Sunday, February 4, 2024

Going Forward

"Sticks & stones may break my bones but SCIENCE helps to heal me
Minnesota March for Science, St Paul

"The only way to find a solution is to act."[1]

– Maria Ressa, 2022

Anyone who still believes the children's rhyme that closes with words will never hurt me[2] is either not paying attention, or more concerning, does not want to. Propaganda impacts what everyone thinks or does. In both autocratic and democratic states, people must deal with propaganda in endlessly engulfing waves. Inaction or inappropriate reactions to its impact empowers an autocrat. Autocrats and aspiring autocrats rely greatly on a population's self-censorship to manage dissent.[3]

Nicholas O'Shaughnessy has illuminated the strategy autocrats employ to develop pseudo-democracy. By using "the magnifying glass of TV and the Internet,"[4] they sow confusion, make pseudo-reality plausible, manage symbolism and perceptions of history, myth, or existential threat, then follow up with soft power in an evangelistic mode and with physical coercion. The objective is to secure acquiescence, not belief, to create "conformists." To secure and retain power, the autocrat propagandist "offers a worldview that is simple, coherent, and easily communicated...founded on some idea of a nationalist utopia."[5]

Resistance and Resilience

Fortunately, a propagandist's threat to freedoms also has an unintended consequence of fueling resistance and resilience in people who are allergic to such control. While lip-service to democracy may satisfy a propagandist's followers, democracy nurtures in many others a "fluid and many-sided" personality[6] with intuition and commitment for what it takes to expand "rights and liberties to everybody."[7] A wide range of such civic virtues nurture personal and group resilience and understandings of personal liberty, mutual respect, and tolerance as lived experiencestangibly impacting citizenship, civil action, education, and other personal or social understandings and initiatives that protect and promote the autonomy of citizens.[8]

Common approaches used to resist propagandists are "speaking out, to humor, to avoiding confrontation, [which]...may not work as 'constructive resistances.'"[9] Much detection and dealing with propaganda focuses on revealing faulty reasoning, lies and part-truths, or appeals to audience emotions, to discredit the supposed intentions of a propagandist. But as long ago as 2018 in the United States at least, it was publicly acknowledged that multiple, dispersed warnings about intent, propaganda mechanisms, or various fact-checking approaches[10] via however intelligent and penetrating commentary, blistering advertisements, mockery, hype, or even legal probes are no match for an ongoing onslaught of unfettered propaganda.[11] 

It's surely important to ferret out "the tactics and hidden interests of persuasive campaigns,"[12] but to motivate action it's necessary to visualize what's significant to people's livesfocusing on just a relatively few, digestible concerns to stimulate action and encourage new habits.[13] For motivation against propaganda to be useful, communication efforts must occur at a scale that energizes meaningfully large population groups to actively resist autocrats.[14] 

Differently nuanced methods are required to tackle different types of propaganda, or different phases in a propagandist's efforts, especially in different cultures. For example, although "political rhetoric in Scandinavia is generally less hostile and polarised than in many other European countries  and especially the US  the last 20 years have shown right-wing movements using increasingly hostile and aggressive rhetoric."[15] Perceptions and expectations concerning power, individualism, competition, security, norms, or restraint vary greatly among cultural groups,[16] within and beyond national boundaries. Certainly though, much more than emotion-charged inaction is needed to deal with insurgency,[17] including when dealing with terrorists against democracy.

Get Ready

Some researchers suggest forewarning or prebunking as a particularly effective approach to blunt misinformation,[18] which requires anticipating a propagandist's disruptive actions and hubris. Both immediately and longer term, a priority must be to continuously monitor, detect, and draw attention to the specific harms inherent in the claims or presumptions of propaganda. 

Mostly, a propagandist's contrarian behaviors become very predictable. Slogans or specific wordings and actions are commonly recycled in copy-cat from other places or earlier times. For example, among the many occasions that a propagandist's "reality" imitates fiction or vice-versa is a representation of events in 1946 within an episode of the British television series, Foyle's War, first broadcast in 2015. A propagandist's public speech is scripted with the eerily familiar catchwords of today's propagandists, including "stuck in hell holes," "illegal aliens," "stolen jobs," "take back our streets," and "Make Britain great again."[19] 

With a bit of creativity, it's quite straightforward to anticipate many claims or actions of a propagandist and then to brainstorm effective strategies, to be ready for strategic response. Compiling an "issues file" of draft media releases or pre-drafted outlines for news stories or other materials ahead of time provides a good resource for pre-emptively blocking or quickly deflecting most claims and antics. These materials may be especially effective when developed to address anti-democracy insurgencies, like the ten areas listed at the conclusion of my January 21 blog post, "Counter Anti-democracy."  

