Thursday, November 30, 2023

Are We Ready?

Credit: Architect of the Capitol, by Allyn Cox. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

"Without Freedom Of Thought There Can Be No Such Thing As Wisdom & No Such Thing As Publick Liberty Without Freedom of Speech"
 Benjamin Franklin 1722[1]

During 2024, many nations will hold elections for heads of state and national/state representatives, or referenda–likely, more than the 60 nations on this List of elections worldwide in 2024.[2] Some electors, more than others, are positioned to truly strengthen democracy.

As Albert Camus astutely observes, "the best case for democracy is what it prevents."[3] As far back as the 18th century, it was shown mathematically that:

...collectively, members of a group who have imperfect but above-chance information about competing alternatives are more likely to choose the "correct" alternative than any one member of the group.[4]

Reassuring perhaps, yet worldwide in many places and especially in the United States, we are witnessing a long-term trend of generational decline in support for democracy.[5] This decline is at least partly fueled by strategic misinformation that undermines belief in evidence-informed policy making[6]to disrupt the operation of democracy.

On any day, electors will need to navigate a firehose[7] of propaganda that wraps together imperatives of fake news, disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-populism. Each burst of verbiage, image, or deed[8] is designed to grab attention, resonate, and stir people to action.

The Big Challenges

People worldwide who value democratic freedoms are faced with detecting and dismantling this propaganda. For democracy to thrive, some larger converging trends require attention.

* Burgeoning computerized propaganda systems.[9]

* Government impotence regulating social media platforms–perhaps we can expect similar failures regulating anticipated hazards of Artificial Intelligence.

* Ever-increasing pressure in social media and mass media to help grow audiences by amplifying what is outrageous.

These largely unchecked trends are having intensified effects on us. Propagandists continuously use the capabilities of computer networks, social media, and mass media powerfully against democracy. 

To strengthen democratic society and reassert civility, each of us must find ways to deal with some urgent questions of our time: Why do people accept obvious lies? Why do family, friends, or neighbors continue to support propagandists attacking democracy? When and how should you call out the nonsense and outrageous talk of the farcical public figures, who belong elsewhere than the public stage? Why are the weaknesses of propaganda not more substantially worked on?

As individual citizens, we are mostly on our own to tackle the harms of propaganda. If you would like a future where democracy is more than a footnote within a history book (which won't be allowed on the school library shelf), best get prepared for the wilds of no-debate land–a Wild West where governing norms are anachronisms, like the rancher’s open range and pitiful imitations of the Marlboro Man.[10]

Institutions and People

Institutions do not themselves protect democracy. Montesquieu suggests the durability of free government depends on a nation’s self-correction.[11] Meanwhile, bad actors exploit the snail-paced, incremental processes of legislators, judiciary, and others occupying responsible roles. Promptly holding bad actors to account is what matters. This will often require taking steps well beyond any established zones of comfort within institutions, professions, or job descriptions. 

But propagandists are generally more talked about than accountable. It is well past time to expect our legislators, judiciary, and others charged with responsible roles to be fully effective doing their jobs, to ensure our well-being. What we say and do now matters to demand accountability. 

It is more than urgent for each of us to find better ways to require better. And to find ever-stronger ways to engage the talent, creativity, and drive of new generations to do the same. 

This blog offers some ways to deal with propaganda. It is not about all propaganda, which many thoughtful commentators seek to describe.[12] Future posts will further explore how propaganda works, as well as ways to: block, blunt, or counter its effects; enlist the media in this effort; extend education for countering propaganda; and push to criminalize egregiously harmful lies of propagandists.

The surprise, outrage, scandal, repetition, novelty, rumor, fervor, or, rarely, humor built into a propagandist’s words, soundbites, memes, or actions appear direct, simple, or even simplistic. But however foolish we might initially believe some nonsense to be, its repetitive occurrences, including our own verbatim repetitions, too quickly cause great harm to individual freedoms and democracy.

Better Future

It is perfectly reasonable to expect elected representatives to increase protections to assure personal liberties, security, physical safety, freedom from violence or threats of violence, freedom from censorship, the right to vote in free and fair elections, and true protection of the integrity of electoral processes.

This is no time for nattering about elected or wannabe autocrats, or to be swamped by microanalyses of their diversions. Amid the news reports and endless books over recent years that review the democratic decay in the United States, a nagging concern is that even the best of these do little more than uncover malign activitywith some putting a laser focus on diagnosis. Most fail to offer much remedy. Mostly, journalists and pundits keep revealing the disaster that continues like a cancer to eat away at the democratic system in unsubtle ways. 

No time either for writing extended instructions and action plans. Countering current propaganda ahead of the next continuous stream of drivel is what matters. We need to develop better ways to:

1) Hold propagandists to account.

2) Prebunk, block, and counter propaganda continuously.

3) Strengthen the capabilities and freedoms of the mass media.

4) Expand systematic education for countering propaganda.

5) Push for regulation against the harms that propagandists cause.

6) Foster collaborative efforts that will sustain these efforts.

We face one of the most critical periods of history, in which, more than ever, vigorous effort is required to block, blunt, and counter the propaganda that undermines democratic freedoms. It is time to effectively tackle ongoing threats to personal security and democratic government.

Cooperative Efforts

Deciding whether or how to respond to a propagandist firstly requires quick but careful assessment of what potential harm might occur from the propaganda. When an audience is small or the negative impact modest, most distortions, ambiguities, or even lies potentially damaging to an individual or democratic values, policies, or processes might be best ignored. 

Frequently, the most effective approach to handling a propagandist is to respond with plain talk–just telling the truth, preferably with humor, without quixotically tilting at the propagandist's fantasies. It is simple direct truth that hurts the propagandist most–other than being ignored of course!

In cooperation with or alongside legislative, judicial, and media efforts, we can all help to make a difference by building ways to blunt, block, and dismantle propaganda.

Urgent and long-overdue are better focused individual and collaborative actions. We need to go beyond just revealing or diagnosing daily disasters of largely unchecked wannabe-autocrats. Critiques of propaganda must be laser focused to detect and dismantle the effects and consequences of its so-called content. 

Creativity and commitment from all of us, especially the more thoughtful members of the mass media, are now needed to find ways to succeed against those who erode democracy. 


1. Noted in image caption

2. ______ (2023), List of elections worldwide in 2024, Wikipedia

3. Collins, Philip (2017a), When They Go Low, We Go High, London: 4th Estate, p. 213; Collins, Philip (2017b), ‘The Art of Political Speech’Leith, Sam (interviewer), The Spectator–podcast, 25 October

4. Lewandowsky, Stephan, Ullrich K.H. Ecker, John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Jon Roozenbeek, and Naomi Oreskes (2023), "Misinformation and the Epistemic Integrity of Democracy," Current Opinion in Psychology, 54:101711, Online October 19, pp.1-7, [Note: “wisdom of the crowd…Dating back to the 18th century, Condorcet’s Jury Theorem has provided mathematical justification for majority-rule voting by showing that collectively, members of a group who have imperfect but above-chance information about competing alternatives are more likely to choose the ‘correct’ alternative than any one member of the group.” p. 2]

5. Claassen, Christopher and Pedro C. Magalhães (2023), "Public Support for Democracy in the United States Has Declined Generationally," Public Opinion Quarterly, Online pp. 1-14,, p. 10

6. Lewandowski,, p. 1

7. The term “firehose of falsehood” is associated with current Russian tactics, described as “the ‘four Ds’: dismiss the critic, distort the facts, distract from the issue, and dismay the audience (Lucas & Nimmo 2015), in Paul, Christopher and Miriam Matthews (2020), “Defending against Russian Propaganda,” Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.) (2020), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 288-9; suggestions for “Defending against Propaganda,” pp. 293-298

8. Bolt, Neville (2020), “Propaganda of the Deed and Its Anarchist Origins,” Baines, O’Shaughnessy, and Snow, pp. 3-21

9. Woolley, Samuel C. and Howard, Philip N. (2019), Computational Propaganda: Political Parties, Politicians and Political Manipulation on Social Media, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 243; Shaffer, Kris (2019), Data Versus Democracy: How Big Data Algorithms Shape Opinions and Alter the Course of History, New York: Apress/Springer Science + Business Media, pp. 114-115

10. Miller, Rodney G. (2021), “Thylacine,” Word to the wise blog post, November 1

11. Stanley T. Gabis (1978), "Political Secrecy and Cultural Conflict: A Plea for Formalism," Administration and Society, 10(2), August, pp. 139-175,

12. See: Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.) (2020), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Knopf; Hobbs, Renee (2020), Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for the Digital Age, New York: W.W. Norton; Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell (2019), 7th edn, Propaganda and Persuasion, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage; Lewandowsky, Stephan and John Cook (2020), The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,; Marlin, Randal (2013), Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview; Pomerantsev, Peter (2019), This Is NOT Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, London: Faber and Faber; Sproule, J. Michael (1994), Channels of Propaganda, Bloomington, IN: EDINFO Press and ERIC Clearinghouse


Friday, November 10, 2023

Off to the Races

Boat Race in the Desert, Alice Springs, Australia
by Alli Polin is licensed under CCA-SA-2.0 Generic

A friend just shared a letter-to-the-editor recently published in an Australian newspaper. It draws attention to the Melbourne Cup, held annually on the first Tuesday in November. Anyone from other countries not fanatical about thoroughbred horse racing might not know that "The Cup," as it's widely known, is a horse race held in the far south of the country, at the nation's second most populous city of about five million people. 

