Is It Propaganda Or Not?

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Your Friendly Guide to Better Propaganda

In recent decades, the production of propaganda has boomed, but its quality has plummeted. If current trends continue, dire consequences may ensue that could undermine the ability of propaganda to hold together our complex society.

Propaganda has brought us so many good things: support for US entry into World War I, approval of interning Japanese residents during World War II, and more recently, the Iraq War, which liberated a nation from a tyrant as the first step toward bringing freedom and democracy to other oppressed Middle Eastern countries.

Good propaganda is like Muzak: pleasant, background noise that calms our frazzled nerves and lulls us into a sense of relaxation while waiting for an airline flight or a root canal. It helps us sort a complicated and changing world into friends and not-friends.

As the demand for propaganda has risen, though, quality has collapsed. Let’s look at a case study: a site that uses our name, but whose propaganda efforts failed even measured by today’s watered-down standards.

This “PropOrNot” attempted to link two of the hottest topics in the current propaganda world: fake news and Russian influence. The goal was to discredit “alternative” websites catering toward readers who think they are too good for propaganda. They began with a great idea and idealistic aspirations, but all was for nought due to incompetent execution.

Propaganda should aim for parsimony and elegance. Instead, PropOrNot made a series of critical blunders:

• It simultaneously attacked a huge number of targets at once.

• To be sure, it’s boring and routine, but it’s important for propagandists to make their views sound authoritative by putting them in the mouths of “independent” experts. PropOrNot instead cut corners, ascribing its views to anonymous volunteers.

• PropOrNot also kept its methodology secret, but then negated the benefits of this move by dropping hints that could be interpreted negatively by uncharitable observers.

• It openly expressed enthusiasm for government repression, instead of following tried and true approaches involving gradual consensus-building and the use of proxies.

• Unhelpful branding choices – it’s one thing to admire the efficacy of McCarthyite blacklisting and the dehumanization of Jews, but openly referencing them in language and iconography? It’s unclear what PropOrNot was thinking here.

• Descent into megalomania – when weaker targets sued for mercy, PropOrNot publicly gloated and announced that they would be removed from their List. Of course, the point of their project was not to “analyze Russian spy operations” but the respectable and time-honored one of chilling political discourse. Bragging about it should however have been postponed until after the initiative had succeeded.

Let’s consider each of these in detail:

Too Many Targets

PropOrNot would have had better luck if it had put together a more or less plausible list of actual Russia-sympathetic sites and then slipped in one or two sites that it was hoping to discredit.

However, it cast its net too wide. Although it did include a few actual Russian government-run websites (e.g. RT.com, Pravda.ru) on its list, PropOrNot also targeted:

While this wide range of targets produced a spectacular initial press release, the variety of sites named as “useful idiots” for the Russians caused the whole project to come off as unhinged (see for example here, here, here, and here). The targeted websites, which absent PropOrNot’s clumsiness might have been maneuvered into internecine struggles, instead largely closed ranks against what they melodramatically termed a “new McCarthyism.”

Relying on the Authority of a Black Box

Skilled propagandists enlist credentialed “experts” to promote their narratives. This is extremely easy to do in America, where a human being can often be had for a pittance.

In what looks in retrospect like simple cheapness, PropOrNot claimed that its views had expert authority, but it then refused to produce either the experts or a clear description of their methodology.

Additional messaging merely made matters worse. PropOrNot tried to supplement its faceless “contributors” with real-life entities that it called “allies,” but many of these complained. One, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, tweeted that “No-one I’ve spoken to listed as ‘allies’ on their site had even heard of them before the WP piece,” and later pushed back further, calling PropOrNot a “pretty amateur attempt” whose work should not have been featured “on any news site of any note.”

When challenged on their anonymity, PropOrNot claimed that Russians agents were everywhere and they were terrified of retaliation. If most Americans believed that Putin was Emperor Palpatine and could strike at them anytime and anywhere, PropOrNot’s narrative might have carried conviction. Instead, they came off as cartoonish and disingenuous.

Unnecessary Candor On Methodology:

PropOrNot refused to disclose its methodology. There were some disadvantages and some advantages to this move. The advantages were however negated by PropOrNot’s inability to keep its mouth shut.

PropOrNot needlessly explained:

We have used a combination of manual and automated analysis […] to initially identify (“red-flag”) the following as Russian propaganda outlets. We then confirmed our initial assessment by applying whatever criteria we did not originally employ during the red-flag process, and we reevaluate our findings as needed.

Here PropOrNot, while using commendably bureaucratic language, was almost touchingly forthright. It said it used “automated” analysis and then supplemented its “initial assessment” with other “criteria,” “reevaluat[ing]” its results at will. In other words, it chose which sites to put on its List by fiat. And why not? But it’s not the sort of thing you should tell people.

