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 attention, fun, recognition, and belonging, or satisfying curiosity, greed, or graft.[6] But what's certain is that, as with a viral pandemic, a virulent propagandist is unlikely to "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] 

Other approaches designed around the principles of college programs that for decades have built "community literacy" in students may prove helpful.[9] Ongoing are explorations to engage citizens in local decision-making in ways that strengthen democracy.[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 illegal activity. These include 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 the 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. 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,

10. Michels, Ank and Laurens De Graaf (2017), "Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policymaking and Democracy Revisited," Local Government Studies, 43(6), pp. 875-881,

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,

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

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Going Forward

"Sticks & stones may break my bones but SCIENCE helps to heal me
Minnesota March for Science, St Paul

"The only way to find a solution is to act."[1]

– Maria Ressa, 2022

Anyone who still believes the children's rhyme that closes with words will never hurt me[2] is either not paying attention, or more concerning, does not want to. Propaganda impacts what everyone thinks or does. In both autocratic and democratic states, people must deal with propaganda in endlessly engulfing waves. Inaction or inappropriate reactions to its impact empowers an autocrat. Autocrats and aspiring autocrats rely greatly on a population's self-censorship to manage dissent.[3]

Nicholas O'Shaughnessy has illuminated the strategy autocrats employ to develop pseudo-democracy. By using "the magnifying glass of TV and the Internet,"[4] they sow confusion, make pseudo-reality plausible, manage symbolism and perceptions of history, myth, or existential threat, then follow up with soft power in an evangelistic mode and with physical coercion. The objective is to secure acquiescence, not belief, to create "conformists." To secure and retain power, the autocrat propagandist "offers a worldview that is simple, coherent, and easily communicated...founded on some idea of a nationalist utopia."[5]

Resistance and Resilience

Fortunately, a propagandist's threat to freedoms also has an unintended consequence of fueling resistance and resilience in people who are allergic to such control. While lip-service to democracy may satisfy a propagandist's followers, democracy nurtures in many others a "fluid and many-sided" personality[6] with intuition and commitment for what it takes to expand "rights and liberties to everybody."[7] A wide range of such civic virtues nurture personal and group resilience and understandings of personal liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance as lived experiencestangibly impacting citizenship, civil action, education, and other personal or social understandings and initiatives that protect and promote the autonomy of citizens.[8]

Common approaches used to resist propagandists are "speaking out, to humor, to avoiding confrontation, [which]...may not work as 'constructive resistances.'"[9] Much detection and dealing with propaganda focuses on revealing faulty reasoning, lies and part-truths, or appeals to audience emotions, to discredit the supposed intentions of a propagandist. But as long ago as 2018 in the United States at least, it was publicly acknowledged that multiple, dispersed warnings about intent, propaganda mechanisms, or various fact-checking approaches[10] via however intelligent and penetrating commentary, blistering advertisements, mockery, hype, or even legal probes are no match for an ongoing onslaught of unfettered propaganda.[11] 

It's surely important to ferret out "the tactics and hidden interests of persuasive campaigns,"[12] but to motivate action it's necessary to visualize what's significant to people's livesfocusing on just a relatively few, digestible concerns to stimulate action and encourage new habits.[13] For motivation against propaganda to be useful, communication efforts must occur at a scale that energizes meaningfully large population groups to actively resist autocrats.[14] 

Differently nuanced methods are required to tackle different types of propaganda, or different phases in a propagandist's efforts, especially in different cultures. For example, although "political rhetoric in Scandinavia is generally less hostile and polarised than in many other European countries  and especially the US  the last 20 years have shown right-wing movements using increasingly hostile and aggressive rhetoric."[15] Perceptions and expectations concerning power, individualism, competition, security, norms, or restraint vary greatly among cultural groups,[16] within and beyond national boundaries. Certainly though, much more than emotion-charged inaction is needed to deal with insurgency,[17] including when dealing with terrorists against democracy.

Get Ready

Some researchers suggest forewarning or prebunking as a particularly effective approach to blunt misinformation,[18] which requires anticipating a propagandist's disruptive actions and hubris. Both immediately and longer term, a priority must be to continuously monitor, detect, and draw attention to the specific harms inherent in the claims or presumptions of propaganda. 

