Sunday, March 31, 2024

Get Ahead of Propagandists to Counter Disinformation

Now at Amazon, IndieBound, Barnes&Noble, BOOKS-A-MILLION

and other stores.

Also via Ingram for library and bookstore orders.

122 pages, March 2024

ISBN: 978-1-7374895-3-5 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-7374895-7-3 (ebook)

[click on book cover to "Read sample" at]

The saying divide and rule energizes autocrat-propagandists. Their followers are propelled by the contrarian energy that's unleashed. How these propagandists gather followers and increasingly control the thought and action of large numbers of people is eerily similar.

Bravado and defiance are veneers on the intimidation or worse targeted at the judiciary, media, civic leaders, and specific ethnic, racial, or other groups. The cruelty and violence in these propagandists' words forecast a harder reality that will follow.

Pushing back on propagandists is a challenge at any stage. But the longer that propaganda causing harm is allowed, the greater the damage to everyone.

We need more than diagnoses and warnings to crush the fake information eating away our freedoms. For nations, organizations, or anyone fighting disinformation, now collected in paperback and ebook is a selection of my blog posts on countering propagandists. Included are reference notes, a bibliography, and an index.

Beyond a critical review of contemporary public discourse, this collection calls for purposeful action, describing steps for us to help democracy thrive. It outlines ways to
  • Outwit propagandists.
  • Detect, deflect, and dismantle disinformation.
  • Counter manufactured outrage.
Hoping you'll find it useful. Please let me know your thoughts, as you can.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

ANTI-Propaganda Action

"...the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach [women and] men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain."[1]

– Dorothy L. Sayers, 1947

The impact of thoughtful educators sometimes percolates into public awareness. News reports of the tragic shooting at Florida’s Parkland High School in 2018 put a spotlight on the School's articulate students. Since that fateful day and now as graduates, they call for nationwide gun controls. Their impact in public service more broadly includes supporting the election of a fellow survivor of gun violence as the youngest representative in Congress. A better future grows from such efforts.

We all need to be more than bystanders in democracy. More judges, lawyers, and civic leaders are needed who will pre-empt the autocrat-propagandists gaming the law to corrupt the legal system. Likewise, we need more legislators, media anchors, pundits, journalists, media management, and others to break their habit of amplifying trite outrage by parroting propagandists’ names, words, or memes.

Autocrat-propagandists rely on the failure to counter their propaganda to bathe us in distortions every day. Computerized and other propagandists have just kept improving their microtargeting of us.[2] And foreign, state-sponsored incursions are virulent. When fully effective propaganda controls independent thought and action, propagandists should be considered as menacing as military invaders. 

Winning against propaganda requires a mind-set and actions akin to resistance efforts in authoritarian states.[3] Ramped-up efforts are needed to prosecute the wrongdoing of autocrat-propagandists and to expand popular support for democracy.[4] And each of us needs rules-of-thumb for useful action against those who invade our thought, speech, and actions–especially to help bolster the best antidote to propaganda, namely our own independent thinking.

Priority: Outwit Propagandists

To outwit propagandists, many insights found useful from countering or investigating propaganda and disinformation[5] can help address the varied goals of nations, organizations, or individuals.[6] A well-developed plan drawing on such insights will incorporate commitment to

Be First! Forewarning or prebunking propaganda appears to be most powerful.[7] Psychological studies confirm the value of inoculation or pre-exposing audiences to a weak version of anticipated disinformation.[8] This is well-known to politicians who try to be first with good or bad news to pre-empt interpretations. Experimental studies of election campaigns are optimistic about such approaches to help deflect disinformation.[9]

Sustain concurrent initiatives against propaganda: “Put simply ...don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth.”[10]

Engage multiple, credible spokespersons and communication channels to debunk propaganda that’s already in play.[11] Repeating the propagandist’s words is almost always a bad idea. Studies suggest that effective debunking of mis/disinformation is difficult–the more so when it’s already been much repeated or little-challenged.

Highlight briefly and tangibly in lively, resonant ways what are the most harmful effects of a propagandist’s deeds,[12] claims, or urgings. Illustrate the effects on us. Do “not worry so much about countering propaganda that contributes to effects that are not of concern.”[13]

Be Ready to rapidly push back on potentially damaging rumors, polemic, and lies. The tabloid-based autocrat undermines the mass media and avoids interviews or cross-questioning, yet many members of the mass media remain megaphones for this scurrilous nonsense. Especially during political campaigns, its vital to be equipped to quickly answer, consciously ignore, or dampen inflammatory claims.

Push for law reform and longer-term fixes. While the priority is to preempt and dismantle the harm of day-to-day propaganda, longer-term fixes must also be addressed. “Ideas for reducing the flood of disinformation abound,” including regulation or self-regulation of “the supply or demand side.”[14] Even though energies and attention are stretched, we must decide what relatively few longer-term fixes warrant support.