Undercutting a propagandist's presumptions, claims, and actions is done simply enough by drawing attention to how these will impact the lives of family, friends, neighbors, or workmates. Individually and collectively, we should progressively expect and request similar forethought more often from aspiring and elected legislators, the media, judiciary, tech platform executives, and any other individuals or groups engaged in the public sphere. 

Stand Up

What most empowers a propagandist are reactions. Instead of reactively taking to social media, or devising that media exposé of this or that propagandist, or feeling threatened, or otherwise responding to impulses for fight or flight when our raw nerves are touched off by a propagandist's emotive nonsense, it's surely time to take a pause. And much more is needed than switching off media and tech devices, although at least occasionally this could help gain some perspective. Push back requires concerted effort that motivates additional purposeful efforts.

Our preference for what's "free and easy" prioritizes daily living. And putting time and effort into critically assessing public assertions, proposals, policies, events, and actions can be challenging. Ever-increasing amounts of data, along with propaganda designed to discredit its reliability, prevent people from making judgments and forming opinions.[20]

Also working against thoughtfulness and analytical approaches are human capacities for self-delusion.[21] People most interested in a matter are prone to mistakenly believe themselves best able to discriminate the falsity of claims. Ironically, the more vigorously that we scrutinize propagandist drivel, the more likely we'll accept at least some propaganda, since it's often based on plausible presumptions. High repetition and frequent exposure enhance how plausibly even an outrageous lie is perceived.

Individually and as a society, it's especially important to stand up to the now too common, virulent propaganda that abuses or threatens people's personality or safety. It's hard to figure why such behavior is tolerated and not called out more at community gatherings, such as school board meetings, or legislatures, or the supermarket checkout! Propaganda directed against people in this way constitutes abuse and monopolizes the mind.[22] Another insidious effect is to stifle the dialogue, debate, and participation essential to democracy. 

Such verbal abuse is no longer tolerated elsewhere in the community, like the home or workplace. But due to a mix of being taken by surprise, trying to be polite, or avoiding confrontation, or the financial and emotional demands of tackling the more egregious of these events legally, the propagandist in the public arena rolls on, somewhat like a juggernaut, too long immune. Ways to remedy related inadequacies in the law will be considered in a future blog post. At the time of occurrence of some abuse, individuals or chairpersons of meetings or groups are increasingly objecting to and moderating that behavior. This ordinarily requires some verbal, Whac-A-Mole skills. Mastery of the quick come-back and the ability to partner polemic with humor can be valuable to advance serious matters.

Media Change

The tabloid-based, sensational outrage and antics of a propagandist deliver a daily spigot of potential "news." For decades, media presenters, journalists, and media management have navigated restrictive aspects of company policy, diminishing budgets, limited time, talent migration, and other limits on efforts to sustain audiences. Unsurprisingly, the hyperbole, and even milder exaggeration of autocrat-propagandists, combined with provocative ambiguity, seem to fulfill a headline-writer's dream for attracting audience attention, whether connected to reality or not. No one has all the answers for dealing with this de facto power of a propagandist over the media. 

But some members of the media are exploring ways to lessen the impact of propaganda, such as through paraphrase, or otherwise truly editing a propagandist's drivel. It should be fine for moderators on broadcast media or editors in the print media to use different words than the propagandist's bad words, distorted truth (and lies) again, and again, and againand to challenge it as propaganda. After all, this is little different than the responsibility to prevent dissemination of libel and slanderand unchecked, propaganda is at least as harmful.

And ever since the televised presidential debates in the United States in 1960, we've known that pundits who soon afterwards comment on what public figures say have more power than the original remarks. A variation for dealing with a propagandist that one thoughtful television anchor developed is to present a propagandist's comments split screen, alongside the anchor's reactions. This is just one approach to handle a propagandist's avoidance of interviews or cross-questioning to cynically use the media as a megaphone.