And the Melbourne Cup is not just any horse race. Held since 1861, Australians nationwide traditionally stop all other activity to follow the calling of the race. From all walks of life on one day of the year, Aussies avidly follow this occasion with its trackside touches of high fashion and excess. 

Opportunities are everywhere, in both urban and rural areas, to bet on the race. These include legal betting outlets, as well as pools or sweeps in workplaces, schoolyards, suburban homes, and, of course, as complement to refreshment in the local pubs. For many, this will be their once-a-year flutter. It is an annual big deal that unites the nation on hopes of betting on a winner. 

The letter-to-the-editor describes folks to the north some 2,000 miles/3,150 km, who follow the occasion in their own way. At "the Berry Springs Tavern, 40 minutes south of Darwin...they marked the Melbourne Cup Day by having baby crocodiles race down the pub's verandawhich was lined with hay stacks."

This brings to mind some other Aussie novelties. In the country's central desert, at least from 2007 to 2020, tourists and maybe some locals enjoyed the Alice Springs Camel Cup (here). And apparently still in full sail is the so-called Henley on the Todd Regatta (here + news video here), featuring wannabe sailors who are not very conveniently about 550 miles/900 km distant from any useful body of water. 

Undaunted, some of these landlubbing sailors belong to the Alice Springs Yacht Club. Amid raucous fun, they learned enough about tacking and other sailing skills on sand to put together a crew for the grueling Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race. 

Among blue water classics, this Race has an earned reputation for being complicated and difficult. Reportedly, it's "the hardest," with a high rate of yachts ordinarily not finishing (Schmidt). To the credit of the sand-sailors, though unplaced, their initial, considerable accomplishment was to complete the Race.

Only in Australia? At least, "especially in Australia" seems apt.


Henley on Todd Regatta (2023)

Pyndan Camel Tracks (2021)

David Schmidt (2022), "The Sydney Hobart Is a Dream to Win and Formidable to Navigate," The New York Times, December 23,

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Broken Eggs

by Abraham Lincoln. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US-expired}}

President Abraham Lincoln's deletion of one sentence from a draft of one of his letters intended for publication in a newspaper might not warrant much attention in the long view of history. But in the book Lincoln's Sword, Douglas L. Wilson shows the significance of such edits and other word choices that a legendary President made to navigate difficult times. 

Wilson compares drafts of Lincoln's speeches, public statements, letters, or other documents with his historian's eye. He provides context for comparing documents, by making connection also with recollections in primary sources, such as diaries and reports of Lincoln's colleagues, friends, family, and adversaries. Wilson interprets both why Lincoln made a variety of language choices and how these impacted decisions and events. In sum, the book illuminates Lincoln's extraordinary use of words to help unify the United States, at a seriously partisan period in the nation's history.

One example occurred in late August 1862, at an "anguished period" in Lincoln's administration, when he replied to criticism by a formidable adversary, Horace Greely, editor of the New York Tribune (Wilson, pp. 148-161). This was just prior to Lincoln's landmark Emancipation Proclamation, issued on January 1, 1863. He presented his reply to Greely as a public letter published in the competing newspaper National Intelligencer. Wilson notes that a direct rebuke of a formidable critic in the form of a public letter in a newspaper was an unusual step for a president. 

The penultimate draft of his letter to the newspaper included the figurative sentence, "Broken eggs can never be mended, and the longer the breaking proceeds the more will be broken." Prior to publication though, at the suggestion of the newspaper editors that this sentence seemed "somewhat exceptionable on rhetorical grounds, in a paper of such dignity," Lincoln agreed to its deletion, "with some reluctance"even though he had previously expressed the sentiment in private correspondence and would do so again later  (Wilson, p. 155). 

What the newspaper editors objected to then, we might welcome today as enduring wisdom and homely truth. Applied to our own time, the sentence offers perspective on some major troubles, like the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, or domestic gun violence, or the thuggery of pseudo-populists in the United States and elsewhere.