Detecting Propaganda

How propaganda works remains difficult for many people to fathom. A first step for deflecting propaganda or disinformation is to project the harm likely to follow from a propagandist’s claims or urgings. Although propaganda is the art of the simple, its processes, effects, successes, or failures can be hard to objectively describe or measure. Jacques Ellul’s book Propaganda offers the most comprehensive understanding of the social and psychological principles at work; with Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell's Propaganda and Persuasion providing a much-valued introduction.[15] 

Propaganda is a dynamic of a mass group experiencing a firehose of information. Its effectiveness depends on at least some members of the group interacting with each other, within as well as across sub-groups, to influence the dynamic of the mass group. Ellul cautions about experiments with “a particular method of propaganda on small groups and in small doses–at which moment it ceases to be propaganda.”[16] Much needed are further actionable insights concluded from investigating propaganda “in the wild,” with reality as the laboratory.

As noted in earlier blog posts, propaganda like any communication is heard differently by different people. We acknowledge this about communication for our one-on-one conversations by intuitively using differently nuanced approaches to engage with different people. Words, images, or symbols are “neither fixed nor unified... [in their meaning, and] ...audiences [do not] ...consist merely of like-minded segments,”[17] despite what pollsters or other audience analysts may assert or imply. Appreciating how propaganda really works as it lands differently with different audience members is essential to address what’s going on.

For example, even when a crowd chants back at a propagandist some slogan or incantation, the communication takes shape individually in the minds of each member of the crowd. People united in action to deliver the propagandist's desired action do so from a variety of interpretations driving people to action. Understanding this is needed to engage members of the crowd in the dialogue that destroys propaganda.

Its important to appreciate that propagandists employ many tools and methods, since “strategies that may be effective at countering or neutralizing one type of misinformation may not work against others.”[18] Propaganda uses many different types and degrees of truth and truth out of context.[19] A party line or a propagandist’s style may be drummed out within a background of quite credible information, including selected facts or alternative facts.[20] 

Soundly informed skepticism can deal with many of the propagandist’s part-truths, distortions, lies, insults, threats, unjust accusations, character assassinations, or promises of utopia. But anyone looking only for blatant lies or preoccupied with a propagandist’s supposed intentions can become diverted by red herrings–and too readily fall prey to a well-developed propaganda campaign.[21] 

Recognizing Devices

Awareness of rhetorical methods and devices can help with understanding propaganda as more than “tall stories,”[22] or isolated statements, or only what adversarial governments do. From classical through recent times, teachers of rhetoric, philosophy, and related fields have offered ways to analyze a wide range of propaganda devices and common fallacies that propagandists use. 

Eleanor MacLean and Randal Marlin outline a robust list of fallacies and some lesser-known propaganda devices used to manipulate an audience. MacLean describes deceptive practices involving language, Bold assertions, Selective omission, Quoting out of context, Twisting and distortion, Meshing fact with opinion, and others.[23] Marlin outlines logical fallacies, including Ad hominem argument, False cause, Hasty generalization, Ignoring the question, Ignoring the logical force and direction of an argument, Begging the question, False analogy, Amphiboly (sentence constructions that can be parsed differently to get different meanings), and Accident (treating the nonessential as essential).[24]

From 1937-1942, Clyde R. Miller spearheaded a notable effort specifically against propaganda through the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) in New York. This initiative sought to limit the impact of propaganda on democracy by bolstering the public’s ability to think critically, for well-considered discussion of daily events. In 1939, Miller said:

There are three ways to deal with propaganda - first, to suppress it; second, to try to answer it by counter propaganda; third, to analyze it.[25]

The IPA was established with the support of the retailer Edward A. Filene and academic Kirtley Mather. As Michael Sproule observes, this Institute fused “academic and practical progressivism into an organized antipropaganda critique.”[26] Critics of the IPA failed “to distinguish between healthy skepticism and dysfunctional cynicism.”[27] Perhaps most contributing to the suspension of the IPA’s operations were changing viewpoints among some of its leaders when the United States entered World War II, as well as the difficulty of continuing to raise operating funds in the “changed social climate.”[28]

The IPA disseminated seven devices that propagandists use to tap prejudice and other emotions, as well as “ABCs” to help people highlight or suppress their own judgment. Description and examples of the IPA’s seven devices, Name-calling, Glittering generality, Transfer, Testimonial, Plain folks, Card stacking, and Bandwagon, along with the ABCs, remain readily available and widely used.[29] They have helped many people understand and deal at a basic level with propaganda.

Inarguably, these are just some of the ways to help detect propaganda. The easier propagandists to call out are those who say the outright opposite of what they do. More challenging are conjurers of euphemism[30] or maestros of the mealy-mouthed–especially any enabled by focus groups to parse and tailor what “best words” to direct at us, like prosperity, results, renewal, security, or a litany of words that are promoted into conversation without any matching actions that are required to deliver solutions for people. Instead of parroting a propagandist’s vacuous words, it’s best to amplify what actions are needed for real solutions.

