Monday, February 26, 2024

Deflection and Deterrence

Exiled from Athens via ostracism c. 471-2 BC, despite an impactful military career
by Brogi, licensed under Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication {{PD-author}}

"No newis is bettir than evill newis."[1]

– King James I, 1616 

A politician who uses "strategies to achieve collaborative power" within a democratic system is very different to one who uses "strategies to grab coercive power for relatively naked or revolutionary political action."[2] The latter will ordinarily use propaganda to exploit narcissistic needs of both the propagandist and followers, who "consider themselves superior" to others.[3] 

It's commonly observed that this propagandist amplifies fears about others, along with claims that these others cause harm to collective wellbeing.[4] It's widely thought that a propagandist gathers followers among those who feel neglected and aggrieved by politicians or so-called elites. If so, what can we do to deal with fears in a propagandist's followers? If we look to theories of fear for guidance, we find that previous applications of fear theory to engage the public's support to counter terror activity or security threats had limited success. These theories were "largely developed through experimentation rather than in the field."[5]

And beyond fears, the wide-ranging motivations for aligning with propagandists include seeking fun,[6] attention, recognition, and belonging, or satisfying curiosity, greed, or graft. But what's certain is that, as with a viral pandemic, a virulent propagandist doesn't "just disappear." 

Debriefing ex-believers who journey in and out of conspiracy theories may offer useful clues to deal with the tribe-like devotion of a propagandist's followers.[7] What appears effective to reengage the propagandist's most polarized followers back with the real world is painstakingly systematic involvement through one-on-one or one-on-two discussions.[8] 

Ongoing are explorations to engage citizens in local decision-making in ways that strengthen democracy, including consideration of the potential applicability of the Swiss Cantonal Parliament model.[9] Other approaches designed around the principles of college programs that for decades have built "community literacy" in students may prove helpful.[10] A common thread is building cooperative efforts that tangibly benefit the community in which participants live. In contrast, the pseudo-democratic authoritarian is all about fabricating a parallel fantasy-reality.

Fighting Fabrication

Understanding and dealing with propaganda requires truth-seeking and "quality problem-solving conversations."[11] For dialogue that bolsters democracy, it's necessary to step outside established zones of comfort within institutions, professions, job descriptions, or allied socializations. Some activists, educators, journalists, judges, members of the media, or others do manage to begin the simple dialogue that causes propaganda to cease. By reasserting "political rationality," these individuals do much "to build, maintain and strengthen liberal democracy."[12]

They help deflect aspiring autocrats. Countering these propagandists' rude, contrarian antics is vital to deny the consolidation of power through the incitement of otherwise little-checked harms. Unimpeded, propagandists continuously undermine the rule of law and effective government. This accelerates democratic backsliding, most defined as: 

...deterioration of at least one of three pillars of democracy: free and fair elections, protection of broad political rights and personal freedoms, as well as the rule of law...[13]    

That propaganda is commonly a tool of presumed powerful political, commercial, religious, or military figures is disincentive to prosecution or legislation addressing the harms caused by these bad actors. Prosecutions of influential bad actors are much less than requirednot least because of the limited resources of public prosecutors' offices.

Yet some prosecutors and judges, and even some legislators, manage to function beyond buggy-pace in a nanosecond world. Apparently unhampered by self-preserving caution or other presumptions so common in their professions, these individuals step beyond platitudes like The wheels of justice grind slowly, but exceedingly fine, to advance the contrary maxim Justice delayed is justice denied

Deterring Harm

These prosecutors and judges interpret imminent at something approaching the speed reality requires. Yet they seem only able to very slowly bring some perpetrators to account for more egregious harms, like defamation, fraud, or perjury. When gaming the rule of law is the rule of play, remedy is needed at a speed to meet the need.

Policymakers who can find any bipartisan alignment must likewise address the ever-present flood of harmful disinformation. Glimmers of hope mainly appear in the European Union, which systematically executes support and direction for stakeholders seeking to mitigate the impact of disinformation.[14] Policymakers and civic leaders must still be pushed well beyond their limited efforts to date to counter even obviously false information causing harm. For example, the action of United States attorneys-general against Internet platforms should have occurred long ago to address harms to children. And it's reasonable to push for state and federal action in similar ways to protect adults from harmful effects of social media. 

Required Reassessment  

The proliferation of propaganda to incite insurrection or violence that harms democracy itself and our fellow citizens requires that we reassess the effectiveness of legal protections. 

