Some propaganda tactics involve deception; the devices used can convey misleading or outright false messages, or the origin of the message can be concealed. The fact that a message is propaganda might be disguised. The number of possibilities is large. We'll list a few.
Deceptive Tactics of Propaganda
- Assertion: An Assertion is a simple statement of something as fact, usually with enthusiasm and without regard for whether it is true or not. It is a common feature of modern advertising and political campaigns. It may look and sound like fact, but it might not be. An Assertion is usually repeated often for maximum effect.
- Astroturf: "Astroturf lobbying" is a term attributed to Senator Lloyd Bentsen (TX). It refers to "grass roots" movements which are actually created and funded by corporate interests. This technique of lobbying can be very effective but is also very expensive. It relies on the appearance of being a "popular" movement while it is in fact being funded by some entity with an interest in the situation. See Sharon Beder's paper in Public Relations Quarterly, Summer 98. Also see the Front Groups entry.
- Bad Science: This refers to research that is biased, poorly done, or containing major flaws. It can also mean a "scientific" claim that is not based on research at all. Appropriate misrepresentation can distort good science into bad science. A "scientific" claim may also be an outright fabrication.
- Bait and Switch: This is an old technique from both retailing and politics. In retailing it means advertising a neat product at a low price, then saying it is "out of stock" before offering you a more expensive item. In politics it can mean underestimating the cost of some program; it is also called lowballing. The technique is very deceptive and not easy to detect in advance. It is not hard to find government programs that cost far more than the initial estimates that were used to sell them, but this was not anticipated by the public.
- Big Lie: A Big Lie is an outright falsehood presented as fact. The conventional wisdom is that such a lie, repeated often enough, will be accepted as truth. The harder it is to debunk the lie the better. Goebbels suggested that, if you are going to use a lie, make it a big one. A little lie is more likely to be detected.
- Disinformation: This technique is simply the release or planting of incorrect information for the specific purpose of deceiving the audience. Disinformation can contain elements of truth, but the payload is the lies. One trick used in WWI is to circulate a denial of something damaging concerning the subject of the propaganda. The something is usually false, but the denial suggests that it is true. It's a clever way of promoting a smear.
- Divide and Conquer: This tactic is a devious attempt to label the propaganda user as a reasonable and moderate entity between competing groups. The tactic can be extremely sneaky and use a lot of misinformation, distortion and outright lies. See Building Bridges and Splitting Greens from PRWatch.org.
- Doublespeak: This is the use of language and words carefully constructed to conceal the actual meaning. Euphemisms work well here. For example, "enhanced interrogation" actually means torture.
- Equivocation: This is the use of a word in two different senses. The switch in meaning invalidates the reasoning.
- Evading the Issue: Did you ever see a politician who didn't do this? When asked a tough question, the speaker gives an answer to something else. They may really emphasize "peace, justice and the American Way," but the answer does not respond to the question. This is not hard to detect and is very annoying.
- False Analogy: To facilitate explanation, a complex issue may be portrayed as similar to a simple issue that everyone can understand. The trick with this technique is for the simpler issue to really not be a good comparison, but rather be close enough to pass. With clever design, the misleading simpler model will misdirect thought about the complex issue.
- False Cause: The order of some sequence or set of events is confused with actual causation. In propaganda the confusion is intentional. See the Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy.
- Forged Documents: Forgeries are an excellent method of planting disinformation. The media will often pick these up and circulate them widely. Governments will use this tactic to create a diversion or justify some action. They can also have other uses; remember the Killian memos of the 2004 Presidential campaign.
- Front Groups: These are organizations that purport to represent one agenda while in reality being funded by someone with different ideas. The name of the front group is often Americans for _______. Fill in the blank. The same goes for Citizens for ________, The Committee for _________, etc. It is usually interesting to find out who is bankrolling the group.
- Image Manipulation: Today's image manipulation software makes this easy. The tactic is to produce a fake photograph by altering a genuine one, then release it into the wild. If the fake is well-done it can get a lot of mileage (and effect) before the hoax is exposed. Photos can also be staged for effect. Pictures which appear to tell a great story can be actually staged and posed. Retouched photographs were used in WWI propaganda, often with great effect. Today, responsible journalists will discontinue use of a photo when it is shown to be a fake, but the Internet allows such fakes to live on and on and on...
- Push Poll: This is far less a poll than a propaganda technique. It will use a "question" which actually implies something unfavorable about the subject of the question. A push poll question is often used to spread misinformation about someone or something. Suppose a pollster asked you "Would you be inclined to vote for Senator Fiddle if you knew he had a drinking problem?" Your answer to the question is not important; your ultimate reaction to the drinking problem allegation is.
- Quote Mining: This can also be called Quoting out of Context. It is often possible to lift a short quote out of a speech, essay, etc. and make it appear to say the opposite of what the speaker/writer meant. The real meaning is obvious when the quote is seen in its full context, but that context is conveniently omitted. Be wary when you see short quotes, particularly on controversial subjects, that are standing outside of their full context. You don't know what has been omitted. Political campaigns can produce some of the worst examples of quote mining.
- Vagueness: Watch for this everywhere, even in news reporting. It can be a form of disinformation. "Remember the first rule of disinformation analysis: truth is specific, lie is vague. Always look for palpable details in reporting and if the picture is not in focus, there must be reasons for it." (Greg Sinaisky) See Detecting Disinformation Without Radar.
- Video News Releases: This relatively recent trick involves preparing a message (often an ad) in a video sequence which looks exactly like a news item. TV outlets will often pick these up and use them in news programs because it saves production cost. The video piece can be loaded with all kinds of propaganda tricks.