PropOrNot didn’t stop there, but added:

For purposes of this definition it does not matter whether the sites listed here are being knowingly directed and paid by Russian intelligence officers, or whether they even knew they were echoing Russian propaganda at any particular point: If they meet [our] criteria, they are at the very least acting as bona-fide “useful idiots” of the Russian intelligence services, and are worthy of further scrutiny.

All PR professionals know that you should avoid saying things that can be repurposed negatively. PropOrNot ignored this rule, and thereby handed a gift to its enemies; one pair of journalists proceeded to characterize their methodology in the following undoubtedly unfair way:

In other words, the website conflates criticism of Western governments and their actions and policies with Russian propaganda. News sites that do not uncritically echo a pro-NATO perspective are accused of being mouthpieces for the Kremlin, even if only unwitting ones.

Advocating State Action Prematurely:

In its explanation of why its project was not “just McCarthyism,” PropOrNot proclaimed

[…] we are calling for formal investigations by the US government, because we think the American people have the right to know when foreign governments are trying to mess with them.

PropOrNot protested that it was “not accusing anyone of lawbreaking, treason, or ‘being a member of the Communist Party.’” It however stipulated:

We strongly suspect that some of the individuals involved have violated the Espionage Act, the Foreign Agent Registration Act, and other related laws, but determining that is up to the FBI and the DOJ.

The problem PropOrNot ran into here is that Americans are irrationally proud of slogans like “free speech” and “freedom of the press.” These legacy belief systems pose a considerable communications challenge to the successful propagandist. When, with obviously benevolent intentions, PropOrNot spoke of FBI and DOJ investigations of targeted sites, ignorant readers predictably responded with knee-jerk reactions to the effect that blacklisting is contrary to what America should stand for. Opposition to PropOrNot therefore mobilized in ways that a more deft rollout could have avoided.

Unhelpful Branding Choices

PropOrNot noticed that anti-Semitic sites sometimes dehumanize individuals of Jewish origin by bracketing their names in triple parentheses. Evidently impressed by the efficacy of this practice, PropOrNot advocated mimicking it: it encouraged its followers to dehumanize accused Russian propagandists by bracketing their names in triple Y’s (the “YYYCampaignYYY“).

The idea of “responding” to white supremacists by using their techniques on real enemies of the State did not sound fun or cool to anyone outside of PropOrNot. Even journalists who uncritically repeated PropOrNot’s claims did not start using the YYYs.

Meanwhile, PropOrNot referred to its 200 target websites as being “on the List,” and then went on to speak continually, in reverential tones, of “the List.” Any branding consultant would have told them not to go there, mainly because it just sounds menacing, but also given the obvious risk that audiences would start to view their efforts as McCarthyite blacklisting.

Megalomania

PropOrNot claimed that its goal was to ferret out a propaganda operation, “ultimately run” by Russian intelligence agency (the FSB); it said that many of the “agents” of this operation “know for whom they are working” while others are “useful idiots.”

However, when asked about the inclusion of the liberal site TruthDig on its list, PropOrNot gave a twofold response. On the one hand, it defended itself by citing four TruthDig articles it said were suspicious (two critical of US policy toward Russia, two criticizing claims about Russian influence over the recent election). At the same time, it announced cheerfully:

If truthdig.com were to reach out to us, though, we would probably have a constructive conversation with them that would result in their removal!

Good propaganda should be internally consistent. In the mental universe PropOrNot was trying to create, either TruthDig was or was not a Russian intelligence asset. If it was not, it should not have been on the List. If it was, then it should stay on the List, “constructive conversations” or no.

When PropOrNot made getting off the List conditional on targeted websites “reaching out” and having “constructive conversations,” PropOrNot started to look less like impartial “analysts” and more like eager would-be arbiters of what could be said and not said. This impression was only exacerbated when PropOrNot started celebrating early victories:

After productive conversations with several website operators, in which it became clear that they shared the same concerns we do and were interested in constructively moving forward, we removed them [from the List].

At the risk of repeating advice that every propagandist should know: never, never emphasize your ability to coerce others to do as you dictate.

The Bottom Line

PropOrNot made so many errors that it is astonishing that they got off the ground at all. This case study has been largely critical, but we would also like to give credit where credit is due. And in fact, PropOrNot managed to overcome some of the deficiencies in their content by leveraging their top notch social engineering abilities: the Washington Post’s Craig Timberg based an “expose” primarily on their work, and Slate, USA Today, NPR, PBS, the Daily Beast, and Rachel Maddow’s blog all echoed their conclusions uncritically.

We encourage PropOrNot to build on their promising start by treating this incident not as a failure, but as a learning experience. PropOrNot should analyze what aspects of their messaging were ineffective, and try to round out their skills into a more complete package. While we would be happy to give them pointers, other options are available as well. For example, they clearly respect Russian propagandists – why not ask the Kremlin for assistance?