News managers could take up more of the many suggestions long available to address such concerns. At the very least, directly and regularly "ask the public [...including former followers...] what they think of your news coverageand listen to what they say."[23] Media audiences do expect journalism to be more solutions based[24] and less obsessed with news as conflict, celebrity, disaster, sex, crime, or violence.[25] It would be helpful, for example, to roll back breaking news so that it is only what is truly urgent or directly impacts most of us.[26] 

Likewise, some diligence calling out false dichotomy would be a good move. Mostly unchallenged in the media is one of the propagandist's oldest rhetorical tricks of claiming to protect a freedom by leaving decision on a matter to "free decision" as a "local or state option." As far back as 1854, Abraham Lincoln showed how to powerfully deflect this trick, by calling out the inhumanity of making good people choose between self-interest and what is moral.[27] But this propagandist's rhetorical trick is still given unmoderated airplay on many so-called states-rights issues. It deserves to be called out as advocacy of self-interest, as Lincoln did. 

Serious efforts more widely are needed in the media to "bring back into the fold those who have shunned the news for the intolerably trivial circus it has become."[28] Ongoing handwringing in the media and in journalism education circles to "regain" audiences requires better innovation based on truly listening to audiences, many of whom share fears of what happens to press freedom in autocracies. Immediate actions to meet immediate needs are required of the media and each of us.

Community Engagement

How else might you bring value and encourage young, savvy individuals who have the chops to execute needed change? If you're a joiner, join and recruit others to join an action group that puts pressure and expects results from civic officials on matters you care about. Whether by interrogating, cooperating with, or operating alongside the efforts of civic leaders, the judiciary, activists, and the media, it is open to each of us to stand up to a propagandist's polemic by joining or commencing efforts that make a difference. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, even in nations where volunteerism is strong, the participation in political organizations or causes tends to be just a small fraction of other volunteering.[29] A few strong and organized voices can make a real difference relatively quickly to the tenor and direction of politics, especially locally and regionally. Each of us must find ways to participate. Failure to do so enables pseudo-populists to infiltrate the selection of candidates for political office who are less than suitable.

Whether within a political organization or separately, it's also effective to invite four to six other "doers" to come together face-to-face or online, say weekly or as you can, for brainstorming about ways to help advance real community needs. After inviting aspiring or elected representatives, regulators, and administrators to brief your group on their plans, proposals, or ideas, your follow-on actions can include interrogating, monitoring, or supporting some suggestions or initiatives. Or you may commit support to personal advocacy.

Citizens, members of the media, civic officials, or whistleblowers who develop clear aims in pursuing an overall plan can help defeat political subversion.[30] In a democracy, beyond voting and working to help ensure that effective, democratic leaders are elected, individuals can help make democracy thrive in other ways. Just by writing a letter (not a tweet or email) to your elected representative requesting action on something you care about denies the acquiescence that the autocrat seeks. Ask for and expect a reply, and follow up if you do not get one, until you do get a satisfactory (not a mealy-mouthed) reply.

For push back against autocrats in autocratic states, developing democracies, or established democracies that are resisting back-sliding, well-planned strategic use of social media may allow people to share information, grow group cohesion, resist dominance, and fight for freedom. Maria Ressa's inspiring efforts to stand up to a dictator in the Philippines is one example. She focuses four layers of action to "help shorten the time it takes to correct the lies...[and] ...have civil society act... [with] ...three goals: scale, impact and deterrence."[31] 

In both democratic and autocratic states, analogous efforts with goals suited to local conditions can focus an activist group's efforts to mesh with appropriate coalitions, such as "civil society groups, business organizations, and religious groups." Follow-on efforts then link with university and other educational efforts, and engage other key professionals, like lawyers and journalists.[32]

Unaddressed, propaganda redefines what's considered important, diverting attention from policy and governance that matters. Effectively countering the propaganda that seeks pseudo-democracy requires each of us to decide how to take action.

What can you do? What more will you do? 


