Friday, December 29, 2023

Understanding Propaganda

Brainwashing-A Propagandist's Dream

"...the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be safe... [people] length become willing to run the risk of being less free."[1]

 Alexander Hamilton, 1787

What Alexander Hamilton observes about the debilitating effect of continuous chaos in war also applies to how we are targeted in the propaganda war. Manufactured outrage is a weapon in the war on democracy. Aspiring autocrats worldwide copy-cat mirages of chaos, calamity, or carnage. Their fake news, disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy conjectures use pseudo-populist appeals to construct a disturbing kaleidoscope.

The frequently discordant or contradictory claims acquire consistency by resonating with what we value in the presuppositions of society.[2] Jacques Ellul names the persistence of some myths, such as nation, youth, hero, work, and the belief in progress. These myths "evoke the future."[3] He suggests propagandists tap into such myths to help drive automatic behavior by a social force that deprives us of our core being.[4]

How We "Hear" Propaganda

Even though presuppositions of a society may be expressed in myths, metaphors, or national narratives, these are not necessarily uniformly understood by people. Different people perceive different connotations in words and phrases–and may differently assign denotation in what we "hear."

Our point of view is central to how we understand propaganda. It's no more than a convenient illusion to think and act as if meaning is fixed in a word, phrase, image, or action and that everyone uniformly "gets it," much less that they should, or that it is the same it. Exposing what any propaganda means requires more than restating some meme or slogan, as if there is a single discoverable meaning that we all uniformly get.

As the linguist Noam Chomsky remarks "communication is a more-or-less matter, seeking a fair estimate of what the other person said and has in mind."[5] David Sless and Ruth Shrensky point out that we each perceive words, images, music, actions, or events etc. differently–with each of us playing " active part in the making of the meaning."[6] They offer that signs have meaning that we project onto them, suggesting we make meaning by projecting our "prior knowledge...seamlessly."[7] 

While Sless and Shrensky do recognize public language or common meaning, they observe that generally "it's hard to decide what may be shared."[8] Authentic analysis of propaganda will appreciate there are a wide variety of points of view in audiences, with many contexts in play to influence understanding or action. 

Aligning Meanings

Acknowledging that each of us brings different projections and accommodations to what we perceive requires that we change how to think about communication and therefore how to interpret propaganda. Additionally, a specialty of propagandists is to assert certainties while stimulating ambiguity. Savvy propagandists are especially adept at infecting their public discourse with words of certainty and ambiguity that resonate with myths or presuppositions. 

News reports were not so long ago infiltrated with words like celebrity president, fake news, deep state, tremendous success, or many others. Such verbal combinations claim attention and touch off presuppositions. Each spotlights the propagandist's own perspective and is designed to elicit desired responses in us. The term semantic infiltration was coined by Fred Iklé to describe the use for which these words are designed:

Simply put, semantic infiltration is the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality.[9]

When we repeat such words, we assist the propagandist's efforts. And we encourage others to do the same. The mass media assist the propagandist's efforts by headlining much of this word-salad in reports of current events. This is complicated further by propagandists infiltrating false dichotomies, narrow-casting, or otherwise reframing words we commonly use, most notably freedom and democracy. At worst, we can become megaphones for the propagandist's worldview, to reach audiences well beyond what the propagandist might accomplish unassisted.[10]

Claims and Ambiguities

It is many repetitions, especially with variation, that powerfully reinforce. For example, in the United States all the way to January 6 of 2021 and beyond, all media persistently regurgitated verbatim propagandist slogans like "Stop the Steal"–which disseminated insurrectionist claims widely. Whether or not media reports are perceived as neutral or slanted positively or negatively, the continuous repetition of this verbiage reinforces the propagandist's "certainties." So much repetition of rants and ramblings inevitably increases their significance. 

The repeated parroting of a big lie, even though we might oppose the claims of a propagandist, should be viewed as one form of advancing permission to control the public agenda, as well as our lives.[11] And such claims land resoundingly in the disinformation land of the suburbs, where feelings of safety and security may be easily disturbed. In many countries, it's here that elections are often decided. 

Journalists, pundits, and social media users continuously take the bait of propagandists' outlandish claims and name-calling. They even respond in kind, with characterizations of a propagandist as "bully," "infantile," "racist," or "unhinged." Persistent repetition of even what's grossly negative about a propagandist will nonetheless help advance the propagandist's name, identity, and style. 