Mostly, a propagandist's contrarian behaviors become very predictable. Slogans or specific wordings and actions are commonly recycled in copy-cat from other places or earlier times. For example, among the many occasions that a propagandist's "reality" imitates fiction or vice-versa is a representation of events in 1946 within an episode of the British television series, Foyle's War, first broadcast in 2015. A propagandist's public speech is scripted with the eerily familiar catchwords of today's propagandists, including "stuck in hell holes," "illegal aliens," "stolen jobs," "take back our streets," and "Make Britain great again."[19] 

With a bit of creativity, it's quite straightforward to anticipate many claims or actions of a propagandist and then to brainstorm effective strategies, to be ready for strategic response. Compiling an "issues file" of draft media releases or pre-drafted outlines for news stories or other materials ahead of time provides a good resource for pre-emptively blocking or quickly deflecting most claims and antics. These materials may be especially effective when developed to address anti-democracy insurgencies, like the ten areas listed at the conclusion of my January 21 blog post, "Counter Anti-democracy."  

Undercutting a propagandist's presumptions, claims, and actions is done simply enough by drawing attention to how these will impact the lives of family, friends, neighbors, or workmates. Individually and collectively, we should progressively expect and request similar forethought more often from aspiring and elected legislators, the media, judiciary, tech platform executives, and any other individuals or groups engaged in the public sphere. 

Stand Up

What most empowers a propagandist are reactions. Instead of reactively taking to social media, or devising that media exposé of this or that propagandist, or feeling threatened, or otherwise responding to impulses for fight or flight when our raw nerves are touched off by a propagandist's emotive nonsense, it's surely time to take a pause. And much more is needed than switching off media and tech devices, although at least occasionally this could help gain some perspective. Push back requires concerted effort that motivates additional purposeful efforts.

Our preference for what's "free and easy" prioritizes daily living. And putting time and effort into critically assessing public assertions, proposals, policies, events, and actions can be challenging. Ever-increasing amounts of data, along with propaganda designed to discredit its reliability, prevent people from making judgments and forming opinions.[20]

Also working against thoughtfulness and analytical approaches are human capacities for self-delusion.[21] People most interested in a matter are prone to mistakenly believe themselves best able to discriminate the falsity of claims. Ironically, the more vigorously that we scrutinize propagandist drivel, the more likely we'll accept at least some propaganda, since it's often based on plausible presumptions. High repetition and frequent exposure enhance how plausibly even an outrageous lie is perceived.

Individually and as a society, it's especially important to stand up to the now too common, virulent propaganda that abuses or threatens people's personality or safety. It's hard to figure why such behavior is tolerated and not called out more at community gatherings, such as school board meetings, or legislatures, or the supermarket checkout! Propaganda directed against people in this way constitutes abuse and monopolizes the mind.[22] Another insidious effect is to stifle the dialogue, debate, and participation essential to democracy. 

Such verbal abuse is no longer tolerated elsewhere in the community, like the home or workplace. But due to a mix of being taken by surprise, trying to be polite, or avoiding confrontation, or the financial and emotional demands of tackling the more egregious of these events legally, the propagandist in the public arena rolls on, somewhat like a juggernaut, too long immune. Ways to remedy related inadequacies in the law will be considered in a future blog post. At the time of occurrence of some abuse, individuals or chairpersons of meetings or groups are increasingly objecting to and moderating that behavior. This ordinarily requires some verbal, Whac-A-Mole skills. Mastery of the quick come-back and the ability to partner polemic with humor can be valuable to advance serious matters.

Media Change

The tabloid-based, sensational outrage and antics of a propagandist deliver a daily spigot of potential "news." For decades, media presenters, journalists, and media management have navigated restrictive aspects of company policy, diminishing budgets, limited time, talent migration, and other limits on efforts to sustain audiences. Unsurprisingly, the hyperbole, and even milder exaggeration of autocrat-propagandists, combined with provocative ambiguity, seem to fulfill a headline-writer's dream for attracting audience attention, whether connected to reality or not. No one has all the answers for dealing with this de facto power of a propagandist over the media. 

But some members of the media are exploring ways to lessen the impact of propaganda, such as through paraphrase, or otherwise truly editing a propagandist's drivel. It should be fine for moderators on broadcast media or editors in the print media to use different words than the propagandist's bad words, distorted truth (and lies) again, and again, and againand to challenge it as propaganda. After all, this is little different than the responsibility to prevent dissemination of libel and slanderand unchecked, propaganda is at least as harmful.

