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As I've understood, propaganda can still be produced in democratic countries, and potentially can be used to target a domestic audience.

But I presume that being able to differentiate propaganda from actual news is rather valuable for a reader. At least, if you know that material is propaganda, you may be more cautious in interpreting it.

Are there any signs by which a reader in some democratic country (for example, an EU country, or the US) can differentiate domestic propaganda from actual news?

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    This seems incredibly broad, depending on how one defines propaganda. You're really asking "how can you know what sources to believe?" It's not even a Political question. Aug 7, 2021 at 1:48
  • "domestic propaganda from actual news" This is not clearly defined. Could you clarify where you draw the line between actual news and propaganda? How would decide when something is news or propaganda? Jul 28, 2022 at 9:06

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Propaganda is one of those words where common use diverged from original meaning. By an old-fashioned meaning, propaganda is simply communication aiming to influence a population for some (usually political) purpose. It is neither good or bad. It probably borrows some techniques from advertising, and it might be heavier on emotional content than on fact, but that's not necessarily so.

Imagine the president of a democratic country making a press statement: "There is a pandemic. It is your patriotic duty to wear a mask to protect your fellow citizens."

This statement tries to promote the wearing of masks. It uses words like patriotic, duty, and fellow citizens to promote it. Clearly a piece of propaganda. Or is it?

  • If the president says it, it is propaganda.
  • If the news media reports on it, it may or may not be propaganda. It is not propaganda if the journalists report about the press conference and puts the government statement into perspective. It is propaganda if the journalists simply parrot the words of the president because he is the president.
  • If the government puts up posters with the president's statement at every street corner, it is again propaganda.

So how to tell "real" news from "propaganda" news?

  • You get suspicious if a certain media outlet always agrees with the government, or always disagrees. That's an indication that they're not really news.
  • Do they distinguish between opinion and news parts of their publication?
  • You might also inform yourself about the financing of the publication. Professional journalists want to earn a living. Do they sell newspapers, do they sell advertising, and if so who is buying ad placements? Or do they have no apparent source of finances?
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  • Another issue here, and perhaps the most important one, is distinguishing truth from falsehood. E.g. your example statement might be propaganda, but it is also demonstrably true that wearing masks helps prevent the spread of disease, whereas a good many anti-mask wearing statements are likewise propaganda, but demonstrably false.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 6, 2021 at 17:45
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    @jamesqf, if one tells the truth in emotionally manipulative ways, that is still propaganda.
    – o.m.
    Aug 6, 2021 at 18:27
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Education. There is no other way. That includes logical thinking.

In order to read the news between the lines, you'll need context: historical, cultural, generic or specialized on the issue. You (and the media professionals too -sadly true) need to be able to properly manage the language to achieve proper and non misled communication: e.g.: grammar to differentiate conditionals from actual facts, enough vocabulary to be able to describe/understand the precise meaning, reading comprehension (nowadays is not even achieved by the Journalists that write the news sometimes).

On top of that, logical thinking is required, to spot fallacies in one's and others' ideas.

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    Some propaganda is of the form of difficult or impossible to immediately test lies about some factual premise that inevitably leads to the propagandists desired conclusion about some actual or purported national emergency. If the source seems credible, valid logic alone won't help discover the lie that makes it propaganda.
    – agc
    Aug 7, 2021 at 2:02
  • Depends on the definition on credible. For some people, the shinny ads "Visitor 1 million!" are credible. Context on how they work (education) makes the audience skeptic. To know history should work for a lie that politics are repeting for generations....and so on.
    – Natacha
    Aug 7, 2021 at 2:25
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    If you are not careful, education will bring in a lot of knowledge bias and ideological apparatus with it, which will make further propaganda efforts even easier. For example, the Romans vs. Carthagineans narrative as it presents in our culture is completely biased.
    – alamar
    Jul 28, 2022 at 9:07
  • That happens in all social sciences, given that human is, at same time, observer and subject. Not only History, much less only that aspect of History. In fact, that's exactly the reason why I emphasized logical thinking in my first sentence. Logic falacies are not tought in high school. In elementary, our kids are being asked to repeat from heart the textbook sentences. That's NOT quality education (even when it's the best we got). That's (as you referred) dogma -of course not as hard as in religion, but is still something that someone said and very few think about.
    – Natacha
    Jan 24, 2023 at 21:03
  • When I say education, I mean teach to think first. Basic logic applied to basic texts and math and maybe cartoons for kids. Later, same for high schoolers, and then cover the careers that are not currently using scientific method as way of thinking. On top of that (I'm not from US, in my country elementary and high school are mandatory for all), I've seen in US news extreme cases of people with educational bias due to home schooling. In my country the government (by public consensus) has supervision over what the students learn. In home schooliong is only one person who decides.
    – Natacha
    Jan 24, 2023 at 21:15
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Don't expect too much obvious propaganda in general, like that found in dictatorships. It's more promoting a democracy's national standpoint that is frequent, not putting forward the infallibility of any given government. For example, say German belief that their Energy Wende is working out to limit greenhouse emissions vs US belief that taking global warming seriously would unfairly penalize them. Or Canadian belief that being in Kyoto mattered, even as their emissions climbed.