Of course, it’s important to try to spot lies. To help with this, law enforcement and counterespionage interviewers explain indicators like Failing to answer, Non-specific denial, Reluctance or refusal to answer, Answering a question with a question, or Requesting a question be repeated.[31] These are considered significant when two or more occur. Despite ongoing research though, methods for spotting lies are not necessarily assured.[32]

For dealing with the ever-increasing waves of digital lies, librarians and others have also developed helpful ways to verify the accuracy of claims, including checking the changes made on Internet web pages, using the Wayback Machine or other methods.[33] Researchers using large language models continue to increase the accuracy of digital tools to enable large-scale detection of “fake news” and misinformation.[34]

Ongoing Education

 An urgent priority is to massively expand education enhancing the ability of adults, youth, and children to assess public discourse–to discern, analyze, and synthesize reality. Unfortunately, during recent centuries, as both education and the vote became more generally available in Western democracies, too many education curricula jettisoned valuable tools to differentiate sense from nonsense in public discourse.[35] People educated from the mid- to later twentieth century onwards have often had to rely on self-education for logic or smatterings of dialectics and rhetorical skills. 

A sorry decline in rhetorical education throughout the United States is outlined in David Fleming’s essay, “Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts.” He observes:

...if we identify persuasion with manipulation and pandering only, we fail to recognize a realm of influence-seeking that is neither of those, that tries to move others while still respecting their autonomy...[36]

From the mid-twentieth century, many educators developed “other teach critical thinking... [that mostly] avoided directly confronting society's leading persuaders and intractable problems... [and] ...emphasized the internal psychology of the thinker.[37] A range of programs need strengthening to educate thoughtful and articulate citizens.[38]

There is “significant evidence that media literacy training can help people identify false stories and unreliable news sources,” empowering “motivated individuals to take control of their media” use. As a whole-of-nation strategy to counter propaganda, media literacy “suffers challenges in speed, scale, and targeting.”[39] Even so, some nations are investing substantially in practical education of children, youths, and adults–including diplomats, members of defense forces, and other groups.[40] Renee Hobbs and Sandra McGee provide perspective on these programs, many of which have developed novel delivery modes and other innovations for learning that increase understandings of propaganda.[41]

Beyond the many efforts to educate future generations through media literacy,[42] nationwide initiatives in the United States are also strengthening civics education. In addition to the children and youth for whom programs like the relatively recent “Educating for American Democracy”[43] are designed, such programs could be valuable for many adults. College programs in civics, literacy, rhetoric, writing, media, or other fields also provide models to encourage collaborative inquiry into community problems. These programs develop democratic deliberation, re-structuring dialogues to encourage personal and public change through building “community literacy” in students[44]–advancing both educational goals and improved community understandings.

Research Insights

During the last seven years or so, the explosion of research into disinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news, and related areas is developing concepts of misinformation broadly defined, digital detection tools, or psychological understandings, particularly in relation to social media and mass media. A continuing challenge with this research is inconsistency defining core terms and concepts. The many thousands of research investigations that are concluded or underway require ongoing curation to distill what might be usefully put to work at scale.[45]

Some earlier studies suggest the value of assuring multi-faceted, pro-active initiatives to counter propaganda. Recommendations include 

  • mounting media literacy education to reduce “the persuasive efficacy” of propaganda, 
  • driving a wedge among adversaries, 
  • inoculating with information to reduce an “audience’s potential to be influenced,”
  • debunking to replace “incorrect information,” and
  • developing new regulations and other “strategies to counter propagandists and disinformation.”[46] 

 Important studies include “Propaganda of the Deed and Its Anarchist Origins,” “Countering Hamas and Hezbollah Propaganda,” “Defending against Russian Propaganda,” “IS’s Strategic Communication Tactics,” and “The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda in Cyberspace.”[47]

More recent research examines networks and the effectiveness of interventions,[48] which include prebunking, boosting (psychological inoculation, critical thinking, and media/information literacy), nudging (accuracy primes and social norm nudges), debunking (fact-checking), and automatic labeling.[49] Still other insights are available concerning the content, motivations, and processes of conspiracy theorists, along with learning from ex-believers about individual journeys in and out of conspiracy theories online.[50]

Propaganda is described in some research as realizing “ideological goals through intentional distortions.” This work seeks to highlight: (1) the role of “true” information; (2) the influence of context; (3) the importance of repetition, not only as a rhetorical device but related to the means of distribution and dissemination; and (4) the part played by audiences themselves in the cyclical flows of digital information.[51] Other studies show how the preoccupation that many people have with social media facilitates their ready participation as audience members to amplify propaganda.[52]

The editors of The Sage Handbook of Propaganda call for studies of the “effects of propaganda, particularly on democratic and authoritarian systems and on public opinion, over time.”[53] And propagandists exploit both positive and negative features of a society’s culture. This makes at least as important studies to secure better understanding of how these features of culture predispose us to accept propaganda.

Whether for nations, organizations, or individuals, deciding priorities to outwit propagandists requires a developed understanding of the continuously evolving propaganda networks and processes. The ability to deal productively with controversy and conflicts of opinion has characterized the advancement of social and scientific progress from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.[54] As we go forward, ever-better critical abilities, conversation skills, and system resources are essential to deal effectively with the outrageous claims, polemic, scandal, or other distortions of truth by propagandists.


1. Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning: Paper Read at a Vacation Course in Education, Oxford, 1947, London: Methuen, p. 30

2. Simchon, Almog, Matthew Edwards, and Stephan Lewandowsky (2024), “The Persuasive Effects of Political Microtargeting in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence,” PNAS Nexus, 3(2), February,

 3. Kouper, Inna (2022), “Information Practices of Resistance during the 2022 Russian Invasion of Ukraine,” Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 59(1), October 29-November1, pp. 157-168,

4. Kepe, Marta and Alyssa Demus (2023), Resisting Russia: Insights into Ukraine’s Civilian-Based Actions During the First Four Months of the War in 2022, Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, pp. 12-14 and p. 49; Jolley, Daniel and Karen M. Douglas (2017), “Prevention is Better than Cure: Addressing Anti-vaccine Conspiracy Theories,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 47(8), pp. 459-469,, Stephan and John Cook (2020), The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,

5. Roozenbeek, Jon, Eileen Culloty, and Jane Suiter (2023), “Countering Misinformation: Evidence, Knowledge Gaps, and Implications of Current Interventions,” European Psychologist, 28(3), July 14,, Carolin-Theresa and Tobias Rothmund (2024), “Psychological Underpinnings of Misinformation Countermeasures,” Journal of Media Psychology, January 23,; Courchesne, Laura, Julia Ilhardt, and Jacob N. Shapiro (2021), “Review of Social Science Research on the Impact of Countermeasures against Influence Operations,” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, September 13164,

6. Bateman, Jon and Dean Jackson (2024), Countering Disinformation Effectively: An Evidence-Based Policy Guide, Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pp. 1-8,; Smith, Zhanna Malekos (2020), “Part II: How the Information Environment is Testing the Mettle of Liberal Democracies,” in Burnt by the Digital Sun, Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, pp. 9-16,; Piskorska, Galyna, Daria Ryzhova, and Anatoly Yakovets (2023), “Joint Efforts of the Media, Civil Society, and the State to Counter Russian Disinformation,” International Journal of Innovative Technologies in Social Science, 3(39),; Teperik, Dmitri, Solvita Denisa-Liepniece, Dalia Bankauskaitė, and Kaarel Kullamaa (2022), Resilience Against Disinformation: A New Baltic Way to Follow? Estonia: International Centre for Defence and Security, and

7. Paul, Christopher and Miriam Matthews (2016), The Russian Firehose of Falsehood Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It, Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation,

8. Van der Linden, Sander (2023), Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 174-175 and pp. 244-245 

9. Carey, John, Brian Fogarty, Marília Gehrke, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler (2024), “Prebunking and Credible Source Corrections Increase Election Credibility: Evidence from the U.S. and Brazil,”

10. Paul and Matthews; Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter

11. Van der Linden, pp. 77-79; Paul and Matthews; Garrett, R. Kelly (2017), “The ‘Echo Chamber’ Distraction: Disinformation Campaigns Are the Problem Not Audience Fragmentation,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6, pp. 370-376,

12. Bolt, Neville (2020), Propaganda of the Deed and Its Anarchist Origins, in Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sagepp. 3-21

13. Paul and Matthews

14. McQuade, Barbara (2024), Attack from Within: How Disinformation Is Sabotaging America, New York: Seven Stories Press, pp. 251-281

15. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Mens Attitudes, New York: Vintage; Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O’Donnell (2019), 7th edn, Propaganda and Persuasion, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage 

16. Ellul (1965), p. xii

17. Miller, Rodney G. (2023), “Book Review: A New Semiotics: An Introductory Guide for Students by David Sless & Ruth Shrensky,” Media International Australia, October 6,; see also: Phillips, Whitney (2019), “It Wasn't Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, ‘Fun,’ and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter,” Social Media + Society, pp. 1-4,; Echeverría, Martin and Frida V. Rodelo (2023), Political Entertainment in a Post-authoritarian Democracy: Humor and the Mexican Media, Abingdon: Routledge

18. McCright, A. M. and R. E. Dunlap (2017), “Combatting Misinformation Requires Recognizing Its Types and the Factors That Facilitate Its Spread and Resonance,” Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 6(4), pp. 389-396,

19. Kellen, Konrad, “Introduction,” in Ellul (1965), p. v

20. Tsipursky, G. (2017), “Towards a Post-lies Future: Fighting ‘Alternative Facts’ and ‘Post-truth’ Politics,” The Humanist, 77(2), pp. 12-15,

21. Kellen, p. v

22. Ellul (1965), p. 52

23Marlin, Randal (2013), Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview, pp. 106-109; also, MacLean, Eleanor (1981), Between the Lines: How to Detect Bias and Propaganda in the News and Everyday Life, Montreal: Black Rose Books

24. Marlin (2013), pp. 110-113

25. Schiffrin, Anya (2018), Fighting Disinformation with Media Literacyin 1939, Columbia Journalism Review, October 10,

26. Sproule, J. Michael (1997), Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 177

27. Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter, p. 192

28. Sproule (1997), p. 176

29. Hobbs, Renee and Sandra McGee (2014), “Teaching about Propaganda: An Examination of the Historical Roots of Media Literacy,” Journal of Media Literacy Education, 6(2), 59 and p. 63 

30. Karam, Savo (2011), “Truths and Euphemisms: How Euphemisms Are Used in the Political Arena,” The Southeastern Asian Journal of English Language Studies, 17(1),, pp. 5-17 