And ever since the televised presidential debates in the United States in 1960, we've known that pundits who soon afterwards comment on what public figures say have more power than the original remarks. A variation for dealing with a propagandist that one thoughtful television anchor developed is to present a propagandist's comments split screen, alongside the anchor's reactions. This is just one approach to handle a propagandist's avoidance of interviews or cross-questioning to cynically use the media as a megaphone.

News managers could take up more of the many suggestions long available to address such concerns. At the very least, directly and regularly "ask the public [...including former followers...] what they think of your news coverageand listen to what they say."[23] Media audiences do expect journalism to be more solutions based[24] and less obsessed with news as conflict, celebrity, disaster, sex, crime, or violence.[25] It would be helpful, for example, to roll back breaking news so that it is only what is truly urgent or directly impacts most of us.[26] 

Likewise, some diligence calling out false dichotomy would be a good move. Mostly unchallenged in the media is one of the propagandist's oldest rhetorical tricks of claiming to protect a freedom by leaving decision on a matter to "free decision" as a "local or state option." As far back as 1854, Abraham Lincoln showed how to powerfully deflect this trick, by calling out the inhumanity of making good people choose between self-interest and what is moral.[27] But this propagandist's rhetorical trick is still given unmoderated airplay on many so-called states-rights issues. It deserves to be called out as advocacy of self-interest, as Lincoln did. 

Serious efforts more widely are needed in the media to "bring back into the fold those who have shunned the news for the intolerably trivial circus it has become."[28] Ongoing handwringing in the media and in journalism education circles to "regain" audiences requires better innovation based on truly listening to audiences, many of whom share fears of what happens to press freedom in autocracies. Immediate actions to meet immediate needs are required of the media and each of us.

Community Engagement

How else might you bring value and encourage young, savvy individuals who have the chops to execute needed change? If you're a joiner, join and recruit others to join an action group that puts pressure and expects results from civic officials on matters you care about. Whether by interrogating, cooperating with, or operating alongside the efforts of civic leaders, the judiciary, activists, and the media, it is open to each of us to stand up to a propagandist's polemic by joining or commencing efforts that make a difference. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even in nations where volunteerism is strong, the participation in political organizations or causes tends to be just a small fraction of other volunteering.[29] A few strong and organized voices can make a real difference relatively quickly to the tenor and direction of politics, especially locally and regionally. Each of us must find ways to participate. Failure to do so enables pseudo-populists to infiltrate the selection of candidates for political office who are less than suitable.

Whether within a political organization or separately, it's also effective to invite four to six other "doers" to come together face-to-face or online, say weekly or as you can, for brainstorming about ways to help advance real community needs. After inviting aspiring or elected representatives, regulators, and administrators to brief your group on their plans, proposals, or ideas, your follow-on actions can include interrogating, monitoring, or supporting some suggestions or initiatives. Or you may commit support to personal advocacy.

Citizens, members of the media, civic officials, or whistleblowers who develop clear aims in pursuing an overall plan can help defeat political subversion.[30] In a democracy, beyond voting and working to help ensure that effective, democratic leaders are elected, individuals can help make democracy thrive in other ways. Just by writing a letter (not a tweet or email) to your elected representative requesting action on something you care about denies the acquiescence that the autocrat seeks. Ask for and expect a reply, and follow up if you do not get one, until you do get a satisfactory (not a mealy-mouthed) reply.

For push back against autocrats in autocratic states, developing democracies, or established democracies that are resisting back-sliding, well-planned strategic use of social media may allow people to share information, grow group cohesion, resist dominance, and fight for freedom. Maria Ressa's inspiring efforts to stand up to a dictator in the Philippines is one example. She focuses four layers of action to "help shorten the time it takes to correct the lies...[and] ...have civil society act... [with] ...three goals: scale, impact and deterrence."[31] 

In both democratic and autocratic states, analogous efforts with goals suited to local conditions can focus an activist group's efforts to mesh with appropriate coalitions, such as "civil society groups, business organizations, and religious groups." Follow-on efforts then link with university and other educational efforts, and engage other key professionals, like lawyers and journalists.[32]

Unaddressed, propaganda redefines what's considered important, diverting attention from policy and governance that matters. Effectively countering the propaganda that seeks pseudo-democracy requires each of us to decide how to take action.

What can you do? What more will you do? 


