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How You Can Combat Propaganda

Three Simple Strategies for You to Combat Propaganda

We can all take action to address the spread of propaganda. Pick any one of the strategies below and you’ll be helping to keep our information ecosystem from turning into an overgrown tangle of dangerous deception.


Strategy 1: Do a gut check and harness the power of doubt.

If you do just one thing to limit the pull of propaganda in your life, make it this: Notice how you react to content.

If a post or story triggers an immediate emotional reaction — you could be thrilled or outraged — it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s propaganda. But it does mean you should take a beat and pay special attention. Ask: Is this the whole story of what’s happening? Do the facts support the shocking claims? Why did the content creator take such a provocative approach?

And if you’re not sure about the answers to any of the above questions, listen to your doubts and save your social media energy for something else. Don’t click. Don’t like. Don’t share.

If you just have to see what’s behind the crazy headline, make sure you actually read the content before you comment or react. And if you do decide to share it, make sure that other people will understand your motivations. Are you sharing it because you think it’s solid information or because you think it’s so far-fetched it’s funny? Don’t expect people to read your mind.

You can use our “Is This Story Share-Worthy?” flowchart to help figure out when a story should be passed along.


Strategy 2: Don’t invite propaganda in.

Propaganda knows how to find you. The online platforms and browsers we use collect information about us in order to target advertising and suggestions. That data can easily be exploited by purveyors of propaganda.

Until recently, anti-vaccine groups were allowed to use Facebook’s user data to target potential mothers with their content, taking a shortcut to a prime audience.

Platforms like YouTube use algorithms that tend to recommend extreme, click-grabbing content. And once you click on one crazy video, these same algorithms will bring you increasingly extreme ideas.

If you want to avoid leading propaganda right to your digital doorstep, there are a few relatively simple steps you can take:

  1. Think back to Strategy 1 and try to limit your interactions with inflammatory or questionable content. Once you interact with it, your chances of seeing more extreme content will increase.
  2. Before you browse online, log out of your browser or choose one that doesn’t track you, such as Firefox.
  3. Log out of platforms like YouTube and Facebook once you’ve finished accessing the content you came for. (But remember, even when you’re logged out, these platforms might show you propaganda to try to get you to click.)
  4. Avoid using the “Like” and “Share” buttons on web pages, which connect these sites directly to your social media accounts.
  5. Periodically delete your search history or use a search engine such as DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track your entries.

Take our quiz to learn which technique you’re most likely to fall for


Strategy 3: Find Your Five.

Last but not least, you can improve your chances of spotting propaganda in any form if you break out of your content bubble and make sure you’re engaging with diverse ideas. That includes ideas you disagree with. With a nearly infinite supply of information at our fingertips, it can be all too easy to start gravitating to sources that reinforce our beliefs and make us feel validated. But the more homogenous our media habits become, the less likely we are to spot propaganda that is trying to exploit our beliefs and biases.

To break out of your media rut, try this: Create a list of five news sources to consult on a regular basis (not necessarily every day, but every week or so).

Your list should include:

  • Two general news sources you already look at on a regular basis and usually agree with.
  • Two general news sources you don’t usually agree with.
  • One source that covers news from a specific perspective, such as the views of a particular demographic, religious group or profession.

It’s okay for your sources to display a bias in their coverage, but make sure that all five are real, fact-based news and opinion organizations. If you’re not sure, you can use a resource like Newstrition® or AllSides to help evaluate your sources.

Bookmark your five sources and check them on a regular basis to help you see the world in all its complexity, not just from a single vantage point.

When you know more sides of the story, you’ll be less likely to fall for propaganda’s simplified, exaggerated, exploitative or divisive version.

Can’t we just ban propaganda?

You may be wondering: Isn’t there a shortcut around all these strategies? Can’t we just pass a law to get rid of this stuff once and for all? Or, barring that, couldn’t online platforms come up with better solutions to stop the spread of harmful content?

As appealing as it might seem to rely on legislation and platform moderation to solve this problem, they are not silver bullets. And while some steps to legislate and regulate propaganda could help curb its spread, they could also bring unintended consequences.

Stifling free speech

Past attempts show that when social media companies or governments try to crack down on propaganda, the free press and legal free expression get caught up in the dragnet.

For example, when YouTube began labeling state-sponsored channels like Russia Today (RT) as propaganda, PBS (the American Public Broadcasting System, which is publicly funded but independent from the government) got the label, too. Facebook tried to make sure all political propaganda would be clearly labeled as “Paid for by,” but its efforts missed many obvious examples and instead wound up ensnaring news articles about political issues. Facebook fixed the problem for U.S. newspapers, but it persists in other countries.

Inviting endless workarounds

Even the best planned and executed anti-propaganda legislation is likely to have one major weakness: technological progress. Propagandists have always been skilled at finding ways to use innovative technology and circumvent new limitations. When WhatsApp placed limits on the number of people you could forward a message to in hopes of stopping the spread of harmful viral content, political volunteers in India used sheer manpower to overcome the limits.

One person’s propaganda…

If you make a law to ban propaganda, who will decide what qualifies? Whether you view a particular piece of persuasive media as propaganda or not is often just a matter of perspective. Folks on the political right call MSNBC propaganda, while folks on the left launch the label at FOX News.

