...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.
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. This decline is at least partly fueled by strategic misinformation that undermines belief in evidence-informed policy making–to disrupt the operation of democracy.
On any day, electors will need to navigate a firehose of propaganda that wraps together imperatives of fake news, disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and pseudo-populism. Each burst of verbiage, image, or deed 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.
* 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.
Institutions and People
Institutions do not themselves protect democracy. Montesquieu suggests the durability of free government depends on a nation’s self-correction. 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. 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.
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 activity–with 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.
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), , 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,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2023.101711 [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, https://doi.org/10.1093/poq/nfad039, p. 10
6. Lewandowski, et.al., 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, doi.org/10.1177/009539977801000202
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, https://cssn.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Conspiracy-Theory-Handbook-Stephan-Lewandowsky.pdf; 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