Unbeknownst to you is the fact that most of what is considered propaganda is really only considered as such because of your own bias. We live in a world where propaganda and media bias is so rampant, it has become difficult to differentiate legitimate information from the less scrupulous. This idea has never further been in the limelight than when the current US President, Donald Trump, made tweets in early 2017 naming several US news organizations as enemies of the American people. With the further revelations of Russian meddling, fake news has become the foremost point of dispute in every debate.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
Almost Everything is Propaganda
The very definition of propaganda is contentious and its use is almost always dripping in its own bias. Truth is that this very post will probably contain what some would consider bias or even propaganda.
There’s a very good reason for this besides the nefarious goals of persuasion. Extreme positions draw in viewers and/or readers more so than balanced reporting. Fact-based reporting is so mired with personal or organizational bias that battling these falsities or leanings has become a business in itself.
Sites like Allsides try to rank news organizations and publishings based on their leanings. Users can then vote on whether or not they agree with Allsides’ rating. If you take a look at this Community Feedback, it does not take long to see that accuracy goes out the window. The publications that garner the most votes are the mostly the ones with the most detractors and thus the most controversial.
What you may consider to be propaganda in comparison to news is really perpetuated from your own biased position.
Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias
Assuming most of my readers are Western, especially considering my writings are solely in English at the moment, it is easy to also conform to your bias and point out what you consider probably to be the worst offenders of propaganda.
Every position is strengthened by vilifying its opponents. We see the propaganda of Russia since they became a ideological opponent during the Cold War, we see the propaganda of China as they jostle for position on the world stage, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the list goes on. However, when we think of these sources of information as propaganda, we often do so solely on the premise that our own media sources are being honest.
This position becomes increasingly untenable as American news organizations are now outright calling each other sources of propaganda and fake news.
- Chicago Tribune – Fox News has become a quasi-propaganda machine
- Baltimore Sun – Trump propaganda is even worse than you think on Fox News these nights
- Washington Post – Fox News vs. ‘the other networks’: Cable news hosts clash over linking Trump rhetoric to attempted bombings
The Backfire Effect is the theory that when given contradicting evidence against these predetermined beliefs a person acts to further entrench themselves in their beliefs in open rejection of the facts. Although this is considered a rare phenomenon instead of a common occurrence, the ideas are still embedded within the principles of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.
Psychology tells us that as humans, we do not like having contradicting ideas in our minds and having these contradictory ideas causes us mental discomfort. When confronted with new evidence that contradicts preexisting beliefs, ideas, and/or values, our minds choose a path to reduce this psychological stress. If tying into the principles of confirmation bias, the path chosen is more likely the one which most aligns with our preexisting ideas even if that idea remains unchanged or is potentially wrong.
Critical thinking skills are often touted for being instilled within students who have attended Western schools when comparing to education systems that utilize rote learning. However, truly think about those controversial positions and truly challenge yourself on an idea, value, or belief in which you strongly hold a position.
Freedom of the Press’ Continued Romance with Propaganda
Freedom of the press is seen as one of the foundational tenets of any free or democratic country. It is also the foremost argument against any country viewed negatively. However, problems begin to arise when any news organization is privatized and as per human nature carries bias.
the media reflect the consensus of powerful elites of the state-corporate nexus generally, including those who object to some aspect of government policy, typically on tactical grounds. – Chomsky: Language, Mind and Politics by James McGilvray p.189
Rupert Murdoch’s stranglehold on News Corp and 21st Century Fox for example is a massive privatization of a news conglomerate that pushes a very specific agenda.
On the other end of the spectrum, CNN news chief Eason Jordan in 2003 admitted the network had been soft on coverage of Saddam Hussein and Iraq in favor of continued access to the dictator.
These two positions are examples of the inevitabilities of uncontrolled media driven by financial and/or political gain.
As Oliver Stone stated in a 2016 interview in regards to the upcoming release of the film Snowden, “Americans don’t know anything about it because the government lies about it all the time”. Governments lying to their populations is nothing new. In fact, one of the main reasons freedom of the press is much lauded in the West is its ability to be used as a tool against corrupt governments.
The declaration of both the US & British governments in the early 2000s as to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq for justifications to invade should still be a sore spot for many.
Even so, when the British Government condemned the Russian state for the use of the Novichok agents on British soil, the general consensus was a nodding of heads without any requests for proof. In hindsight, with the further evidence released, it may become easy to condone this type of behavior.
