Democrats want your vote. Republicans do, too. And, don’t forget the Russians.
Most Americans freely accept the attempts of the first two to influence us. We shouldn’t succumb to the third one, though. So, how can you create immunity against these influences? As a starting point, consider the following seven strategies. If you already use some of them and consider yourself a reasonable skeptic — bravo! — then pass them along to friends and colleagues.
Recognize that propagandists are not transparent about their aims.
According to the Mueller Report, the Russians funded the innocuously sounding Internet Research Agency (IRA) with the strategic objective of “sowing discord in the U.S. political system.” According to the Report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee, “Russia has waged a propaganda war against American citizens, manipulating social media narratives to influence American culture and politics.” As skilled propagandists, the IRA did not say the following:
- I’m appealing to your identity group’s prejudices in order to sow discord in your country
- I’m using crude stereotypical caricatures of people you disagree with to foment distrust and conflict with your fellow citizens
- I’m accentuating legitimate, but minor uncertainties in the voting process to undermine your confidence in the electoral process
- I’m using fictitious, American-sounding personas to entice you to retweet something to your network of friends to further polarize public opinion
- I’m deliberately focusing your attention on issues of significant public disagreement to undermine faith in democratic institutions
- I’m posting sensational claims on social media accounts in hopes that the national media will repeat them and tip the election scales toward a particular political candidate
At a minimum, any news consumer should consider these potential propogandists’ objectives when they evaluate news sources. In every case, the ultimate aims remain hidden behind time-tested propaganda techniques (e.g., name-calling, scapegoating, and exploiting community prejudices). When coupled with state-of-the-art social media marketing tools, propagandists seek to silently pull societal strings, hoping to create puppet-like interest groups molded to their broader aims of undermining democratic consensus.
Grade your influencers. Credibility still matters, even in an age of fingertip-quick information and social media hyper-connectivity. Lazy minds embrace all the news pouring in from their self-selected influencers; more disciplined minds, though, step back from time-to-time to grade the accuracy of those they’ve chosen to influence their sentiments and opinions. Avoid giving your influencer a high grade simply because you find them attractive, identify with them, or they agree with you. Instead, check out the sidebar grading scale. Grading your self-selected influencers and re-aligning your network provides a hedge against any propogandist messaging.
Your Influencers’ Report Card
- Provides accurate news and information 90% of the time
- Quickly corrects inaccuracies
- Acknowledges unknown information
- Legitimizes differing viewpoints
- Avoids sharing imagery based on harmful stereotypes
- Shares possible biases and sentiments
- Rarely makes assertions with 100% certainty
- Reports any potential conflicts of interest
Diversify your infotainment ecosystem. Propagandists dream of controlling all the information you consume, every entertainment option you select, and all the diversions you pursue. That hardly seems possible with all the different information, social media platforms and media sources available today. After all, with the click of the remote or touch of the screen you can switch channels. But what if all the channels, only appear to be different and independent? Skilled propogandists want to own your media selection space. The Russians directly operated websites like blackvswhite.info and the YouTube channel Black to Live. And, let’s not forget the Facebook pages, Heart of Texas and Being Patriotic. Think of it this way: propagandists own a candy store of blogs, TV channels, and social media sites. They don’t care what candy you buy as long as you buy from their store on a regular basis. By feasting on their propaganda sweets, they shape your sentiments and opinions.
Combatting harmful self-selected infotainment ecosystems designed by the propogandist may well represent the greatest challenge to democratic institutions in our age. Diversifying your info media inputs represents the best immunization possible. It’s the same advice good financial planners give to clients – don’t put all your investment eggs in one basket. If you are seeing the same messaging or imagery across multiple platforms in your day-to-day life, then you may have unwittingly created the propagandist ideal infotainment cocoon. Be particularly wary about redundant messaging regarding divisive issues that demonize one side or seek to undermine democratic institutions. The bottom line: diversify so you don’t jump on the bandwagon of social media instruments that are tooting and taunting the same narratives, designed to foster solidarity within a particular community and mayhem outside of it.
Be stingy with your social media likes, reposts, and retweets. Why? You are reacting to the content, but the propogandists are playing a numbers game; attention builds more attention. They don’t care if you like it or share it because it’s amusing or annoying. They just want to increase the visibility of their messaging by enticing others to share it or like it. Each click builds impressions designed to seep into the collective consciousness and sow stereotypically divisive impressions. They are seeking to inject their messaging into media ecosystems in a bid for legitimacy.
