CounterPropaganda · Propaganda

Do I Do Propaganda?


A highly respected colleague visited Washington DC this past Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Dr. Emma Briant, author of the absolutely brilliant book “Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism”, of which I am writing a review, flew in to Washington DC. The problem with her book is something I do not encounter often, it is too good. I don’t want to prematurely reveal what I am soon writing, but the book forces me to slow down and read every. Single. Word. Slowly.  It is very apparent to me that she agonized over every single word and was extremely diligent to portray the nuances of the US and UK influence communities. It is the kind of book which draws me in and keeps me absolutely spellbound.  She makes all the major points, introduces the major players and interconnects them. She reveals new things to me, constantly.  To an insider, this book is ‘rocking my world’.

I picked her up at Dulles International Airport and dropped her off in downtown Washington DC, so we had a good amount of time to talk. Time is spent wonderfully when speaking with someone so conversant in the ‘world’ in which we work.

She is currently researching US propaganda and I tried driving the point home that the US does not “do” propaganda. I’ve spoken with all the senior editors of VOA, RFE/RL, RFA and so on, and they all do their absolute utmost to avoid propagandizing at every step.  These senior editors do their best to insure they do “fair and objective” reporting, they avoid bias at the reporter level, the editor and at the senior editor level.  What they do may be counter to deliberate propaganda efforts, Russia’s for instance, so in comparison it could be perceived as propaganda.

Then she gave me heat stroke, she made my mind work overtime. (there’s an inside joke there)

She said “You do propaganda.  Your blog.”

I sat back into the driver’s seat, stunned.

My mind tried to process her statement.  I thought about the past 16 to 18 months, where much of what I have done is try to highlight and illustrate Russian propaganda, expose it, and counter it. I have researched Russian propaganda, investigated, aided other investigators (some most of you might not believe what I’ve been part of), and tried exposing Russian Information Warfare tools, techniques and processes. I have pleaded for the US government to start Counter-Russian-Propaganda efforts, without success.  So when Russia accuses the US of having the best propaganda program in the world, I have to laugh.  A workshop we were both in on Thursday absolutely confirmed this, but that’s the subject of a later discussion.

I have the freedom of ‘working for myself’.  I can write a blog about anything, anything at all. I have no boss.  I have no editor. I have no approval process, “staff” a few of the more sensitive blogs I have sent out for approval by people specifically affected by what I was writing and/or quoting. I am not paid for this blog and I receive no income from ads. I am not paid by anyone in the US government nor am I working for them, so I am definitely not a paid US troll or blogger.

I expose Russian propaganda. I reveal when it meets the definition of what I consider propaganda. Propaganda contains a kernel of truth around which a web of lies, mistruths or misleading statements is built. If I say the sky is blue because of all the Godzilla eggs floating around in the upper atmosphere, causing cancer in Outer Carjackistan, but Inner Slobovia’s space research program threatens those Godzilla eggs, but I write it more eloquently (hopefully), that might be considered propaganda.  The sky is blue. After that the truth in that argument stops and the propaganda begins.

I counter Russian propaganda when I copy articles which expose “a” truth counter to Russian propaganda.  If the Azov Battalion in Ukraine uses symbology and gestures reminiscent of the German Nazi party of the 1930s and 40s, the reminiscence is the kernel of truth, after that the propaganda begins.

My definition was directly influenced by the US Holocaust Museum’s display about German propaganda, which is currently on a road show. If you want to chat with the curator of the exhibit, contact me and I’ll hook you up, but only serious researchers, please.

Do I “do” propaganda?  Short answer, no.

BUT, here’s the twist. Some people consider propaganda as anything counter to their way of thinking. If I believe in Blue and you believe in Red, anything I say promoting Blue or denigrating Red might be considered propaganda. Is this definition wrong?  I can’t say it is wrong because there is not an accepted definition, but it’s not right – in my opinion.