On the flipside, a propagandist can benefit when words are so over-used that they no longer register with us. For example, it's likely that after a time the frequent repetition of a propagandist's threats to destroy democracy may become meaningless to listeners–like a weird version of Aesop's tale about the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Meanwhile, these repetitions serve a dual role of providing the media hungry propagandist with additional coverage through the propagandist's own follow-up denial of the media's parroting.

We see decay already in the meaning of words for which the use-by dates are well passed, thanks largely to their frequent occurrence in the mass media–like "existential," "untruth," and "unprecedented." This process is analogous to what's known as semantic satiation. Although psychology researchers still debate how the process occurs, high repetition appears to cause a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for a listener.[12] 

And a savvy propagandist will also powerfully exploit varieties of ambiguity among the certainties. Randal Marlin describes how the ambiguity of some verbs or nouns can promote intention. For example, the ordinarily positive verb help accentuates a negative intention in the sentence "James helped John lose." Marlin illustrates how the use of such verbs as "brought about" or "ensured" or "engineered" may impute an intention that the "doer" did not have. He elaborates how "a skillful propagandist can exploit this kind of ambiguity," by implying an intention to bring about a consequence.[13]

Within the continuous drumbeat of invented conspiracies, ambiguity is common too. Philip Collins notes this in the frequently propagated supposed conspiracy of some unnamed elite against people, which claims "utopia [is] just around the corner, if only the corrupt elite had cared to venture there." He points out the propagandist's self-portrayal as leading efforts to "rise above the smears, and ludicrous slanders from ludicrous reporters."[14] Yet another example is the classic bandwagon device "a lot of people are saying," used as authority for some preposterous drivel. With a zealot's energy, such a propagandist will launch attacks on "enemies" and other "vermin." 

Preoccupied with self-advancement, by any means, at the expense of anyone else, propagandists routinely talk in authoritative-sounding imperatives to assert their often outrageous claims. They distract from reality, denying, destabilizing, and destroying our established norms, values, and even the operation of valued institutions.

How Propaganda Works

But it can be difficult at times to challenge what propagandists say, since they so often deal in ill-defined extremes. They stimulate uncertainty about core values, leaving confusion–even encouraging a belief that it is others who are propagandized. 

Linguists will tell us propagandists use imperatives heavily and a high proportion of vacuous content words with unclear referents. They use lots of function words to add ambiguity or emphasize extremes–like factive verbs and non-referential adverbs.[15] A propagandist's exaggerations include of course playing on the fear of "other" groups in society, or pandering to deep-seated desires... for recognition, for virility, for accomplishment, or for belonging, for example.

Because audience members perceive certainties and ambiguities differently, the propagandist is able to tap into a range of perceptions. Perhaps this helps with negotiating feelings of proximity[16] with a wide array of "propagandees," including among people with widely varying beliefs. It seems there are as many different propaganda as members of a large audience. Now there's a challenge for quantitative research!

The dynamic processes of propaganda are akin to how rumor works. As people project personal concerns into a rumor, this modifies and spreads it widely. Propagandists likewise fuel their reach through novelty, contrariness, exaggeration, and ambiguity resonant with our presuppositions. As Ellul noted about the empowering effect in rumor:

...the farther away the source and the greater the number of individuals who have passed it on, ...the more the objective fact loses importance and the more the rumor is believed by the multitudes who adhere to it.[17]

And propaganda distributed digitally, or even through mass media, will morph at least as readily and widely as village gossip. In addition to ease of dissemination, these media deliver on the prime purpose of propaganda to cause audience action.[18] Digital communications offer many options to engage audiences in using these media to further the propagandist's interests and chain these "doers" to the propagandist.

While propaganda is sometimes described as a top-down approach seeking exclusive control of all communication channels, a wide range of accessible media available today negates the need for control of all communication channels for propaganda to succeed. Grassroots or multi-headed campaigns in sympathy with each other need not align exactly for a propagandist to dominate the thought of others sufficiently to incite action–which makes especially urgent the need to neutralize this propaganda.