31. Houston, Philip, Michael Floyd, and Susan Carnicero (2012), Spy the Lie, New York: St. Martin's Griffin, pp. 55-72

32. Mann, Samantha (2019), “Lying and Lie Detection,” in Meibauer, Jörg (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Lying, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 408-419; Srour, Camille and Jacques Py (2023), The General Theory of Deception: A Disruptive Theory of Lie Production, Prevention, and Detection,Psychological Review, 130(5), pp. 1289-1309,

33. Weigle, Michelle C. (2023), “The Use of Web Archives in Disinformation Research,”, June,

34. Al-Tai, Mohammed Haqi, Bashar M. Nema, and Ali Al-Sherbaz (2023), “Deep Learning for Fake News Detection: Literature Review,” Al-Mustansiriyah Journal of Science, 34, June 2,

35. Sayers, p. 4

36. Fleming, David (2019), “Fear of Persuasion in the English Language Arts,” College English, 81(6), p. 535,

37. Sproule, J. Michael (2001), “Authorship and Origins of the Seven Propaganda Devices: A Research Note,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 4(1), Spring, p. 140

38. Sproule, J. Michael (1994), Channels of Propaganda, Bloomington, IN: EDINFO Press and ERIC Clearinghouse, pp. 1-51

39. Bateman and Jackson, p. 6

40. Mason, Lance E., Daniel G. Krutka, and Jeremy Stoddard (2018), “Media Literacy, Democracy, and the Challenges of Fake News,” Journal of Media Literacy Education, 10(2), pp. 1-10,

  Kupiecki, Robert and Agnieszka Legucka (Eds.) (2023), Disinformation and the Resilience of Democratic Societies, Warsaw: Polski Institute Spraw Międzynarodowych, note: Bryjka, Filip, “Notes on Detecting and Countering Disinformation,” pp. 235-264 and Podemska, Justyna and Piotr Podemski, “Protect Yourself Against Disinformation,” pp. 265-285,; Moral, Pablo, Guillermo Marco, Julio Gonzalo, Jorge Carrillo-de-Albornoz, and Ivan Gonzalo-Verdugo (2023), “Overview of DIPROMATS 2023: Automatic Detection and Characterization of Propaganda Techniques in Messages from Diplomats and Authorities of World Powers,” in Procesamiento del Lenguaje Natural, Revista no 71, Septiembre, pp. 397-407,; Ventsel, Andreas, Sten Hansson, Merit Rickberg, and Mari-Liis Madisson (2023), “Building Resilience against Hostile Information Influence Activities: How a New Media Literacy Learning Platform Was Developed for the Estonian Defense Forces,” Armed Forces and Society, April 18, pp. 1-21,

41. Hobbs and McGee, pp. 56-67; Hobbs, Renee (2020), Mind over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age, New York: W.W. Norton; Naffi, Nadia, Melodie Charest, Sarah Danis, Laurie Pique, Ann-Louise Davidson, Nicholas Brault, Marie-Claude Bernard, and Sylivie Barma (2023), “Empowering Youth to Combat Malicious Deepfakes and Disinformation: An Experimental and Reflective Learning Experience Informed by Personal Construct Theory,” Journal of Constructivist Psychology, December 20, 

42. Media Education Lab, Harrington School of Communication and Media, University of Rhode Island,

43. Educating for American Democracy (2021), Educating for American Democracy Project,

44. Higgins, Lorraine, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower (2006), “Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry.” Community Literacy Journal,1(1), pp. 8-43,

45. Young, Marilyn J., Michael K. Launer, and Curtis C. Austin (1990), “The Need for Evaluative Criteria: Conspiracy Argument Revisited, Argumentation and Advocacy,” 26(3), pp. 89-107,; Anderson, C.W. (2021), “Propaganda, Misinformation, and Histories of Media Techniques,” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 2(2),; Kyriakidou, Maria, Marina Morani, Ceri Hughes (2022), “Audience Understandings of Disinformation: Navigating News Media through a Prism of Pragmatic Scepticism,” Journalism, 24(11), July 20,

     Ruffo, Giancarlo, Alfonso Semeraro, Anastasia Giachanou, and Paolo Rosso (2023), “Studying Fake News Spreading Polarization Dynamics, and Manipulation by Bots: A Tale of Networks and Language,” Computer Science Review, 47, February, 100531,; Bolin, Göran and Risto Kunelius (2023), “The Return of Propaganda: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Conceptualisations,” Nordic Journal of Media Studies, 5(1), pp. 1-16,; Wilson, Wilkes, Teramoto, and Hale; Hameleers, Michael (2023), “Disinformation as a Context-bound Phenomenon: Toward a Conceptual Clarification Integrating Actors, Intentions and Techniques of Creation and Dissemination,” Communication Theory, October 23, pp. 1-10,;  Murphy, Gillian, Constance De Saint Laurent, Megan Reynolds, Omar Aftab, Karen Hegarty, Yuning Sun, and Ciara M. Greene (2023), “What Do We Study When We Study Misinformation? A Scoping Review of Experimental Research (2016-2022),” Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, November 15,; Lewandowsky, Stephan, Sander van der Linden, and Andy Norman (2024), “Opinion: Disinformation Is the Real Threat to Democracy and Public Health,” Scientific American, January 30,; April, Tay, Li Qian, Stephan Lewandowsky, Mark J. Hurlstone, Tim Kurz, and Ulrich K. H. Ecker (2024), “Thinking Clearly about Misinformation,” Communications Psychology, 2(4),

