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.