You could just read news coverage on the subject from another part of the world. Preferably one not directly affected by the issue at hand.

If one side lists only certain facts and omits others, or embellishes them, that's a good start that information is biased.

Regarding traditional efforts by media to support the government ("Trump is the greatest!". "No Biden is awesomest!"), you can just read opposition coverage in the country at hand. At the end of the day, a free press is the greatest asset in the fight against propaganda and the reason traditional propaganda is hard to pull off convincingly.

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Many answers have focused on propaganda being untruth, and I think they have made many valuable points. I however suggest to look at a different definition:
Propaganda is about trying to make people think in certain way, rather then allowing them make their own judgement.

This can be achieved in many different ways:

  • By forcing people to accept certain points (e.g., by punishing them, if they do otherwise, e.g., by sending them to prison, firing them from work, etc.)
  • By providing people with false information
  • By making people unable to judge the veracity of conflicting information sources
  • By discrediting the viewpoints diverging from the mainstream or simply rendering them unpopular

One could often observe propaganda in a conventional political debate (like many of those taking place in this community) - when the opponent is trying to convince you to accept their viewpoint, rather than simply trying to bring to your attention the complete array of facts that you could use to make your own judgement. Thus, they might use emotional arguments, try to dismiss counterarguments as propaganda, embellish the facts supporting their point of view, skim over the uncomfortable facts, appeal to the authority, etc. - all of these being known logical fallacies.

This is obviously how conventional political discourse is conducted in democratic countries - e.g., the political parties during elections want to convince voters to vote for them, rather than to allow them to make their own decisions (which might not be in the favor of the party in question.)

To summarize, recognizing propaganda requires at least two elements:

  • Being able to judge the veracity of the facts, which is possible only by reading, learning, and thinking critically and objectively (@Natacha makes a more complete point about this in their answer)
  • By paying attention to how the information is presented to you, and avoiding accepting others' opinion instead of forming your own.
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You're asking an interesting question, but the answer to it isn't as important for most people as a reformulated one: "How to differentiate actual news from propaganda".

Ideally you should be able to read any media, extract whatever the facts they carry, and ignore all the rest.

To do so, when reading a news piece, you should be able to answer questions:

(for example, let's say "the event" is news about some military target being bombed with large claimed casualties)

  • Have this information been independently confirmed, or is it just someone's opinion or first news from a scene?
  • What is the impact of the event? Does it correlate with the amount of news coverage of this event?
  • Is this event just one in a chain of events, most of which are not in your view? What makes this one special? Or maybe you're ending up reading repeated reports where only dates and names of places change?
  • What's the ratio of actual event description v.s. comments, i.e. feeling good or bad about it, expectations of future, moral outrage, comments from 3rd party officials, etc, etc - many of whose may be insightful and you may even agree with those comments, but they're not useful when working with facts.
  • Is the information of event sufficient for understanding? Maybe you should at least check Wikipedia to gauge its importance. Maybe you should find more sources. Most often, maybe you may just disregard the event for now.

I can also point you to an excellent opinion piece by Yulia Latynina which I believe you may translate and use. It is mostly written about watching Russian TV but you can apply it to any news sources.

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You need to understand that who pays for playing, always also orders the music. Hence he deadly enemy of the propaganda is the independent journalism.

A state-funded media will mostly publish that the state officials want to see. It may still avoid lying too often because the reputation suffers. A company website may publish lots of nonsense about they product that may not be even safe to use. A website of a political party will skew all facts to support the goals of the party.

But if business of the company is to acquire and sell the truth for money, they will go long ways to ensure this truth is good enough to sell. If you buy the truth from them, you are they real customer. You pay for the playing. You are ordering the music.

Journals like The New York Times and The Guardian send they own correspondents to war sites. Reuters employs around 2,500 journalists and 600 photojournalists in about 200 locations worldwide. Somewhat every few days a journalist is killed in Ukraine. Some of these independent journals have more than hundred years of history in producing and selling the truth, for money. This where the trust comes from. Новая газета got its license revoked while not even publishing anything at the time, almost getting funny.

