The power of propaganda

Propagandais communication that is deliberately designed by one group in society to influence the attitudes and behavior of others. It often uses symbolism and rhetoric and appeals to the emotional and irrational aspects of our sensibility” (Propaganda. (2006). In D. G. Lilleker, Key concepts in political communication. Sage UK.).

Propaganda has been around for thousands of years, since at least the time of the Pharoahs in Egypt. Each successive development in communication technology (movable type, newspapers, telegraph, radio, television, Internet, social media, and onwards) have made the job of the propagandist easier and faster. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have been filled with dictators, authoritarians, wannabees, and even democratic leaders who have made wide and sometimes destructive use of propaganda–Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot among others.

Today, one could make the case that much of what we see on social media, from political organizations, from ideologically driven media outlets, etc. is propaganda. But not all communication meant to persuade is propaganda. True propaganda uses “three key elements: rhetoric, myth and symbolism. Propaganda tends to use all of these to talk to our base emotional impulses.” (Lilleker, 2006).

Propaganda can be incredibly persuasive … or maybe not as much as we think? And how can it be countered?

What does the research say?

Featured articles:

*Brashier, N. M., Eliseev, E. D., & Marsh, E. J. (2020). An initial accuracy focus prevents illusory truth. Cognition, 194, 6. [Cited by]

News stories, advertising campaigns, and political propaganda often repeat misleading claims, increasing their persuasive power. Repeated statements feel easier to process, and thus truer, than new ones. Surprisingly, this illusory truth effect occurs even when claims contradict young adults’ stored knowledge (e.g., repeating The fastest land animal is the leopard makes it more believable). Repetition may even inflate belief in highly implausible statements.

In four experiments, we tackled this problem by prompting people to behave like “fact checkers.” Focusing on accuracy at exposure (giving initial truth ratings) wiped out the illusion later, but only when participants held relevant knowledge. This selective benefit persisted over a delay. Our findings inform theories of how people evaluate truth and suggest practical strategies for coping in a “post-truth world.”

*Carter, E. B., & Carter, B. L. (2021). Propaganda and Protest in Autocracies. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, 65(5), 919-949. [Cited by]

Does propaganda reduce the rate of popular protest in autocracies? To answer this question, we draw on an original dataset of state-run newspapers from thirty countries, encompassing six languages and over four million articles. We find that propaganda diminishes the rate of protest, and that its effects persist over time. By increasing the level of pro-regime propaganda by one standard deviation, autocrats have reduced the odds of protest the following day by 15%. The half-life of this effect is between five and ten days, and very little of the initial effect persists after one month. This temporal persistence is remarkably consistent with campaign advertisements in democracies.

In short, propaganda in autocracies appears to condition collective action much as campaign advertisements in democracies condition voting. Our data do not permit us to identify precisely why propaganda reduces the rate of protest. Indeed, the mechanisms of behavior change in democracies and autocracies may be quite different.”

*Mercier, H. (2017). How gullible are we? A review of the evidence from psychology and social science. Review of General Psychology, 21(2), 103-122. [Cited by]

A long tradition of scholarship, from ancient Greece to Marxism or some contemporary social psychology, portrays humans as strongly gullible—wont to accept harmful messages by being unduly deferent. However, if humans are reasonably well adapted, they should not be strongly gullible: they should be vigilant toward communicated information. Evidence from experimental psychology reveals that humans are equipped with well-functioning mechanisms of epistemic vigilance. They check the plausibility of messages against their background beliefs, calibrate their trust as a function of the source’s competence and benevolence, and critically evaluate arguments offered to them. Even if humans are equipped with well-functioning mechanisms of epistemic vigilance, an adaptive lag might render them gullible in the face of new challenges, from clever marketing to omnipresent propaganda. I review evidence from different cultural domains often taken as proof of strong gullibility: religion, demagoguery, propaganda, political campaigns, advertising, erroneous medical beliefs, and rumors. Converging evidence reveals that communication is much less influential than often believed—that religious proselytizing, propaganda, advertising, and so forth are generally not very effective at changing people’s minds. Beliefs that lead to costly behavior are even less likely to be accepted. Finally, it is also argued that most cases of acceptance of misguided communicated information do not stem from undue deference, but from a fit between the communicated information and the audience’s preexisting beliefs.”

*Pingree, R. J., Watson, B., Sui, M., Searles, K., Kalmoe, N. P., Darr, J. P., Santia, M., & Bryanov, K. (2018). Checking facts and fighting back: Why journalists should defend their profession. PloS One, 13(12), 1. [PDF] [Cited by]

Bias accusations have eroded trust in journalism to impartially check facts. Traditionally journalists have avoided responding to such accusations, resulting in an imbalanced flow of arguments about the news media. This study tests what would happen if journalists spoke up more in defense of their profession, while simultaneously also testing effects of doing more fact checking. A five-day field experiment manipulated whether an online news portal included fact check stories and opinion pieces defending journalism. Fact checking was beneficial in terms of three democratically desirable outcomes–media trust, epistemic political efficacy, and future news use intent–only when defense of journalism stories were also present. No partisan differences were found in effects: Republicans, Democrats, and Independents were all affected alike. These results have important implications for journalistic practice as well as for theories and methods of news effects.”

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