Truth Lies & Everything in Between: A Propaganda Almanac
When I was in third grade, a family of Vietnamese refugees moved to the small Eastern Washington town where we lived at the time. The family was large and included two school-aged boys, Wa and Him, who started going to our school. Wa was in my class and I wanted to make them all feel welcome, so one day after school, my sister and I walked to their house and knocked on the door. Wa’s family welcomed us inside and gave us watered down Coke to drink. None of them spoke English, but they smiled and nodded at us while we drank our Coke. I don’t remember much else about the experience except that my feelings were all positive, they were super nice and I was glad that our little town had taken in refugees from a war-torn part of the world.
I tell this story to remind you of who I am. To soften you for what I am about to say next. Because I STILL want to accept refugees from war-torn parts of the world. My heart bleeds for them. I pray for them often and just watching the trailer for White Helmets makes me cry for what they are going through.
But I am also concerned.
I am concerned because of what’s happening in places like Germany, where the cultural collision between Germans and refugees is causing violent confrontations. Where state-supported refugees sometimes take questionable “vacations” back to the countries from which they escaped, where language and skill deficiencies keep large numbers of refugees unemployed and restless, where refugee-related sexual assaults are on the rise where reports of rape have scared women so thoroughly, they are obtaining licenses for pepper spray in record numbers.
It doesn’t stop with that ghastly reality. Leaked documents suggest that overwhelmed police are trying to suppress information about refugee-related crimes. Citizens are getting angry, and the anger is spreading. In Denmark, they are starting to bar non-German or English speaking patrons from certain nightclubs. Worst of all, terror attacks in Europe have been horrendous this year, many of them tied to terrorists who came into Europe posing as refugees.
What a mess.
And yet, when I see the video images from Syria – the daily bombings, the dying children, the homeless, helpless humans – I want to say, “Give me your tired, your poor! Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free!”
Why have I gone into such detail on this issue when I’m supposed to be addressing media bias?
Because it’s complicated and there are important issues to discuss. But when Obama says he’s going to boost America’s refugee intake to more than 100,000 people in 2017, those who are critical – or even hesitant, or questioning – are instantly cast as hateful, racist, xenophobics. Concerns are trivialized and boiled down to issues of skin color or religion. Before real solutions can even be discussed, the conversation is over. The loudest voices – those of the Obama administration, with the full support of the media – win.
How does that happen? What is the process of promoting one idea and suppressing another? And how does the proponent of an idea (the politician) get the media to back them up?
Propaganda has been used by regimes going back thousands of years. Today it’s used by politicians on both sides of the aisle, by every activist group, every PAC, every union, every corporation and every political organization. But some groups get more traction with their propaganda. No surprise: they are usually the ones who espouse ideas that the liberal-leaning press agree with most.
Today I’m going to provide a kind of propaganda almanac, defining old and new techniques and providing examples here and there. It’s by no means complete. You’ll notice that some of these techniques overlap. Some terms may even serve as an umbrella for several other terms. Often, these strategies are employed methodically and tactically as part of a campaign. I leave that for your analysis.
Fake grass roots. Sometimes a special interest group will disguise themselves by writing blogs, “fact checking” sites, letters to the editor, establishing social media accounts, and posting online comments with the intent of fooling you into thinking they are part of a grass roots movement rather than organized professionals paid to influence the way you think.
Sharyl Attkisson, author of STONEWALLED, wrote: “Some lobbyists now say that astroturf is more important and effective than traditional forms of influence, such as directly lobbying members of congress. The whole point of astroturf is to give the impression there’s widespread support for an agenda when there’s not.”
Symptoms: When you are reading blog posts, letters to the editors, Facebook posts or Tweets, keep an eye open for astroturf language, such as “quack,” “nutty,” “witchhunt,” “crank,” “paranoid” or “fake.”
“Astroturfers often claim to ‘debunk myths’ that aren’t myths at all,” Attkisson says, adding: “Another Astroturf technique is to simply shove so much confusing and conflicting information into the mix, the public is left to throw up its hands and disregard all of it – including the truth.”
Attkisson goes on to criticize Wikipedia as “astroturf’s dream come true,” explaining how anonymous editors act on behalf of corporate interests to “co-opt and control pages to forbid or reverse edits that threaten their agenda.” My two cents? If corporate interests use this technique on Wikipedia, so do political interests. Attkisson recommends the site Wikipediocracy.com, which examines dark influences on Wikipedia’s stated purpose.
