It is not a secret that the US government uses aggressive propaganda techniques. Furthermore, even when the US government is not directly manipulating the major news organizations, the media tends to support the official position. If the news organizations and the government are sometimes misleading the public, what can we do?
The first step to fight the propaganda is to know when we are being mislead. A recent Washingtonpost.com article provides an excellent example of blatant propaganda: Post 9/11 dragnet turns up surprises – Washington Post- msnbc.com.
The article is about the US government’s efforts to fingerprint thousands (millions?) of people outside the US even if they are not suspected of a crime. This article masterfully demonstrates a number of effective techniques. I recommend reading the article first, then coming back to this blog post to study the techniques.
Ingroup/outgroup bias is the natural, psychological bias we all have that favors people we perceive as part of our group: the “ingroup.” Similarly, we all disfavor people that we perceive as being in the “outgroup.” The article sets the stage by invoking this strong bias: “[T]he U.S. government has been fingerprinting insurgents, detainees and ordinary people in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa . . .” The readers of the article are not from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Africa, so the people fingerprinted are part of the outgroup. Notice that the very first sentence admits that “ordinary people” are being fingerprinted, but by placing those “ordinary people” in the outgroup, the reader is less concerned by the obvious violation of their rights.
As readers, we are more likely to support fingerprinting bad guys than fingerprinting good guys or “ordinary people.” To make it easier for us to accept violating the rights of others, the article builds on the outgroup bias and explicitly turns the outgroup into villains. Those that are fingerprinted are “insurgents” and “detainees” and “[t]hey have criminal arrest records in the United States.” It is easy to support fingerprinting these terrible people. Notice that the government did not know that they were criminals until after they were fingerprinted. If the article described these people as “mothers, fathers, and workers”, would you support the fingerprinting program as much?
All of the propaganda techniques are enhanced by the proper use of inflammatory words. Instead of saying that someone has an “arrest record”, the article tells us it is a “criminal arrest record”, as if they could have a “civil arrest record” or a “bake-sale arrest record.” Adding the word “criminal” vilifies the outgroup more effectively.
Instead of proving something true, good propaganda will simply state the conclusion that it wants the reader to have. According to the article, the government fingerprinted a “suspected militant fleeing Somalia.” He was “fleeing”? How do we know that? “And the man stopped at a checkpoint in Tikrit who claimed to be a dirt farmer but had 11 felony charges in the United States, including assault with a deadly weapon.” (Emphasis added.) According to this sentence, if the US government charges you with a crime (but does not convict you), then you cannot possibly be a farmer. Notice how subtle it is to use conclusory words.
The point of propaganda is to influence what people think without using reasoning. It is obvious then to use highly emotional events to influence people. “The fingerprinting of detainees overseas began as ad-hoc FBI and U.S. military efforts shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.” This directly connects the fingerprinting of the evil outgroup terrorists with the 9/11 attacks. The natural emotional response will be to support the fingerprinting because the evil terrorists caused the program to happen.
If the propagandist ignores counter-arguments, then some readers will have lingering doubts. The best way to deal with this is to acknowledge the counter-argument, but to defeat it. The straw-man argument is very effective: state the counter-argument in a weekend form (a straw man) and then knock it down. In this article, “civil libertarians” (an outgroup) “raise concerns”, but those concerns are vague. But do not worry about civil liberties, fingerprinting “is a boon for the government and the bane of privacy advocates.” (Emphasis added.) Notice that fingerprinting is not the bane of “ordinary people” or law-abiding citizens or your family: it is the bane of the “privacy advocates” (an outgroup–are you a “privacy advocate”?). Therefore, any privacy problem here is minimal.
Even if a claim can be substantiated with hard, easy to find data, avoid using it. A claim backed by data is a claim backed by reason. Propaganda is an appeal to emotion. Consider this amazing paragraph from the article:
“The bottom line is we’re locking people up,” said Thomas E. Bush III, FBI assistant director of the Criminal Justice Information Services division. “Stopping people coming into this country. Identifying IED-makers in a way never done before. That’s the beauty of this whole data-sharing effort. We’re pushing our borders back.”
How many people were locked up? Where? By whom? What were they charged with? Were they convicted? How many people did we stop from entering the US? This is simple data to provide–if the program is actually working.
If two ideas are close together in an article, then the readers will naturally connect the two ideas–even if the connection is nonexistent. The article has the following two paragraphs:
Already, fingerprints lifted off a bomb fragment have been linked to people trying to enter the United States, they said.
In a separate data-sharing program, 365 Iraqis who have applied to the Department of Homeland Security for refugee status have been denied because their fingerprints turned up in the Defense Department’s database of known or suspected terrorists, Richardson said.
The first paragraph says that we rejected entry to bombers. The second paragraph implies that the total number of rejected bombers is 365. But that is not the truth. We have rejected a 365 applications from “known or suspected terrorists”, and the article previously admitted that this list is not very accurate. These two paragraphs, however, convey to the reader that we rejected 365 applications based on irrefutable fingerprint evidence from bombs.
For each technique listed above, the article contains many more examples. As far as I can tell, every single sentence uses one or more of the techniques: it is a tour de force of propaganda.
As described in the article, this fingerprinting program is a disgrace to the US. We are allegedly using war to spread freedom to the Middle East. Consider this passage from the article: “For example, a roadside bomb may explode and a patrol may fingerprint bystanders because insurgents have been known to remain at the scene to observe the results of their work.” (Emphasis added.) Under this program, if you witness an attack on soldiers, then you can be fingerprinted. Said differently, if someone else with brown skin commits a crime, then you might be fingerprinted because you have brown skin and were in the area. Horrible.