By examining drafts of Lincoln's discourse, Wilson shows the power that emerges from his practice of writing as rewriting. A leading analyst of rhetorical style indicates the value of exploring "words and phrases crossed out and written over, substitutions or additions careted in, circled text removed to another position" (Fahnestock). Throughout Wilson's book, he shows how Lincoln chose words carefully, to rhetorically negotiate closeness with his audience in relation to a question or a problem (Turnbull).

A law clerk...claimed that Lincoln told him, "I write by ear. When I have got my thoughts on paper, I read it aloud, and if it sounds all right I just let it pass" (Wilson, p. 90).

Lincoln preferred to use many commaspossibly, to reflect the pauses of where he took a breath when reading aloud. In the opinion of the Government Printer, Lincoln used too many commas. A continuing routine of back and forth editing was common between the two, as Lincoln kept reinserting (usually, not quite as many as his original) commas in galley proofs.

He would also stay firm on a word not considered at the time to be dignified, when the word expressed precisely his idea. Lincoln reportedly asserted on one occasion, "The time will never come in this country when the people won't know exactly what sugar-coated means!" (Wilson, p. 90). Wilson astutely observes that the Emancipation Proclamation "...succeeded not by eloquence, but by inexquisite language exquisitely suited to the occasion" (Wilson, p. 142).

Across a wide range of Lincoln's speech and writing, both including and beyond his better known Gettysburg Address and Inaugural Addresses, Wilson provides revealing insight on how Lincoln "...uses language that, in its rhythms as well as its connotations, carried conviction" (Wilson, p. 280). An appendix in the book also provides commentary on Lincoln's postdelivery revisions of the Gettysburg Address.

For anyone who cares about choosing words wisely, this book offers a treasury of insights.


Jeanne Fahnestock (2021), "Analyzing Rhetorical Style: Toward Better Methods," in R. Boogaart, H. Jansen, M. van Leeuwen (Eds), The Language of Argumentation, Argumentation Library, vol 36, Springer, Cham., pp. 79-96,

Nick Turnbull (2007), "Problematology and Contingency in the Social Sciences," Revue Internationale de Philosophie, vol. 242, no. 4, pp. 451-472,

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

Thursday, October 12, 2023

Tea Leaves for Action

"Brilliant," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a word of fairly wide application, especially during the past half century. Maybe you've noticed how Britons frequently and variously use the word. They'll approvingly comment on the brilliance of actions, feelings, experiences, intelligence, people, and sometimes even the weather.

Shining a positive light on qualities and actions, or celebrating talent, cleverness, and distinctiveness in this way can be engaging. The word suggests optimism, providing uplift and encouragement or, at the very least, stressing an upside. Due to the exploits of the nation's fighter pilots in World War II, Churchill referred to "this brilliant youth." Occasionally, we use the word laced with sarcasm perhaps to refer to people who are "showy" and pretentious. Or colloquially and more weakly, people might refer to what they consider amazing or "fantastic."

The absence of true brilliance can be devastating, whether in people or a nation's intelligence system. In the United States, for example, media pundits will periodically pose whether a "failure of imagination" among responsible leaders allows the success of terrorists. This past week, some pundits again proffered this notion to explain the barbaric, tragic killings in Israel. We heard similar in relation to the January 6, 2021 attack at the Capitol.

Very much before that event were multiple signs of its likelihood. Leadership requires both "reading the tea leaves" and taking action for the public good. Instead then, it was the ongoing undermining of institutions that dominated public debates. Yet institutions do not themselves protect a democracy. 

It is brilliance in the actions of people that might. And the actions needed will often require taking steps well beyond any established zones of comfort within institutions, professions, or job descriptions. Promptly holding bad actors to account is what matters.

Whether in personal or institutional intelligence, both the significance of what's distilled and that this is acted upon is essential. The phrase "failure of imagination" is a euphemism for the failure to take needed and effective action.


Sir Winston Churchill (1940), "Their Finest Hour," House of Commons, London, later broadcast on 18 June

Sunday, September 24, 2023


painted bÉdouard Riou, 1864. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-US}}

In his recently released book MISBELIEF, Dan Ariely aims to "shed light" on "a distorted lens through which people view the world, reason about the world, and describe the world to others" (2023, p. 27). He talks mainly about conspiracy theories and other disinformation. He relates the surprise and difficulty of becoming a target of characters who see the world through what he describes as a "Funnel of Misbelief."

Comfortably embedded in the word "misbelief" is the word "lie," neatly highlighted within the cover graphic for the book's title. This picks up Ariely's observation in an earlier book that "When we and those around us are dishonest, we start suspecting everyone, and without trust our lives become more difficult in almost every way" (2012, pp. 158-9). My Irish grandfather and the philosopher Immanuel Kant would likely have agreed there are no degrees of honesty, even if a great many others apparently believe differently.