46. Baines, O’Shaughnessy, and Snow, pp. 281-284 and pp. 293-298

47. Baines, O’Shaughnessy, and Snow: Neville Bolt – “Propaganda of the Deed and Its Anarchist Origins” pp. 3-21, Ron Schleifer – “Countering Hamas and Hezbollah Propaganda” pp. 281-284, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews – “Defending against Russian Propaganda” pp. 293-298, Charlie Winter and Craig Whiteside – “ISs Strategic Communication Tactics” pp. 569-571 and pp. 573-574, Gabriel Weimann – “The Evolution of Terrorist Propaganda in Cyberspace” pp. 586-590

48. Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter 

49. Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter; Compton, Josh, Sander van der Linden, John Cook, and Melisa Basol (2021), “Inoculation Theory in the Post-truth Era: Extant Findings and New Frontiers for Contested Science, Misinformation, and Conspiracy Theories,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 15(6), May 5,; Ganapini, Marianna (2023), “Beyond Harm: An Ethical Framework to Tackle Misinformation on Social Media,”, June 5, Philosophy, Computer Science,

50. Hyzen, Aaron and Hilde Van den Bulck (2021), “Conspiracies, Ideological Entrepreneurs and Popular Culture,” Media and Communication, 9(3), pp. 179-188; Engel, Kristen, Shruti Phadke, and Tanushree Mitra (2023), Learning from the Ex-Believers: Individuals Journeys In and Out of Conspiracy Theories Online, Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(CSCW2), #285, October 4, pp. 1-37,

51. Hyzen, Aaron (2023), “Propaganda and the Web 3.0: Truth and Ideology in the Digital Age,” Nordic Journal of Media Studies, 5(1), pp. 50-51,

52. Wanless, Alicia and Michael Berk (2020), “Audience Is the Amplifier: Participatory Propaganda,” in Baines, O’Shaughnessy, and Snow, pp. 85-104; Wanless, Alicia and Michael Berk (2022), “Participatory Propaganda: The Engagement of Audiences in the Spread of Persuasive Communications,” in Herbert, David and Stefan Fisher (Eds.), Social Media and Social Order, De Gruyter Open Poland,

53. Baines, O’Shaughnessy, and Snow, p. xxxvii-xxxviii

54. Fritz, Gerd (2010), “Controversies,” in Jucker, Andreas and Irma Taavitsainen (Eds.), Historical Pragmatics, The Hague: De Gruyter Mouton, pp. 451-455,

Monday, February 26, 2024

Deflection and Deterrence

Exiled from Athens via ostracism c. 471-2 BC, despite an impactful military career
by Brogi, licensed under Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication {{PD-author}}

"No newis is bettir than evill newis."[1]

– King James I, 1616 

A politician who uses "strategies to achieve collaborative power" within a democratic system is very different to one who uses "strategies to grab coercive power for relatively naked or revolutionary political action."[2] The latter will ordinarily use propaganda to exploit narcissistic needs of both the propagandist and followers, who "consider themselves superior" to others.[3] 

It's commonly observed that this propagandist amplifies fears about others, along with claims that these others cause harm to collective wellbeing.[4] It's widely thought that a propagandist gathers followers among those who feel neglected and aggrieved by politicians or so-called elites. If so, what can we do to deal with fears in a propagandist's followers? If we look to theories of fear for guidance, we find that previous applications of fear theory to engage the public's support to counter terror activity or security threats had limited success. These theories were "largely developed through experimentation rather than in the field."[5]

And beyond fears, the wide-ranging motivations for aligning with propagandists include seeking fun,[6] attention, recognition, and belonging, or satisfying curiosity, greed, or graft. But what's certain is that, as with a viral pandemic, a virulent propagandist doesn't "just disappear." 

Debriefing ex-believers who journey in and out of conspiracy theories may offer useful clues to deal with the tribe-like devotion of a propagandist's followers.[7] What appears effective to reengage the propagandist's most polarized followers back with the real world is painstakingly systematic involvement through one-on-one or one-on-two discussions.[8] 

Ongoing are explorations to engage citizens in local decision-making in ways that strengthen democracy, including consideration of the potential applicability of the Swiss Cantonal Parliament model.[9] Other approaches designed around the principles of college programs that for decades have built "community literacy" in students may prove helpful.[10] A common thread is building cooperative efforts that tangibly benefit the community in which participants live. In contrast, the pseudo-democratic authoritarian is all about fabricating a parallel fantasy-reality.

Fighting Fabrication

Understanding and dealing with propaganda requires truth-seeking and "quality problem-solving conversations."[11] For dialogue that bolsters democracy, it's necessary to step outside established zones of comfort within institutions, professions, job descriptions, or allied socializations. Some activists, educators, journalists, judges, members of the media, or others do manage to begin the simple dialogue that causes propaganda to cease. By reasserting "political rationality," these individuals do much "to build, maintain and strengthen liberal democracy."[12]

They help deflect aspiring autocrats. Countering these propagandists' rude, contrarian antics is vital to deny the consolidation of power through the incitement of otherwise little-checked harms. Unimpeded, propagandists continuously undermine the rule of law and effective government. This accelerates democratic backsliding, most defined as: 

...deterioration of at least one of three pillars of democracy: free and fair elections, protection of broad political rights and personal freedoms, as well as the rule of law...[13]    

That propaganda is commonly a tool of presumed powerful political, commercial, religious, or military figures is disincentive to prosecution or legislation addressing the harms caused by these bad actors. Prosecutions of influential bad actors are much less than requirednot least because of the limited resources of public prosecutors' offices.

