Propaganda and Fake News — What’s the difference?


Propaganda at its worst - Adolf Hitler

Exhibit 12.3   Adolf Hitler — propaganda at its worst.

There is much debate about fake news, and agreement in general, that it needs to be controlled. Yet that raises the question, what about propaganda? Is not that a form of fake news? And what has been done, since time immemorial, to contain it?

By way of definition, propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view. And to quote Wikipedia, what sets it apart from other forms of advocacy is the willingness of the propagandist to change people’s understanding through deception and confusion rather than persuasion and understanding.

Propaganda is usually associated with governments. However activist groups, companies, religious organizations, the media, and individuals also indulge in propaganda.

A core distinction is that propaganda takes the form of one-way communication. It is controlled by the propagandists that promote it. On the other hand, relying on social platforms, fake news is open and multi-directional, and therefore not so easily controlled.

Since people are more likely to be swayed by governments/powerful organizations that disseminate propaganda, it can, depending on its nature, be exceedingly dangerous. The ideologies propagated by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis (Exhibit 12.3) are among so many other examples over the ages, of propaganda at its worst.

To be clear fake news is not a new phenomenon. Centuries ago when people were ill-informed, individuals or groups of individuals with ulterior motives would spread lies exploiting the ignorance of others. One is reminded of the witch-hunt hysteria that peaked during the 15th and 18th centuries leading to the execution of about 50,000 people in Europe, according to historians (www.history.com).

While society progressed through formal education and controlled mass communication, recent developments suggest that humanity may be regressing. Empowered by social media, “big lies” are being propagated by politically motivated factions.

A prominent example is the belief amongst many Americans in 2020-21 that an election was stolen. The ensuing mass hysteria that led to the storming of the United States Capitol on January 6 2021 is reminiscent of an age gone by. The big lies and theories such as those spread by QAnon, a far right-wing, loosely organized network of social cloisters, remind us of the accusations of witchcraft during medieval times.

To quote the Wall Street Journal, “QAnon conspiracy theory alleges that there is a battle between good and evil in which the Republican Mr. Trump is allied with the former. QAnon followers are awaiting two major events: the Storm and the Great Awakening. The Storm is the mass arrest of people in high-power positions who will face a long-awaited reckoning. The Great Awakening involves a single event in which everyone will attain the epiphany that QAnon theory was accurate the whole time. This realization will allow society to enter an age of utopia”.

There is consciousness without doubt that a monster has been unleashed, and growing agreement, even amongst the new media organizations, that consumer generated media must be controlled, that we need to stamp out fake new. However, the nature of these controls and how they will come into place is a highly contentious subject that legislators will continue to grapple with over many years.

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