However, it is your duty to question these types of unilateral statements, question the information provided, and challenge those providing the information. You actually already do this, the only difference is the source of information and your own bias.
Tiananmen Square Challenge
Undoubtedly there were deaths and this is not an attempt to whitewash history nor excuse the Chinese government for censoring the topic.
It is always easier to paint something as entirely evil than it is to discuss it in a balanced manner. A prime example of this is the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. Often referred to as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in the West, where the signs of bias already make themselves visible. Many truths of the event may never be revealed. It is however a disgrace to journalistic standards the amount of misinformation and bias that plagues almost all reporting on the matter.
There is no excuse for any actions when innocent lives are lost and this is no intention to shift blame. The goal is always to have all of the facts, understand something in its entirety, and from there form your own opinions; something that is impossible when publicly known information is available, but purposely withheld.
A quick review of the general consensus published in Western media: It was a ruthless military crackdown on peaceful protesters, soldiers wantonly opened fire on crowds, and mercilessly ran over protesters with tanks or armored personnel carriers. It paints a pretty gruesome picture.
If we compare search engine market share in the United States, Google is very obviously king.
Find more statistics at Statista
Searching just the term “Tiananmen Square” on Google as of writing gives you two Wikipedia links the first for the protests and the second for general information on the square itself. The next five search results whilst ignoring videos and top recent stories sections, are Western media sources.
- “In 1989, after several weeks of demonstrations, Chinese troops entered Tiananmen Square on June 4 and fired on civilians.”
– CNN: Tiananmen Square Fast Facts
- “armoured personnel carriers rolled in, many of which ran over students who had linked arms to form human chains.”
– The Independent: Tiananmen Square Massacre: Who was the Tank Man and how is he being remembered today?
- “In unflinching detail, Sir Alan told London that the “atrocities” against thousands of pro-democracy protesters in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square had been coordinated by the 27 Army of Shanxi Province, whose troops he described as “60 per cent illiterate and called primitives”.”
– The Independent: At least 10,000 people died in Tiananmen Square massacre, secret British cable from the time alleged
- “On June 4, 1989, however, Chinese troops and security police stormed through Tiananmen Square, firing indiscriminately into the crowds of protesters.”
– History.com: Tiananmen Square massacre takes place
- “The Chinese government, in fact, continues to maintain that no one was actually killed in the square itself despite the event being best known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre throughout the rest of the world.”
– ABC News: What you need to know about Tiananmen Square on the 29th anniversary of the crackdown
The gruesome picture is coming together very succinctly with ABC news being the single outlier, albeit an unconvinced one.
In 2011, through Wikileaks, there was a release of secret US diplomatic cables that were sent during the protests. The Chilean Ambassador to China at the time, Carlos Gallo, was an eyewitness in the square and had been communicating with his American counterparts on the events that transpired. It is important to note that Gallo had no reason to mislead his US counterparts as the Chilean government at the time had the support of the US government and thus the CIA through Operation Condor.
“ALTHOUGH THEIR ACCOUNT GENERALLY FOLLOWS THOSE PREVIOUSLY REPORTED, THEIR UNIQUE EXPERIENCES PROVIDE ADDITIONAL INSIGHT AND CORROBORATION OF EVENTS IN THE SQUARE.” – Leaked US Diplomatic Cables
From the above excerpt, the US embassy wrote that Gallo’s account corroborated the US’ knowledge on the events in the square. This would not be very important if Gallo’s account as an eyewitness inside the square did not actually contradict almost all of the media reports coming out of Beijing at the time.
“HE WATCHED THE MILITARY ENTER THE SQUARE AND DID NOT OBSERVE ANY MASS FIRING OF WEAPONS INTO THE CROWDS, ALTHOUGH SPORADIC GUNFIRE WAS HEARD. HE SAID THAT MOST OF THE TROOPS WHICH ENTERED THE SQUARE WERE ACTUALLY ARMED ONLY WITH ANTI-RIOT GEAR–TRUNCHEONS AND WOODEN CLUBS;” – Leaked US Diplomatic Cables
Until his death, the British Ambassador to China during the protests, Sir Alan Donald, insisted that there were indiscriminate killings in the square itself. He has made several other claims and as a respected diplomat, there seems very little reason to doubt his accounts. Reporters and media sources at the time have also remained unmoved from their positions. It is this reporting from the Western media, where the press is free, that the consensus of the events that occurred during the 1989 protests have been set in stone for many.
The truth however, is that all of these reporters already knew in 1989 that either zero or very few deaths occurred in the square.