Creating the perception that “everyone” thinks this way. Hillary Clinton and her defenders act as if EVERYONE knows that Donald Trump is a racist. Donald Trump and his defenders act as if EVERYONE knows that she is a liar. The bandwagon technique is often employed with other technique such as false outrage. If someone is convinced that everyone thinks a certain way and that your ideas, for being different, are shocking and outrageous, you might be persuaded to change your beliefs – or at least be quiet about them.
Deny knowledge, deny involvement, deny culpability or wrongdoing. Keep denying it until there is proof that you did know, you were involved, you are culpable. Then, come up with a tactic to explain it away. Maybe you misunderstood the question, maybe what you said was true from a certain point of view, etc. but never, ever admit that you were completely wrong. Hopefully, after some time has passed and people have forgotten the details, you can come back into the story and successfully pick up the mantle of denial by playing the wronged hero and victim of viscous partisan attacks.
When Dan Rather and his 60 Minutes II team were caught peddling forged documents that disparaged George W. Bush and his National Guard service, they were all fired. CBS News investigated and found that standard journalistic practices were not met, even that the motive of casting Bush in a bad light seemed to blind Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, to the truth.
That was in 2004. Last year, Rather, along with like-minded friend Robert Redford, made a movie about the incident entitled TRUTH. I don’t think they were trying to be ironic, because the movie puts forward the idea that Rather and Mapes were heroes, trying to get the truth out there in the face of a wicked Bush administration that used all the forces of evil to stop them. Unfortunately for them, even the liberally-minded press didn’t buy it and the movie was panned (except for Cate Blanchette’s performance, but when has she ever NOT been amazing?) as anything but the truth. I suppose Rather hoped that 11 years would make for hazy memories. He still denies any wrongdoing whatsoever.
Listing the pros without considering the cons. Or, listing the cons without considering the pros. A legalizing marijuana advocate, for example, will stack the deck with success stories about medical marijuana (using a child, if possible), comparisons to alcohol abuse, potential tax revenues, weakening drug cartels, etc. without talking about brain damage, impaired driving, abuses, easy access by minors, etc.
A form of card stacking can also be used at the conclusion of an investigation with mixed results. After a 2012 investigation into the Fast and Furious scandal, the inspector general of the Justice Department issued what Attkisson calls “a scathing report.” However, most media outlets simply went with the “good news:” Holder was “exonerated” they wrote, or “Holder cleared of Wrong Doing.” This same technique was employed recently by Hillary Clinton when she claimed the FBI found her answers about the e-mail scandal to be truthful. (Politifact gave her a “pants on fire” rating for this whopper.)
Discredit the Messenger
Suggesting that the person sharing a story has an agenda, controversial beliefs or sketchy credentials. Both Sharyl Attkisson and Bernie Goldberg left CBS News after running into issues with media bias. Their stories are different, but fascinating, and I highly recommend that you read their books, Stonewalled and Bias. But both Attkisson and Goldberg were marginalized when their stories and/or columns failed to reflect the liberal bias network producers saw as rational and middle of the road.
Atkisson calls this “know your enemy.” PR strategists research reporters, lobby them, look for weak spots. If they won’t be influenced or bought, they “launch a campaign to controversialize and discredit them,” she says. Attkisson adds that, on more than one occasion, the White House press secretary called her “unreasonable” for refusing to accept his version of the “facts” without further investigation.
Pretending someone’s beliefs or views are shocking in order to marginalize them. The fact that some people don’t support gay marriage may or may not mesh with your beliefs, but it’s hardly shocking. After all, just a few years ago, even President Obama and Hillary Clinton said that marriage should be defined as between a man and a woman, and they are both leading liberal voices in this country. They have both changed their beliefs, as have many Americans. But not all of them. Some never will. And let’s face it: that’s not shocking at all. But the media likes to pretend that it is. And if someone famous dares to say they believe in traditional marriage, one popular technique for shaming them is to pretend they are SHOCKED, truly SHOCKED and OUTRAGED!
I bet you see a similar technique on your Facebook feed all the time, used as clickbait:
See the SHOCKING footage that proves Donald Trump is a Putin puppet!
You won’t believe what OUTRAGEOUS thing Hillary just said about our flag!
