We live in the digital communication age. Information bombards us from every twist and turn. News keeps getting harder and harder to distinguish fact from fiction, truth from tale, and legitimate from lie.
Fake websites and believable-looking screenshots peddle false narratives while gullible readers and viewers get trapped into believing dishonest filth including this week that Chinese scientists supposedly found that the coronavirus does not infect Africans due to melanin levels and therefore will then commence mass experiments on sub-Saharan Africans.
The dawn of the upcoming artificial intelligence (AI) age will make distinguishing honesty from infidelity more difficult when computers can manipulate someone’s voice and image and create a video looking like someone saying a certain scandalous proclamation that never happened. But even before AI and digital communication, societies often fell victim to propaganda for thousands of years. The human brain with its reliance on ancient emotional mechanisms to keep the body safe from immediate danger is wildly susceptible to falsehoods and scarily poor at distinguishing between fact and fiction.
Researcher Noam Chomsky highlights some of the shocking achievements that propagandists have achieved over time using the media including in the United States domestically during World War I when President Woodrow Wilson and his allies changed American opinions from a pacifist isolationist country to an outward war and protectionist machine. Nicholas Cull, David Culbert, and David Welch look at the roll of skits, books, and plays in the Reformation to Joseph Goebbels to Mohandas Gandhi and more recently in films and posters as effective propaganda tools.
In their recently released book, Paul Baines, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow start to pick apart actual methodological patterns across propaganda campaigns. One can look on the foreign social media advertisements targeting Kenyans in the past 30 days to see propaganda at work and notice similarities. Twitter and Facebook ads from entities or individuals linked to the Saudi Arabian government and the Chinese government have recently been viewed by thousands of Kenyans. The former tries to put a disturbingly positive light on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the latter puffing up Huawei as no threat to Western fears of digital spying.
Information scientists Ben Nimmo and Lukas Andriukaitis use what they deem as the sequence of propaganda to notice and predict indoctrination behaviour: dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay. Using the Russian government as a case study, they detail how first when one does not like what critics say, you dismiss it by denying it or giving an excuse. If there is no striking evidence, then deny deny deny or deny the source of the evidence. Denial builds figurative smoke in someone’s mind making them uncertain of whether the accusation is true. Uncertainty makes the human brain less able to settle on an outcome and therefore less likely to generate a response. Russian President Vladimir Putin did this after his Russian soldiers entered Eastern Ukraine, he denied it flat out to his citizens despite satellite and ground images to the contrary.
Next, the propagandist can distort the facts by twisting them. Lies are most powerful if there is a little bit of truth mixed in. So perhaps lie about the origin or source of a true story or lie that a person or entity is really in collaboration with another party who is widely seen as evil. The power of association is firmly rooted in human evolution. Successfully linking an enemy to something else that is widely hated is surprisingly easy to do.
Then, successful propagandists distract from the truth by falsely accusing another person or entity of doing the same thing that you yourself are accused of. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation under Sergei Lavrov famously uses this tactic, but so does Fox News in the US and the White House under President Donald Trump. Finally, directly dismay or discourage an accuser by threatening them with a lawsuit, or regulation, or worse.
TOBACCO CASE STUDY
But propaganda does not stop with governments and politicians. Businesses sadly utilise propaganda against regulators, activists, customers, or each other. In the business world, we can see propaganda inside a company (intra-organisational), between firms (inter-organisational), and by a company to customers (organisation to populace).
The tobacco firms of the 1960s knew that cigarettes were harmful and caused cancer in their users, but still perpetrated propaganda campaigns to attract new users and hold off government regulators. Even today in Kenya, we see organisation to populace propaganda over the effects of various types of vegetable and palm oils causing cancer.
Intra-organisational propaganda can come in the form of an aspiring supervisor who starts maligning his or her boss with dismiss, distort, distract, and dismay so that they can gain promotion to their position. Inside organisations, propaganda often happens more subtly so as to avoid termination. So, we see gossip, false quotes, forged documentation, and bogus allegations.
Whether you see international or political propaganda on your television or experience direct propaganda within your workplace in your WhatsApp groups or straight to your ears, be mindful of the tricks of propagandists in order to not get fooled by false narratives that cause you to make poor decisions affecting your life and the lives of your family members.