Propaganda vs Disinformation: What’s the Difference?

The idea that powerful people lie to us to achieve political objectives seems like the bleakest of political truths. There is a silver lining, though: it’s the idea that they think they have to lie to us, that they must lie to us because they would be unable to achieve those objectives without lying. If that’s true, then it’s also possible to understand their lies, why they lie, and why the lies work. Once we do that, the thinking goes, we can fight back against dishonesty..

Casting political lies as a problem and methodological understanding as the solution is pretty modernist, grounded in Enlightenment thinking: lies are a problem, diagnosis and understanding are the beginnings of solutions. I think that an understanding of what we mean by “disinformation” complicates this problem-solution scheme, but not fatally. What we need to do is understand disinformation not so much as “political and economic leaders lie” as “there is always already disinformation.”

By “always already” I don’t mean, and I hope it doesn’t sound like I mean, that every political statement from the elites is a lie, or even that every political entity is involved in disinformation. It’s true that there is “spin” in every political statement, but both solidarity (how committed the leader is to her constituents) and motive are important, and just because something is “rhetorical” or even “propaganda” doesn’t mean it’s disinformation. Some definition of terms:

Propaganda refers to “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions . . .” I like this definition because although it admits to the one-sided nature of propaganda, it stops short of calling propaganda dishonest per se. George Orwell is famous for declaring all propaganda to be lies, but he wasn’t technically correct. Propaganda is the production and promulgation of ideological or political rhetoric. We might distinguish propaganda from product marketing and labeled advertising, while including search engine optimization, like the work we do for cell phone and demographic append lead vendor Accurate Append and recommended for the Medicare-for-All movement. Rhetoric is just what we call methodology of persuasion, so it doesn’t intrinsically imply dishonesty, and certainly not intentional dishonesty. But hold that thought, because propaganda can be part of disinformation.

Disinformation as a term of art in diplomacy and espionage means “false information, as about a country’s military strength or plans, disseminated by a government or intelligence agency in a hostile act of tactical political subversion.” This is pretty narrow. It’s a tacticalthough it can be a tactic used against the general public, rather than diplomats, military leaders, or public officials. But the analysis broadens a little: disinformation can also mean “deliberately misleading or [deliberately] biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.” Although this circling back to propaganda makes things imprecise, I think the most accurate way to describe that relationship is that disinformation utilizes propaganda; the two are not the same. Not all manipulation is intentionally disinformation. According to Democracy Reporting International, there were instances of “manipulation of public information in 12 countries in 2019 ahead of or during elections.” But not all of that is “disinformation” in the strictest sense of the term.

Disinformation is also often distinguished from misinformation, which is “false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead.” Disinfo can utilize both misinfo and propaganda. The ubiquity of disinformation is that it lies, always dwelling in amoral political institutions, somewhere between propaganda and deliberate, bad-faith lies, becoming concretely the latter, the big lies, when the elites (of whichever faction) think it’s time to deploy such lies. It’s always there, it’s always ready. But it takes resources, and so it happens with great intention.

Purveyors of disinformation often hide it in other sites or platforms. “Honest” political propaganda and polemic, on the other hand, is found on openly political platforms, where people know they’re going to be subject to a variety of (often passionate and combative) political opinions. Call it propaganda with a warning label versus disinformation placed to bombard the consumer without representing itself as a side in a debate or part of a larger conversation.

The Democracy Reporting International research found such strategies in Tunisia and Sri Lanka: “Facebook pages focusing on entertainment with murky affiliation and ownership, which consistently posted and sponsored political messages” and “celebrity-focused pages . . .  sharing misleading political content in the run-up to the 2019 presidential elections.”

Propaganda has always been intrinsically linked to news productionand again, not an “exception” to or aberration of news. Alexander the Great had newsmakers accompany him on his epic campaign eastward, and these “embedded reporters” would send messengers home with reports of the conqueror’s exploits and victories and even the metaphysical claim that he was son of Zeus. We call that propaganda, even though it probably contained a lot of tall tales. But what Athenian general Themistocles did to the Persian king Xerxes in 480 BC, convincing him to wage a naval battle based on information that the Greeks weren’t ready to fight, was disinformation in the term-of-art sense. Propaganda spins. Disinformation creates “from whole cloth,” or out of little or nothing.

We can learn something about the distinct power of disinformation by studying the role of the Soviet State Security Committee in the 1980s, and Russia and Chinese agencies currently, concerning pandemic and epidemic disinformation. The Soviet State Security Committee (AKA the KGB), since-publicized internal documents reveal, launched a campaign to convince the world that the AIDS virus was “the result of secret experiments by the USA’s secret services and the Pentagon with new types of biological weapons that have spun out of control.” The plot utilized “forged documents and inaccurate testimony from purported experts to suggest that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, had originated not from infected animals in Africa but from biological warfare research carried out by U.S. military scientists at Fort Detrick in Maryland.” This is remarkably specific disinformationcarefully planned and engineered. The project was immensely successful, because its goals were to at least muddy the informational waters and at most turn people completely against the U.S. on false pretenses. Similarly, arguments that COVID-19 “was invented in a lab or brought to China by U.S. soldiers,” along with questioning whether various safety protocols actually work, or claiming it doesn’t affect tobacco smokers, rely on deliberately constructed false arguments about facts rather than moral sentiments or general impressions more characteristic to ideological propaganda.

Casting doubt, or getting people to disengage, is a top-level disinformation program goal. The objective need not be a vote for your candidate or yes vote in a referendum. It might be influencing people not to vote at all, which is one less vote for the opponent. According to Rafael Goldzweig, Cambridge Analytica successfully influenced the 2016 UK Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. elections, using misinformation designed to either influence the vote or get people to not vote.

Understanding the difference between propaganda and disinformation is important as we enter the final months of the 2020 election cycle because many people will conflate the two, and thus be unable to understand the difference between the candidates who are simply good at spin and those actively engaged in the production and distribution of factually wrong, deliberately promulgated information. Evan Halper’s recent L.A. Times piece points out that Democrats have become “adept at tracking the origin and spread of the disinformation,” but “have yet to find an effective strategy for depriving it of oxygen,” especially since so many social media platforms appear to be willing to let some threads of disinformation run their course rather than stopping them at the point of dissemination. Perhaps the distinction between spin and deliberately manufactured untruths can help people understand that, even though disinformation is always around, not all candidates or public officials openly embrace it.