1. Ressa, Maria (2022), How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, New York: Harper, p. 257 and pp. 267-268

2. Galer, Sophia Smith (2023), "The Harm Caused by Dehumanizing Language," BBC online, October 23,

3. Druzin, Bryan H. and Gregory Gordon (2018), "Authoritarianism and the Internet," Law & Social Inquiry, 43(4), p. 27 [pp. 1-31]; Ressa, p. 43

4. O'Shaughnessy, Nicholas (2017), "Putin, Xi, and Hitler - Propaganda and the Paternity of Pseudo Democracy," Defense Strategic Communications: The Official Journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, 2, Spring, p. 115,

5. O'Shaughnessy (2017), pp. 115-130

6. Lifton, Robert Jay (1983), The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, New York: Basic Books, p. 1

7. Snow, Nancy (2020), Unmasking the Virus: Public Diplomacy and the Pandemic, Public Diplomacy Council, the Public Diplomacy Association of America, and the USC Annenberg Center for Communications Leadership & Policy, June 9,

8. Snow, Nancy E. (Ed.) (2024), The Self, Civic Virtue, and Public Life, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 1-8,

9. 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

10. Salaverría, Ramón and Gustavo Cardoso (2023), "Future of Disinformation Studies: Emerging Research Fields," Professional de la Información, 32(5), e320525, pp. 1-7; Çela, Erlis (2023), "Examining Journalist's Perception of Fake News and Their Attitude toward Debunking Disinformation," Studies in Media and Communication, 11(6), September, pp. 385-397; Farkas, Johan (2022), "News on Fake News: Logics of Media Discourses on Disinformation," Journal of Language and Politics,, Johan (2023), "Fake News in Metajournalistic Discourse," Journalism Studies, January 6,

11. Brooks, David (2018), "Opinion: The Failures of Anti-Trumpism," The New York Times, April 10, p. 27; Lakoff, George (2016), Understanding Trump, August, excerpt from Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (3rd edn), Chicago: University of Chicago Press,; Pinker, Steven (2006), "Block That Metaphor!" The New Republic, October 8,,  Pinker critiques Lakoff's individualized approach to "conceptual analysis," including observing in relation to Lakoff's "claim that conservatives think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation" that he "seems unaware that conservatives have been making exactly this accusation against progressives for centuries."     

12. Wood, Tim (2021), "Propaganda, Obviously: How Propaganda Analysis Fixates on the Hidden and Misses the Conspicuous," Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, 2(1), April 8

13. McGee, John A. (1929), Persuasive Speaking, New York: Scribner's, pp. 268-269 (Appendix C),

14. Rosenberg, Justus (2020), The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground, a Memoir, New York: Harper Collins

15. Kjeldsen, Jens E., Christian Kock, and Orla Vigsø (2021), "Political Rhetoric in Scandinavia," in Skorgerbø, E., Ø. Ihlen, N.N. Kristensen, and L. Nord (Eds.), Power, Communication, and Politics in the Nordic Countries, Gothenburg: Nordicom, University of Gothenburg, pp. 368-369,

16Kjeldsen, Jens E. (2023), "The Practice and Pragmatics of Scandinavian Research in Rhetoric. Audience Studies in Scandinavian Rhetorical Scholarship," Res Rhetorica, 10(4), pp. 12-13,

17. Briant, Emma Louise (2015), Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, p. 27

18. Lewandowsky, Stephan and John Cook (2020), The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,; Neylan, Julian, Mikey Biddlestone, Jon Roozenbeek, and Sander van der Linden (2023), "How to 'Innoculate' against Multimodal Misinformation: A Conceptual Replication of Roozenbeek and van der Linden (2020) Scientific Reports, 13, 18273, der Linden, Sander (2023), Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, New York: W.W. Norton

19. Orme, Stuart (Director)/Michael Horowitz/IMDbPro (2015), "Trespass," Foyle's War, Season 9, Episode 2, 

20. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Vintage, p. 87

21. Ashinoff, Brandon K., Nicholas M. Singletary, Seth C. Baker, and Guillermo Horga (2022), "Rethinking Delusions: A Selective Review of Delusion Research through a Computational Lens," Schizophr Res., July, 245, pp. 23-41,; Ariely, Dan (2023), Misbelief: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things, New York: Harper Collins, pp. 139-164

22. Briant (2015), p. 6, citing Ellul, pp. 238-242

23. Zada, John (2021), Veils of Distortion: How the News Media Warps Our Minds, Toronto: Terra Incognito, pp. 130-131

24. Zada, p. 126

25. Andersen, Robin and Jonathan Gray (Eds.) (2008), Battleground the Media, Volume 2 (O-Z), Westport, CT: Greenwood, p. 477

26. Zada, pp. 127-128

27. Wilson, Douglas L. (2007), Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, New York: Vintage, pp. 38-39

28. Zada, p. 125, pp. 10-12 and pp. 125-136

29. Gardiner, Cait, Abby Kiesa, and Alberto Medina (2020), Youth Volunteering on Political Campaigns, Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 

30. Briant (2015), p. 27

31. Ressa, p. 255

32. Ressa, pp. 253-258 

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Counter Anti-democracy!