Independent journals do publish information the reader does not particularly enjoy reading but anyway wants to to know. When it turned up that Germany is extremely dependent on Russian gas, when Ukraine lost Sievierodonetsk and was actually unable to stand against Russian artillery, when 100+ Ukrainian soldiers have been killed daily, when Viktor Orbán defended Patriarch Kirill, when decision has been made to extradite Julian Assange to USA - the independent journals have written about this. In August 29, 2021, USA used bad intelligence information to conduct an airstrike that killed civilians and no any terrorist. The army initially denied this happening. They only acknowledged the truth after the independent press wrote about this.

Buy the truth from independent journalism. Buy the truth for money, the truth is worth it. Do not "just google", look not only what has been said but also by whom. Remember, free cheese is typically found in a mousetrap. And (inferring from your username), no, you do not need to rely on western sources. Support Russian independent journalism, some now closed journals now attempt to reopen outside the Russian boundaries.

Extend the concept of "foreign agent" by making no exceptions to Russia state. Entirely state funded media outlet is equally and possibly more not trustworthy.

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  • Come on, Russian independent journalism is Readovka and Tg channels. Novaya Gazeta, Meduza and their ilk are direct State Department propaganda outlets (when not serving as FSB honeypots).
    – alamar
    Jul 30, 2022 at 18:44
  • In Russia probably they just cannot work now, but some seem trying to reopen outside.
    – Stančikas
    Jul 30, 2022 at 18:53
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Propaganda has always been there, but propaganda taylored in a scientific manner, propaganda that lies on multiple sources to confirm each other and appear credible, propaganda that exploits all the possible weaknesses of human psychology with the help of expert in the fields, that is something new that was created in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. That is the most powerful propaganda and to detect it, disentangle it from the facts requires a lot of attention, good memory and a strongly critical attitude towards everything that is being told or written.

Since the new propaganda was born a lot of people began to worry about their power, in order to allay the fears one of the most famous gurus of the new era wrote few books on the subject trying to mimimise the dangers of the new science. I am talking about Edward Bernays and his books even though they are permeated by an optimist tone bordering the wishful thinking can still teach a few things about the effort, the scientific approach and the study behind it:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Engineering_of_Consent
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propaganda_(book)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystallizing_Public_Opinion

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Bernays#Publications

Beside that there is a lot more to watch out for. Propaganda is not just about telling, lies often persuasion is achieved by exploiting the most common weakness in human thinking, that is, judging by association in order to reduce the time and the effort that would be required by a proper judgement. You should always wonder if an association between a known stereotype with marked characteristics and an argument or a cause makes sense. Even more wary you should be when a person known to be hated by people of a certain group marries a cause which those people might embrace. The most famous example is Trump who often does not talk in favour of a specific cause to help it, but to taint it, in such case you cannot differentiate the news from the propaganda, because the action making the news is the propaganda itself.

One more point. As I said above also a good memory is important because propaganda needs to rewrite the history every now and then in order to keep the image of the present more credible. A good example is what happened in Myanmar. After the 2020 elections which saw a landslide victory of the ruling party protests broke out in the entire country. After a long period of protests the military junta overthrew the government and started a heavy handed repression. After an initial wave of news for a while there was little information in order to let people forget what was happening there, now a new narrative is emerging. It tells that the military junta staged a coup against a popular government, it paints an image of a junta hated by the people against an overthrown government supported by the people, while in reality protests were going on against both the junta and the overthrown government. In this case only who still has in mind the correct temporal sequence of events can see the propaganda.

Another thing, you should pay attention to, is silence. In a media that is supposed to tell the voices of thousands of people counting journalists, politicians and experts you would expect to hear a lot of different opinions, if they all agree there is something strange, if they all seem to forget/overlook the same issue it is even more strange. When absolutely nobody wants to talk about a specific issue that is really the moment you should wonder "why?".

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It's useful to recognize that propaganda is (in effect) a confidence game, in the sense that the people disseminating propaganda (propagandists) are trying to pull listeners into a distorted perception of reality which:

  1. fosters a divisive, antagonistic, selfish mindset in listeners, and...
  2. sets the propagandists up as the people who can be trusted to help the listener achieve his selfish desires.

Propaganda seeks to convince people that they are beset by untrustworthy, malignant, manipulative 'others', so that they should side with the propagandists to defend or reclaim what is theirs-by-right. Once that impression of trust against adversity is achieved, the propagandist can use it to convince listeners to take actions that seem in their own best interests within that distorted narrative, but which actually only benefit the propagandists.

