It’s a confusing world. What is purported to be news isn’t always news. Sometimes it is fake news, alternative facts or propaganda. It can be hard to know the difference. But here is a good rule of thumb: Rely on well-known, long trusted media sources for your news. Organizations such as The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters provide news from around the world in an unbiased manner.
These organizations, along with major newspapers and some major broadcasting networks, endeavor to be accurate and honest in their reporting. Yes, mistakes do happen, but they are corrected as quickly as possible. And the mistakes here are unintentional, not deliberate attempts to deceive.
Simply defined, news is information about current events. This may be provided through many different media: word of mouth, printing, postal systems, broadcasting, electronic communication, or through the testimony of observers and witnesses to events. Much of what is purported to be news on social media platforms is not news. It may be there just to push a viewpoint or to sow dissent.
Such material can better be described as alternative facts – lies – or fake news. Fake news describes material used by a group or individual to purposely mislead with inaccurate facts. Fake news, essentially lies, is as old as humanity. Fake news has became associated with popular satires, including the comedy paper The Onion and the TV show The Colbert Report. Far right media outlets, conspiracy sites and trolls from foreign governments have developed a reputation for spreading fake news stories.
In its most basic form, fake news is propaganda – information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
There are many techniques for spreading propaganda, some very obvious to those hearing or reading it, some more subtle. Here are a few of those techniques:
Ad hominem – A Latin phrase that has come to mean attacking one’s opponent, as opposed to attacking their arguments.
Ad nauseam – This uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth.
Agenda setting – The ability to influence the importance placed on the topics of the public agenda. If a news item is covered frequently and prominently, the audience will regard the issue as more important.
Appeal to authority – This one cites the views of prominent figures to support a position, idea, argument or course of action.
Appeal to fear – This method seeks to build support by instilling anxieties and panic in the general population.
Appeal to prejudice – Using loaded or emotive terms to attach value or moral goodness to believing the proposition.
Bandwagon – Bandwagon appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking.” In its simplest usage, a child may falsely tell parents that “all my friends can go, why can’t I?
Inevitable victory – This one invites those not already on the bandwagon to join those already on the road to certain victory. Those already or at least partially on the bandwagon are reassured that staying aboard is their best course of action. Example: “The debate is over. Nearly everyone who matters agrees with me.”
Beautiful people – The type of propaganda that deals with famous people or depicts attractive, happy people. This suggests if people buy a product or follow a certain ideology, they too will be happy or successful. This is used more in advertising for products, instead of political reasons.
Big Lie – The repeated articulation of a complex of events that justify subsequent action. The descriptions of these events have elements of truth, and the “big lie” generalizations merge and eventually supplant the public’s accurate perception of the underlying events. After World War I the German stab in the back explanation of the cause of their defeat became a justification for Nazi re-militarization and revanchism.
Black-and-white fallacy – Presenting only two choices, with the product or idea being propagated as the better choice.
Cherry picking or selective truth – Richard Crossman, the British Deputy Director of Psychological Warfare Division for the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force during the Second World War said “In propaganda truth pays… It is a complete delusion to think of the brilliant propagandist as being a professional liar. The brilliant propagandist is the man who tells the truth, or that selection of the truth which is requisite for his purpose, and tells it in such a way that the recipient does not think he is receiving any propaganda…. The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”
Cognitive dissonance – People want to be consistent. Suppose a pollster finds that a certain group of people hates his candidate for senator but loves actor A. They use actor A’s endorsement of their candidate to change people’s minds because people cannot tolerate inconsistency. They are forced to either dislike the actor or like the candidate.
Common man – The “plain folks” or “common man” approach attempts to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person.
Cult of personality – A cult of personality arises when an individual uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. The hero personality then advocates the positions that the propagandist desires to promote. For example, modern propagandists hire popular personalities to promote their ideas or products.
Demonizing the enemy – Making individuals from the opposing nation, from a different ethnic group, or those who support the opposing viewpoint appear to be subhuman (e.g., the Vietnam War-era term “gooks” for National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam aka Vietcong, or “VC”, soldiers), worthless, or immoral, through suggestion or false accusations. Dehumanizing is also a term used synonymously with demonizing, the latter usually serves as an aspect of the former.
Disinformation – The creation or deletion of information from public records, in the purpose of making a false record of an event or the actions of a person or organization, including outright forgery of photographs, motion pictures, broadcasts and sound recordings as well as printed documents.
Euphoria – The use of an event that generates euphoria or happiness, or using an appealing event to boost morale. Euphoria can be created by declaring a holiday, making luxury items available, or mounting a military parade with marching bands and patriotic messages.
Fear, uncertainty, and doubt – This is an effort to influence public perception by disseminating negative and dubious or outright false information designed to undermine the credibility of their beliefs.
