Sunday, January 21, 2024

Counter Anti-democracy!

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

 Bertrand Russell, 1952

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

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

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

Speaking Out 

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

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

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

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

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

Legacies of Control

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

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

To Sustain Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being First

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

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

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

Typical "Tells"

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

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

Agitation and Integration

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

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

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

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

Dismantle Anti-democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8. Enlarge controls on educational curricula and librariesto limit free thought and inquiry. 

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

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

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

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

- Portray "others" as a shared enemy. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

7. Malkopoulou and Moffitt

8. Ellul (1965), p. 26

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

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

11. Kovač, p. 211

12. Kovač, p. 211

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20. Ellul (1965), p. 94-95

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

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

23. Collins, p. 341

24. Collins, p. 337

25. Collins, p. 338

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

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

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

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

30. Ellul (1965), p. 85

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Neutralizing Propaganda

Edward R. Murrow at Work with CBS, 1957
Source: Wikipedia. Image is in Public Domain {{PD-US-no notice}}

"Propaganda ceases where simple dialogue begins."[1]

 Jacques Ellul, 1962

In 2022 in the United States, during a break in the televised Congressional Hearings to probe the attempted overthrow of democratic government, a thoughtful media commentator asked why we hadn't seen "all this" as it took shape. Despite the substantial disinformation and other propaganda distractions leading up to and after the attack on the Capitol, tens of millions of Americans might answer that thanks largely to media coverage, they long sensed the illicit behaviors. And turned out in very large numbers to vote in 2020, and subsequently, to reassert democracy.

Anyone listening during the previous half decade or more had already detected the clear and imminent danger of overt public attacks on democracy. Early red flags were public polemic to discredit the FBI and the media, along with assaults on democratic norms, the rule of law, and the institutions of democracy. Many voters recognized these were neither subtle nor random attacks. For many, the Congressional Hearings just added some detail on how a coup was hatched.

Election workers, whistleblowers, local officials, judges, attorneys, journalists, and many more showed resilience against threats, violence, and character assassination, enabling voters to speak out. Enough voters who identify as Independent or Republican joined with Democrats to bolster democracyoffering hope for some reprieve from a dark alternative. Less clear is how long this coalition of voters will withstand the ongoing menace of mutating propaganda.

Where We Are Now

This is a time to be clear-eyed about the mirages that propaganda creates. Repelling all the propaganda washing over us may not be possible. With thoughtful action though, we can detect and deflect much of its impact. Suggested below and following in subsequent blog posts are some ways to block, blunt, or counter fake news, disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy conjectures, pseudo-populism, and propaganda more broadly.

The most thoughtful media commentators ignore or paraphrase a propagandist's catchy words, slogans, and other noise. Some substitute "criminal defendant" or another factual descriptor, instead of using a propagandist's name for a second or further times. These commentators spotlight the actions rather than the words of a propagandist, or illustrate the likely harmful effect from doing what the propagandist urges. 

Inferring the realities of the harm inherent in what a propagandist advocates is ordinarily straightforward. Likewise, to point out the propagandist's failure to offer any real solutions to benefit us. It's best to address how the claims in propaganda or the actions of propagandists would impact us. Other helpfully neutralizing narratives are to use the power of analogy, especially to illustrate the resilience and creative resourcefulness of people standing up to tyranny. These can include stories locally, from elsewhere, or from earlier times. Shared successes dealing with anti-democratic propaganda[2] both build resilience and stimulate additional individual or collaborative push back.

It's essential NOT to amplify the name, claims, and antics of a propagandist. The power of personality politics makes it even more important to minimize promotion of a propagandist's name or words, even when these are widely known and promoted by others. 

Yet this basic electioneering wisdom is too little observed. Obsessions with micro-analyzing a propagandist's supposed intentions, or excessive mockery, or focusing only on so-called secrets,[3] lies, or ideology in propaganda tend not to wash with audiences beyond the "party faithful." The most effective propaganda uses truth and focuses on "mundane issues, not ideological appeals."[4] 

Likewise, it's best not to place too much faith in recurring verbal attacks on a propagandist, given the mixed results from the intense attacks of this type in election campaigns. As will be noted in a later blog post, although judicious and penetrating illustration of how the graft harms voters may prove helpful to deflect propaganda, the United States, as well as some other nations, too often elect accused criminals to public officedespite vigorous commentary on the candidate's alleged criminality. 

Most importantly, all of us need to reclaim the public agenda, so that we oblige action on matters important to everyday living. We can all call out and push back on nonsense talk with well-targeted rhetorical or direct questions that require attention to what matters to voterssuch as common concerns about healthcare, jobs, shelter, food, safety, freedom, and holding bad actors to account. 