Especially serious is that fully functioning propaganda controls the thought and actions of large population groups. Curiously, a clichéd story in the legal profession proffers that shouting Fire! in a crowded movie theater is not acceptable, yet propaganda immediately threatening democracy largely is? 

With bravado or defiance, autocrat-propagandists in the United States often falsely claim their speech is protected under The First Amendmentwhich does not apply for speech advancing particular illegal activity. This includes lies that: 

unambiguously have no or little social value...and also cause cognizable harms (as well as sometimes yielding undeserved benefits for the liar)... [which include] ...fraud, perjury, ...and making false statements to public officials.[15]

It's well past time for more action than scholars or pundits rightly pointing this out. 

Civic leaders must take the lead on actionable offenses, instead of dodging their responsibility to do so, sometimes by repeating incorrect platitudes about free speech. This just further empowers a propagandist's undermining of the rule of law. Likewise, pursuit of criminal or civil penalties on propagandists must be stepped up for violating public trust through perjury, tax evasion, espionage, and mail or wire fraud during fundraising or merchandise sales. 

Citizens theoretically can seek remedy for propagandists' criminal or civil wrongs, like defamation or fraud. But an individual mounting legal action against a propagandist incurs substantial financial and emotional burdens, on top of dealing with the ever-increasing threats of physical harm from a propagandist's followers.

Action Against Lies 

Unsurprisingly, scholars concerned about the adequacy of the civil tort system to provide redress for the harms caused by lies conclude that:

the criminal law delivers real sanctions; ...shame and stigma accompanying criminal punishment [is]...not dependent on a willing victim to pursue punishment...[and] ...a consequentialist approach that employs Feinberg's reasoning not only justifies, but demands the criminalization of certain egregious forms of lying.[16]

Following close examination of the main categories of lies, two scholars propose a new crime focused solely on the lies that harm another person or entity. Their sample clause for the new crime considers "that lies should only be criminalized if they are intended to cause serious harm and if said harm results,"[17] namely:

A person is guilty of egregious lying causing serious harm when...[she or] he knowingly lies to another person (1) with the intent to cause serious harm to that person; and (2) serious harm occurs as a result of the lie. As used in this section, a "lie" means a false statement made to another person in oral or written form.[18]

With ever-proliferating harms from disinformation, the pressure should and likely will mount on civic leaders to do something about the ongoing exploitation of snails-paced legal procedures, as well as to close the substantive and procedural loopholes in the law that propagandists exploit. Not even codification, however, may remedy the fictions surrounding "puffery," which judicial interpretations in commercial settings concurrently consider a "vague statement"[19] and "assumed not to work,"[20] yet, paradoxically, supposedly helps citizens by offering assurances to fulfill expectations.[21]

Changes to law, such as the provision in France that enabled "judges to order the removal of false information during electoral periods"[22] will spotlight tensions in the continuum between censorship and free speech principles in practice. 

What's Acceptable?

What's very clear is that neglecting to promptly hold autocrat-propagandists to account is unacceptably harmful. And unlike the infamous juggernaut that autocrat-propagandists try to resemble, propagandists do have weaknesses in common. Some of these may prove useful to deter behavior, beyond the financial penalties imposed through successful prosecutions. For example, the combination of narcissism and greed that drives torrents of "what-about-me-ism" in an autocrat is an Achilles heel. 

Firstly, there's the opportunity to increase media coverage of anyone other than this propagandist. An opportunity with similar effect is to further amplify the propagandist's declines in fundraising, without the usual, habitual use of photographs, video, or quotes of the propagandist.

Secondly, serious scrutiny of the dark effects of an autocrat's alleged criminality on the rest of us may help. Even though an autocrat-propagandist may commonly use corrupt practices for self-advancement, some veneer of legality is required until absolute power is secured.

It's not yet routine in modern Western democracies to ostracize corrupt autocrats. Many who support insurrection remain effectively immune. Interestingly, ostracism originated as a process to protect democracy from threat in ancient Athens. Each year the assembly of citizens decided whether to hold an ostracism or not.[23] The process: 

...first emerged to protect the system, from those who intend to abolish democracy...[and]...can be considered an expression of the people's belief in democracy and their desire to protect their government."[24]

There was no need to prove the accusation or claim causing the exile of ostracism. The vote of citizens required an offender to leave Athens for ten years. This was also practice in some other Greek city-states.[25]

As naysayers attempt to downplay the impacts that propaganda and disinformation make on us all, now is the time to get ahead of propagandists.