I write a LOT which runs counter to Russian opinion.  What I write usually also runs counter to the propaganda Russians are writing and reading. Therefore, I don’t “do” propaganda, but I do counter it.

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10 thoughts on “Do I Do Propaganda?

  1. Thanks for this Joel! As I recall it, you were the one who brought up your blog and suggested it might be considered propaganda!
    As for… ‘Some people consider propaganda as anything counter to their way of thinking.’ yes, absolutely they do, I do not. It is persuasive communication, and your blog does seek to persuade/alter behaviours, emotions or ideas.
    From what I can tell, your definition of propaganda positions it as something that is untruthful by the yard stick of what you believe to be truth… but surely you are aware that ideas are deliberately shaped through many means including through use of propaganda that may not even be in the form of ‘news’ and trying to appeal to the rational/facts? Is this not propaganda? Also, what about partial truths that seek to support a skewed version of the truth and mislead us? Russia does this all the time, as does the US!
    Trying to define things out of the definition of propaganda is leaves us with definitions that don’t really mean very much. I am pretty sure you would consider the propaganda films cartoons by the soviets which were fictional and designed to bestow reinforcing ideas and feelings but could not be said to provide false or true information as such, still to be propaganda? The US military/CIA uses similar methods to shape both their own and other cultures. It may not get called ‘influence’ officially but it does ‘influence’! We often neglect to call things propaganda when we do them today but call them allied propaganda when discussing the same things during WW2 – because today the targeting of those audiences is more controversial and immediate, not because the techniques are different.
    See my definition in the book… My first class I teach begins by encouraging students to challenge their preconceptions about what ‘propaganda’ might be – what an array of different propaganda comes from those they might agree with… the left, the right, and different interest groups, rights campaigners etc… and that propaganda may not be lies and is more convincing when it uses the truth… propaganda is a broad range of activities… what makes propaganda right or wrong is whose interests are represented within it, where it bestows power, the intentions behind it, the means (such as the extent to which truth is employed), and of course the outcomes.

  2. This is talked about a lot in journalism classes and the controversial nature of news analysis and its propensity to editorialize. Recently politicians said something to the effect of “anything after the first seven paragraphs of any article is opinion.” The model is the upside down pyramid – the bulk of the news is placed up-front for the benefit of the reader who is looking to become informed fast. Any commentary or “context” comes later. But sometimes raw facts divorced from context become propagandistic because it provides only a snapshot of a highly dynamic and fluid event. Sometimes the why matters. As such the reporter assumes the job of telling the story in progress without all the facts and context, filling in the blanks using inductive reasoning. A more honest approach would be for a reporter to have been transparent about his investigative strategy, discussing who he interviewed and planned to interview as sources, the questions he asked and planned to ask, the reasons why sources were not available or questions weren’t asked, and how he constructed his version of the story, so we can examine the evidence and reasoning and judge for ourselves if the story is plausible reasonable and true (Note this does not preclude the use of the anonymous or “senior administration” source). Bottom line is the accountability of reporting. It is easy to see that fully 98-99% of all television reporting on its own is probably propaganda. Newspaper reporting is better. And internet reporting is a random toss-up. To the extent the independent verification of the story can occur reporting is more reliable. Strange but the process seems to resemble sound scientific research… but even that can be manipulated: http://io9.com/i-fooled-millions-into-thinking-chocolate-helps-weight-1707251800
    Information warfare is incredibly pernicious because it undermines basic information and communication processes and sustainably destroys the bases of social trust – much more long lasting impact than just simply carpet bombing europe as was done in ww2, and with many contingent (surprise) effects not entirely controllable or manageable.

    1. You’ve heard of the product Sham-wow? I just said Damn-wow, over your comment. Well done!

      I just spent the last 30 minutes constructing a discussion/argument with an esteemed colleague that the definition of propaganda, from the Bernays book written in 1928, is overly broad and too inclusive. I generalized that if one uses his definition, everything may be considered propaganda, absolutely everything. What is needed is a more practical definition, I believe. It should embrace a more negative perspective: a kernel of truth wrapped in mistruths, lies, anything designed to create an incorrect perception, in order to convince the target audience to embrace a behavior or attitude of your choice.

      You bring up a very important point. Trust in journalism and accountability. I have often accused Sputnik, in the comment section of Facebook, of lacking journalistic integrity. I’ve also done it in my blog. Perhaps you can help me expand on that?

      You just reminded me of the ‘murder board’ we would conduct when planning Information Operations of all sorts. We walked and talked our way through secondary, tertiary and further effects, hopefully leaving no unexpected results. The attornies always had a field day because one can never fully predict what will happen. As you said (surprise) effects. We were frequently shot down because we couldn’t contain an effect to a target area. The same holds true in every tool of influence at all levels.

      I’m lead to the conclusion that all influence operations or activities will always have spillover into unexpected areas, often with unexpected results. We must begin to embrace that position and, as defensive cyber has, manage it.

  3. To go further – the nugget of truth that makes good propaganda effective engages the reader/truth-seeker to do his own independent verification. The story is co-constructed between the reporter and the reader. If a reader can immediately verify a few simple facts in the beginning, many will make the leap and conclude that the whole story is true (and perhaps all subsequent reporting – remember Armstrong williams?). Some facts will be unverifiable (eg anonymous source and many sputnik assertions) as most conjecture is and you’ll have to trust the veracity of the reporting through the reputation of the reporter or news agency. Reputation can be manipulated and falsfied. It is an heuristic, a mental shortcut that avoids serious elaboration and critical thinking. Some news orgs and reporters (and to be fair most politicians) depend on this. Teaching critical thinking (and courage) may be the best counter-propaganda strategy because it “inoculates” against propaganda. As a matter of prudence if it doesn’t work you stop doing it. One way to manage “surprise” effects?

    1. “American traditions and the American ethic require us to be truthful, but the most important reason is that truth is the best propaganda and lies are the worst. To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.” — Edward R. Murrow, Director, United States Information Agency, May 1963

  4. Propaganda is seldom about false information. Stories like the “Slavyansk crucifixion” are the rare exception and they make seldom much of a difference. A site like StopFake claims to expose Russian propaganda. Yet nearly all the cases they present are the kind of minor errors that you will find in any newspaper.

    Ok, sometimes false information can make a difference. The Haiphong incident that started the US involvement in Vietnam and the WMD accusations against Iraq are good examples.

    However, the great majority of propaganda consists of three elements:
    – a selective presentation of the facts that leaves out those that don’t fit
    – presenting unproven theories as facts, overgeneralizing
    – making negative caricatures of people

    1. The Slavyansk Crucifixion is classic disinformation, closely identified with old Soviet Active Measures. I would say it does not fit the definition of propaganda, at all. There was no kernel of truth, it was entirely fabricated, along with the evidence. Unfortunately there is no world body for journalists who can sanction Channel One TV (Russia) for gross unprofessional journalistic practices. At the time I didn’t even cover it here, in retrospect I should have.

      for those of you who want to see real shit journalism.

      By the way, I believe such a world body might be in the making. The senior editor at the Kyiv Post is showing membership in such a body, in Ukraine, on his online profile, so such a body might be in the works.

      True about WMD assertions in Iraq, in my personal opinion. As for Haiphong, I believe you mean the “Gulf of Tonkin”. The same could be said about the threat of “NATO takeover” in Crimea and popular sentiment in Donbass. The WMD assertions of Iraq are still being argued by Bush and Cheney to this day, but I was somewhat of an insider in that situation and saw nothing…

      I like your presentation of “three elements” of propaganda.

  5. Contrast with the twist on the classic Clausewitz: “reporting is exploration by other means.” – Anthony Smith (1980), Geopolitics of Information: How Western Culture Dominates the World

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