The European Union created a “Rapid Alert System” to try to limit the influence of Russian propaganda on other countries’ political processes. But the system’s operators have struggled to disentangle foreign propaganda from domestic groups making the same arguments. Are both propaganda? Neither?

And in Germany, where the NetzDG law passed in 2017 put in place some of the strictest social media regulations of any democratic nation, the process of identifying and removing offending content sometimes also winds up blocking legal posts.

How do you ban what you can’t see?

As propagandists find their way around existing regulations and test out new technologies, much of their work is also taking place out of sight. Propaganda is moving to private groups and distribution methods, such as WhatsApp, where encryption and other barriers make it almost impossible to monitor or control. In these spaces, propaganda creators can cultivate relationships with their followers, slowing pushing their agenda and avoiding detection.

Now you know what you can do to help combat propaganda. Want to brush up on how to spot it?

Part 1

Simplification

Introduction

Propaganda reduces complicated issues to basic ideas and packages them with catchy slogans and images. Check out these real-world examples of simplification at work.

Go to extremes!

Here, Nazi Germany’s press is bloody-dagger-level bad. The U.S. press, on the other hand, is all good: free and filling papers with hard news. But the reality for the American side was a bit more complicated, as the military controlled the publication of war news and newspapers were expected to promote an encouraging view of the fighting.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

A little bit of logic leads to an enormous leap!

This Facebook post, created by Russian operatives, attempts to create a connection between two tragic situations in order to stoke outrage. But just because two things have something in common — in this case, suffering children — doesn’t mean they’re linked.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Who needs lies?!

Propaganda doesn’t have to include outright lies to be misleading; ignoring facts and counterarguments that contradict its message can also skew its representation of reality. The left-wing activist page Occupy Democrats makes the economic performance of President Donald Trump and other Republican presidents look bad, but it only paints part of the picture.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Who could support that!?

Propagandists know it’s easier for people to hate the other side when opponents’ positions are twisted into something nobody could realistically stand behind. Of course people are more likely to oppose U.S. involvement in Syria if the alternative means “killing the innocent” and opposing peace.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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Exaggeration

Introduction

Propaganda paints its cause as unbeatable, without flaws or weaknesses. Check out these real-world examples of exaggeration at work.

Need a miracle?

Propagandists want you to think they can help solve all your problems if you support their cause or change your behavior the way they want. Here, a bestselling author promises outlandish health outcomes can come from drinking 16 ounces of celery juice daily … and joining his bandwagon of supporters.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Need trust and respect? Borrow it!

Propagandists often hitch their cause to popular ideas to help build support for their own message. This civil-rights-era, anti-communist paper piggybacks off patriotism, with an American flag and rugged Revolutionary-era fighter in its masthead, and a name that harkens back to the famous pamphlet that convinced many colonists to support the fight for independence.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Who doesn’t want success?

Propagandists know this, and will use the promise of positive consequences to attract support for their cause, whether it’s dastardly or beneficial. Here a U.S. government agency publicizes low-cost or no-cost health insurance by showing the kids are all smiles when their dental visits are covered.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Make a power play!

Propagandists like to portray their cause as popular, well-respected, and powerful. Here the Communist Party of America emphasizes how “invincible” it is despite a recent government crackdown. It claims that most U.S. workers already support the movement … so why not you, too?

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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Exploitation

Introduction

Propaganda uses emotional messages to play on universal weaknesses, fears and desires. Check out these real-world examples of exploitation at work.

Be very afraid!

Propaganda often uses fear to grab a reader’s attention. This graphic “warns” of dangers lurking inside the “swine flu” vaccine, from toxins to the risk of serious illness or even death. But its claims are taken out of context, exaggerated, or just plain false.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Flattery will get you everywhere!

Propagandists know that a positive message has its place. In this case, honoring the bravery of servicemen and women helps open the door for other Russian-created messages designed to sow political discord in the U.S.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Lady Liberty weeps for dead children!

Propagandists use shocking content to override reason with emotion. The Iraqi army hoped to turn American troops against the Gulf War by claiming their actions would kill innocent women and children and make “Liberty Stadium” cry.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Don’t get left behind!

Whether the cause is secular or sacred, using deadlines and peer pressure can compel people to make decisions. Would you want to be stuck on earth after all the true believers entered heaven? This imitation newspaper makes it sound like a pretty rotten fate.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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Division

Introduction

Propaganda works to separate “us” versus “them,” broadening divisions between different people, groups and ideas. Check out these real-world examples of division at work.

It’s a massacre!

Propagandists like to depict opposing groups as heroes and villains. In this engraving, American colonists are depicted as innocent victims, and the redcoats are merciless killers. The Boston Massacre was not actually so simple, but this story is far more likely to gin up support for revolution!

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Would you side with Satan?

Propagandists push us to take sides by creating scenarios where there is only one correct choice. This Facebook post depicts Satan and Jesus arm wrestling, with Satan supporting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The choice is clear!

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

I want to be on their side!

Propagandists use celebrities and respected figures to connect people to their message. Here, they highlight a police officer who derides Black Lives Matter, borrowing his sway as an authority figure to build support for their own goal: sowing division and discord.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

That sounds dangerous!

Propagandists stereotype entire groups of people to devalue and dehumanize them. This makes it easier to write them off as dangerous and unworthy of aid or understanding. Here, undocumented migrants are “invaders” threatening the United States.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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