Let’s Call Fake News and Alternative Facts What They Really Are — Propaganda
We’ve all heard about Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s now infamous first meeting with the press, where he told the ridiculous lie that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in US history. White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway immediately backed up Spicer’s lie, claiming that the Press Secretary was using what she called “alternative facts.” Spicer’s bald-faced lie and Conway’s double down were not harmless mistakes. They are attempts to redefine reality into whatever is most useful for the Trump regime at any given time. This isn’t a disagreement about the facts. This is propaganda.
We Have To Acknowledge That Propaganda Is Effective
The first thing that we must acknowledge about propaganda is that it works. We can’t just expect Americans to know what propaganda is, or expect that if they do, they’ll reject it. Propaganda campaigns can be highly effective, and that is why states use them. Today, most people who follow politics are familiar with propaganda campaigns from the Kremlin or from ISIS. But we can learn some of the most important lessons from propaganda (and the massive danger it presents) from Nazi Germany. The Germans understood the power of propaganda and the need to bend the facts to their will to get people to defend the indefensible. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels understood that authoritative regimes need enemies, and he used to power of the state to demonize Jews, to dehumanize them, and to blame them for the country’s cultural and socioeconomic problems. Germany didn’t instantly devolve into the most genocidal, authoritarian regime in modern history — it took a massive propaganda campaign that was deliberately pushed by the state.
It is important to recognize that today’s conservative media has been in the propaganda business long before Trump arrived. Their propaganda efforts laid the foundation for what Trump is doing today. Before Breitbart was publishing fake crime statistics about Black people, Fox News was purposefully spreading misinformation in the 1990s. Conservative talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh have been pushing outright falsehoods since the late 1980s. The lies they peddle are used to prop up their worldview. Lying about Black crime in order to justify police crackdowns, lying about Latino immigrant numbers in order to push mass deportation, lying about Islam to stoke fears about Muslims, lying about abortion services to try to limit women’s access to providers.
Conservative media propaganda targets marginalized groups to reinforce their right wing worldview of white male dominance, and it also gives the right an easy scapegoat whenever things aren’t going well. Hence, “Make America Great Again,” really meant “Black People, Latinos, Muslims, and Feminism Are Stopping America From Being Great.” Extremists always need a scapegoat to justify their views, because without them the narrative kind of falls apart under its own ridiculousness. There has to be an enemy to validate the “us vs. them” mentality, and conservatives have been pushing this stuff for decades before Trump. Trump is simply taking the old platform of harmful right wing lies to the next level of totally unbelievable “did he really just say that” right wing lies.
One of the most infamous propaganda techniques of Nazi Germany is what is called “the big lie.” The saying goes that if you tell a lie big enough, and just keep repeating it, people will eventually believe that it is true. Goebbels expanded on this concept, saying that “when one lies…they should keep up their lies, even at the risk of looking ridiculous.” This is clearly the technique that Trump’s regime will abide by, as evidenced by the opening big lie by Sean Spicer about crowd size. Trump constantly uses the big lie — he claims that 3–5 million undocumented immigrants voted in the election and they stopped him from winning the popular vote. Simply repeating the big lie long enough without wavering has worked — polls show a significant majority of Republicans believe voter fraud is occurring.
The Trump regime’s use of propaganda is only beginning, and currently is focused on irrelevant matters such as inauguration crowd size. But inevitably, Trump’s propaganda will be used to justify a crackdown on marginalized communities. Propaganda about abortion will be used to justify cutting funding for providers like Planned Parenthood, the lies about voter fraud will eventually be used to justify even more voting restrictions on minorities. Lies about the Iran Nuclear Deal or China’s actions in the South China Sea could even push the country towards a totally avoidable war. We can’t expect Americans to consistently recognize propaganda or to understand how or when they are being lied to. Instead, we must actively combat right wing propaganda — here are a few ideas on how we could do that.
Several Ideas For Countering Propaganda
1. Propaganda Should Be Ruthlessly Mocked
Propaganda gains power when dissent is choked away and people are afraid to tell the truth. Propaganda loses power when people aren’t afraid to counter the message and can clearly articulate the lies being told. That’s why it is important for everyone from White House journalists to random Twitter users to mock Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway when they attempt to disseminate propaganda. When the liars are mocked, when their faces are turned into memes, when their credibility is lost and they are openly laughed at, the propaganda loses its punch.
2. Counterpropagnda Needs To Be Based In Truth
Fighting propaganda with propaganda only reduces your own credibility. Use facts that you can prove in order to make your point.
3. Use Simple, Easy To Understand Messages
There is a saying in politics, “when you are explaining you are losing.” When you have a long-winded, overly complex rebuttal to Trump propaganda, you won’t be very effective. The photo of Trump’s inauguration crowd side by side with Obama’s is a good example of a simple, easy to understand message that easily counters the propaganda narrative.
4. Highlight The Personal Stories Of Those Affected By Wrongdoing
People have a hard time conceptualizing talk of millions of people or intangible issues. Instead of talking in broad strokes, focus on individual stories of those who have been wronged by the regime. For example, Trump’s cancellation of FHA mortgage insurance premium cuts will cost thousands of home buyers hundreds of dollars a year. In a year, a journalist could find someone who could not afford their mortgage payments after Trump’s action and was foreclosed on. That would be a concrete example of an individual story — from someone who might have even been a Trump voter — of someone directly harmed by Trump’s actions.
5. Rapid Response
If propaganda is not countered immediately, the narrative can hold and build momentum. Propaganda must be countered as quickly as possible in various mediums.
Defeating Trump’s propaganda machine isn’t something that is going to happen overnight. And even a successful counterpropaganda campaign won’t convince every Trump voter. But being committed to countering Trump’s propaganda means that the regime won’t be able to bend the facts to their own will and get away with it. Trump’s extremist agenda relies on propaganda in order to hold everything together. If the people don’t believe the big lie, if they see constant open dissent from the majority, then the facade begins to unravel. The 2016 election might be decided, but the 2018 mid-terms are right around the corner. Democrats could win enough seats in the House to push progressive values nationally and limit the damage the Trump regime can inflict. That’s why it is critical that we keep countering right wing propaganda whenever we see it.