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?

  • 2
    I've rephrased your question a little bit - I wasn't sure what you meant by "inner auditory", but I presumed you meant news intended for a domestic audience?
    – CDJB
    Aug 6 '21 at 15:43
  • 1
    @CDJB, exactly - thanks a lot. Aug 6 '21 at 15:44
  • 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 '21 at 1:48

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.

  • This is all nice and true, but it doesn't answer what's specific about the "democratic countries" (vs. non-democratic, which I believe is the crux of the question).
    – Zeus
    Aug 11 '21 at 1:15
  • @Zeus: The point of propaganda is to gaslight citizens into supporting causes and actions that are not in their best interests. In non-democratic nations there is far less need to do that than in ostensibly democratic nations. I thought that was self-evident. Aug 11 '21 at 4:14
  • @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 '21 at 5:43
  • @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 '21 at 13:58
  • 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 '21 at 0:29

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?
  • 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 '21 at 17:45
  • 2
    @jamesqf, if one tells the truth in emotionally manipulative ways, that is still propaganda.
    – o.m.
    Aug 6 '21 at 18:27

Education. There is no other way. That includes logical thinking.

In order to read the news between lines, you'll need context: historical, cultural, generic or spacialilzed 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 misleaded communication: e.g.: grammar to differentiate conditionals from real facts, enough vocabulary to be able to describe/understand precise meaning, reading comprehension (nowadays is not even achieved by the Journalists that write the news sometimes).

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

  • 2
    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 '21 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 '21 at 2:25

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:



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?".


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.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .