Are You Spreading Propaganda Knowingly Or Unknowingly? (Newsletter 019)
Your choices do not include "I am not spreading propaganda." Unless you are a complete hermit, in which case you are probably not reading this, you are complicit in the spread of propaganda. Anyone who is involved in modern life in almost any way – consuming news, watching content on TV or online, reading, talking with others – is confronted with propaganda all the time.
Before you get offended by my suggestion, let me explain. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which makes for delightful reading if you have to look up a word (really), propaganda means:
the systematic dissemination of information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.
Information does not have to be biased or misleading to consist of propaganda, although it often is. You simply need to be promoting a particular "point of view." Well hello, that's sort of the nature of modern communication, isn't it? We no longer have many reporters who consider themselves unbiased. Publishers and editors are often quite clear about what "narrative" they are trying to promote. Much of our news media is nakedly partisan, rarely even bothering to wave a fig leaf in the direction of objectivity. See this June FutureLearn article discussing how media bias comes about, what harm it causes in us, and how to detect it.
I suspect some of you are thinking, "Yes, media bias exists, and it is a dangerous thing. Rather fortunate that I am not reading any of that trash. After all, I get my news from __________." Here fill in the blank with The Economist, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, The New York Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Times of India, The Wall Street Journal, etc. Sorry, all biased. Your newspaper only seems unbiased and reasonable to you because you agree with the leaning of the editorial staff.
Now another, clever, group of you is thinking, "Well yes, almost all media are biased, but I counteract that bias by, first, recognizing it, and, second, making sure to get news from multiple sources." Congratulations on at least recognizing the problem. Your solution is fraught with danger, though. If two sources are biased, but promoting largely fact-based information, triangulation from consulting multiple sources can help get closer to the truth. But if your sources are biased and promoting a mix of truthful and misleading information, consuming more of it only makes you more likely to be confused. Or as the saying goes (apocryphally attributed to Mark Twain):
If you don't read the newspaper, you're uniformed. If you do read the newspaper, you're misinformed.
Even if you do happen to consult a news source that more than occasionally brushes with fact-based reporting, such as the Associated Press or Reuters, remember that their stories are subject to the nature and character of the individual reporters, and we all have biases. The Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media shows the relative reliability and bias of the media, illustrating both the skew left or right, but also the degree of fact reporting versus opinion and more obvious propaganda. They find only a tiny minority of media produce fact-based reporting without a noticeable political bent.
I've written previously (Freedom of Speech, You're Not Allowed To Disagree With Me!) about the dangers of suppressing speech we don't like. In the long run these attempts to stifle speech are destined to fail, although the harm that authoritarians cause in the attempt is real.
The reason that censorship ultimately fails is that ideas are incredibly hard to suppress. Note that I said "ideas" and not truth. The truth can be hidden relatively well, in part by suppressing it, but also by covering it with plausible lies. An idea is just something somebody thought up. Ideas spread like viruses. Good ideas spread, but bad ideas obviously spread as well. Ideas can be engineered, like viruses, to be maximally "sticky" to help ensure their spread.
This thought is disturbing, but also gives a hint as to how we can combat falling prey to harmful ideas ourselves. It turns out that by a form of "psychological inoculation," we can build our cognitive immunity to misinformation. This technique is described in a 2020 study published in the Journal of Cognition, Good News About Bad News: Gamified Inoculation Boosts Confidence and Cognitive Immunity Against Fake News. By playing an online game (Get Bad News), individuals learn about common misinformation techniques, and so get better at spotting them.
Another helpful summary of the misinformation issue and things you can do to help inoculate yourself is provided in a March article in The Conversation, 7 ways to avoid becoming a misinformation superspreader.
Do the Stoics have anything to offer us here? They lived far from social media as we know it. That said, the problem of being influenced by what your fellow citizens think was just as prominent in the Stoics' time. Moral Letter 037 On Keeping Your Promise gives some thoughts on how to identify your own mind and then stick to the consequences of your decisions, even if it means going against the wisdom of the crowd.
In Moral Letter 038 On A Good Talk, I discuss how the dynamics of large groups hinder constructive dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. At its heart, this is one of the key problems of social media, where good ideas can be swallowed up in the noise of an angry group.
If nothing comes of this letter other than my having given you a moment's pause to consider how much (or little) you should rely on your news sources, then I am happy. If in your thoughtful pause you decide you are open to learning what sorts of bias affect what we read and hear online, then the links I've provided may be helpful to you.
But if you are feeling overwhelmed at the idea that you are responsible for being your own most careful judge of the news you consume, don't fret. It is enough for you to be aware that you are surrounded by bias, misinformation, and propaganda. If you are aware of that, then you will have attained that most valuable state of mind: not being certain you are right. When you are uncertain, and are willing to admit that you could be wrong, you are no longer spreading propaganda. Congratulations!