One the most successful Russian memes during the last Presidential election cycle involved associating Trump with the angels and Clinton with the devil; Jesus wore a MAGA hat and Hillary the horns. These images were shared, reposted, and tweeted throughout the campaign. Of course, they resonated with some people, but most probably just found them humorous. Each retweet or share contributed ever so slightly to an on-going narrative, cultivating distrust between groups and perpetuating stereotypes about both candidates. For those outrageously irresistibly funny images or quotes, consider just snapping a screen shot and sharing with friends via email. That way your “engagement” does not inadvertently signal something divisive about the democratic landscape and unwittingly encourage others to signal their disgust.
Cultivate personal and professional relationships with those with whom you disagree. Propagandists don’t want us to “agree to disagree” with people. Instead, they seek to “polarize and mobilize” groups. They want to polarize public opinion and sentiment; they want protesters in the street, clashing violently, thereby undermining government legitimacy. That’s what the Russians inspired in the Ukraine, promoted in Europe and sought to do in the United States. Their primary focus in the United States was fueling racial tensions, but they also tried to capitalize on liberal/conservative, rich/poor, and evangelical/secularist divides.
Cultivating and maintaining relationships with people of different political beliefs and ideological orientations contributes to mutual understanding, if not agreement. Solid relationships like these promote a level of societal civility that undermines the propagandist aims. And even if you end up on different sides of the protest line, you are unlikely to end up throwing stones at your colleagues who are holding opposing protest signs.
Seek out opportunities to engage in thoughtful and respectful debate with others on a wide-range of issues. Fostering relationships across the divides is not enough, though. You need to strategically engage in respectful debate about divisive or potentially contentious issues. Most children learn how to avoid certain topics or subtly shift the conversation to other matters. It may be a matter of self-preservation, emotional well-being or a means to “keep the family peace,” but it comes with a price – they don’t learn how to respectfully disagree and discuss delicate matters. That’s unfortunate. Skillfully avoiding certain conversations with some people under specific circumstances makes perfect sense. But, using that skill all the time, does not. It robs you of the ability to learn about other views, gain new perspectives, and potentially build consensus with someone else. Respectful debate is not easy.
There aren’t many role models for it. TV pundits shout at each other. Scapegoat. Demonize. They use almost every trick in the propogandist playbook, and unwittingly create the kind of polarization the Russians dream about. We tweet at each other, not talk to one another. To move a conversation away from ad hominin attacks and other emotional outbursts, you can direct it to a more productive discussion, with an opening such as, “What specific issues do you disagree with?” That way, the issues – not the politician nor your friend – are on the table. You then have the basis for a more productive, respectful discussion. If we are serious about combating propaganda ploys then ordinary citizens — not the pundits – will have to build connections, share concerns in their own voices and respectfully listening to the reactions of others. You can’t outsource this debate to the cable pundits or tweet your way to understanding.
Expect to encounter more sophisticated propaganda from foreign sources in the next election cycle. The Russian government, through the IRA (Internet Research Agency), spent millions of dollars over many years in coordinated attempts to sow discord between interest groups and undermine faith in the election process. They used Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, websites and many other outlets. The U.S. government indicted some of the players and social media providers shut down the most poisonous sites. But, will this stop propagandists? Unlikely. In an open and free society, the media outlets are too numerous and varied to completely squelch exposure to well-funded, ever-adapting and determined propogandists. Plus, the Russians will learn from their propaganda campaign in the last election. Expect a more sophisticated and pervasive effort in the coming election cycle.
COVID-19 has taught us all some brutal lessons. First, we all risk exposure to the virus. Second, everyone needs to take protective measures, even if they are asymptomatic. Likewise, in this political season we will be exposed to political propaganda from a wide variety of sources. Yet we can all take protective measures and help stop the most pernicious strains designed to undermine democracy. Exposure to political propaganda may be inevitable, but being infected by it, is not.
Phillip G. Clampitt, Blair Chair of Communication, University of Wisconsin – Green Bay and author of Clear Thinking in an Age of Hype, Nonsense, & Anxiety.