Ariely is a popularly published professor of psychology. Writing in the chatty, first-person mode fashionable with some readers and publishers, he relates many encounters with people who readily believe what's weird, trust no one, are mean or violent, and continuously exhibit anger and outrage. He wraps rational explanation around his whirlpool of experiences, with the help also of some quizzes, interpretation of experiments, and principles of psychology. 

At times, this less than pleasant, personal journey becomes a bit like what's unfortunately unforgettable about two movies scantily translating Jules Verne's sci-fi novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth. The few coordinates guiding that journey of course didn't provide a map that changed the world. In contrast, along the way, Ariely offers some signposts to understanding through what he calls "Hopefully Helpful" comments. He places value on strengthening qualities like trust, "healthy skepticism," and "genuine open-mindedness" that evaporate as people slide into "dysfunctional doubt" (2023, pp. 27-8).

A selection of his "Helpful" comments is: Practice Intellectual Humility; Tend to Your Narcissists; Start with Common Ground; Fight the Temptation to Ostracize; Listen to Former Insiders; and Invite Trust by Demonstrating Care, each followed with a brief, reasonably-grounded discussion.

Ariely rightly, in my opinion, places value on nurturing empathy and trust. It's too bad for all of us though that this book is just a shade better than another warning. It mainly explores intricacies in the swamp of disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, "pseudo-populism," and propaganda.

Meanwhile, we face these dangerously growing challenges, wishing for more writers, publishers, media, civic leaders including legislators, or other fellow citizens with the chops required to join in intelligently and systematically to deliver remedies.


Dan Ariely (2012), The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-Especially Ourselves, New York: Harper

Dan Ariely (2023), MISBELIEF: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things, New York: Harper

Simon Winchester (2001), The Map That Changed the World: The Tale of William Smith and the Birth of a Science, New York: Harper Collins

Jules Verne (1864), Voyage au Centre de la Terre [A Journey to the Center of the Earth], Paris: J. Hetzel et Jie

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Moving Forward

One World Trade Center, New York
(height 1,776 feet) photo © copyright

Even after 22 years, many of us have much too vivid memories of 9/11, along with the days and more followingand how this changed the United States and the world. After the initial and ongoing shocks of broadcast horrors, the grief and uncertainties were to continue.

When finally able to phone a friend in Australia, I recall hearing terror that something similar might occur there. Seeking to ease concern, I offered the no less horrific thought that other cities in America might first be targets. Soon afterwards, an attack in Bali proved this wrong. The courage and resilience of so many then and since endure.

Thanks to the bravery of crew and passengers fighting back against the terrorists, Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania, never reaching its likely intended target of the Capitol. An especially perceptive television anchor last night noted that what foreign terrorists failed to do, domestic terrorists accomplished on January 6, 2021.

Soon after 9/11, to handle the threat from foreign terrorism, we all built practices to lessen risk. Wouldn't it be a good thought to have similarly concerted efforts to address the real and present threats of domestic terrorists and their collaborators, who continue a commitment to destroy democracy.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

"If I Had Sneezed..."


Nobel Peace Prize Archive, 1964. This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-1996}}

Sixty years ago on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech. He called for civil and economic rights and an end to racism, addressing a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC that was estimated at 250,000. The speech still has a special power. 

But so too, differently and at times more intimately, does his speech I Have Been to the Mountaintop. This was King's final speech, delivered on April 3, 1968 amid threats to his life, with a sense of foreboding, the day before his assassination.

King illustrates with a sweep across history some milestones pertinent to the realities of his day to encourage sustained efforts to advance civil rights. He encourages commitment to a "dangerous unselfishness" with love for all peopleand extends a call for unity and determination through non-violent protest.

The refrain "If I had sneezed..." emerges toward the end of the speech, when King recalls the time almost a decade earlier, when he was stabbed by a "demented" woman who nearly took his life. The surgeon at Harlem Hospital, who operated on King after this event, commented that the blade of the weapon lodged in his chest so close to the aorta, the main artery, that a single sneeze would have caused his death. 

As King notes, "once that's punctured, you're drowned in your own blood, that's the end of you." He references the surgeon's comment to relate the significance of one message among the many that he received from around the nation and the world, expressing care, concern, and good wishes for his recovery. 

The letter was from a nine-year old white girl, who expressed sincerely and simply how glad she was that he did not sneeze. After quoting this letter, King repeats the refrain "If I had sneezed..." to engage listeners with remembering important advances for the civil rights movement that he would not otherwise have participated in. This progressively becomes a catch cry, punctuating his recollection of the progress he has enjoyed with his listeners, simply because he did not sneeze. 

With this personal story, King enjoins listeners to sustain the movement's progress and offers hope to reach the promised land without him. He exemplifies the courage, wisdom, and prudence required to seek the fairness and honesty of equal rights.

Excerpt Link: 

Complete Speech Text:

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Le Tour Nouveau

Demi Vollering, winner Tour de France Femmes 2023
by Hugo LUC is licensed under CCA-SA 4.0 International 

Once again during July, many millions of fans and followers were devoted to the three-week spectacle that is Le Tour. Beyond entertainment, this annually anticipated event reliably spotlights fitness, endurance, courage, skill, ingenuity, competition, cooperation, camaraderie, and more.

The animatedly rich commentary of Phil Liggett, Bob Roll, and others distill excitement and ever-changing fortunes in play. And along the way are sweeping views of Europe's bucolic landscape and historic architecture, as well as informative remarks on cultural significances, mixed with a continuous flow of anecdotes on cycling performance and previous accomplishments. 

Then Tour de France Femmes advances the televised spectacle similarly, followed by Vuelta a España. Cycling enthusiasts are attuned to appreciate the exceptional. Even the sponsorships plastered over bicycles, support vehicles, roadside signage, cyclist jerseys, and other paraphernalia integrate as an accepted backdrop. Prime attention is focused on capturing remarkable efforts of endurance, strategy, teamwork, and speed.

Yet it was less than a decade ago that the exceptionalism was stained with the distortion of cheats. It took a comparable persistence of the sport's associations, sponsors, and government interventions to purge unacceptable behaviors. For nations now dealing with analogous behaviors of pseudo-populists defrauding voters, the challenges will be at least as great. 

Perhaps "Le Tour nouveau" and similar can help inspire the commitments and courage required to purge the outrageous from public life.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

"Countering Misinformation"

by Dave Gingrich is licensed under CCA-SA-2.0 Generic

Why is it, as Nancy Snow has noted, "The propaganda that we so often disdain is here to stay"? 

Should we care about the "firehose" of disinformation, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, "pseudo-populism," or propaganda of so many public figures and media distorting our reality?

Whether intentional or not, varieties of false information cause serious harm, including through threats or hate resulting in fear, or social divisions and chaos, incitements to violence, or damage to reputation, along with individual and public fraud in financial, health, or electoral decision-making. And the cover-up of corrupt practices or behavior in institutions can especially harm individuals within or outside the institution. It should matter greatly to each of us whether our community leaders, especially legislators and the judiciary, ensure our well-being in these matters. 

More than ever now, what individual voters say and do to demand accountability matters. In Montesquieu's view, the durability of free government depends on a nation's capacity for self-correction (Gabis, p. 146). But what can we really do about the ever-present flood of false information? 

Apart from some efforts in European Union countries, mostly policymakers either move too slowly to counter false information or just exploit its spread and impact. As individual citizens, we are largely on our own to tackle the harm caused.  

Some ways for individuals or groups of citizens to understand and tackle false information are outlined in a relatively recent paper published in European Psychologist (Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter). The authors acknowledge "the diversity in definitions of 'misinformation,' 'malinformation,' 'disinformation,' 'fake news,' 'false news.'" The authors use "misinformation" as an encompassing label in their discussion.

The paper is thoughtful, wide-ranging, and welcome. Its main focus is to review evidence for the effectiveness of four categories for individual intervention: boosting (psychological inoculation, critical thinking, and media/information literacy); nudging (accuracy primes and social norm nudges); debunking (fact-checking); and automatic content labeling. 

Through methodical assessment of the assumptions, circumstances, and findings of research in each of these areas, the authors valuably point out upsides and downsides to intervention. Also included are observations about the limited understanding of practices "in the wild," that is, outside experimental studies. The commentary is digestible for educators, pundits, activists, or your friends, family, or neighborsto be better equipped to make useful interventions individually or collectively.

It's refreshing to encounter the authors' quick reflection on a perspective that also contributed to the decline of Clyde R. Miller's foundational and useful education program for critical analysis of propaganda eight decades ago in the United Statesnamely, the failure of critics of Miller "to distinguish between healthy skepticism and dysfunctional cynicism" (Roozenbeek, Culloty, and Suiter, p. 192).

However you choose to push back on false information, it's key to establish dialogue about the everyday concerns of peopleto replace the distractions and distortions of catchwords, memes, or ideology. Individuals and groups of citizens who care to crush false information are finding ways to blunt the manufactured outrage that polarizes families, friends, and neighbors. 