Friday Document Dump
When federal agencies have to hand over potentially damaging documents, they often do it on a Friday afternoon when most members of Congress are heading home for the weekend, hoping that weekend coverage will be slight and that by Monday, they can push the idea that whatever was in those documents is now “old news.” This happened earlier this month when the FBI released more documents relating to Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation.
Using statistics to back up your policies, regardless of how accurate or fair they are. If you Google “Obama debt” through the images filter, you’ll see all kinds of graphics that show how much money has been spent by the Obama administration compared with other presidents. The funny thing is, the graphics don’t all match, do they? So which one do you believe? Well, usually the one that says what you thought going in. Regardless, someone is fudging the math, hoping to silence their opponents with what look like “hard facts.”
The use of words that don’t mean anything specific by themselves to evoke an emotional reaction. Think of Obama’s use of Hope and Change. (Hope in what? Change for what?) Or Trump’s “Make America GREAT again” (What does great mean?) How about Family Values. (Which family? Which values?) Fiscal Responsibility means something different to a Socialist than it does to a Libertarian, but all parties use the expression, hoping that their audience will transfer the most positive interpretation to their campaign.
Falsely attributing a quote to make someone or some idea look good, bad, popular or unpopular. Also done with images. You’ve seen a lot of these on social media. Everybody loves Morgan Freeman, so if it looks like he had something good to say about guns or something bad to say about welfare, or if he prefers this candidate over that one, that resonates with a lot of people. Unfortunately, most quotes attached to famous people turn out to be false.
|Woodstock, 1969, not the pipeline protest in 2016|
Images can be used is a similar way, as my friend, Amy, and I discovered yesterday when someone claimed this photo was taken at a rally organized by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to protest a North Dakota Oil Pipeline. The protest has garnered limited national coverage – maybe a little more now that Bernie Sanders is involved. The problem is, this photo was taken in 1969 in Woodstock, not this week in North Dakota.
Name Calling (Labeling)
This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but just a note on how affective it is. VERY. Consider how frequently the label of RACIST is used to fight battles on complex issues such as illegal immigration. By using that hated label as often as we do, people have effectively shut down our national ability to come up with a real solution to a sticky, expensive, human-affecting problem. One of the reasons this works so well is because it changes the conversation. Instead of discussing the issue, those who are labeled must go on the defensive and start listing all the reasons they are NOT a racist, a warmonger, a cowboy, a homophobe, a bigot, etc.
As we’ve learned this week, name calling can backfire. Basket of Deplorables, anyone? (Of course, Hillary’s peeps are already working their next propaganda strategy: criticizing Trump for taking advantage of her comment!)
Focus on personalities instead of evidence, or change the discussion of a political issue to attacks on the people involved. Some would say that’s what is happening to Hillary Clinton right now as conservatives continue to speculate about her health. (I say there would be a lot fewer conspiracy theories if it wasn’t so obvious that her first instinct is to cover everything up!) But this happens all the time. When Trey Gowdy spearheaded the Benghazi hearings, there was suddenly a lot of interest in attacking him personally. Same thing when Congressman Darrel Issa began investigating Fast and Furious, or when Kenneth Star investigated Bill Clinton’s sex scandal.
Personal attacks are often used by the media to prop up whichever liberal candidate they like best. Remember, when Hillary Clinton ran against Barrack Obama in 2008? The press dug up all kinds of personal stuff that made her look bad – things they have seemingly forgotten this election season.
Doing things to make people believe you’re just like them. This terminology is a little dated, but it’s still in the text books. I think most people express this idea in modern times as “relatable” or even “someone you want to have a beer with." Hillary Clinton tried this when she went to Chipotle. Last night, Donald Trump did this on the Tonight Show when he let Jimmy Fallon mess up his hair, all in good fun.
Pump up the Numbers
Exaggerating (or downright lying) about how many victims, protestors or supporters are involved in a particular issue. Numbers read well – especially big ones. Remember the Million Man March? In his book, BIAS, Bernie Goldberg discusses the problem of homelessness in America. By government estimates, there were up to 600,000 homeless Americans in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But those lobbying Congress for change put the number in the millions. A 1989 CNN reporter claimed three million Americans were homeless. In 1993, an NBC reporter said five million people were homeless and a CBS reporter estimated that 19 million would be homeless by 2000.
But just like these numbers can be inflated, they can be deflated. Goldberg claims that coverage of homelessness was up during the Reagan and Bush administrations, but then all but disappeared about a year after Bill Clinton took office. Goldberg titled this chapter in his book, “How Bill Clinton Cured Homelessness,” also noting that coverage of homelessness picked up again when George W. Bush took office. I wonder why?