Yet some prosecutors and judges, and even some legislators, manage to function beyond buggy-pace in a nanosecond world. Apparently unhampered by self-preserving caution or other presumptions so common in their professions, these individuals step beyond platitudes like The wheels of justice grind slowly, but exceedingly fine, to advance the contrary maxim Justice delayed is justice denied

Deterring Harm

These prosecutors and judges interpret imminent at something approaching the speed reality requires. Yet they seem only able to very slowly bring some perpetrators to account for more egregious harms, like defamation, fraud, or perjury. When gaming the rule of law is the rule of play, remedy is needed at a speed to meet the need.

Policymakers who can find any bipartisan alignment must likewise address the ever-present flood of harmful disinformation. Glimmers of hope mainly appear in the European Union, which systematically executes support and direction for stakeholders seeking to mitigate the impact of disinformation.[14] Policymakers and civic leaders must still be pushed well beyond their limited efforts to date to counter even obviously false information causing harm. For example, the action of United States attorneys-general against Internet platforms should have occurred long ago to address harms to children. And it's reasonable to push for state and federal action in similar ways to protect adults from harmful effects of social media. 

Required Reassessment  

The proliferation of propaganda to incite insurrection or violence that harms democracy itself and our fellow citizens requires that we reassess the effectiveness of legal protections. 

Especially serious is that fully functioning propaganda controls the thought and actions of large population groups. Curiously, a clichéd story in the legal profession proffers that shouting Fire! in a crowded movie theater is not acceptable, yet propaganda immediately threatening democracy largely is? 

With bravado or defiance, autocrat-propagandists in the United States often falsely claim their speech is protected under The First Amendmentwhich does not apply for speech advancing particular illegal activity. This includes lies that: 

unambiguously have no or little social value...and also cause cognizable harms (as well as sometimes yielding undeserved benefits for the liar)... [which include] ...fraud, perjury, ...and making false statements to public officials.[15]

It's well past time for more action than scholars or pundits rightly pointing this out. 

Civic leaders must take the lead on actionable offenses, instead of dodging their responsibility to do so, sometimes by repeating incorrect platitudes about free speech. This just further empowers a propagandist's undermining of the rule of law. Likewise, pursuit of criminal or civil penalties on propagandists must be stepped up for violating public trust through perjury, tax evasion, espionage, and mail or wire fraud during fundraising or merchandise sales. 

Citizens theoretically can seek remedy for propagandists' criminal or civil wrongs, like defamation or fraud. But an individual mounting legal action against a propagandist incurs substantial financial and emotional burdens, on top of dealing with the ever-increasing threats of physical harm from a propagandist's followers.

Action Against Lies 

Unsurprisingly, scholars concerned about the adequacy of the civil tort system to provide redress for the harms caused by lies conclude that:

the criminal law delivers real sanctions; ...shame and stigma accompanying criminal punishment [is]...not dependent on a willing victim to pursue punishment...[and] ...a consequentialist approach that employs Feinberg's reasoning not only justifies, but demands the criminalization of certain egregious forms of lying.[16]

Following close examination of the main categories of lies, two scholars propose a new crime focused solely on the lies that harm another person or entity. Their sample clause for the new crime considers "that lies should only be criminalized if they are intended to cause serious harm and if said harm results,"[17] namely:

A person is guilty of egregious lying causing serious harm when...[she or] he knowingly lies to another person (1) with the intent to cause serious harm to that person; and (2) serious harm occurs as a result of the lie. As used in this section, a "lie" means a false statement made to another person in oral or written form.[18]

With ever-proliferating harms from disinformation, the pressure should and likely will mount on civic leaders to do something about the ongoing exploitation of snails-paced legal procedures, as well as to close the substantive and procedural loopholes in the law that propagandists exploit. Not even codification, however, may remedy the fictions surrounding "puffery," which judicial interpretations in commercial settings concurrently consider a "vague statement"[19] and "assumed not to work,"[20] yet, paradoxically, supposedly helps citizens by offering assurances to fulfill expectations.[21]

Changes to law, such as the provision in France that enabled "judges to order the removal of false information during electoral periods"[22] will spotlight tensions in the continuum between censorship and free speech principles in practice. 

What's Acceptable?

What's very clear is that neglecting to promptly hold autocrat-propagandists to account is unacceptably harmful. And unlike the infamous juggernaut that autocrat-propagandists try to resemble, propagandists do have weaknesses in common. Some of these may prove useful to deter behavior, beyond the financial penalties imposed through successful prosecutions. For example, the combination of narcissism and greed that drives torrents of "what-about-me-ism" in an autocrat is an Achilles heel. 

