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Propaganda in the age of social media

by | Jan 15, 2021 | Features, Opinions | 0 comments

On Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington, DC, the death rattle of the Trump presidency rang out. I never expected to turn on the news and see images of Trump supporters storming the United States capitol, pictures of congress members hiding behind benches, or a video of a protester’s fatal shooting. 

Once the initial shock of these images began to wear off, I wondered what caused these events to occur. The fires that we see burning in a segment of the American population began as embers that were lit by propaganda, and those same fires can be lit anywhere if a susceptible audience falls under its influence.

What is propaganda?

Propaganda has many names and faces in today’s world. It can be called conspiracy theories, fake news, or disinformation. When I type propaganda into Google, the definition provided by Oxford Languages states, “Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.” If we dig deeper and look beyond a dictionary definition, we discover that there are seven main types of propaganda:

  1. Bandwagon: The spreader of propaganda (propagandist) spreads the belief that everyone is doing something, or everyone supports that thing; therefore, you should as well. This method relies on the human urge to conform to the majority. Think about how often American politicians have referred to the Republican party as, “Trump’s party.”
  2. Testimonial: This method involves a celebrity endorsement of a philosophy, movement, or candidate. This form of propaganda can be harmless, like your favourite athlete posting a snap drinking a Pepsi, or more nefarious like Donald Trump talking about the way there are “very fine people on both sides” after the Charlottesville car attack.
  3. Plain folks: With this form of propaganda, the propaganda cause is connected to ordinary people from everyday walks of life, creating the sense of a grassroots movement. Think back to the United States during the Tea Party movement. Large multinational corporations that wanted lighter government regulation connected their propaganda with the grassroots conservative movement.
  4. Transfer: This form of propaganda uses symbols, quotes, or images of famous figures to spread a message not necessarily associated with them. This propaganda tries to persuade through the indirect use of something that is well respected. Common symbols include patriotic or religious images. An example of transfer is Pepe the frog. When artist Matt Furie created this cartoon in 2005, he was a benign and bawdy figure with no political ideology. By 2015 this character had been consumed by the alt-right to spread white nationalist messages.
  5. Fear: Fear is a popular propaganda tool that presents a dreaded circumstance and tells the audience what type of behaviour is needed to avoid a potential tragedy. This propaganda tool is one of Trump’s favourites; think of how many times he has told his followers that America would crumble if he lost the election.
  6. Logical fallacies: In this type of propaganda, false logic is used to make an argument seem compelling. The premises that the propagandist may be accurate, but the conclusion is not. For example, Bernie Sanders supports higher taxes. Communists always support higher taxes. Therefore, Bernie Sanders is a communist.
  7. Glittering generalities: This form of propaganda is like transfer, but instead of using images it ties a message to a virtue that has a strong emotional appeal. By connecting the message to an emotion, it makes the recipient more likely to agree with it. An example of this includes those who are against gun control tying the issue to liberty

Can we resist its influence?

One strategy that research has shown to be effective at combating the forces of persuasion is inoculation theory. Researchers John Banas and Gregory Miller published a study in 2013 in Human Communication Research where they utilized inoculation theory on research participants who were inoculated before watching a 40-minute chapter of the conspiracy film Loose Change. On a seven-point scale — where an answer of one expressed doubt towards 9/11 conspiracy theories and an answer of seven believed those theories — the control group had a mean average of 2.52 before watching the film, and a 3.5 after watching the film; while the inoculation group started with a 4.10 before inoculation and went down to 1.77 after inoculation and watching the film.

This theory was initially conceptualized as inoculating individuals against the counter-attitudinal attacks, much like immunization to viruses, according to Barnes and Miller. Inoculation occurs using a two-step method: threat and refutational pre-emption. Threat involves forewarning individuals of a persuasive attack; it highlights the vulnerability of an individual’s current attitudes, thereby motivating resistance. Refutational pre-emption contains specific content that can be used to bolster attitudes against an impending attack. Refutational pre-emption serves two purposes. It provides individuals with arguments or evidence that can be used to counter persuasive attacks. It also allows individuals to practice defending their beliefs through counterarguments.

“There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news,”

Donald Trump tweeted these words in October 2018. This phrase was not new for the President,  he has been saying similar things since he started running for president in 2015. When we look at the impact of these words under the lens of inoculation, it can have the effect of preventing inoculation. Banas and Miller studied the effect that they named metainoculation. Metainoculation works similarly to standard inoculation, but it differs by using the same tools pre-emptively on future inoculation attempts. For example, before presenting someone with propaganda, fake news or conspiracy theories, the propagandist spreading those messages will warn that sources of information contrary to their message, like the media or the recipient’s friends and family, are not reliable sources of information. The messenger may also provide seemingly impressive credentials that make them seem trustworthy. Banas and Miller’s study found that inoculation was statistically significantly less impactful after participants were metainoculated. 

What if your propaganda-radar goes off?

Inoculation theory is not the only method that can be used to combat propaganda. Scientific America published an enlightening blog by Krystal D’Costa in 2017 that discussed three effective means of probing messages that you feel may be propaganda:

  1. Test the statement by adding in what it leaves out
  2. Interrupt repetition by asking questions
  3. Introduce other perspectives

These steps are effective tools to feel out whether a message may be propaganda. The steps also act to create a logical conversation with the person spreading false messages. It has been shown that shouting someone down when they spread false statements is more likely to entrench them in their beliefs. It is much more useful to have a calm conversation grounded in respect and empathy that gradually pulls someone away from false premises.

Images via Pixabay.

Dylan Termeer

The Griff


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