Fortunately, the continuous immersion in sensation-seeking echoes from empty vessels does have some limits. In someone substantially reshaped by propaganda, a small boost of propaganda will readily excite or "re-intoxicate" a person.[5] But mostly, for people not mingling in the propagandist's world and worldview, propaganda is not very durable.[6] A wonderful quality of propaganda is how quickly it decays when crowded out of public discourse, without opportunity for a "refresh." As mentioned previously, there's not much that a propagandist fears more than being ignored.[7]

Engaging Conversations 

Three principles offer hope for neutralizing propaganda: (1) conversation one-on-one or in very small groups can evolve coalitions among even the most polarized individuals;[8] (2) likewise effective is to keep focus on addressing the consequences and effects of a propagandist's claims or actions, with little or no direct reference to the propagandist's name; and (3) propaganda decays when denied opportunity for a "refresh."

Very effective talk-show hosts, pundits, and journalists exemplify the first principle, with a talent for sustaining a conversational tone to "interact" with the theoretical average of two-and-a-half people listening in any living room, workplace, vehicle, or elsewhere. These professionals help many keep perspective, sometimes by offering creative insights for dealing with propaganda designed to polarize and undermine democracy. 

One television anchor recently described how a town's civic leaders in Colorado systematically engaged the polarized residents through one-on-one or one-on-two discussions. These folks then built cooperative efforts to benefit the communityafter "town halls" and even small group meetings were found not to work. Unsurprisingly, one of the more effective civic leaders in this effort was the town's fire chief.[9] Especially in an election year, strategically extending such initiatives for community action are crucial. This approach builds on the remarkable commitment to volunteerism in the United States.[10] 

Simple dialogue will engage individuals within a community to stand together to meet day-to-day or emergency needsdelivering real solutions, in contrast to a propagandist's puffery. Autocrat-propagandists primarily use polemic of dispute, which is concerned with winning. This polemic allows for no mutually accepted procedure to find solutions. While the processes of two other types of polemic, namely discussion and controversy, enable resolution of differences, the only remedies for handling dispute polemic are punishment, therapy, or disregard.[11] 

Autocrat-propagandists erode the consultative decision-making that makes democracy work. To counter polarization, what is more important than engaging a propagandist's "targets" productively in community decision-making?

Probing the effects or consequences of propagandists' disinformation, rather than repeating it, can also be fruitful for investigative journalists, or anyone with interest in follow-through. For example, one potential news item concerns a study that estimated the effect of propagandists who advocated the use of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) during the first wave of COVID-19. 

A meta-analysis of randomized trials shows that HCQ use was associated with an 11% increase in mortality rate among some patient groups, with the number of hydroxychloroquine related deaths in hospitalized patients estimated at 16,990 in six countries during just a two-year period.[12] Continuously revealing the likely or actual effects or consequences of a propagandist's claims can help illustrate the dangerous or vacuous character of propaganda.


It will often be an investigative journalist who blows the whistle on the bad actions of a propagandist. But, for any real impact, these efforts require dogged follow-up questions and critiques. Frankly, some of us at least expect the media to uncover and track initiatives and proposals from politicians that would improve everyday living. Or, when no proposals are offered, to give repeated access to credible voices urging initiatives that could work. Or, to require politicians to make more than mealy-mouthed promises, as well as to require accountability, repeatedly as needed, for delivery on promised initiatives. 

Media probes that advocate more timely and effective use of the legal system against the harmful actions of propagandists may also help strengthen democracy. Largely through persistently professional media investigations is much malfeasance of elected or aspiring officials ever known. And journalists deploy information gathering and writing abilities within standards of the profession, media management, perceived audience interests, and other constraints that would paralyze many people. 

The regularity of discovering and getting to us what might be truly "fit to print" or broadcast is an ever-changing landscape, ever demanding on talent, patience, persistence, politeness, and a host of other positive human qualities. On the flip side, too many in the mass media industry fail to dial back naive or worse amplifications of manufactured outrage–and dialing back coverage of the propagandist's harmful nonsense is essential to reassert civility! 

Among continuing attempts to encourage the news media toward practices better than reactionary sensation-seeking are initiatives commenced around 2015 to disseminate the practices of constructive journalism.[13]  The approach of constructive news is "to find practical solutions to the challenges which face its audience, forcing politicians to make evidence-based proposals, which one could then evaluate over time, pegging their words back to reality..."[14] Let's wish for journalism schools and, increasingly, practicing journalists to devote considerable effort to constructive news practices or similar.

Early detection and pre-emptive actions are especially critical to neutralizing propaganda. Democracies generally move too slowly to require accountability of propagandistseven with demonstrably bad actors, who aggregate personal power by gaming the laws and procedures designed to sustain democracy. The sad lesson of history is that wannabe autocrats move with relative speed to exploit democratic freedoms. 

