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