Where does all this manipulation leave you, Dear Reader? Like it or not, your mind is the new battleground in a Digital Age. While the U.S. has had laws in the past to protect citizens from being propagandised to by their own government, there are no such restrictions on political campaigns, corporations, or foreign governments, really. Moreover, policing the interconnected, global world of the internet is next to impossible. A website taken down in the U.S. today, can just as easily come back up in Tuvalu tomorrow. So, you, alas, must retrain your brain to cope with the distorted information space that is our “onlife” world.

Don’t look for technological solutions. While ICTs might have brought us to this challenge, they are not likely to take us out of it. Sure, the internet giants will attempt various solutions to counter fake news and bots, but a company’s bottom line is to make money, not prevent your manipulation at the hands of campaigns – who, it might be added, pay a lot more money to position ads in your feed, than you likely do to use that social network.

Think twice before engaging with apparent news content online. Even the most reputable outlets have been known to get the story wrong. Fake news isn’t just a problem for those who lean to the right of the political spectrum.  Anti-Trump content, particularly coverage that purports to be the key to his impeachment is spreading like wildfire among the liberals. If you are not absolutely certain about a news story, Snopes it – if it can’t be verified as fact, don’t share it, lest you become an unwitting propagandist too.

Memes might give you a good laugh, but sharing them has wider implications for democracies. Before sharing memes online, give some thought to where they might have come from, and whether or not you want to participate in the spread of possible propaganda.

When faced with news of a hack or leak, take pause to consider the wider situation behind it before jumping on the sharing bandwagon. After all, every time you engage, you risk becoming part of a participatory propaganda model.

Take a look at your network and information sources. If everyone seems to be sharing your perspective, with little dissent or variety in sources, you might be in an echo chamber. If you find yourself sharing the information pumped through these channels, you might be a propagandist too. Consider removing some of the filters that channel content to you or read news and conduct searches while logged out of all online accounts – start reading some alternative sources from the other side. If nothing else, it might help foster empathy with which you might engage with the opposition later.

Just because a topic trends, doesn’t make it truly talked about by real people. You will need to dig deeper to find more accurate information online, particularly during an election cycle.

Developing your own internal cognitive security measure, a sort of firewall for your mind, can help. One approach might be taken from the field of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a branch of psychotherapy that aims to change patterns of behaviour and thinking. One tactic in CBT is to apply a list of thinking distortions, assessed through a series of questions that people ask themselves in a given situation to help retrain one’s mind to perceive things differently.  In the context of engaging with the information space, this might be applied every time you encounter a post or article that provokes you into wanting to share. Instead, stop and ask yourself:

  • What is my motive for sharing this?
  • Who produced this content? Can the author be clearly identified?
  • What do I know about the source where I found this content? What is their motive?
  • Is this content factual? How do I know? What have I done to fact check it?

If your answers indicate that you are sharing to persuade others, and the content cannot be verified, don’t share it. Quite quickly we can help control the quality of content spreading online.

The information space is a lot like the physical environment. While individuals might not be behind a lot of the pollution, it will come down to average citizens to push for and work towards cleaning it up.

In a Digital Age, perhaps ironically, when technology has made so many things that much easier, it will come down to a much older tool – our minds – to ensure we are not manipulated by propaganda, or much worse, coopted into becoming propagandists for a cause or politician through this participatory model.

Be mindful and remember, you are what you read.

Thank You… and Propagandise About This Topic

Yes, that was a long read. Thank you for staying with it. My research on the subject of participatory propaganda is at its early stages. If you believe this is a topic that needs deeper understanding and broader awareness among voters, please like, share, and comment on this post. Yes, I am asking you to be a propagandist in my own participatory model – but that support will convince a publisher that this topic is worthy of the time and effort for turning it into a book. I am also interested in the constructive feedback loop – feel free to reach out.

This research is also available in a full-length talk format – please reach out if you are interested in including it in your conference or event.

About Author

Alicia Wanless

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia researches how we shape — and are shaped — by a changing information space. As the Director of Strategic Communications at The SecDev Foundation, Alicia develops campaigns and strategies for engaging beneficiaries in outreach and behavioural change. Her work includes developing a training program that deals with verifying information and the spread of content online, and has supported projects in the Middle East, Vietnam and the post-Soviet space.

2 Comments

  1. As a former US Army PSYOP officer and IC ops officer, I have some experience with propaganda and manipulation. I agree with every point you make. One issue does, at least in my mind, need to be resolved before counter-propaganda efforts can be truly effective, though. It goes back to that old joke, “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb really has to want to change.” Why would consumers of partisan “information” want to distinguish between reality and propaganda when they receive compelling positive ego rewards from propaganda that affirms their own worldview? It seems common sense that we would all want to seek truthful information, but I would suggest that the drive for personal affirmation and the ego benefits that go with it are likely greater than the search for objective reality, especially when it may involve a reality that threatens a person’s comfortable, ego-enhancing worldview. So, I would suggest that the first step in any counter-propaganda effort would be to use CBT techniques to stress the value to the individual of choosing reality over propaganda. It sounds obvious, but it’s much harder in practice. Before we teach anyone how to change the light bulb, we have to somehow make the light bulb want to change.

    • Alicia Wanless
      Alicia Wanless on

      Thanks for that. I completely agree.

      Another issue is the role of politicians in making this sort of partisan and biased content acceptable – somehow, as a society, we need to hold such public figures accountable for this current situation. Easier said than done, too.

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