganda and more about authoritarian theater. Part of his strategy is to undermine confidence in the public square and in the institutions that democracies rely upon to mediate competing versions of the truth: courts, universities, science, news media, etc. The authoritarian must decide what is true; there can be no competition.

One of his prime tools is Twitter. With a deluge of lies, fake news accusations and outrageous claims his provocative tweets create a chaotic, alternative reality. He sabotages democracy by creating his own swamp where we can’t tell truth from fiction, where rational debate evaporates as he diverts, distracts and deflects accountability.

Trump repeatedly described climate change as a Chinese hoax intended to make U.S manufacturing less competitive, but now denies ever having said it. This is not the ranting of a madman but the voice of a demagogue turning science into a partisan sport.

Powered by propaganda, Trump is now rolling back President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which called for substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The new president appointed a trio of infamous anti climate science propagandists to oversee the dismantling of the Environmental Protection Agency.

They include Myron Ebell, the non-scientist chair of the Cooler Heads Coalition formed in 1997 to dispel the “myths of global warming” and a director in the anti-regulation think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute; Steve J. Milloy, who runs the website JunkScience.com which aims to debunk climate change, and a man who has continually affirmed that smoking does not cause cancer; and Scott Pruitt, a self-described “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”

According to NASA data, the Earth’s surface temperatures in 2016 were the hottest since records began in 1880 and that made last year the third in a row to set a new heat record. This data was corroborated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which confirmed 16 of the 17 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.

Trump appointed Ebell to his EPA team despite the fact that Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and a top Earth scientist at NASA, has explained that Ebell’s technique is to point out some little fact and then use it to deduce a larger unconnected and scientifically incorrect point.

As many of you know, the gusher of oil money in recent years has led to PR campaigns and propaganda on a grand scale, similar to that fuelled by the tobacco industry years ago. While facing an environmental crisis, we are also facing a group of industries and a new president who don’t want us to know anything about it.

Today’s public discourse on the environment is overflowing with fabrications and distortions, and I doubt the general public has the faintest idea just how much energy, intelligence and money is poured into these deceptive techniques.

Liberal Democracy Requires Rational Debate

This style of rhetoric is not as much an attempt to persuade, as it is an act of cultural tribalism: the creation of a team divided against other teams in a manner that shuts down open-minded thinking.

Stanley writes that a democratic society is one that values liberty and political equality. It is a society suffused with a tolerance for difference. It rests on the view that collective reasoning is superior, “that genuine liberty is having one’s interests decided by the result of deliberation with peers about the common good.”

These examples of propaganda pose a challenge for liberal democracy because they sabotage joint deliberations. They are touted as free speech but in fact undermine public reason by excluding certain groups.

Trump’s ad hominem name-calling undermines our ability to question our own views, or respectfully consider the perspectives of others, Stanley says. It undermines the inclusive, rational debate at the core of liberal democracy.

…flawed ideologies rob groups of knowledge of their own mental states by systematically concealing their interests from them,” he says.

Understanding what makes propaganda effective is at the heart of understanding political inaction on issues that scream out for action. Stanley is most worried about demagogic speech, saying it “both exploits and spreads flawed ideologies,” creating barriers to democratic deliberation. “It attempts to unify opinion without attempting to appeal to our rational will at all,” he says.

Stanley describes propaganda as a method of bypassing the rational will of others. The consequences are widespread and can be long-lasting. Accumulated over time, propaganda becomes a turn-off that discourages citizens from participating in democratic responsibilities, such as voting, the participation level of which is already embarrassingly low in free societies like Canada and the U.S.

Toxic Rhetoric and Spin Silences Critics

The impact of propaganda reaches far beyond immigration. When people deny climate change or label Canadian oil as “ethical” or coal from West Virginia as “clean,” to justify aggressive expansion and government subsidies, the entire planet is harmed.

According to Stanley, it’s difficult to have a real discussion about the pros and cons of an issue when they are shrouded by spin. He believes assertions like these, where words are misappropriated and meanings twisted, are often less about making substantive claims than about silencing critics.

In his words, they are “linguistic strategies for stealing the voices of others.” Groups are silenced by attempts to paint them as grossly insincere, which in turn undermine the public’s trust in them. Consider the former Harper government’s labelling of environmentalists who opposed their aggressive oilsands expansion policies as “foreign funded radicals” trying to block trade and undermine Canada’s economy.

When I first met Stanley in Harlem, he used the example of Fox News, which he says is silencing when it describes itself as ‘fair and balanced’ to an audience that is perfectly aware that it is neither. “The effect is to suggest there is no such thing as fair and balanced. There is no possibility of balanced news only propaganda,” Stanley says.

This style of propaganda pollutes the public square with a toxic form of rhetoric that insinuates there are no facts, there is no objectivity and everyone is trying to manipulate you for their own interests.

Let’s Get Savvier About How Propaganda Works

When facts are spun, people mislabelled and it appears that you can’t trust what anyone says, why bother paying attention at all?

American linguist Deborah Tannen puts the problem this way: “When you hear a ruckus outside your house you open the window to see what’s going on. But if you hear a ruckus every night you close the shutters and ignore it.”

Propaganda makes it difficult for citizens to weigh facts honestly and think things through collectively. What’s more, it’s convinced many of us to disengage.

That is the opposite of what we should be doing. We need to ensure that conditions exist for reasonable conversations about serious problems that impact society.

Stanley cites a tradition in political philosophy dating back to Aristotle, called “defending rhetoric.” He argues there is a kind of propaganda that is necessary to help overcome obstacles to realize democratic ideals. That speech involves empathy and appeals to emotion as it brings reasonableness back into public discourse. In other words, fighting propaganda with propaganda that elicits empathy can help to reinforce the liberal democratic ideals of autonomy, equality and reason.

The demand of reasonableness requires those deliberating about policy to take into account the perspective of anyone who may be subjected to those laws,” Stanley writes.

The antidote to demagogic propaganda is what Stanley calls civic rhetoric. It’s an attempt to share the perspectives of a group whose members have been silenced, such as scientists or Latinos, or what he describes as “the tool required in the service of repairing the rupture.“

One of the most striking lessons in his book, How Propaganda Works, is a piece of advice on what we can do personally about the dark art of propaganda.

Stanley writes: “In the face of the complexities we’ve discussed, perhaps a reasonable way to adhere to ideal deliberative norms, for example, the norm of objectivity, may be to adopt systematic openness to the possibility that one has been unknowingly swayed by bias.”

To my mind, the best way to fight propaganda is to become savvier about how it works to undermine public trust. It strives to polarize and activate what social psychologists call “my side bias.” It’s not just that we don’t want to become victims of propaganda. We don’t want to inadvertently contribute to its darker purpose, which is to divide us into warring tribes. Authoritarian propaganda creates unyielding one-sidedness and it also creates enemies.

We can inadvertently reinforce this polarization by acting like the enemy the demagogue needs or defuse it with a more pluralistic reaction that shows concern for the problems Trump supporters struggle with.

As George Orwell wrote: “One defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself.”

Photo: Alisdare Hickson via Flickr

Get Weekly News Updates

Feature Summary: 

Political propaganda employs the ideals of liberal democracy to undermine those very ideals, the dangers of which, not even its architects fully understand.