"Things would be better if people took an interest in local politics..."[1]

 Bertrand Russell, 1952

Democratic societies have a spotty record of containing or sufficiently dealing with the propaganda that autocrats and aspiring autocrats use, especially domestically. Yet, as noted previously on this blog, united worldwide through invisible links stronger than titanium are people who want to live in a genuine democracy. Regardless of local or national differences, we agree on the value of freedom.

Fully effective propaganda degrades and then destroys the freedoms needed for the participation and cooperation that are foundations of democratic societies. Propaganda perverts the public agendaespecially since it "has always been understood to involve bribes and threats of physical coercion as well as linguistic-based deceptions."[2] But the aberrant outrage or deeds that local dupes parrot from their autocratic, foreign collaborators appear oddly in the "silly seasons" of continuous electioneeringand are readily deflected through prebunking. 

Some government responses, especially to foreign propaganda, can be very effective. For example, prior to the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the early and repeated release of declassified military intelligence by the United States had real value[3] to blunt the propaganda that came soon after from the invader. The declassified intelligence set a context for people globally to understand the invasion, the war itself, and the propaganda of the invader. And this provided context on a well-documented, so-called "strongman"[4] who obtained and sustains power through pre-emptive bluff, persuasion, and intimidation.

Speaking Out 

Our speaking up freely and well offers the simple dialogue required to advance the common good. Anything less is just lip-service to democracy. Jacques Ellul foreshadows that propaganda in a society paying lip-service to a democratic creed creates a people who are suited to a totalitarian society, because they cling to clear certainties.[5] Yet the respect for freedoms of thought, speech, and association in liberal democracies opens many pathways for those seeking to deny freedomsenabling grifters, charlatans, pretenders, and others to compete alongside the genuine to increasingly undermine the values, laws, practices, norms, or other guardrails of democracy.

For example, so-called populism in the United States inclines "towards anti-democratic ends."[6] For now, the blueprint for destroying checks and balances on power and abusing political power is to deploy formally legal procedures to pervert the Constitution and other laws, undermine elections, and delay accountabilitywhile trying to give an impression that "nothing illegal is going on...[maintaining]...a veneer of democracy and legality."[7]

Norms of politeness, civility, or other values present in a democracy too often inhibit the media, elected representatives, and many citizens from even calling a lie what it is. Ellul observes that propaganda suppresses "...liberal democracy, after which we are no longer dealing with votes or the people's sovereignty."[8] Consequently, liberal governments are confronted with the dilemma that using propaganda to deal with propaganda can erode the basis of democratic government. As Randal Marlin notes, Ellul pointed out the need for:

...liberal government to offset seditious ideas from within the state or... [use] ...propaganda to offset other states seeking conquest over one's own state. But he recognizes that once a state begins to engage seriously in propaganda, it erodes its own claim to being liberal.[9]

Reputable outlines of propaganda warn of this inherent danger, regardless of whether the propagandist's purpose is to "injure" or to "further" a cause, and regardless of whether the cause is for a common good. At times though, democratic leaders appear frozen and overly concerned about potential for backlash to take needed action.

Legacies of Control

The challenge to sustain independent thought and actions against a propagandist is not new. Propaganda is "present in human history as early as the formation of the first states."[10] From the earliest recorded uses, propaganda has helped autocrats to "convince subordinates of their connection to gods and local mythologies."[11] Through ancient Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Mayan civilizations, visual propaganda is recorded. Alexander the Great (356 BC - 323 BC) "is ancient master of propaganda."[12] He was long thought to be the first to see propaganda as a powerful way to reinforce "cohesion and control" over people and to continuously reinforce "just where the center of power resided."[13]

Likewise in ancient Rome, for more than a decade Augustus (63 BC - AD 14) consolidated his rule largely free from conflict as first emperor, in part by self-promoting and boosting his following via a wide range of propaganda, including literature, statues, monuments, and coins. Until the close of the eighteenth century, autocrats sustained a long period of anti-democratic rule globally through coercion and propaganda.