1. Proverb attributed to King James I, with equivalent expression in Italy; current version - No news is good news.

2. Körner, Robert, Jennifer R. Oberbeck, Erik Körner, and Astrid Schütz (2022), "How the Linguistic Styles of Donald Trump and Joe Biden Reflect Different Forms of Power," Journal of Language and Social Psychology, April 12, p. 22,

3. Wollaeger, Mark (2013), "Propaganda and Pleasure: From Kracauer to Joyce," in Auerbach, Johathan and Russ Castronovo (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 280-281

4. Baines, Paul and Nigel Jones (2020), "Countering Fear in Propaganda," in Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 336 

5. Baines and Jones, pp. 343-347; Tannenbaum, Melanie B., Justin Hepler, Rick S. Zimmerman, Lindsey Saul, Samantha Jacobs, Kristina Wilson, and Delores Albarracn (2015), "Appealing to Fear: A Meta-Analysis of Fear Appeal Effectiveness and Theories," Psychological Bulletin, 141(6), pp. 1178-1204,

6. Phillips, Whitney (2019), "It Wasn't Just the Trolls: Early Internet Culture, 'Fun,' and the Fires of Exclusionary Laughter," Social Media + Society, pp. 1-4,; Ecker, Ullrich K. H., Stephan Lewandowsky, Olivia Fenton, and Kelsey Martin (2014), "Do People Keep Believing because They Want to? Preexisting Attitudes and Continued Influence of Misinformation," Memory and Cognition, 42(2),

7. Engel, Kristen, Shruti Phadke, and Tanushree Mitra (2023), "Learning from the Ex-Believers: Individuals' Journeys In and Out of Conspiracy Theories Online," Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 7(CSCW2), #285, October 4, pp. 1-37,

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

9. Michels, Ank and Laurens De Graaf (2017), "Examining Citizen Participation: Local Participatory Policymaking and Democracy Revisited," Local Government Studies, 43(6), pp. 875-881,; Federal Chancellery of Switzerland (2024), "Cantonal Parliament: Role and Composition," website,

10. Higgins, Lorraine, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower (2006), "Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry," Community Literacy Journal, 1(1), p. 10,

11. Robinson, Viviane, Frauke Meyer, Deidre Le Fevre, and Claire Sinnema (n.d.), "The Quality of Leaders's Problem-solving Conversations: Truth-seeking or Truth-claiming?"

12. Zamęcki, Łukasz and Adam Szymański (2023), "Unintentional Democratic Backsliders. 'Evil Always Wins through the Strength of Its Splendid Dupes,'" Polish Political Science Review, 11(1), June 30, pp. 40-41,

13. Zamęcki and Szymański, p. 25

14. European Commission (2022), Fighting Disinformation: 2022 Strengthened Code of Practice, June 16, Brussels: European Union,

15. Chen, Alan K. and Justin Marceau (2018), "Developing a Taxonomy of Lies under The First Amendment," University of Colorado Law Review, 89, p. 703,; for U.S. Federal law governing limits to free speech, as interpreted in the ruling from United States v. Alvarez, 567 U.S. 709 (2012), with discussion of the limited ability to restrict lies, see:

16. Druzin, Bryan H. and Jessica Li (2010), "The Criminalization of Lying: Under What Circumstances, If Any, Should Lies Be Made Criminal?" The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), 101(2), pp. 571-572,

17. Druzin and Li, p. 562

18. Druzin and Li, p. 563

19. Hoffman, David A. (2006), "The Best Puffery Article Ever," Legal Studies Research Paper Series, Research Paper No. 2006-11, 91 Iowa Law Review 1395, p. 103,

20. Hoffman, p. 145

21. Hoffman, p. 133

22. Brown, Étienne (2019), "'Fake News' and Conceptual Ethics," Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy, 16(2), p. 147,

23. Mackie, Chris (2016), "Lessons from Ancient Athens: The Art of Exiling Your Enemies," The Conversation, November 22,; [Note: Arguably, in the spirit of ostracism is the provision in some democracies for removal from elected office through a citizens' petition and conduct of a successful recall election.]

24. Oral, Uur (2023), "'Ostracism,' The People's Way of Protecting Democracy from Tyrants in Ancient Athens," Electronic Journal of Social Sciences, April 22, 86, p. 659, 

25. Oral, p. 657

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