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Why Propaganda Doesn't Work

Every year the widely respected public relations firm Edelman does a global survey to measure people's trust in various social institutions. The 2016 survey showed that worldwide, trust in the media has increased and is now at 57% (+6) among the "informed public" and 47%  (+2) in the "general population."

But those numbers are still not great. And in the United States, according to Gallup, trust in the media has fallen "to a new low," with only 32% of Americans professing "a great deal" or "a fair amount."

In America, at least, the problem could be one of misplaced expectations. That is, pop culture frequently serves up the dynamic, dedicated, selfless reporter who will stop at nothing to get to the truth. The movie Spotlight is a perfect example, as it tells how reporters at the Boston Globe revealed large-scale child sex abuse in the Catholic Church. 

So a lot of us think that journalists are "supposed" to be free, independent and objective. But the reality is actually much different: Corporations own the media, and governments exert influence over what they say. So the starting point for all mass reporting is by definition not "the truth."

Further, the media has historically been used as a vehicle for propaganda and falsehoods. In "The Real History of Fake News," (Columbia Journalism Review, December 15, 2016), David Uberti notes that American journalism has a "very long tradition of news-related hoaxes," citing the work of Georgetown University Professor Jonathan Ladd, author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters (2011). Says Ladd: “The existence of an independent, powerful, widely respected news media establishment is an historical anomaly."

Uberti further quotes President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in 1807: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

If the media is not and was never meant to be a repository of truth, it is by definition not going to deliver news objectively. Most people, having witnessed the repeated falsehoods uttered by and perpetuated in the media, therefore do not trust it. 

Take this line of thinking a step further, and it becomes obvious why propaganda does not work. Over time, people have learned not to trust what they see in the news. Yet governments persist in the use of propaganda, which is really biased reporting in the attempt to influence public opinion.

The logical person, perceiving that the media is out to sell them a story, will not automatically believe the narrative. Rather, they will question the story that is seemingly being shoved directly down their throats. And they will deliberately seek out counter-narratives, in order to find out what the media isn't telling us.

All nations have their interests, of course, and they practice the art of using words to gain more power. As Winston Churchill famously put it: "Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions." 

But politicians do not understand that their listeners are also "prosumers" - proactive, empowered consumers with global access to information. They will spend hours debating the relative benefits of a vacuum, they will fight endlessly over Starbucks versus Dunkin' Donuts, and yes, they will access both domestic and foreign television and social media to form their opinions on the news.

For that reason, propaganda as it is traditionally understood is doomed to utter failure. And every penny spent on it is wasted.

What is the alternative?

Re-conceive the nature of propaganda itself. It is not about conveying a "consistent message that makes us look good." 

Rather, it is about actually telling the truth, and revealing how the enemy is lying. 

You may not be able to say everything, but you can at least tell your side of the story, warts and all. 

It goes without saying that foreign propaganda can and will be accessed by domestic audiences. To think they can be separated is to make a false distinction, much like the line often drawn between external and internal communication.

Also, if you do bad things, illegal things, no amount of propaganda is going to "fix" that. In fact, "massaging the truth" (i.e., lying) only makes it worse. 

It's time to retire the term "propaganda." It is a waste of time and a waste of money.

All opinions my own.

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