To Sustain Democracy

In the twentieth century, an explosion in mass media amplified the effectiveness of the propaganda of dictators, who engineered the fall of modern democracies through two world wars and continuous conflicts since. These events stimulated efforts to understand and deal with propaganda. In the 1930s in the United States, with:

...the global rise of fascist regimes who were beaming propaganda across the world...scholars and journalists were struggling to understand how people could fall for lies and overblown rhetoric.[14]

With the founding of the United States at the close of the eighteenth century, its Constitution established a Republic governed by freely elected representatives of the people. Its people are committed through The First Amendment to protect freedoms of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition to the Government for redress of grievances. Americans construe "the term democracy as a shorthand for liberal democracy," apparently finding consistency in definition at least.[15] 

Yet democracy itself will always remain a contested concept.[16] The scale of modern government, the roles of party whips or lobbyists, the growth of bureaucracy, and continuous media amplification of propaganda all challenge how "individual citizens can make their voices heard"[17] Noam Chomsky is hardly alone in believing that a:

truly democratic community is one in which the general public has the opportunity for meaningful and constructive participation in the formation of social policy: in their own immediate community, in the workplace, and in the society at large.[18]

Independent people will push back against false promises or any threats to freedoms.

Being First

Propaganda efforts commence long before most people realize. Drawing on people's cultural values and social assumptions, the propagandist first conditions us with a long period of pre-propaganda.[19] This involves months or more of patient activity. In this phase, the propagandist might be barely noticed at first, stepping into occasional news of daily eventsbuilding a presence and increasing a following. 

During this time, the propagandist's commentary will ordinarily be contrarian in praise or correction of selected people, events, or initiatives. Sometimes, early signs of being under the sway of a foreign "strongman" will occur, such as by making an odd response publicly to a softball question from a foreign adversary's representative. But the more bizarre the commentary, the more it is amplified in the media. Unchallenged, these efforts gradually establish so-called new thinking. The effect is to stimulate reappraisal of individual or social values and norms.[20] A stream of contrarian commentary increases perception of a propagandist as an "influencer" whom followers look to.

This long pre-propaganda phase enhances name-recognition, gathers followers, and starts to frame the public agenda, while establishing habits in the media to falsely amplify the significance of the propagandist. Failure to push back in this phase makes resistance ever more problematic. Prejudices strengthened in people in the absence of prebunking or debunking[21] are very resistant to change. Regrettably, by the time any effective response is made, if at all, much damage is done. Whether during initial efforts or later, pre-emptive detection and dismantling of what's going on is vital.

Typical "Tells"

A propagandist attacking democracy is easily detected when you know what to look for. Some personal features, not often noted, are the valuable "tells" described by Philip Collins.[22] He observes in Adolf Hitler's speaking and propaganda some features that are eerily present in the manner and language of today's demagogues. The "signature emotion of a Hitler speech is anger," with "tells" that he was, in his own words, "accustomed to strike back at any attacker" and firmly believed "that leniency will not succeed in appeasing."[23] At a closer language level, Hitler often claimed that no one compared to himself had "done as much... in the service of..."[24] some cause.

Another common "tell" of autocrats is self-indulging how poorly-done-by they and their followers are, especially by the media not loving themwith autocrats seeming to be forever angry.[25] And their utopia ordinarily requires returning to a mythically better past; apparently unable to show us a better future, much less to do so with humor. When such "tells" occur repeatedly, these can serve as red flags to signal both the presence and the obsessions of an autocrat. Apparently, this is all in every day's "work" for this self-dealing person.

Agitation and Integration

The transition from the pre-propaganda phase mobilizes propaganda of agitation and integration[26] to carry efforts forward. To disrupt and destabilize our comfort with norms that we value, a propagandist might bleat claims about supposed social ills causing "carnage" or foretell an apparently endless variety of apocalyptic futures. 

Within these agitation efforts, or soon afterwards, it's inferred or asserted that the imagined ills can only be remedied by the propagandistif only those listening will align with the propagandist! Increasingly, threats of violence amplify illusions of power. And the ordinarily unchallenged presumption of power delays accountability, denying the effectiveness of the legal procedures required to sustain democratic government. This also enables public displays of supposed victimhood, with which a base of supporters readily identifiestouching off their further "intoxication" through echoes of earlier propaganda claims.