Information that is used to distract or mislead people from the main issue in question. Sometimes red herrings are true, but they take advantage of our ADD nature to be easily distracted and side tracked. Red herrings are great literary devices! I used them when writing A PLACE BETWEEN BREATHS to make my readers think I was hinting at something I wasn’t. (Mwa-hahaha!)
Hillary Clinton provided us with a classic example this week when Anderson Cooper asked her if she was, perhaps, a little too secretive about her health issues.
“Oh my goodness, Anderson!” Clinton said during a phone interview. “You know, compare everything you know about me with my opponent. I think it’s time he met the same level of disclosure that I have for years. You know, you’ve got a medical report on me that meets the same standard as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Donald Trump’s doctor said he’d be the healthiest president in history. That’s just not even serious and I’ve released nearly 40 years of tax returns and he hasn’t released one…”
Clinton went on to criticize Trump’s dealings with foreign investors (I find that one particularly ironic) but she never answered Cooper’s question about why she said she was fine when, in truth, she had pneumonia.
To delay or block some person, process, request (or even subpoena), refusing to answer questions or giving evasive replies. The Obama administration came under fire when the ATF ran thousands of guns across the border and into the hands of drug cartels in the now infamous Fast and Furious program. Then one of those guns ended up being used to kill an American border patrol agent. Congress got involved and Attorney General Eric Holder was caught giving inaccurate testimony. Then he was subpoenaed to release Justice Department documents related to the program, but his stonewalling continued, becoming so pernicious that Holder was held in contempt of Congress.
But then, guess what happened? According to Attkisson, someone found out that a smaller gun running operation called Wide Receiver (hundreds, not thousands of guns) had been started and then halted under the Bush administration. Suddenly, the Justice Department was able to cut through the red tape and shoulder shrugging that was slowing down the Fast and Furious investigation, promptly turning over oodles of Wide Receiver documents that the press fell on like starving spider monkeys.
But Attkisson stuck with the story. Her investigation into the scandal was so thorough, she was screamed at by the White House press secretary and had her access to the president blocked.
But Attkisson stuck with the story. Her investigation into the scandal was so thorough, she was screamed at by the White House press secretary and had her access to the president blocked.
The same tactic was used during the Benghazi, AP wiretapping investigation and IRS investigations. Block, block, stonewall, stall. Pretty soon, everyone will get tired of the subject – or at least confused about the details.
A fake argument set up to be defeated. People using straw man arguments don’t answer an opponent’s questions or beliefs directly, instead they set up fake scenarios that support their own point of view. One of the most pernicious straw man arguments I’ve heard comes up during discussions of women in the workplace, childcare, wage equity and even abortion. At some point in the discussion, someone will say to someone with conservative views on the issue: “you just want to keep women in the kitchen: barefoot and pregnant!”
I’ve never heard a conservative man say that he wants his woman in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, no matter his views on those topics (and I know some pretty conservative men!) But the image is strong and, based on how often I’ve read and heard it over the course of my life, it must work to some degree.
When one popular person says he likes or supports someone else. It lends credibility to someone’s campaign when someone else joins the rally cry. Think about Sanders supporting Clinton, or Dr. Ben Carson supporting Trump and how that works to draw in voters who might have been ambivalent.
The use of symbols, memberships and associations to transfer either good or negative feelings to a person. This is why all those politicians stand in front of flags, but it can also be used negatively. Consider these pictures of Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, both shot to transfer a negative feeling.
Wag the Dog
Creating a news event to distract citizens from another news event. President Bill Clinton famously wagged the dog when he ordered missile attacks on a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory on August 20, 1998, the exact same day that Monica Lewinsky testified before Congress.
So what’s wrong with a little propaganda if it helps your side win? Sometimes the ends justify the means, right?
Well, no. I don’t think so, even though I’m aware that a lot of people do.
But anyone of these techniques can backfire. Constant denial in the face of mounting evidence can make you look like a consummate liar. Name calling can make you seem heartless. False attribution, as with the pipeline protest photo, can make people think that enough people are already involved and they might as well stay at home instead of coming to support a cause you believe in.
I hope this list helps you spot these tactics when employed by anyone in any arena, political or otherwise. Because there is such a thing as TRUTH. We just have to look beyond the spin to see it.