We can all call out and push back on such nonsense talk, replacing it with ways to address everyday concerns, like healthcare, jobs, shelter, food, safety, freedom, and making bad actors accountable. You can help counter false information by joining in these efforts or by setting up your own initiatives. 

Five to seven individuals, who get together face-to-face or virtually with a common purpose of deciding how to regularly call out the nonsense of elected representatives, local media, or others, will swiftly learn how to apply what the researchers have shared. As noted in my earlier blog posts, now is the time to energize efforts analogous to what Maria Ressa outlines about her inspiring and ongoing push back against totalitarian propagandists (Ressa, pp. 253-8). Whether by starting or joining similar efforts, or by providing support in other ways, any of us can help democracy thrive.

While every page of the paper on "Countering Misinformation" is packed with clearly stated, helpful insights about addressing the ever-adapting propagandists and other "misinformers," six "Recommendations for Policymakers and Tech Companies" (at pp. 198-9) are required reading for every one of usat the very least, to then directly and through the ballot box engage policymakers to "do something" useful soon. 

Our future depends on it.


NOTE: Many detailed handbooks for taking civic action are listed on the Internet. Some initial priorities are noted in my earlier blog posts: How Useful? / Parrots with Purpose / Certainty Claims / The Cons / Rip Van Who? / Whose Challenge? / Thylacine. For selected references to help prepare ways to counter disinformation, misinformation, fake news, conspiracy theories, "pseudo-populism," or propaganda, please see The Communication Institute website at: 

Stanley T. Gabis (1978), "Political Secrecy and Cultural Conflict: A Plea for Formalism," Administration and Society, 10(2), August, pp. 139-175,

Jon Roozenbeek, Eileen Culloty, and Jane Suiter (2022), "Countering Misinformation: Evidence, Knowledge Gaps, and Implications of Current Interventions," European Psychologist, 28(3), pp.189-205, published online July 14, 2023

Maria Ressa (2022), How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, New York: Harper Collins

Nancy Snow (2019), "Propaganda," in The International Encyclopedia of Journalism Studies, April 29,

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Voices in the Everyday

This image is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov-NASA}}

Different voices carry stories of the everyday in Gianni Celati's Voices from the Plains. These collected vignettes of people living on the plains of the River Po in Northern Italy are among the few fiction writings translated into English of an author whom La Repubblica describes as "One of the great Italian storytellers." Celati is also well regarded as an academic, literary critic, and translator, with some of his work available in Spanish.

In Voices, commencing with interactions between ham radio operators in the initial tale "The island out in the Atlantic" through to the realities of the final "Young humans on the run," each vignette is unlike any other in the book. Each is told as if transcribed from what the author was told, with a sense of individual voice and personality emerging in the retelling.

Celati's talent for creating scenes and action especially shines as he unfolds the tales, such as:
And there, in fact, was a cottage and behind the cottage an old grey house with a very low doorway. In the cottage there lived a fair-haired man with his fair-haired wife (p. 11). 
One day she was busy tidying the orchard and saw, in the sky, a ball of fire looping upwards. Then, the ball did a zig-zag with two bangs and made a downward loop, ending up in a field beyond her house (p. 80).
He offers a clear yet quirky lens on the lives he presents, with a touch of the unusual, or eccentric, or surreal framing each story. He shares with us the humanity, humor, or devotions of the characters. In innovative ways, the tales are hauntingly appealing.

The book traverses such a variety of people and their "adventures" that a critic, Antonio Tabucchi remarked (admiringly) that "on finishing this book one is filled with a sense of disorientation and estrangement." Another commentator noted an undercurrent of melancholy. Many characters are loners, with meandering lives. Of course, whether the portrayal of "aloneness" indicates loneliness and whether actions are valued or fruitless to the characters will depend on individual interpretation.

Unambiguously, Celati's special talents in narration and visualization are engaging as he delivers a range of storytelling styles. He makes a collection well worth the read.


Gianni Celati [translated by Robert Lumley] (1989), Voices from the Plains, London: Serpent's Tail

Monday, June 19, 2023

Soft Power

"Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins." – Jacques Ellul

If you care for freedoms of thought, speech, and association, you can help counter fake news, disinformation, pseudo-populism, and propaganda. Anyone paying attention knows that this public discourse is used to undermine democracy by polarizing families, friends, and neighbors.

As far back as 2007, George Pullman wrote that some people were emboldened in digital media: a sense of anonymity to abandon normal decorums. The most common breaches are trolling and flamingsaying provocative things in order to stir up trouble or launching uncalled-for personal attacks (Pullman, p. 21).