Of course, propaganda is somewhat different from the stereotypical grift, in which a grifter 'stings' a mark and then disappears. Propaganda is meant to be a continuous, ongoing process — at least until the propagandists have achieved something close to absolute power — and thus has elements similar to Ponzi or pyramid schemes and other long-term frauds. In particular, propaganda relies on:

  • Deflection of blame and abnegation of responsibility, so that no one involved can be charged with originating the messaging. As soon as any person involved in the propaganda is tied to propagating fraud, the entire scheme begins to unravel and collapse.
  • Distributed transmission, which ropes uninvolved people into spreading the messaging, insulating the propagandist further and creating an air of social respectability. Propagandists want their messaging to be perceived as general social knowledge, not opinion from this person or that sector, because the impression of generalized social knowledge increases credibility and confidence.

Identifying propaganda can be as difficult as identifying a confidence game, and for much the same reason: those behind the scheme work very hard to create and maintain an alternate reality that appears genuine. They are (as a rule) expert liars who pride themselves as being one step ahead of the 'rubes' at every important juncture. But there are a few standard elements to be wary of:

  • Unnecessary divisiveness or 'othering'. Both confidence games and propaganda work by establishing a conflict and placing the target audience in a position where they must make quick, instinctive, emotional decisions between opposing sides. The entire point of establishing 'confidence' is that quick, instinctive, emotional decisions rely heavily on trust, and this trust-bias becomes a tool to coerce people into making bad decisions. Anyone using explicitly divisive language or actions is potentially trying to set up that moment of incautious choice.
  • High-value language with low performance. Confidence tricksters and propagandists want to be trusted, but they are not interested in expending the energy or resources to prove they are actually trustworthy. They talk a big game by nature, but by nature they do the minimum necessary to establish those credentials. Propagandists rarely allow themselves to appear as hypocrites — which has a highly negative social connotation — but they will do the very least they need to do to assuage those worries. Anyone who makes high-minded, idealistic, assertive claims, but who in practice does not commit themselves or their resources in more than a token fashion, is intrinsically suspect.
  • With-me-or-against-me ideation. The core moment in any con or propagandization is the point where targets are asked to commit themselves. Once they have committed themselves they are effectively 'pwned'; the idea is to push them into a corner where there is no more waffling, no gray areas, no more need to think, but merely a simple, absolute, snap decision 'yes' or 'no'. Con artists and propagandists set it up carefully, so that if they can push that snap decision many people will fall victim to it; it's (perhaps) a failing of human reasoning that trust can be abused so easily. Anyone who insists that we must act now or we will lose something vital may be laying the groundwork for that snap decision.

There's no real substitute for common sense and careful skepticism here. This isn't merely a matter of education or knowledge; we must be savvy to the idea that people have agendas different from our own that they may not be sharing with us. We have to watch for the hook behind the bait, or we will end up as someone else's dinner. But not everyone is willing or observant enough to do that.

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    @Hm... No, not to me. USSR was full of propaganda, however you define it. Nazi Germany had a full ministry of propaganda...
    – Zeus
    Aug 11, 2021 at 5:43
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    @Zeus: Again, the Nazis took power within a democratic system, by democratic means, using propaganda as a tool to get the masses to support them. And the early Soviet system was a populist revolutionary movement that needs broad support from the masses, and used propaganda to get it. I know that everyone in the west likes to pretend that Hitler popped up out of nowhere, like some dictatorial jack-in-the-box. but the 'box' he popped out of was democracy, and the crank mechanism that popped him up was propaganda. Aug 11, 2021 at 13:58
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    True, but somehow the Nazi ministry of propaganda lasted until its very end in 1945, and the level of propaganda did not subside after them (and the USSR) becoming a full-scale dictatorship.
    – Zeus
    Aug 12, 2021 at 0:29
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    @Zeus: The distortion of reality that propaganda entails — particularly within nationalist regimes — is that the distortion must be perpetuated until absolute control is achieved (or until the regime collapses). One can change focus, but one cannot change intent. I mean, what do you think would happen if (say) Trump suddenly said "Meh, that whole election fraud thing wasn't really true; it was just propaganda that I used as a gambit to hold on to power"? Much of his base — the ones who swallowed the lie whole-cloth — would be repulsed, shamed, and enraged. It's political suicide. Aug 12, 2021 at 1:11
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    Also true, but a) should we not call it propaganda anymore just because it is now in the 'perpetuating' mode? b) it can be safely said that both Hitler and Stalin did achieve absolute control by the late 30s. Re Trump, I suspect some of his base would just shrug it off and say "we knew it all along, but it's a fair political game against our enemies, which are surely worse". More broadly, the end justifies the means. I've seen such things happening.
    – Zeus
    Aug 12, 2021 at 1:29

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