Unthinkable: How good are we at spotting propaganda?

Some of the most subtle forms of propaganda spring from the false idea that people can be neutral or objective, argues American philosopher Jason Stanley

Marine Le Pen spoke about freedom recently while calling for restrictions on religious freedom. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP/Getty

We all like to link we’re politically savvy and can spot propaganda a mile off. But are we just intercepting the obvious stuff – patriotic flag-waving and Orwellian doublespeak – while more nefarious mind control goes under the radar?

Jason Stanley, professor of philosophy at Yale University, and author of the forthcoming How Propaganda Works, believes so. "What I am focused on is how propaganda works in countries that don't think of themselves as having propaganda," he says.

Stanley, who visited Dublin recently to share his ideas on public truthfulness, cites neutrality as one of the most subtle but also most common forms of propaganda. He provides today's idea: "Beware of anyone claiming to be objective."

Give me an example of modern propaganda. 

"Marine Le Pen had a piece in the New York Times on, strangely, Martin Luther King Day, when she was speaking about the Charlie Hebdo events, and the last paragraph said: 'France stands for freedom, France is the home of freedom.' But what was the piece about? In it, she was calling for sealing the borders, restricting religious freedom, policing communities, instituting more security measures of the sort we get in the US Patriot Act. . . Propaganda, for me, has this contradictory feature where you are calling for a goal that undermines the ideal that you are appealing to.


“Hence, in the name of freedom, we need to restrict freedom, or in the name of ethics we need to harm the environment. The campaign for ethical oil is a classic example.”

Who are today’s chief propagandists?

“I think most propaganda is produced by advertising, by private companies. The last people we should be listening to are corporations or businesses, which are clearly only in the public domain for self-interest. We need to have mechanisms where they are sealed off from policy discussions.”

How has such propaganda influenced the way governments have dealt with the financial crisis?

“First of all, let me praise Ireland. I walked into the airport and I looked at the television and there were hearings on the bank crisis – six years later. I thought: ‘This is a people who are thinking about the right thing.’ Six years later! I mean, you have a good attention span. The United States lacks that attention span, lost the moment, and I fear we will have another fiscal crisis.

“I fear campaign finance reform has been ended, and that is an example of how propaganda works. Take the Citizens United US supreme court decision in 2010 that said free speech requires that we end limitations on corporate donations, because monetary donations by corporations are ‘speech’. The way the decision is written, it’s like ‘free the slaves’ where the corporations are the slaves. That’s propaganda, because it’s acting like it’s democratic, but it’s anti-democratic.”

How does neutrality amount to propaganda?

“My thinking is that neutrality is impossible. So if anyone is telling you they are neutral and objective, you should be highly suspicious.

“Neutrality is typically taken to be: ‘Oh, you don’t have any commitments, so you can just argue about anything.’ But take logic, the means by which we argue. Logicians disagree with each other about fundamental logical laws, and there is no neutral way to resolve it. We just have to say, ‘No, I like mine better’, and then we give arguments that mine have better results, but they are not decisive arguments.

“So if neutrality doesn’t even hold in logic, my bet is that it really doesn’t hold in politics.”

Should people always be upfront in identifying their ideology? 

"I think the proper democratic attitude is not only to be sceptical of others but to be sceptical of oneself. It's inevitable in an unjust society that we are all going to be subject to partiality . . . Susan Stebbing, the English philosopher, had the 'I and you' test, where, if you are going to suggest a policy to someone else, you should be able to switch 'you' for 'I' and see if you are still going to accept it.

“We all have ideological perspectives, and we need to do as much as possible to put ourselves outside ourselves, and we need to be wary of people marketing themselves as considering every perspective.

"For instance, Frank Luntz, the propagandist for the Republican Party who worked for the Israel pProject, his number-one rule for Israeli politicians to communicate with American liberal Jews, like me, is always show empathy for the Palestinians. So he recommends the following sentence be used: 'We hope that the Palestinians will one day find a leadership that best represents their interests.' This expresses empathy for the Palestinians while undercutting their leadership."


Twitter @JoeHumphreys42