In this part of Disinformation for Dummies, we will discuss the methods often used in disinformation and propaganda campaigns. While not an exhaustive list of these methods, I will try to cover the major techniques, many of which may seem all too familiar.
Before we begin, I would like to discuss the difference between disinformation and propaganda. These terms are often used interchangeably; they are related, but distinctly different. Concisely, propaganda is intended to change opinions, whereas disinformation is used to simply confuse or confound. This is relevant in understanding that propaganda is outcomes-based, disinformation is process-based. The two are often used in concert, with the aim of achieving a synergy of effort. In fact, the methods we will discuss in a moment can and have been used for both purposes, and I will show examples of each as well.
This is one of the most obvious techniques, and one of the most common; simply put, it is a lie. What is important is that the lie is intentionally told, it is not a misstatement. It can be a subtle lie, even possibly categorized as an exaggeration. A recent example which is still relatively fresh in our collective memories comes to you from former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
“This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”
Provably a false fact. Spicer himself tried to back up that claim with number from the WMATA ridership statistics, when he claimed that “420,000 people used D.C. Metro public transit yesterday, which compares to 317,000 that used it for President Obama’s last inaugural,” but these numbers were not correct either. The WMATA reported that the actual total for January 20, 2017 was 570,577; which was less than the 1.1 million trips for the 2009 inauguration and 782,000 for 2013. The broadcast ratings, which is presumably what was meant by “around the globe” was also incorrect: 30.6 million viewers for Trump, compared to 37.8 million for Obama’s 2009 inauguration and far lower than the record set by Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration: 41.8 million.
This was an wholly unnecessary lie, the actual numbers were still respectable, edging out many of the contemporary presidential inaugurations such as Clinton and both Bushes. Clearly, the aim of this lie was to shape an opinion, that the country was more excited about Donald Trump’s inauguration than any other president.
Quotation Doctoring or Manipulation
This can be done by taking selective parts of a quotation from someone, and compiling them in a misleading way. It can also be taking a quote out of context. For example, during the 2016 presidential campaign, a quote from Hillary Clinton was doctored and used to imply that Clinton called African-American youths “Super predators ” and “bring them to heel”. This implication was effectively weaponized as disinformation to confuse people as to what Clinton’s actual attitude towards people of color.
So effective, that few in the press even dared to challenge the implication and even a Black Lives Matter activist challenged her, mid-speech.
The full quote, however, does not mention African Americans at all:
“But we also have to have an organized effort against gangs, just as in a previous generation we had an organized effort against the mob. We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels, they are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators — no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first, we have to bring them to heel.”
This is a version of a logical fallacy known as tu quoque (literally: also you). This is a commonly used technique to disqualify a person’s criticism by charging them with hypocrisy regarding an separate unrelated situation. It is a very common tactic used in state-run media, for example during the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, counties who were facing criticism from the U.S. for their own oppressive measures against political opposition at the time, namely Russia and Egypt, were very quick to publicly retort with whataboutism.
This, of course, does not address the actual criticism, it is simply attacking the source of it. It does serve to confuse those receiving the message- “How can the U.S. criticize us for teargassing and imprisoning reporters, when they are doing this?” Of course, controlling a riot is not the same thing as attacking journalists.
Opinion as Facts
This could also be framed as hiding opinions among facts, and it is famously used by various news sources and media outlets. Fox News, for example, bills itself as a news organization, however much of this programming is, in fact, commentary. It is the difference between news anchors and journalists such as Shepard Smith and Bill Hemmer, and commentators such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. In fairness, Fox has become more transparent about this difference recently, and also in fairness, competitors MSNBC and CNN also have a history of blurring the lines between news and opinions. I suppose I focused on Fox News primarily because studies have consistently shown their viewers tend to be the least informed of all.
A false dichotomy is used to create two extreme and unnecessarily force people into one or the other. This is a good example of both propaganda and disinformation. Take the 2017 “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA, as well as other far-right and neo-fascist demonstrations.
Violence broke out several times between demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. In an effort to bolster their own image of the “good guys”, an attempt was made, particularly in social media, to conflate all anti-fascists with ANTIFA or Anti-Fascist Action, a generally far-left, often violent movement counter to the far-right.
Thus, a false dichotomy was created, if you were against the demonstrators, who often portrayed themselves as preservers of heritage or protectors of freedom of speech, or you were with ANTIFA. Never mind that the default position of the U.S. since World War 2 has been against fascism; it was, after all, the primary ideology of the Axis Powers. It was indeed possible to be against fascism, neo-naziism and white supremacy and not be on the side of ANTIFA.
But a concerted disinformation/propaganda campaign persists with the dichotomy, confusing bystanders and trying to force the narrative that the people ANTIFA are against should be looked at sympathetically and that if you are not with them, you are with ANTIFA.
The term itself is a reference to a play called Gaslight (Alternatively titled Angel Street in the U.S.), and originally presented as a sort of psychological abuse. In the play, set in Victorian-Era London, Jack has convinced his wife Bella that the dimming of the gaslights in their flat and the footsteps that she is hearing in the empty apartment above them is a sign that she is going crazy; while in fact, these things are quite real and caused by Jack himself while in that apartment, he is searching for the jewelry belonging to the woman he murdered.
Vincent Price played Jack in a Broadway production of Angel Street in 1942…he is still one of my favorite actors ever! -anyways-
The term is used in the context of disinformation by making the receiver of information question their ability to correctly perceive the information they are receiving. They call into question their own grasp on reality.
This is pure disinformation, the goal is confusion, the victim is essentially paralyzed within their own minds, unsure of their environment.
Recently, there are countless examples of this, but perhaps the most egregious is Donald Trump’s overt racism. He has called black NFL players protesting sons of bitches for disrespecting the flag by kneeling during the National Anthem,
while inviting this guy to the White House…
He actually cut a hole in the flag and wore it as a poncho!
Donald Trump thrust himself upon the modern political scene by way of the “Truther” movement, a baseless conspiracy theory which posited that Barack Obama was not eligible to be president because he was not an American citizen, no reliable evidence ever supported this theory, but it was foisted upon the country with fabricated documents and shoddy accusation. In reality, the only factor which resonated with a portion of the population was that Obama was black, therefor maybe he was born in Kenya? Despite the fact that his mother was an American citizen, ergo he would be an natural born American citizen jus sanguinis, even if he was born abroad.
He called Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers” and referred to them as “breeding”
He said, of the aforementioned Unite The Right rally, that there were “good people on both sides”, even though one side was flying Nazi flags and hitting people with cars.
Despite this, and racist dog-whistles too numerous to mention, he seems to get a pass from so many Americans who would otherwise not support a racist as president. Why? Because of the effective gaslighting being done which has convinced them that of course he isn’t racist, because he has black and Latino supporters, and they are stupid if they think he is racist.
Its been effective, at least with his supporters, as one survey shows that only 21% of republicans think Trump is a racist. The rest, I suppose believe his own words to reporters, “No, no. I am not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. That I can tell you.”
This ends Part 2 of an ongoing discussion of disinformation and its effect on society.