Flattening the Propaganda Curve in the Age of Coronavirus

fake news

I’ve been thinking about propaganda for a long time – how it affects us, how it threatens us, how we can push back against it. The psychological evidence supports the idea that everyone is equally susceptible to propaganda; we appear to be biologically designed in a way that makes us vulnerable. That means it starts with all of us – no one is immune. Which can feel a little hopeless, but also give us power. From a social-activist point of view, we need to find an antidote, because I don’t think it’s an overreaction to call it the biggest threat to democracy since the 1940s.

Most of the articles that help you recognize “fake news” offer good advice, but they usually require EFFORT, and that’s just unlikely given the utter saturation of information that confronts our moment-by-moment wakefulness. Few of us are going to check Snopes.com every time we read a piece of news.

Over the last four or five years, I put together my own list of things to look for when I wanted to validate or dismiss a news article as “fake,” and they’ve been generally helpful. Yet I really struggled to organize these ideas in a compelling way. I have about ten attempts on my C:\ drive to prove it.

Then I read this article at the Washington Post (Coronavirus modelers factor in new public health risk: Accusations their work is a hoax), and the alarm bells went off. Which helped coalesce my thoughts into a reasonably articulate essay. Which you can find here: How to Distinguish Journalism From Fake News. It’s in the very excellent Better Humans publication, and if you’re not following them, you should.

In the meantime, if you’d prefer the Cliffs Notes version, they go like this:

  • If it supports one side and paints any possible alternative as ludicrous, then it is propaganda.
  • If it references an alternative view without mocking it, then it is journalism.

Not all FOX News is propaganda. Not all MSNBC is journalism. And vice-versa. Trust journalism. Ignore propaganda. And we’ll get through this.