1. Hamilton, Alexander (1787), The Federalist, Number 8, November 20,

2. Ellul, Jacques (2016), "The Characteristics of Propaganda," in Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell (Eds.), Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 22

3. Ellul (2006), p. 23

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

5. Chomsky, Noam (1993), Language and Thought, Kingston, RI: Moyer Bell, p. 21

6. Sless, David and Ruth Shrensky (2023), A New Semiotics: An Introductory Guide for Students, London and New York: Routledge, p. 46

7. Sless and Shrensky, p. 48

8. Sless and Shrensky, p. 144

9. _______ (1978), "Distortions of Political Language," Washington Post, November 21

10. Toler, Aric (2017), "Most Common Way that Fake News Spreads Is from Laziness," STOPFAKE.ORG,

11.  Ellul (1965), p. xvii; Snyder, Timothy (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan, p. 17

12. Esposito, Nicholas J. and Leroy H. Pelton (1971), "Review of the Measurement of Semantic Satiation," Psychological Bulletin, 75, pp. 330-346; Black, S.R. (2003), "Review of Semantic Satiation," in Shohov, S.P. (Ed.), Advances in Psychology Research, 26, Nova Science Publishers, pp. 63-74

13.  Marlin, Randal (1984), "The Rhetoric of Action Description: Ambiguity in Intentional Reference," Informal Logic, 6, 3, pp. 26-28,

14. Collins, Philip (2017), When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them, London: 4th Estate, p. 78

15. Miller, Rodney G. (2022), Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, Albany, NY: Parula, p. 92

16. Turnbull, Nick (2017), "Political Rhetoric and Its Relationship to Context: A New Theory of the Rhetorical Situations, the Rhetorical and the Political," Critical Discourse Studies, XXX, p. 14

17. Ellul (1965), pp. 293-294

18. Wanless, Alicia and Michael Berk (2022), "Participatory Propaganda: The Engagement of Audiences in the Spread of Persuasive Communications," in Herbert, David and Stefan Fisher (Eds.), Social Media and Social Order, De Gruyter Open Poland,

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Can We Stop Whistling in the Wind?

Le Coup de vent [The Gust of Wind] 
Artist: Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ (1842-1923)
Photo by Sotheby's. This work is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

"...propaganda only seems to succeed when it coincides with what people are inclined to do in any case."[1]

 George Orwell, 1944

Propagandists are largely parasitic. A parasite lives and feeds on or in another organism of another species, causing harm to its host. As if we are another species,[2] propagandists exploit us as they obsess with self-advancement. More than offensive or demeaning, continuous streams of manufactured, outrageous talk cause serious harm. We delude ourselves by paying too little attention to the extent of the harm done to us.

Great Harm

Most obviously, much political propaganda now incites hate, violence, or government overthrow. Propagandists routinely use fear, vanity, greed, or other basic emotions to cause social divisions and chaos, or damage to reputation, along with individual and larger scale fraud in financial, health, or electoral decision-making. Propaganda is a much used cover-up of corrupt practices or behavior in institutions, harming individuals  within or outside an institution.

Viewed through the lens of the parasite analogy, the propagandist draws on our culture, beliefs, and emotions to weaken the quality of life that we value. These agents of Newspeak[3] are so present that friends, family, and neighbors tire of hearing about them in the media or just about anywhere else.

In the United States, mass media have frequently broadcast entire political rallies of a candidate, again and again and again, for months on end. This was acknowledged at the time by the occasional broadcast media executive as not good for America, but "damn good" for the broadcaster.[4]

Entranced with fourth-rate celebrity, if that's all that's available, many in the mass media still regurgitate trite outrage or worn-out quotable quotes as breaking news. Perhaps it's a pious wish that broadcasters will ever recognize that many of us have had enough rehashes of the latest doings of a propagandist being paraded before us. We are continuing our shift to streaming platforms.

Is There Good Propaganda?

Propaganda is not new. But it is not well understood. Some folks sincerely suggest there is good propaganda. One widely available definition of propaganda considers it as "helping or injuring ...deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause."[5] According to this view, propaganda might advance whatever is either negative or positive.

Propaganda principles, processes, and techniques certainly seem agnostic to political or moral positions or "-isms." But the reality is that any propaganda is fully effective when the independent will and the capacity for choice by "targeted" individuals are denied. Can a propagandist with good intent somehow purify propaganda when pursuing a common good?[6] Both good and bad actors use propaganda processes to secure their results by creating "pseudo-needs."[7]

Commonly these days, political propagandists sow chaos, confusion, and false crises to exploit our limited attention to the consequences of what they say and do. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul explains in his landmark study that propaganda is an ongoing process constantly shaping expectations through:

...continuous agitation... [creating] ...a climate first, and then prevent[ing] the individual from noticing a particular propaganda operation in contrast to daily events.[8]

Ironically and sadly, our own preoccupation with what we call propaganda helps ensure that public policies or action to address the real needs and wants of people take a back seat to the endless microanalyses of the propagandist, or are simply ignored. Propagandists confidently rely on daily regurgitation of their public talk in news reports, social media, and elsewhere. This control of the public agenda significantly reframes our thinking.