1. Ressa, Maria (2022), How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future, New York: Harper, p. 257 and pp. 267-268

2. Galer, Sophia Smith (2023), "The Harm Caused by Dehumanizing Language," BBC online, October 23,

3. Druzin, Bryan H. and Gregory Gordon (2018), "Authoritarianism and the Internet," Law & Social Inquiry, 43(4), p. 27 [pp. 1-31]; Ressa, p. 43

4. O'Shaughnessy, Nicholas (2017), "Putin, Xi, and Hitler - Propaganda and the Paternity of Pseudo Democracy," Defense Strategic Communications: The Official Journal of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, 2, Spring, p. 115,

5. O'Shaughnessy (2017), pp. 115-130

6. Lifton, Robert Jay (1983), The Protean Self: Human Resilience in an Age of Fragmentation, New York: Basic Books, p. 1

7. Snow, Nancy (2020), Unmasking the Virus: Public Diplomacy and the Pandemic, Public Diplomacy Council, the Public Diplomacy Association of America, and the USC Annenberg Center for Communications Leadership & Policy, June 9,

8. Snow, Nancy E. (Ed.) (2024), The Self, Civic Virtue, and Public Life, Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 1-8,

9. Higgins, Lorraine, Elenore Long, and Linda Flower (2006), "Community Literacy: A Rhetorical Model for Personal and Public Inquiry," Community Literacy Journal, 1(1), pp. 8-43

10. Salaverría, Ramón and Gustavo Cardoso (2023), "Future of Disinformation Studies: Emerging Research Fields," Professional de la Información, 32(5), e320525, pp. 1-7; Çela, Erlis (2023), "Examining Journalist's Perception of Fake News and Their Attitude toward Debunking Disinformation," Studies in Media and Communication, 11(6), September, pp. 385-397; Farkas, Johan (2022), "News on Fake News: Logics of Media Discourses on Disinformation," Journal of Language and Politics,, Johan (2023), "Fake News in Metajournalistic Discourse," Journalism Studies, January 6,

11. Brooks, David (2018), "Opinion: The Failures of Anti-Trumpism," The New York Times, April 10, p. 27; Lakoff, George (2016), Understanding Trump, August, excerpt from Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (3rd edn), Chicago: University of Chicago Press,; Pinker, Steven (2006), "Block That Metaphor!" The New Republic, October 8,,  Pinker observes in relation to Lakoff's approach to "conceptual analysis" that by claiming "conservatives think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation... [he] ...seems unaware that conservatives have been making exactly this accusation against progressives for centuries."     

12. 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

13. McGee, John A. (1929), Persuasive Speaking, New York: Scribner's, pp. 268-269 (Appendix C),

14. Rosenberg, Justus (2020), The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground, a Memoir, New York: Harper Collins

15. Kjeldsen, Jens E., Christian Kock, and Orla Vigsø (2021), "Political Rhetoric in Scandinavia," in Skorgerbø, E., Ø. Ihlen, N.N. Kristensen, and L. Nord (Eds.), Power, Communication, and Politics in the Nordic Countries, Gothenburg: Nordicom, University of Gothenburg, pp. 368-369,

16Kjeldsen, Jens E. (2023), "The Practice and Pragmatics of Scandinavian Research in Rhetoric. Audience Studies in Scandinavian Rhetorical Scholarship," Res Rhetorica, 10(4), pp. 12-13,

17. Briant, Emma Louise (2015), Propaganda and Counter-terrorism: Strategies for Global Change, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, p. 27

18. Lewandowsky, Stephan and John Cook (2020), The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,; 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, der Linden, Sander (2023), Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity, New York: W.W. Norton

19. Orme, Stuart (Director)/Michael Horowitz/IMDbPro (2015), "Trespass," Foyle's War, Season 9, Episode 2, 

20. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Vintage, p. 87

21. Ashinoff, Brandon K., Nicholas M. Singletary, Seth C. Baker, and Guillermo Horga (2022), "Rethinking Delusions: A Selective Review of Delusion Research through a Computational Lens," Schizophr Res., July, 245, pp. 23-41,; Ariely, Dan (2023), Misbelief: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things, New York: Harper Collins, pp. 139-164

22. Briant (2015), p. 6, citing Ellul, pp. 238-242

23. Zada, John (2021), Veils of Distortion: How the News Media Warps Our Minds, Toronto: Terra Incognito, pp. 130-131

24. Zada, p. 126

25. Andersen, Robin and Jonathan Gray (Eds.) (2008), Battleground the Media, Volume 2 (O-Z), Westport, CT: Greenwood, p. 477

26. Zada, pp. 127-128

27. Wilson, Douglas L. (2007), Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words, New York: Vintage, pp. 38-39

28. Zada, p. 125, pp. 10-12 and pp. 125-136

29. Gardiner, Cait, Abby Kiesa, and Alberto Medina (2020), Youth Volunteering on Political Campaigns, Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 

30. Briant (2015), p. 27

31. Ressa, p. 255

32. Ressa, pp. 253-258