These characters steal the march on us with screeches for the camera and relentless fundraising. They use large-scale systematic psychographic profiling to target very large numbers of people. Unimpeded, fundraising emails, social media, advertising spots on the Internet, and other outputs rally supporters and bait opponents into wasteful, reactionary responses. Character assassination of a political opponent and other outlandish claims are commonplace. 

The failure to push back effectively on propagandists for many months or years continuously empowers the most accomplished. Prompt accountability for illegal behavior is required to reassert truth, law, and justice. 

Limits of Propaganda

Specific clues for what propaganda to tackle most vigorously, as well as how to do so, are found in what Jacques Ellul concludes as some limits of propaganda in his time. He suggests that propaganda: (1) can only very slowly modify pre-existing attitudes; (2) cannot successfully deny general social trends or the strong sociological factors on which society acts; (3) must be consonant with some basic fact; (4) must be lasting and continuous to sustain psychological impact; and (5) when delivered by a foreign nation may be limited by the propagandist's limited awareness of the target nation's attitudes, centers of interest, and presuppositions.[15]

Actions anyone can take against a continuous propaganda onslaught are to:

1. Challenge any propaganda that targets our pre-existing attitudes on which democracy is based. We can do this as basically as through reassertion of core values, like honesty, justice, prudence, courage, and wisdom.

2. Highlight the harm to people that would result from the claims of any bad actorsaying exactly what should happen instead. And push civic leaders to promptly hold bad actors accountable.

3. Reassert the rightness of facts, positively, briefly, and specifically, without naming the lie or the liarto avoid becoming a megaphone for the corrupt.

4. Keep advocating and repeating, with many variations, our desire to live in a society that enables the provision of basic human needs, such as health, job, shelter, food, safety, and freedom. This directly counters the vacuous claims of propaganda, which decay over timeespecially when crowded out of public communications.

5. Push for legal and financial sanctions to hold accountable both foreign propagandists and their collaborating domestic dupes, who undermine our way of life with threats, hacks, hoaxes, fraud, or other harms.

Propagandists will only side-step the limits of propaganda when we let them, including by allowing our energy to be diverted, such as by over-reacting to their drivel. Most vital to neutralizing propagandists is for each of us to keep perspective and build ways to tackle propaganda wherever it is useful to do sowith speed, frequency, pertinence, and reach.

It is practical expressions of truth, law, and justice that ensure democracy thrives, by fending off the incursions of bad actors, both domestic and foreign. Speaking up and speaking out to elected and aspiring officials, the judiciary, the media, and anyone who will listen is needed to strengthen democracy. Democracy greatly depends on our continuous attention, thought, and action to continue and thrive.


1. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Knopf, p. 6 [1st French edition, 1962]

2. Snow, Nancy (2013), Truth Is the Best Propaganda: Edward R. Murrow's Speeches in the Kennedy Years, Minerva, NY: Minerva Press; Silina, Maria (2022), "Russia's Feminists Are Protesting the War and Its Propaganda with Stickers, Posters, Performance and Graffiti," The Conversation, April 7,

      Maddow, Rachel (2023), Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, Crown: New York

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

4. Abrams, M. (1964), "Opinion Polls and Party Propaganda," Public Opinion Quarterly, 28, Spring, pp. 13-19

5. Ellul (1965), p. 184

6. Ellul (1965), p. 186

7. Miller, Rodney G. (2020), "It's Time for Plain Talk," Word to the wise blog post, June 25,

8. Ellul (1965), p. 6

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

10. United States Census Bureau (2023), At Height of Pandemic, More Than 51% of People Age 16 and Over Helped Neighbors, More Than 23% Formally Volunteered, January 25,

11. Dascal Marcelo (2017), "Types of Polemics and Types of Polemical Moves," in Cmerjrkova, Svetla, Jana Hoffmanova, Olga Mullerova, Olga M. Lleroy (Eds.), Dialoganalyse VI/1: Referate de 6. Argbeitstagung, Prag 1996, Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, pp. 21-22

12. Pradelle, Alexaine, Sabine Mainbourg, Steeve Provencher, Emmanuel Massy, Guillaume Grenet, Jean-Christophe Lega (2024), "Deaths Induced by Compassionate Use of Hydroxychloroquine during the First COVID-19 Wave: An Estimate," Biomedicine & Pharamacotherapy, 171, Online January 2,

13. Constructive Institute (2024), Why Constructive Journalism? Website,

14. Pomerantsev, Peter (2019), This is NOT Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, London: Faber and Faber, p. 239

15. Ellul (1965), pp. 294-296