Even as we disdain spin merchants, they tell us what we want to hear, wrapped in cultural myths that pander to our deepest feelings. Savvy propagandists are adept at incorporating myths in this way, frequently promising a better future. And what people believe about the future is what shapes response to present events.[9] 

Images of a lifestyle or a national identity might be valuable for an individual or for social cohesion, but propagandists value such beliefs in us as tools of control.

What Is Propaganda?

Understandings of the word propaganda range widely, including from what someone disagrees with[10] through to puffery or hyperbole for promotion. Whether or not we like a cause, product, or person promoted can affect what we call propaganda, or what we feel about a propagandist's claim.[11]

Even reaching agreement among scholars on a useful definition of the word[12] remains difficult. Some efforts seek to distinguish rhetoric, persuasion, and propaganda based on whether intentions are revealed or hidden, how much interaction or participation seems possible, whether discourse is truthful,[13] or whether rational decision-making is respected. A definition that Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell offer focuses on the purpose of propaganda:

Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.[14]

Control of Thought

Alone or in collusion with collaborators, propagandists continuously attack both free thought and, by extension, freedoms of speech and association. Ellul observes "to be effective, propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision."[15] He alerts to propaganda being "a menace that threatens the total personality,"[16] warning that any fully effective propaganda provokes "action without prior thought."[17] And this "action makes propaganda's effect irreversible."[18]

Once we are sufficiently prepared to make automatic response, we the propagandized increasingly give ourselves over to what the propagandist says about everyday events. Commercial, political, and cult-promoting propagandists all seek automatic response[19] to further their interests. Seriously examining propaganda requires a definition that embraces this driving effect.

After reviewing a wide variety of definitions, Randal Marlin offers a workably clear description, which is the framework stipulated here:

PROPAGANDA = The organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual's adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment.[20]

This aptly infers that a propagandist's effectiveness depends on the extent to which audiences surrender free choice. This most substantial harm to individuals and society is not easily addressed. Such commandeering of people's thinking and actions continuously corrupts the freedoms on which democracy is based. As will be explored in a later blog post, the processes of propaganda and democracy are at odds,[21] through the impact on each of us and on democratic processes.

Although propaganda has an inevitable presence in society and can serve to unify the beliefs of a community, talking about "harmful propaganda,"[22] as if there is any that is not, should not sit well with anyone committed to freedom.

Not to Be Fooled

Continuous immersion in nonsense wrapped in deeply felt myths really messes with otherwise sensible pundits, politicians, academics, and each of us. In daily life, we all accept bursts of verbiage, image, or deeds designed to grab our attention washing over us from an early age. 

Even before we reach teen years, the electronic babysitter of television delivers countless, unfiltered stimulations of dopamine in the brain. Its effects are much like a narcotic causing addiction. This engagement helps tech platforms soon afterwards to fulfill their goal for more of us to spend more time on social media.

Are we whistling in the wind to expect civic leaders, neighbors, friends, family, or any of us to outwit propagandists? Productively unmasking propagandists or redirecting their efforts requires some agreement about what's going on.

Ellul suggests that the "endless repetition of formulas, explanations, and simple stimuli" erodes "scorn and disbelief."[23] However foolish we might initially believe some nonsense to be, its repetitive use focuses both conversation and actions. Accordingly, the most educated, intelligent people in the community remain the most propagandized because each

* Absorbs the largest amount of second-hand information.
* Feels compelled to have an opinion
* Takes pride in thinking clearly and "judging."[24]

Thanks to George Orwell's short essay "Politics and the English Language," we can be more alert to public figures who use words to obscure or deliberately hide realities. Orwell tried to help with simple advice to catch and push back on language that is "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."[25] Together with his description of Newspeak in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,[26] we have an early warning and basic ways to deal with this verbal abuse.

