Is propaganda the same as fake news? Are both forms of manipulation equally corrosive to democratic norms?
Recently, a close friend and an ardent supporter of President Trump, called a controversial Time Magazine cover a “classic example of fake news.”
Many will recall the cover, from June, 2018, at the height of the parent-child separation crisis. A crying immigrant toddler looks up pathetically at Uncle Donald, who towers over her, blocking her path, with a caption off to the side that reads “Welcome to America.” Except that the child has not been separated from her mother, as the cover wants us to assume; this mother was trying to enter the U.S. to find better work. Time’s choice of that child’s context was misleading. Admittedly, trying to photo shop out of context may be at worst an example of irresponsible journalism, but is it fake news?
It is classic propaganda—that is, the cover propagates misleading information to promote a political point of view.
The difference between misleading and purposefully inaccurate or invented is subtle. One could argue that the Time cover twisted a fact, that the perverted fact in this case was an immigrant child falsely passed off as a child taken from her mother. But the cover was political artwork, designed as a symbolic representation of a highly charged government action—and judging by its reception, a pretty powerful one. The Time cover, then, shares the stage with a long history of graphic political propaganda, designed to manipulate emotions and galvanize opinion.
Propaganda shares with fake news a negative connotation. But propaganda doesn’t claim to be news in any sense. It doesn’t claim to be truth. It trumpets its purpose quite clearly. Though it may be symbolic, it is not pretending. We can look at it and say: that’s propaganda, and then choose to accept or reject it. Fake news invents facts or replaces key parts of a whole with newly invented parts to influence the gullible. It is predatory; we only get to choose if we are savvy enough to be in on the game.
In Social media both fake news and propaganda have found an ally beyond their wildest dreams. Divergent facts can nest inside each other like Russian dolls.
Without understanding the syntax of this game, we don’t stand a chance. Fake news depends upon three critical factors: mediocre education, confirmation bias, and impulse. Only the first of these three elements is within our control, as the etymology of the word denotes—only by education we can be lead out of, or lead ourselves out of impulse and confirmation bias. The latter two elements are so ingrained, and so prone to control us in times of political division and stress, that our psychic systems have as few checks and balances as does a tyrannical regime. The tyranny within (as in a Shakespearean tragedy or a Socratic dialogue) mirrors the tyranny without. And education, which seems so weakly virtuous, so much David against a Goliath, has to be the clever antidote.
When we talked about deconstructing language in the 80s, all that French discourse, we were in a refined linguistic territory. But this contemporary deconstructing of language, which calls for attention to tone and source, has a more pragmatic, urgent purpose, which is our liberation from the addicting media feeds that propagate impulsive credulity. Multiplied many times over, that just might set the stage for civil war or full on autocracy.
The clock is ticking.
If we assume that even adults have to re-educate themselves, then the burden this dilemma places on how we educate youth, on what we fondly call “critical thinking,” is enormous, and one we are under-prepared to undertake. For in addition to a thorough integration of civics and research into our curriculum, it would require the cultivation certain others skills: patience, the capacity to distill and track, observation and cool detachment—not the the mind of the test taker, but of the scientist, the detective, the hacker, and the connoisseur of language.