In the Age of Trump and Fake News, We Talk Propaganda With Cal State Fullerton Professor Nancy Snow

Dr. Nancy Snow courtesy

It often seems that today’s social media landscape is a just a wasteland for propaganda–what political scientists refer to as non-neutral advocacy spread by mass media. Propaganda covers everything, especially after President Donald Trump–one of the most skilled propagandists ever to occupy the White House–says or tweets something (especially if it’s in ALL-CAPS).

About 15 years ago I spoke about all this (well, not the Trump stuff) with then-Cal State Fullerton assistant professor Nancy Snow, an expert in propaganda. It was a fun chat (click here to read that story). Today she’s an emeritus professor at Cal State Fullerton and a resident of Japan. She has a new paper on propaganda coming out in the International Encyclopedia of Journalism Studies, so I decided it was a good idea to talk with her again. Though our first chat was fun, this one–given her rather dire conclusions about today’s mass media landscape (“The propaganda that we so often disdain is here to stay,” she wrote in her paper)–was a lot more serious.

OC WEEKLY: You talk in your paper about “good” and “bad” propaganda. What are some examples of both?

NANCY SNOW: In the literature, cases usually referred to fighting a “good” war. Even if it was misleading, that was “good”–not in terms of the moral, but because you were fighting the enemy. “It’s our intention to free the population from this brutal regime”–that’s “good” propaganda because we’re fighting on the right side of the equation.

There’s a strong belief that if your goals are good, then there’s such a thing as good propaganda. You run into problems if you assume all propaganda is bad. Sometimes there is very open propaganda–when nations go to war, they have to explain it to their population. But if you remember the invasion of Iraq, and a lot of the things that occurred under the Bush Administration, you’ll remember the efforts to say that country was about to use weapons of mass destruction.

I remember thinking, “What? They’re not giving us any evidence.” But propaganda isn’t set up to give us the full PowerPoint version. Propaganda plays on your willingness to give up your agency to a government caretaker who will take care of the problem for you. “Good” propaganda is good for the people producing the propaganda.

OCW: Is it difficult teaching people about propaganda?

NS: Some people don’t want to engage in this. “You study propaganda?” they say. “How awful!” But wait a minute–all governments engage in propaganda. Advertising is full of propaganda. But people don’t often see advertising as propaganda, at least in the United States.

I taught a propaganda course at the Newhouse School at Syracuse. I noticed that with advertising and entertainment, students were learning how to participate in the business as it is. They want to go out and work in the industry, not look at its underside.

OCW: You’ve written that the most effective propaganda reinforces already existing beliefs, then converts that into action. What do you mean by this?

NS: You want the recipient to believe his conclusions are his own. We are full of beliefs that are often not shared widely, but are ready to be tapped. You play on those beliefs, which are often based in rational thinking. You don’t want to present information that will put down the recipient. Changing attitudes is extremely difficult, and you can’t just have an institution sponsor the information–we’re all too skeptical of official information.

OCW: Social media seems like a bottomless pit of propaganda.

NS: Now there is a national fatigue that’s set in with social media. There’s some pushback to the whole “Kardashian effect”–I see that a lot on Yahoo News. There’s so much entertainment garbage there, but it’s highly addictive: I keep going back to it.

You want a narrative with an emotional tug. You want to get people nodding along with you. That’s when you shut down the rational actor. Look at the web now–we barely shrug our shoulders at the lies being told.

OCW: Can education help people deal with propaganda?

NS: It depends on the education. There was this belief that the Internet would give us all this access to information. The more information we have, the better off we’ll be. Well, how’s that worked out?

Education has been used for propaganda purposes. It’s very good at getting young minds to understand rank order. It teaches the way things are, versus the way things could be.

Of course, I believe in education–if you’re challenging, almost like debating in the old Socratic method, then I think it can be very helpful. But education alone, it can serve more of a public relations purpose.

OCW: So what’s the best way to teach critical thinking?

NS: We’d have to change the system from the ground up. There has been some work done, but we just have to get away from everything being geopolitics. That leads to an insane amount of militarism. We need to shift to more holistic thinking–you’d have a critical thinking approach to everything. But the system is not set up to get into much depth. Critical thinking is, by and large, seen as a disruptive influence. But it would allow us to turn down the volume on emotional impulses.

I used to admire the Washington Post, back when Kay Graham owned it, but it’s such a rag now in so many respects. How much money does Jeff Bezos have? Let’s really look at what’s going on, get some deeper thinking.

Propaganda begins in the mind, the belief system. We need more study of rhetoric, philosophy. But who has time now to do that?

OCW: You don’t seem to be satisfied with how the news media is handling things right now.

NS: I’m very dissatisfied, but I know a lot of journalists, and they’re dissatisfied. They used to have larger staffs, but there’s a sense of urgency now. And all this concentration–we used to be a little more alarmed at that. My god, we need more independent media. Even globally, it’s more of a big business than ever.

The news media as a whole is frustrating. Why are rates of mental health issues going up? I think the whole media environment is doing something to our brains.

Historically, we would rely on opinion makers, or a voice on NPR. That seems to be missing now. Young people tell me they’re just scrolling, looking at the headlines. No wonder it’s so difficult to get anyone to read a book! The news media is operating in the same space, which is why they often lead with crazy headlines.

I think over time, this gets people focused on irrelevant information so they’re not going to protest anything. Aldous Huxley talked about the rise of news as a soap opera. It just feeds an addiction. We don’t want to understand the system, and could not mount a rebellion to it. I’m not talking about overthrowing the government, but just get people to think about things more.

OCW: This leads me to perhaps the darkest part of your paper–this notion that you’re not so sure people even want to know the truth anymore.

NS: I don’t think people care much about the truth. I think they create their own peace of mind. Look at what’s happening–people are interested in travel, luxury travel. People want an experience. They want people to like their pages, where they promote themselves. “Don’t bother me with the truth!” they say. “I can’t handle that right now.”

Even if you’re notorious, you’ve achieved something. You can get publicity from some calamity. You can become an influencer through happenstance.

I don’t think the truth will be high-value, even going forward. If we were interested in the truth, then lots of attention would be focused on the environment, the seas–that’s the truth of our lives now.

If we were concerned about truth rather than presentation, then we would have been talking about the environment from the start. It’s so important, but it’s not given the coverage. It’s become just another competing narrative.

OCW: It’s interesting that we’re talking today (July 24), because a few hours ago President Trump said the following, which the media has extensively covered: “This country is doing better than it ever has before, economically… It’s all working out. Just remember: what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

NS: We need more analysis of why people respond to that positively. Trump has been very effective at making the news media almost seem like one person. It’s his own reality show. And it’s very effective what Trump is doing with his tweets. When you get people riled up, they shut down their critical thinking.

OCW: That would work for both his supporters and his critics.

NS: That’s right! What Trump is saying is so comforting to some, and will rile up others–but he doesn’t need them. Sure, it’s all his own point of view, but he believes very strongly in his own point of view. But you have to expose yourselves to points of view you have a very strong disagreement with. Otherwise, you’re just preaching to the choir. I just don’t know how people are keeping their sanity.

OCW: For my last question, what can people do to recognize propaganda in their own social media feeds?

NS: Well if it “fooled” Facebook it might fool us all. If the information doesn’t sit right, you have to dig a little deeper. See who or what institutions are retweeting or sharing the information.

Assume that social media channels are agnostic. They aren’t beholden to the truth any more than a leaflet or billboard. Read across the spectrum from several sources on an issue and try to balance a more reputable source with an opinion piece. When people ask me what outlets I use I tell them there is no completely objective news source just as there is no absolutely free press anywhere. Nevertheless, I’m still a sucker for outlets that tend to turn on the camera and let people speak–authors, analysts–so C-SPAN still works for me, as well as the BBC, The Economist, Wall Street Journal, PBS, among others. I still utilize Reddit, Quora, Medium, and other platforms, but just be aware of the way information is packaged. Does it cast issues in absolutist terms? If so, then that’s a red flag. 


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