Orwell also presented us with a further warning about the consequence and effect of a propagandist's language distortions. His fairy story Animal Farm[27] darkly illustrates how autocratic pigs take over the farm. They use the other animals' fuzziness of memory and limited reasoning ability to confuse collective memories about previous practices and norms. 

The pigs secure obedience to their new regime largely because their fellow animals continuously ponder ambiguities, without taking any action. By giving permission in advance,[28] the animals cede control of the farm to the pigs, increasing the speed with which all are controlled.[29]

The most effective antidotes to propaganda remain truth and the ability to distinguish "fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible"[30]to differentiate the light from the dark and the many shades between.


1. Orwell, George (2009), “Propaganda and Demotic Speech,” in Packer, George (Ed.), All Art is Propaganda, New York: Mariner, p. 231 [1st published in Persuasion, Summer Quarter, 1944, 2, No.2]

2. Alekseev, Andrey, Oleg Gurov, Alexander Segal, and Andrey Sheludyakov (2023), "Ideas as Infections: Introduction to the Problematics of Cognitive Metaparasitism," Epistema, 1, [explores the dynamics of metaparasites, defined as information designed to manipulate or deceive],

3. Orwell, George (1972), “The Principles of Newspeak,” Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 241-251 [1st published 1949]

4. Fallon, Peter K. (2022), Propaganda 2.1: Understanding Propaganda in the Digital Age, Eugene, OR: Cascade, p. 95

5. _________ (2020), “Propaganda,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

6. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, New York: Knopf, p. 256

7. Kellen, Konrad, “Introduction,” in Ellul (1965), p. vii

8. Ellul (1965), p. 20

9. Lerner, D. (1972), “Effective Propaganda,” in Lerner, D. (Ed.), Propaganda in War and Crisis, New York: Arno, p. 346

10. Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.) (2020), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. xxv

11. Taylor, P. M. (2002), “Strategic Communications or Democratic Propaganda?” Journalism Studies, 3, 3, pp. 437-441,, in Kiss, Peter A. Kiss (2023), “Russian Strategic Communication Operations in Support of Strategic Objectives in the Russo-Ukrainian War,” November 23 pport_of_Strategic_Objectives_in_the; Murphy, Dennis M. and James F. White (2007), “Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War?,” The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters 37, 3, pp. 15-27,

    [briefly reviews some limitations on countering propaganda in the United States.]

12. Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O’Donnell (2019), 7th edn, Propaganda and Persuasion, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 2-7; Marlin, Randal (2013), Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview, pp. 4-13; Steinfatt, Thomas M. (1979), “Evaluating Approaches to Propaganda Analysis,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 36(2), Summer, pp.159-162

13. Bennett, Beth S. and Sean Patrick O’Rourke (2006), “A Prolegomenon to the Future Study of Rhetoric and Propaganda: Critical Foundations," in Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell (Eds.), Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 67; see also - Chomsky, Noam (1989) Necessary Illusions in Democratic Societies, Boston, MA: South End Press

14. Jowett and O’Donnell (2017), p. 6

15. Ellul (1965), p. 27

16. Ellul (1965), p. xvii

17. Ellul (1965), p. 240

18. Ellul (1965), p. 29

19. Ellul (1965), p. 208

20. Marlin (2013), p. 12

21. Ellul (1965), p. 26

22. Stanley, Jason (2015), How Propaganda Works, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 5 

23. Ellul (1965), p. 312

24. Kellen, in Ellul (1965), pp. v-vi

25. Orwell, George (1981), “Politics and the English Language,” A Collection of Essays, Orlando, FL: Harcourt, p. 156-171 [1stpublished 1946]

26. Orwell (1972), “The Principles of Newspeak,” pp. 241-251

27. Orwell, George (1977), Animal Farm, New York: Signet [1st published 1945]

28. Snyder, Timothy (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan, p. 17

29. Snyder, p. 18

30. Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning: Paper Read at a Vacation Course in Education, Oxford, 1947, London: Methuen, p. 4

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"[1]

 Benjamin Franklin, 1722

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, voters 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 occasional 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. Workable steps to outwit propagandists are hard to come by. 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 elaborate 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 freedom of the mass media.

4) Expand systematic education for countering propaganda.

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

6) Foster collaborations 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 usespecially the more thoughtful members of the mass media as well as individuals who will start or join coalitions for actionare 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. Lewandowsky, Ecker, Cook, Van der Linden, Roozenbeek, and Oreskes (2023), 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