Many resources are accessible to help address these blights on our public communication (Link here to The Communication Institute, selected references). Creative conversations on the broadcast media can help to bridge new understandings. Some thoughtful media commentators do show how to do this.

We can also learn much from the methods of public diplomacy " put in place measures to build mutual understanding" (Snow). Amid tensions greater than most of us ever encounter, diplomats and other negotiators frequently find ways to defuse situations and engage with difficult people. 

But isn't it time to unleash much more soft power? After all, it is collaborative efforts that forge and evolve representative democracies. And so many of us in our work or personal life commonly commit to collaboration (Cross). 

Surely, it's time for citizens in democratic nations to more vigorously empower efforts to help blunt and counter manufactured outrage. You don't need education in journalism or a PhD to: up the heart, the mind, the listening ears to find out about the other person, so that you can learn better how to come together (Snow).

Of course, sometimes we'll have to decide about fight or flight as preferable options. But rather than just speechifying, or endless handwringing, or indulging in often-pointless fact-checking, what's potentially more potent is to practice I.A. Richards's: definition of rhetoric, as being the study of misunderstanding and its remedies... [shifting]... the focus from manufactured belief among non-believers to seeking agreement through clarification (Pullman, p. 17).

With efforts of so many people worldwide directed to strengthening democracies, there are reasons for hope. It's time to build on the electoral successes that strengthen democracy, by engaging "...deeply-held, and often unexamined desires, needs, expectations, and fears" (Cross)just as we do in the workplace or at home.


Rob Cross (2022), "Where We Go Wrong with Collaboration," Harvard Business Review, April 4,

Jacques Ellul (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Knopf, p. 6

George Pullman (2007), "Rhetorically Speaking, What's New?" in Susan E. Thomas (Ed.), What is the New Rhetoric?, Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing,

Nancy Snow (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, [see also: Nancy Snow and Nicholas J. Cull (Eds.) (2020), Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy, 2nd ed, New York: Routledge]

Thursday, June 1, 2023


Much like propaganda, new tech increasingly gives the impression of being personal (Ellul, p. 5), with growing significance in our lives. Projections from the creators of Artificial Intelligence foreshadow its further enhancement in the years ahead, with some applications potentially helpful to human life. 

Yet, following the recent hype for AI, concerns are again emerging. One commentary put the danger succinctly as: "Do we really need more evidence that AI's negative impact could be as big as nuclear war?" (Darcy). An executive from an AI company suggests: "...regulators and society need to be involved with the technology to guard against potentially negative consequences for humanity" (Helmore).

Following some legislators expressing cautionary comments, the creators of AI are reportedly implying it's up to the 196 or so nations in the world to legislate protection from negative uses of AIincluding any that could result in AI annihilating the human race. 

It doesn't take much thought to assess the probability of that working out well.

Are the creators of AI really so naive, or ignorant, or just so amoral that it didn't occur to them to incorporate a fail-safe or kill-switch or equivalent within their invention? What planet do their minds occupy? Some scientific characters in fiction choose to keep control on discoveries harmful to humanity. Isn't this even more desirable in the real world?

Long before the AI that's now foisted on the world, a string of Sci-fi movies anticipated such hazards. In the 1968 classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey, the computer "Hal," unwilling to open the pod bay door for Dave, is just one of the more graphically eerie examples (Link here).

At least as popular among scientists, was the 1983 movie WarGames, with the script writer setting the character of Matthew Broderick to win a game of Global Thermonuclear War against the computer, through a whimsical use of tic-tac-toe to save the world. 

But back in the real world, isn't it time to ask whether we are yet again prepared to tolerate Amoral Intelligence as acceptable?

NOTE: Recent articles on declining enrollments in the humanities highlight what's likely a related challenge. Please see:

Maureen Dowd (2023), "Don't Kill 'Frankenstein' with Real Frankensteins at Large," New York Times, May 27,

Nathan Heller (2023), "The End of the English Major," New Yorker, February 27,


John Badham and Martin Brest (Directors) (1983), WarGames [Film], MGM/UA Entertainment Company / United International Pictures

Oliver Darcy (2023), "Experts are warning AI could lead to human extinction. Are we taking it seriously enough?" CNN, May 31,

Jacques Ellul (2006), "The Characteristics of Propaganda," in Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell (Eds.), Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 1-49

Edward Helmore (2023), "'We are a little bit scared': OpenAI CEO warns of risks of artificial intelligence," The Guardian, March 17,

Stanley Kubrick / Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke (Director/Writers) (1968), 2001 : A Space Odyssey [Film], Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer,