The Micro-guide to Spotting Propaganda

Listening to the frenzied accusations of  “disinformation”, “shill”, “stooge”, “cointelpro”, “propagandist” that activists and journalists are wont to hurl at each other, I decided to jot down some of the markers that set off my BS detector.

Obviously,  these are only very rough indicators and due diligence is also needed. But off the top of my head here are some things that will help you figure out whether  a writer is reliable or not.

1. Look at the writer’s track-record. With so much writing now on the web, it’s easy to research a writer and find out where they were standing on issues years ago. How does their performance stack up? You don’t need Nostradamus, but the conclusions of a  good writer/researcher will tend to be borne out most of the time.  If someone had told you in 2003 that  the Iraq war was going to be a cake-walk, had told you in 2006  to buy a bigger house for less money down,  and encouraged you to sell gold short in 2009, you might be forgiven if, in 2010, you’d come to suspect his intelligence or motives…or both.

2.  Look for details that you know about and see if the writer is accurate. If  she isn’t and there is no good reason, then be wary. What’s a good reason? Well, if a Scottish writer isn’t a Sinologist and doesn’t pretend to be one, a mistake about Chinese history can be put down to error. If he is a Sinologist, then he should know better.  If it is a one time mistake or a very minor one, put it down to sloppiness or human error. If it’s big and repeated, it’s not an error. It’s a sign of incompetence or disinformation.

3. Suspect cuing and stage whispers. When everyone in the blogosphere points you to certain sources over and over, be cautious. Sometimes it’s only a well-meaning attempt to help the public.  Mostly, however, it’s a way to control the debate. New and interesting research/analysis pops up all the time, from all sorts of people. Even alternative voices shouldn’t be set up as final authorities. I am especially suspicious when mainstream sources like the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post point to certain bloggers as more reliable.  These are efforts to co-opt or channel genuinely free, popular debates.

4.  Follow writers for a while, before you make up your mind. Making up your mind about the reliability of a source from one article is not only silly, it’s impossible.  You need to read  writers consistently for a long time on many different issues before you can assess their reliability. You should read as much as you can by a writer before coming to a judgment. Even then, it’s always wise to hold off dismissing someone entirely or buying into them completely.

5.  Realize that there are constraints on everyone who writes publicly. There is no such thing as perfectly open or transparent writing.  Sometimes writers don’t touch on certain topics because they might distract, not because they are “covering up.” Or they might fear libel suits. Or they might feel they don’t know enough to comment. Or they might think they aren’t the right people to comment.   An immigrant might feel diffident about discussing questions about national security. A heterosexual male might not want to corner a debate on female experiences of rape. Some writers won’t touch material that is controversial not because they are careerists, but because they have family members who might be vulnerable to harassment. Give people a break. Put yourself in their shoes – how much would you write if someone was threatening you or blackmailing you or warning you you’d lose your job?

6. Pay attention to style and tone. Credible sources rely on logic, reason, facts and evidence. They are likely to be cautious in interpreting events until they have researched them personally. If they are passionate, it is genuine emotion, not cheap rhetoric, personal attacks and vulgarities. When confronted with a mistake, they are reasonable enough to acknowledge it and make corrections or retractions.  They compare and evaluate their sources and admit when they don’t know something. They apologize, if necessary. They tend to be  personally polite, even if they are critical or sharp in their general tone. Denunciation of  monetary policy is not the same thing as calling someone a buffoon and a liar because he disagrees with your way of thinking.

7. Study the main logical fallacies (red herrings, straw men, hasty generalizations – you know, all the stuff in English 101) and check whether a writer is prone to making  them or not.  Repeated use of ad hominem is one of the surest signs of a propagandist. However,  make sure you know the difference between ad hominem and criticism that is warranted and related to the target’s professional conduct.  If you don’t know the difference,  study and find out.

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about credentials, prizes, fame, peer recognition, or publishing record. This isn’t because I think those things are irrelevant. But I don’t any more think they are good guides to a source’s reliability. There are well-credentialed people who are reliable and there are people who have no recognizable credentials who are. There are prize-winning highly-paid journalists who are great. And there are unpaid bloggers who are too.

As for peer review, some of the best information comes to writers in the form of anonymous links and tips. Or on forums that the mainstream won’t touch with a barge-pole. Or from insiders who don’t want their names in the press.  Even scholars work in herds.

8. Check your gut reaction. Truth-telling on controversial matters  is usually a lonely business or done with only the company of other loners. Once the crowd gets in on the act, even the best popular movements go awry.  The reason is most people automatically tailor their thoughts to please others. It’s part of man’s inherently social nature. White lies are natural to even the best of us.  And when we’re not lying to others, we’re busy soothing our egos with more lies.

And that’s why the most important tip I can give you is one that doesn’t even have to do with other people. It’s to do with yourself.

It is simple. Look inside and do some truth-telling there as well.

The more honest and truthful you are, the more you will recognize it in others.

Lila Rajiva is a freelance journalist and the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005) and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (with Bill Bonner-Wiley, September 2007). She has also contributed chapters to One of the Guys (Ed., Tara McKelvey and Barbara Ehrenreich, Seal Press, 2007), an anthology of writing on women as torturers, and to The Third World: Opposing Viewpoints (Ed., David Haugen, Greenhaven, 2006). Read other articles by Lila, or visit Lila's website.

29 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on January 5th, 2011 at 9:11am #

    how much would you write if someone was threatening you or blackmailing you or warning you you’d lose your job? Lila Rajiva

    Bingo and the level of this blackmail has reached to almost every source of information we get, almost but to find the truth requires a mind and much reading between the lines and yes there are a few who do tell the truth and guess what you never see them on MSM. Oh well.

  2. MichaelKenny said on January 5th, 2011 at 10:26am #

    This is very good. All the points are relevant and one could add perhaps to beware of undisclosed pseudonyms. If someone is concealing his real identity, the chances are he has good reason: if you knew who he really was, you would realise that he was false flagging. Also, beware of uninformative or misleading biographies: “Joe Smith is an activist from southern Idaho”, “Joe Smith lectures in ecomomics at the University of Dublin” i.e. he is in fact an American businessman who gives a few freelance lectures in economics, not a full-time Irish academic. And, of course, don’t forget that there are “professional” bloggers: propagandists, intelligence officers etc. who will try to orient or divert a debate. And, last but not least, always ask what “advantage” will accrue to that author if you beleive what he says.

  3. bozh said on January 5th, 2011 at 10:29am #

    yes to this piece. i use just such evaluating when i read any post or piece. but being 80 yrs old i can’t keep all that in mind.
    so i simplify all of it thusly:
    i note what an utterance represents a depiction; i.e., what an descriptive utterance represents and what all others do so!
    true-fasle, either-or verbal structures do not pertain to any non-descriptive utterance.
    such structures are applicable only to a descriptive statement. it can be either true or not true.

    eg, “zionists control u.s. foreign policy” falls in the category of the nondescriptive statements. either-or verbal structure does not pertain to it.

    however, saying: 6 ‘jews’ met president and coutermanded a previous u.s or his order that israel ends expanding settlements or occupation of palestine, can be evaluated as true or false.
    what if that happened and was not written dwn? well, u take over now?!

    Obversely, i cld say that 6 ‘jews’ met obama and demanded that he not only stop the settlement expansion, but also to throw out all ‘jews’ out of palesetine and obama said no.

    actually, this latter flight of fancy appears, to me, more plausible than the former!!? tnx

  4. hayate said on January 5th, 2011 at 2:36pm #

    Great advice.

  5. Deadbeat said on January 5th, 2011 at 2:42pm #

    eg, “zionists control u.s. foreign policy” falls in the category of the nondescriptive statements. either-or verbal structure does not pertain to it.

    This is why I felt uneasy about this article because I knew it would just be a matter of time before someone (and bozh took the bait) distorts the author’s points to defend Zionism.

  6. hayate said on January 5th, 2011 at 3:02pm #

    Deadbeat

    “This is why I felt uneasy about this article because I knew it would just be a matter of time before someone (and bozh took the bait) distorts the author’s points to defend Zionism. ”

    The zionist hasbarat corps do that with everything. It’s their job. :D

    Just ignore bozh, there is nothing there.

  7. bozh said on January 5th, 2011 at 4:05pm #

    ok.
    so, what u.s. ‘jew’ had broken what u.s law? how about maddoff? it seems he thought so also. to prove it it to self, he committed suicide!
    pollard also broke the law and is in jail. and some ‘jews’ have been lobbying for his release over some time.
    i evaluate supremacism as the root of all ills that befall us. it existed long before torah had been written.
    does one think that usans, russians, britons, french, ottomans, japanese, assyrians, hebrews, et al, have behaved better than ‘jews’.
    ok?show me!
    u guyz are caught up in a web of labels and not in web of realities. tnx

  8. shabnam said on January 6th, 2011 at 3:30pm #

    Why WikiLeaks does not ‘leak’ information such as the following:

    {A memoir by a top former Turkish intelligence official claims that a worldwide moderate Islamic movement based in Pennsylvania has been providing cover for the CIA since the mid-1990s.

    The memoir, roughly rendered in English as “Witness to Revolution and Near Anarchy,” by retired Turkish intelligence official Osman Nuri Gundes, says the religious-tolerance movement, led by an influential former Turkish imam by the name of Fethullah Gulen, has 600 schools and 4 million followers around the world.

    In the 1990s, Gundes alleges, the movement “sheltered 130 CIA agents” at its schools in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan alone, according to a report on his memoir Wednesday by the Paris-based Intelligence Online newsletter.}

    {http://voices.washingtonpost.com/spy-talk/2011/01/islamic_group_is_cia_front_ex-.html?referrer=emaillink

    but Wikileaks ‘revealed’ that Osama Bin Laden is ‘alive’ and well living in Pakistan. BS. Every liveing creature knows BL is dead.

  9. 3bancan said on January 6th, 2011 at 9:34pm #

    What Lila Rajiva writes about “activists and journalists” is also valid for writers of comments on websites like this. I would add to her “Look at the writer’s track-record” that usually/sometimes the absence of a writer’s/commenter’s contributions to some topic(s) can/could be quite telling…

  10. 3bancan said on January 7th, 2011 at 10:19pm #

    (cont.)
    So to put theory into practice I checked all the comments by Josie Michel-Bruening on this site. As her main – and laudable – interest seems to be defence and care for prisoners I find quite curious the fact that she didn’t comment on any of the articles about Palestine. Not a single word from her about the innocent Palestinians – quite a few of them being children, even babies, ie the segment of society Josie seems to be dealing with in her daily work – rotting and being tortured in the Jewish dungeons! (Btw, some half of the Palestinian male population have gone through the jail system of the Jewish genociders). Not a single word from the “caring heart” from Germany, the country that contributed quite a lot to the genocide of the Palestinian indigenous population…

  11. Deadbeat said on January 7th, 2011 at 11:50pm #

    i evaluate supremacism as the root of all ills that befall us. it existed long before torah had been written.

    I guess according to bozh, African American should have been struggling against ALL “supremacy” before they confronted Jim Crow. Tell that to the families of the African American that got lynched and demeaned. Perhaps if bozh really faced Jewish racism he would be much more sympathetic to the struggle against Zionism.

  12. Deadbeat said on January 7th, 2011 at 11:53pm #

    Great investigative work 3bancan. Keep it up!

  13. mary said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:53am #

    Well done 3bancan. I googled her the other day too. Her main theme is the ‘Cuban 5′. I note she is a psychotherapist and comes from a town near the German Belgian border.

    Talking of Palestinian children, this moving but totally unsentimental video is on Gilad Atzmon’s site. It is an account of a family’s experience during the Cast Lead onslaught, including the death of their eldest boy whose corpse was used as target practice whilst the injured parents sheltered nearby with their other children. They are now living in a tent as their house was flattened. Their love for each other and their amazing stoicism shines out. As usual, they do not seem to be bitter.
    ~~~~
    Just months after the Israeli assault that killed 1,390 Palestinians, I visited Gaza. Among dozens of painful stories I heard, one family stood out. I spent several days with Kamal and Wafaa Awajah, playing with their children, sleeping in the tent they were living in, and filming their story.

    Wafaa described the execution of their son, Ibrahim. As she spoke, her children played on the rubble of their destroyed home. Kamal talked about struggling to help his kids heal from trauma.

    What compelled me to tell the Awajah family’s story? I was moved not only by their tragedy but by the love for their children in Wafaa and Kamal’s every word.

    Palestinians in Gaza are depicted either as violent terrorists or as helpless victims. The Awajah family challenges both portrayals. Through one family’s story, the larger tragedy of Gaza is exposed, and the courage and resilience of its people shines through.’

    http://vimeo.com/18384109

    Some excellent comments there too.

  14. Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:15pm #

    This article would have been more appropriately titled:
    A Guide for Paranoid Delusionists: From the Scribbles of One Who Knows.

    Having provided these guilelines one could and should readily use to track her posts on DV. I see little difference between this tribe and those of the Salem and McCarthy Witch Hunting escapades.

    Does anyone know who mary is?

  15. mary said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:23pm #

    Why do you want to know?

    You sound like Mebosa Ritchie who used to haunt these columns.

  16. kanomi said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:40pm #

    Lila puts together a great article here. Actually it’s reprinted from somewhere else, but OK.

    I can’t understand why any comments would be attacking her, that’s bizarre. You especially should not do that to people who do know rhetoric and can easily rip your head off in a debate, they can brutally destroy you as handily as trained martial artist can defeat an unarmed man twice his weight.

    My only comment to Lila would be on this:

    “Study the main logical fallacies (red herrings, straw men, hasty generalizations – you know, all the stuff in English 101) ”

    Lila, you went to school in Europe. That’s obvious. Because they do not teach logic or critical thinking in the US. Not even in college. In some elite law schools, yes. But to the average American? Hell no! They are taught garbage and discipline.

    Your average American will come out of a four year university fifty thousand dollars in debt and twice as stupid as when he or she went in.

  17. Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 3:14pm #

    kanomi said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:40pm #
    “You especially should not do that to people who do know rhetoric and can easily rip your head off in a debate, they can brutally destroy you as handily as trained martial artist can defeat an unarmed man twice his weight.”

    That’s a mighty ugly thought. (Actually, I think she took her degree from BigU.Com For $50 bucks, credit cards accepted you can be prolific too.

  18. Deadbeat said on January 8th, 2011 at 3:17pm #

    kanomi, I think you are confusing Josie Michel-Bruening with the author. It is Josie Michel-Bruening who is the subject of scrutiny by 3bancan.

  19. Angie Tibbs said on January 8th, 2011 at 3:52pm #

    For the record, Kanomi, Dissident Voice received this article from Lila on 4 January 2011, and there was no indication from her that it had been published elsewhere.

    We did not “reprint” it from any other source.

  20. 3bancan said on January 8th, 2011 at 3:56pm #

    Deadbeat said on January 8th, 2011 at 3:17pm #
    It could be that the comment kanomi speaks about is the one by Max Shields (January 8th, 2011 at 2:15pm), as it seems to be the only one on this thread attacking Lila Rajiva…

  21. Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 4:06pm #

    mary said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:23pm #

    So you don’t know who mary is; and what’s more you are displaying Lila’s micro guide #7. Could you be someone to watch out for mary…who ever mary is?

    I know mary the poster is someone who will take this comment as if, because mary the poster is a thorough going anti-zionist, pro-Palestinian, to mean that any questions about who mary is as a way of twisting that into a pro-Zionist anti-Palestinian.

    Ya’ll see how the game is played? Thank you Lila for providing fuel to the Paranoid tribe on DV. (Watch it Lila, your next post may just be your own-undoing…we’ll use your “guide” to judge…)

  22. mary said on January 8th, 2011 at 4:50pm #

    Oh do shut up. My real name is Mary, from which you can probably guess my age, I am British and you are right that I am anti Zionist and very much pro Palestinian. My older brother is a retired surgeon and set up a charity in Gaza after he went there by ship in 2003, hence my interest in justice for the Palestinians amongst other interests. I just bridled at and resented your unusual inquisitiveness about my provenance as opposed to anyone else’s here. The hasbara merchant Ritchie used to post along the lines of I know who you are and I know where you live sort of stuff which was an implied threat that a JNF heavy gang were on their way. Who I am is not at all important to you so please leave it at that and respect my privacy.

  23. bozh said on January 8th, 2011 at 5:06pm #

    db,
    u quote me as saying:
    i evaluate supremacism as the root of all ills that befall us. it existed long before torah had been written.
    that’s what i said. most africans were egalitarians. however, when they came in touch with euro-asian supremacism, it signaled death to their igalitarianism and millennnial or even aeonal adaptatation for survival on this planet.

    so what’s ur problem?
    as for me facing ‘jewish’ supremacism, i am facing it and condemning it.
    the diff between my stance and urs is that u r facing only or mostly ‘jewish’ supremacism and solely or mostly the one in u.s.

    but even if i wld accept the word “racism” in place of supremacism, one still can’t find anywhere as much racism as among wasp, germans, and ‘jews’.

    i never said a word about what afrikans or indigenous americans shld have done to avert catastrophy from hands of such people! tnx

  24. Hue Longer said on January 8th, 2011 at 5:19pm #

    I appreciate Mary’s work and commitment and have learned a lot from her posts. I DO question why she supports ANYONE as long as they claim to be pro-Palestinian; If she knows them personally, I don’t understand why she doesn’t tell them privately to shut the fuck up

  25. Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 5:27pm #

    First mary, my apologies regarding my initial comment. It was 3bancan who was searching the web for Josie Michel-Bruening (in ways reminisent of the Joe McCarthy witch hunts). Some how I thought it was you and so…well was wrong.

    However I resent the accusation that simply questioning who you are makes me a hasbara. I do however understand your reaction given your experience here. You see I too have experiences here. Many of those who claim to care about Palestinians seem to be a tad more anti-Israel than they are pro-Palestinians.

    Like you I believe deeply in justice, definitely for the Palestinians whose lives have been devasted by a preditory state. I am equally concerned about justice here in America. We have major gaps regarding how our penal-industrial complex seems to house inordinant number of African-Americans and Hispanics; with totals that exceed most in penal institutions in the world. We still have capital punishment in the US. I know that seems uncivilized to those in other nations, like the UK. But it’s true. Our poverty rate is soaring…many of our children go to school with their bellies empty…but I guess in the scheme of things this is trivial when we have to be scouring the Web to see who matches Lila’s Micro-guide to Spotting Propaganda with various bloggers.

    How desparately out of touch with the world!!!

  26. 3bancan said on January 8th, 2011 at 5:29pm #

    Hue Longer (January 8th, 2011 at 5:19pm) seems to have quite queer views on freedom of speech/expression…

  27. hayate said on January 8th, 2011 at 5:53pm #

    Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:15pm #

    “This article would have been more appropriately titled: A Guide for Paranoid Delusionists: From the Scribbles of One Who Knows.

    Having provided these guilelines one could and should readily use to track her posts on DV. I see little difference between this tribe and those of the Salem and McCarthy Witch Hunting escapades.

    Does anyone know who mary is?”

    &

    Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 3:14pm #

    “kanomi said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:40pm # “You especially should not do that to people who do know rhetoric and can easily rip your head off in a debate, they can brutally destroy you as handily as trained martial artist can defeat an unarmed man twice his weight.”

    That’s a mighty ugly thought. (Actually, I think she took her degree from BigU.Com For $50 bucks, credit cards accepted you can be prolific too.”

    &

    Max Shields said on January 8th, 2011 at 4:06pm #

    “mary said on January 8th, 2011 at 2:23pm #

    So you don’t know who mary is; and what’s more you are displaying Lila’s micro guide #7. Could you be someone to watch out for mary…who ever mary is?

    I know mary the poster is someone who will take this comment as if, because mary the poster is a thorough going anti-zionist, pro-Palestinian, to mean that any questions about who mary is as a way of twisting that into a pro-Zionist anti-Palestinian.

    Ya’ll see how the game is played? Thank you Lila for providing fuel to the Paranoid tribe on DV. (Watch it Lila, your next post may just be your own-undoing…we’ll use your “guide” to judge…)”

    Why does DV allow this freak to harass and threaten a female user of this site. If max wasn’t an israeli hasbarat, but some rightwing neo-nazi type (which he may well be for all I know), would DV tolerate his harassment of a women on this board like this?

  28. 3bancan said on January 8th, 2011 at 6:04pm #

    hayate said on January 8th, 2011 at 5:53pm #

    I’ve got a hunch Max Shields is not feeling quite well and is on a desperate search for “empathetic and sympathetic friends”…

  29. hayate said on January 8th, 2011 at 6:29pm #

    3bancan

    “I’ve got a hunch Max Shields is not feeling quite well and is on a desperate search for “empathetic and sympathetic friends”…”

    Yeah, over at [freerepublic.com] or some similar psychoville.

    Whatever max’s psychosis is, it’s clear he’s a misogynist who gets off on threatening women over the web. There are enough psychos around doing that who also carry the behaviour over into real life that when such is encountered on the web, there should be zero tolerance of it.