Memes, aphorisms, platitudes, or catch cries are intensified to megaphone the supposed "values" of the propagandist, or seek unity against a presumed enemy, or promote the idyllic value of a some never delivered utopia. Over time, countless combinations of tough and sweet talk[27] will cajole or comfort, tapping basic desires or wants in people. Ellul also describes both vertical, top-down propaganda of a leader, as well as horizontal propaganda which is used inside a large group or organization of people.[28] He details how different types of propaganda function, including rational and irrational propaganda.[29] In Ellul's time at least, propaganda that is disconnected from facts or is "violent, excessive, shock-provoking" was ultimately less convincing to stimulate participation.[30]

It's often best just to assume such a propagandist is a weird person, driven by self-interest to develop skills in self-preservation from probably a very early age via a distorted commitment to being right and trying to win at everythingby whatever meansincluding into adult life through threats, bluff, and remarkably protracted gaming of the legal system. The continuous propaganda is largely targeted to reinforce the beliefs of supporters, appeal to potential swing voters, and bait opponents. These are three priorities to counter vigorously.

Dismantle Anti-democracy

It is important to counter anti-democratic discourse that erodes key truths of democratic society, or blocks free thought, speech, and association, or that people find threatening. Domestic and foreign bad actors routinely advance mutually reinforcing disinformation that contaminates public debates to promote "hateful narratives...Existing conflicts in society may be artificially increased in order to destabilise the society"[31] to a level that constitutes a security threat.

Direct action individually and collectively must tackle the anti-democratic playbook of commentary and actions. Well understood among proponents of anti-democracy are ways to:

  • Erode key truths of democratic society.
  • Block free thought, speech, and association.
  • Threaten coercion against advocates of democracy.

Individually or in small groups face-to-face or online, it is vital to scrutinize a propagandist's actions or claims. Detecting and dismantling this propaganda demands tough-mindedness, together with keeping touch with what's real. We must assess what impact the propaganda will make on freedoms of thought, speech, and association, or the common goodto illustrate the harmful consequences and effects of the anti-democratic propaganda commonly used to:

1. Destroy individual security and liberty through the intimidation of individuals and groups. 

2. Spread threats beyond any immediate victim of the propaganda. 

3. Disparage and disrupt core institutions of government, neutering effective democratic governance. 

4. Deny, delay, or distort policies, actions, and the rule of law, weakening truth, law, and justice. 

5. Undermine a nation's military through delay or denial of funding, promotions, or other essentials for the effective operation of the militaryto diminish national security. 

6. Advance restrictive legislation and legal actions to limit or remove voting rights and free association. 

7. Facilitate the appointment and co-opting of autocratic persons to positions of oversight or influence for such key areas as voting, the courts, the military, education, the postal service, communication/media organizations, and decision-making institutions to undermine the fairness, civility, and civic cohesion characteristic of democracy. 

8. Enlarge controls on educational curricula and libraries, to limit free thought and inquiry. 

9. Manipulate the Internet, social media platforms, and information networks through threats, hacks, hoaxes, fraud, or other harmsincluding "seeding" Google and other search engines with keywords and phrases to show up in "research," distorting "information discernment."[32] 

10. Reshape everyday perceptions of us all, through "Big Lies," distorted facts, and memes that: 

- Promise a mythical utopia, often fabricated from mythical past "glories." 

- Accentuate the fears and desires of an autocrat's followers. 

- Portray "others" as a shared enemy. 

- Claim popular support through assertions like "a lot of people are saying." 

- Bemoan "poor me and you" with followers, to galvanize unity.

Such "tells" reveal propaganda as more than chaotic word-salad. The apparently disjointed or sporadic outbursts and reactions of propagandists are designed to:

  • Distract us from initiatives to strengthen democracy.
  • Promote a self-image of the propagandist as a “strongman,” thug, or mob-boss.
  • Project the return to some mythical ideal past, which never arrives.

An alert population will identify these clues to how the propagandist shapes our attention, thought, and action. Any of us who values freedoms of thought, speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition against grievance caused by government, or the free choice of health services, job, travel, place of living, education, communication, or a host of freedoms frequently taken for granted should find ways to push back on the tough/sweet talk of propagandists who would deny our freedom.

Unfortunately, anti-democratic urgings appear in a variety of communications multiple times every day. Mostly, breaking news for example just seems to echo the propaganda of social media or media releases that promote a propagandist's interests and supposed significance. Showing the consequences and effects of the propagandist's claims and urgings on us as citizens is what matters.