“There is no massacre in Tiananmen Square, for example, although there is plenty of killing elsewhere.” – China Update: How the Hardliners Won by Nicholas D. Kristof for The New York Times Magazine, Nov 12, 1989
Equally, when The Telegraph reported in 2011 on the leaked US diplomatic cables, “Wikileaks: no bloodshed inside Tiananmen Square, cables claim”, not a single other major media publication wrote on these new revelations.
The only reporter to have since remotely admitted wrongdoing was James Miles, who was the BBC’s Beijing correspondent at the time. He has since stated he had “conveyed the wrong impression” on the events that transpired.
With the truth being that all reporters had embellished their stories with outright lies in at least one factor of their reporting, we must ask ourselves not only for the motivations behind this misinformation, but also how much more of these facts should be questioned.
Consider these points. If the soldiers were all wantonly running people over with their vehicles, how then did the 28th Army lose 74 vehicles, including 31 armored personnel carriers? If all the soldiers were so merciless and agreed upon in their actions, why are there confirmed reports that the 16th Army and 27th Army were shooting at each other or that military leaders ignored orders?
The continued feigned ignorance to these facts by Western media sources is not only a disgrace to journalism as a whole, it is a disservice to all who would seek the truth.
The State of Propaganda in America
In the waning months of World War II, an act of legislation was introduced to the House by Congressman Karl E. Mundt. The Smith-Mundt Act legitimized the actions of the U.S. State Department to reach international audiences through broadcast and media. One of the first restrictions on this act was that this dissemination of materials was expressly limited to foreign audiences and not the American people.
In 1967, the Advisory Commission on Information determined that the exclusion of American audiences was not specifically forbidden in any statute, thus re-allowing dissemination to American audiences. This remained in effect until 1972, when Senator J. William Fulbright stated the dissemination of America’s state run media belonged in its “rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics”. Once again Americans were protected from the propaganda arms of the US government.
A revision in 1990 allowed this programming to be disseminated to US audiences 12 years after it had been broadcasted abroad. This back and forth officially ended in 2012 as the laws excluding American audiences was completely repealed. This was hardly reported on and almost completely ignored by mainstream media.
US programming from the US Agency for Global Media, which includes organizations such as Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and Radio Free Europe, represent the very embodiment of state financed propaganda.
Although the USAGM claims that it offers fair and and unbiased reporting, by now you should be aware that is almost an impossibility, especially when the organization’s stated mission is to “inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Arguably a just cause, but also easily corruptible to the facts.
Catharin Dalpino, the deputy assistant secretary for human rights for the Clinton State Department, has said of Radio Free Asia that it is “a waste of money” and that “They lean very heavily on reports by and about dissidents in exile. It doesn’t sound like reporting about what’s going in a country. Oftentimes, it reads like a textbook on democracy, which is fine, but even to an American it’s rather propagandistic.” Dalpino is also more supportive of Voice of America, in which she has said the VOA’s broadcasts “are sometimes quite propagandistic, but that’s what a national radio does.”
The perspective of most of those in the West are of the notion that state run media is a detriment to society. It is a common position when referring to Chinese or Russian state run news organizations.
“First they came …” –Martin Niemöller [PDF]
It should equally bother you when that organization is espousing values that may even align with your own as no organization is immune to change and corruption.
Stop Being Lazy
Your consumption of media rides on the coattails of your confirmation bias because looking up contradictory information triggers cognitive dissonance, forcing you to think and make decisions. In other words, you dive into echo chambers, surround yourself with less controversial media sources, and happily spread that information regardless of its potential falsities because you are lazy.
“A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.” – Buzzfeed News: This Analysis Shows How Viral Fake Election News Stories Outperformed Real News On Facebook
Fake election stories were more widespread because they were tailored to fit the bias of their target demographic.
It is not possible for you to have confidence in your position if you accept that position without contest. Choose instead to challenge the facts as they are presented to you and further seek the truth from every possible perspective regardless of your bias to the subject.
Read between the lines. When Fox News calls a group of peoples an “invading horde”, this is done as purposely as when the New York Times calls these peoples “migrants”.
Understand the truth that everything is propaganda, every organization is capable of propaganda, and you should question every source of media for its bias.
Although this article thus far has been politically focused, apply the ideology to everything, just as you would research something educational to prove its veracity. The internet being at your fingertips means you have the power to seek truth over convenience. Failure to utilize this is a failure to everything you think you stand for.