Firehose of falsehood – A propaganda technique in which a large number of messages are broadcast rapidly, repetitively, and continuously over multiple channels (such as news and social media) without regard for truth or consistency.
Flag-waving – An attempt to justify an action on the grounds that doing so will make one more patriotic, or in some way benefit a group, country, or idea. The feeling of patriotism this technique attempts to inspire may not necessarily diminish or entirely omit one’s capability for rational examination of the matter in question.
Gaslighting – Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction and lying to sow seeds of doubt in a target individual or group, hoping to make them question their own memory, perception, sanity and norms.
Gish gallop – Bombarding a political opponent with obnoxiously complex questions in rapid fire during a debate to make the opponent appear to not know what they are talking about.
Glittering generalities – These are emotionally appealing words that are applied to a product or idea, but present no concrete argument or analysis. This technique has also been referred to as the PT Barnum effect. (e.g., the advertising campaign slogan “Ford has a better idea!”)
Guilt by association – This technique is used to persuade a target audience to disapprove of an action or idea by suggesting that the idea is popular with groups hated, feared or held in contempt by the target audience.
Half-truth –A deceptive statement that includes some element of truth. It comes in several forms: the statement might be partly true, the statement may be totally true but only part of the whole truth, or it may utilize some deceptive element, such as improper punctuation, or double meaning, especially if the intent is to deceive, evade, blame, or misrepresent the truth.
Labeling – A euphemism is used when the propagandist attempts to increase the perceived quality, credibility, or credence of a particular ideal. A dysphemism is used when the intent of the propagandist is to discredit, diminish the perceived quality, or hurt the perceived righteousness of the individual. By creating a “label”, “category”, or “faction” of a population, it is much easier to make an example of these larger bodies, because they can uplift or defame the individual without actually incurring legal-defamation. Labeling can be thought of as a sub-set of guilt by association.
Loaded language – Specific words and phrases with strong emotional implications are used to influence the audience, for example, using the word reforms rather than a more neutral word like changes.
Managing the news– According to Adolf Hitler, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly – it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” This idea is consistent with the principle of classical conditioning as well as the idea of “Staying on Message.”
Minimization – The opposite of exaggeration, minimization is a type of deception involving denial coupled with rationalization in situations where complete denial is implausible.
Name-calling – Propagandists use the name-calling technique to incite fears and arouse prejudices in their hearers in the intent that the bad names will cause hearers to construct a negative opinion about a group or set of beliefs or ideas that the propagandist wants hearers to denounce. The method is intended to provoke conclusions about a matter apart from impartial examinations of facts. Name-calling is thus a substitute for rational, fact-based arguments against an idea or belief on its own merits.
Oversimplification – Favorable generalities are used to provide simple answers to complex social, political, economic, or military problems.
Quotes out of context – Selective editing of quotes that can change meanings. Political documentaries designed to discredit an opponent or an opposing political viewpoint often use this technique.
Rationalization – Individuals or groups may use favorable generalities to rationalize questionable acts or beliefs. Vague and pleasant phrases are often used to justify such actions or beliefs.
Red herring – Presenting data or issues that, while compelling, are irrelevant to the argument at hand, and then claiming that it validates the argument.
Repetition – This is the repeating of a certain symbol or slogan so that the audience remembers it. This could be in the form of a jingle or an image placed on nearly everything in the picture or scene. This also includes using subliminal phrases, images or other content in a piece of propaganda.
Scapegoating – Assigning blame to an individual or group, thus alleviating feelings of guilt from responsible parties thus distracting attention from the need to fix the problem for which blame is being assigned.
Slogans – A slogan is a brief, striking phrase that may include labeling and stereotyping. Although slogans may be enlisted to support reasoned ideas, in practice they tend to act only as emotional appeals. Opponents of the US’s invasion and occupation of Iraq use the slogan “blood for oil” to suggest that the invasion and its human losses was done to access Iraq’s oil riches. On the other hand, supporters who argue that the US should continue to fight in Iraq use the slogan “cut and run” to suggest withdrawal is cowardly or weak. Similarly, the names of the military campaigns, such as “enduring freedom” or “just cause” can also be considered slogans, devised to influence people.
Smears – A smear is an effort to damage or call into question someone’s reputation, by propounding negative propaganda. It can be applied to individuals or groups.
Straw man – A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “attack a straw man” is to create the illusion of having refuted a proposition by substituting a superficially similar proposition (the “straw man”), and refuting it, without ever having actually refuted the original position.
Thought-terminating cliché – A commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to quell cognitive dissonance.
Virtue words – These are words in the value system of the target audience that produce a positive image when attached to a person or issue. Peace, hope, happiness, security, wise leadership, freedom, “The Truth” etc. are virtue words. Many see religiosity as a virtue, making associations to this quality effectively beneficial.