A public who listens and speaks out is the root of democracy.[33] 


1. Russell, Bertrand (1976), The Impact of Science on Society, London: Unwin, p. 72 [1st edition, 1952]

2. Bakir, Vian, Eric Herring, David Miller, and Piers Robinson (2019), "Lying and Deception in Politics," in Meibauer, Jörg (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Lying, New York: Oxford University Press, p. 540

3. van der Linden, Sander (2023), Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 275-276

4. Ben-Ghiat, Ruth (2021), Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, New York: W.W. Norton

5. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Vintage, p. 256

6. Malkopoulou, Anthoula, Benjamin Moffitt (2023), "How Not to Respond to Populism," Comparative European Politics, March 10,

7. Malkopoulou and Moffitt

8. Ellul (1965), p. 26

9. Marlin, Randal (2021), “Dynamic Tension for Pandemic Times,” Current Drift, 10 May, IJES Elul Society,

10. Kovač, Milan (2022), “Visual Propaganda in the Maya Proto-Writing Period: The Example of Stucco Frieze from Palace H-Sub 2, Uaxactun, Guatemala,” pp. 211-32, in Hubina, Miloš and Francis S. M. Chan (Eds.) (2022), Communicating the Sacred: Varieties of Religious Marketing, New York: Peter Lang, p. 211

11. Kovač, p. 211

12. Kovač, p. 211

13. Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O’Donnell (2019), Propaganda and Persuasion, 7 edn, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 51

14. Schiffrin, Anya (2018), "Fighting Disinformation with Media Literacyin 1939," Columbia Journalism Review, October 10; Schiffrin, Anya (2022), "Fighting Disinformation in the 1930s: Clyde Miller and the Institute for Propaganda Analysis," International Journal of Communication, 16, pp. 3715-3741

15. Ridge, Hannah M. (2023), "The d-word: Surveying Democracy in America," Democratization,

16. Hanson, Russel (1985), The Democratic Imagination in America: Conversations with Our Past, Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 23-24

17. Teubert, Wolfgang (2019), "The Citizen Caught Between Dialogue, Bureaucracy," in Paige, Ruth, Beatrix Busse and Nina Nørgaard (Eds.), Rethinking Language, Text and Context: Interdisciplinary Research in Stylistics in Honour of Michael Toolan, Abingdon: Routledge, p. 312

18. Chomsky, Noam (1988), Language and Problems of Knowledge: The Managua Lectures, Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, p. 135

19.Kellen, in Ellul (1965), p. vi-vii; Ellul (1965), p. 15

20. Ellul (1965), p. 94-95

21. Neylan, Julian, Mikey Biddlestone, Jon Roozenbeek, and Sander van der Linden (2023), "How to 'Innoculate' against Multimodal Misinformation: A Conceptual Replication of Roozenbeek and van der Linden (2020) Scientific Reports, 13, 18273, ; van der Linden (2023)

22. Collins, Philip (2017), When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them, London: 4th Estate, p. 338

23. Collins, p. 341

24. Collins, p. 337

25. Collins, p. 338

26. Kellen, in Ellul (1965), p. vi; Ellul (1965), pp. 70-79

27. Gibson, Walker T. (1966), Tough, Sweet and Stuffy, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, pp. 115-134 [Note: Gibson developed this "instrument" largely to illustrate what language features might suggest colloquial conversation. He acknowledges some of its limited development with the tongue-in-cheek name as a "Model-T style machine."] 

28. Ellul (1965), pp. 79-84

29. Ellul (1965), pp. 84-87

30. Ellul (1965), p. 85

31. Mareš, Miroslav and Petra Mlejnková (2021), "Propaganda and Disinformation as a Security Threat," in  Gregor, Miloš and Petra Mlejnková (Eds.), Challenging Online Propaganda and Disinformation in the 21st Century,  Cham, Switzerland: Springer Nature/Palgrave Macmillan, p. 89

32. Fister, Barbara (2023), "Standing Up for the Truth: The Place of Libraries in the Public Sphere," Blog, June 14, ; Benkler, Yochai, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts (2018), Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, New York: Oxford University Press; Tripodi, Francesca Bolla (2022), The Propagandist's Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy, New Haven: Yale University Press

33. After an aphorism from a United States postage stamp. The original: "A Public that Reads: A Root of Democracy" indicates the continued concern for literacy as an integral part of the democratic process.