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How to Push Back Against Propaganda
Disinformation is the scourge of our time
Last week, I looked at the question of why people believe propaganda. Today, I offer some thoughts about what we can do to push back against it. A January 2021 paper counted 175 civil society organizations around the world now working on misinformation and disinformation. That's good news, given how deadly lies can be. The role of malicious and inaccurate public health information in spreading Covid-19 has made that clear.
There is no consensus on one fix: banning high-volume, influential propagandists such as former President Donald Trump from social media platforms. Trump not only spread lies about the 2020 election being stolen from him, fueling the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, but he was also the "single largest driver" of disinformation about coronavirus. Some in politics, media, and technology support his suspension from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms (on May 5th, Facebook's Oversight Board upheld the ban, but gave the company six months to make a definitive ruling). Others say the measures violate free speech protections.
Propaganda must circulate to be effective, and social media lets consumers who share and retweet also act as content diffusers (you may still experience the 20th century version of "sharing" if you receive newspaper articles in the mail from elderly relatives, like I do). This interactive dimension gives individuals the ability to short-circuit propaganda cycles by refusing to share disinformation, yet few use this power.
During Trump's presidency, his supporters and detractors alike continually shared, retweeted, or replied to his falsehood-filled posts. The latter group perhaps felt it was their civic duty to expose his lies or denounce his threats and racism. In doing so, though, they became unpaid laborers in his disinformation factory, spreading the falsehoods to their own friends and followers. Seeing millions responding so quickly to his tweets doubtless encouraged Trump to tweet even more. It also fed social media algorithms that reward engagement.
I mention this because the habit is continuing on social media with Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and other GOP officials. It's time to stop amplifying their lies and fanning the fires of their outrage politics. Disinformation research shows that first exposure matters more in forming opinions than any subsequent refutation or correction. So, starve, don't feed, their lies and attempts to get attention, including their ludicrous complaints, made on major media outlets and platforms, that they are being "cancelled."
What about those who cover professional dissemblers for work reasons? The press critic Jay Rosen's concept of "de-centering," which was part of his call for the media to "suspend normal relations" with the Trump presidency, is useful for engaging with habitual liars who have taken Trump's place, such as Tucker Carlson. De-centering means "his actions are reported, but he is not the main character," Rosen tweeted in 2019. That keeps the focus on issues rather than personalities and their theatrics.
There's also George Lakoff's smart idea of the "truth sandwich," which recognizes the importance of first impressions and lets reality have the last word. Here, the person who reports on disinformation exposes the lies by embedding them within truthful statements. As Lakoff explained on Twitter:
Finally, how can we push back against propaganda in real time, whether you are on television, at a public event, or just speaking to a family member? When we hear a lie, our instinct is to correct it with the truth, but this enters us into a situation of "he said, she said." Instead, we might try a tactic that I call "exposing the device": rather than refute the lie, talk about the reason the lie exists - what larger political goals it serves. Or, as Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews put it in their study of the Russian "firehose of falsehood," it's best to expose the manipulation process, rather than fight the specific manipulation. And if there is an audience, direct those exposés to it, not back to the propagandist.
Mehdi Hasan, a fearsome interviewer, used a version of this tactic in 2018 on his Up Front show with Steve Rogers, a member of Trump's 2020 Campaign Advisory Board. When Hasan addressed Rogers's defense of Trump's bogus claim that U.S. Steel would open six new steel mills, he provided evidence (including from U.S. Steel) of its falsity. Yet he also posed the question of why Trump, and Rogers, were lying, thus drawing viewers' attention to the larger issue of Trump requiring others to cover for him to prove their loyalty. Hasan's comment, " Sorry, Stephen, that's not what he said. I know it's difficult for you. I know you want to try to defend him," put the focus on Rogers's complicity with this corruption. "I am not going to say the president of the United States is a liar. I'm not going to do that," Rogers responded, confirming his own predicament.
"No Trump voter will listen to Joe Biden, just as no Biden voter would listen to Donald Trump," reflected pollster Frank Luntz in March. This is the toll of a barrage of disinformation unleashed on Americans from the White House by one of the most skilled propagandists of our times. We need to understand not just how misinformation and disinformation operate, but also the circumstances in which they thrive. That's why in future essays I will discuss when populations are most likely to fall for the lies demagogues and their allies tell, what kinds of lies have been successful, and what populations have done to restore respect for the truth after an autocrat’s fall.