Firstly, there's the opportunity to increase media coverage of anyone other than this propagandist. An opportunity with similar effect is to further amplify the propagandist's declines in fundraising, without the usual, habitual use of photographs, video, or quotes of the propagandist.

Secondly, serious scrutiny of the dark effects of an autocrat's alleged criminality on the rest of us may help. Even though an autocrat-propagandist may commonly use corrupt practices for self-advancement, some veneer of legality is required until absolute power is secured.

It's not yet routine in modern Western democracies to ostracize corrupt autocrats. Many who support insurrection remain effectively immune. Interestingly, ostracism originated as a process to protect democracy from threat in ancient Athens. Each year the assembly of citizens decided whether to hold an ostracism or not.[23] The process: 

...first emerged to protect the system, from those who intend to abolish democracy...[and]...can be considered an expression of the people's belief in democracy and their desire to protect their government."[24]

There was no need to prove the accusation or claim causing the exile of ostracism. The vote of citizens required an offender to leave Athens for ten years. This was also practice in some other Greek city-states.[25]

As naysayers attempt to downplay the impacts that propaganda and disinformation make on us all, now is the time to get ahead of propagandists.



1. Proverb attributed to King James I, with equivalent expression in Italy; current version - No news is good news.

2. Körner, Robert, Jennifer R. Oberbeck, Erik Körner, and Astrid Schütz (2022), "How the Linguistic Styles of Donald Trump and Joe Biden Reflect Different Forms of Power," Journal of Language and Social Psychology, April 12, p. 22,

3. Wollaeger, Mark (2013), "Propaganda and Pleasure: From Kracauer to Joyce," in Auerbach, Johathan and Russ Castronovo (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 280-281

4. Baines, Paul and Nigel Jones (2020), "Countering Fear in Propaganda," in Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 336 

5. Baines and Jones, pp. 343-347; Tannenbaum, Melanie B., Justin Hepler, Rick S. Zimmerman, Lindsey Saul, Samantha Jacobs, Kristina Wilson, and Delores Albarracn (2015), "Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories," Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), pp. 1178-1204,

6. Phillips, Whitney (2019), "It Wasn't Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, 'Fun,' and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter," Social Media + Society, pp. 1-4,; Ecker, Ullrich K. H., Stephan Lewandowsky, Olivia Fenton, and Kelsey Martin (2014), "Do People Keep Believing because They Want to? Preexisting Attitudes and Continued Influence of Misinformation," Memory and Cognition, 42(2),

7. Engel, Kristen, Shruti Phadke, and Tanushree Mitra (2023), "Learning from the Ex-Believers: Individuals' Journeys In and Out of Conspiracy Theories Online," Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(CSCW2), #285, October 4, pp. 1-37,

8. _______ (2023), Morning Joe, MSNBC broadcast, December

9. Michels, Ank and Laurens De Graaf (2017), "Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policymaking and Democracy Revisited," Local Government Studies, 43(6), pp. 875-881,; Federal Chancellery of Switzerland (2024), "Cantonal Parliament: Role and Composition," website,

10. Higgins, Lorraine, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower (2006), "Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry," Community Literacy Journal, 1(1), p. 10,

11. Robinson, Viviane, Frauke Meyer, Deidre Le Fevre, and Claire Sinnema (n.d.), "The Quality of Leaders's Problem-solving Conversations: Truth-seeking or Truth-claiming?"

12. Zamęcki, Łukasz and Adam Szymański (2023), "Unintentional Democratic Backsliders. 'Evil Always Wins through the Strength of Its Splendid Dupes,'" Polish Political Science Review, 11(1), June 30, pp. 40-41,

13. Zamęcki and Szymański, p. 25

14. European Commission (2022), Fighting Disinformation: 2022 Strengthened Code of Practice, June 16, Brussels: European Union,

15. Chen, Alan K. and Justin Marceau (2018), "Developing a Taxonomy of Lies under The First Amendment," University of Colorado Law Review, 89, p. 703,; for U.S. Federal law governing limits to free speech, as interpreted in the ruling from United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012), with discussion of the limited ability to restrict lies, see:

16. Druzin, Bryan H. and Jessica Li (2010), "The Criminalization of Lying: Under What Circumstances, If Any, Should Lies Be Made Criminal?" The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), 101(2), pp. 571-572,

17. Druzin and Li, p. 562

18. Druzin and Li, p. 563

19. Hoffman, David A. (2006), "The Best Puffery Article Ever," Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Research Paper No. 2006-11, 91 Iowa Law Review 1395, p. 103,

20. Hoffman, p. 145

21. Hoffman, p. 133

22. Brown, Étienne (2019), "'Fake News' and Conceptual Ethics," Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 16(2), p. 147,

23. Mackie, Chris (2016), "Lessons from Ancient Athens: The Art of Exiling Your Enemies," The Conversation, November 22,; [Note: Arguably, in the spirit of ostracism is the provision in some democracies for removal from elected office through a citizens' petition and conduct of a successful recall election.]

24. Oral, Uur (2023), "'Ostracism,' The People's Way of Protecting Democracy from Tyrants in Ancient Athens," Electronic Journal of Social Sciences, April 22, 86, p. 659, 

25. Oral, p. 657