The Power of Propaganda

A former student recently sent me a fascinating article from the LA Times. Titled “The Cultural Production of Ignorance,” it centered on the work of Robert Proctor, a Stanford Professor who teaches the history of science. Proctor studies intentional efforts to sow disinformation, especially about science.

The tobacco industry pioneered this sort of propaganda; when science demonstrated the link between smoking and various diseases, Big Tobacco’s tactic (outlined in a Brown and Williamson memo) was not to attack the evidence outright. Instead, they chose to “sow doubt and establish a controversy.”

Sound familiar? It should; the same approach is used by vaccine opponents, climate change deniers and those who reject evolution, among others. The tactic is a staple of Fox News (Proctor says that he “watches Fox News all the time.”)

Ironically, in the “information society” we inhabit, it has become easier to propagate ignorance. As issues become more complicated, they also become easier to confuse. And in the place of accuracy–what used to be called “the journalism of verification”–today’s media has substituted “balance.” Rather than objectivity, we get “both” sides of issues that may actually have six “sides” or only one. In place of real reporting, we get stenography–“he said, she said.”

This is an ideal environment for liars and propagandists.


  1. For some reason, this article brings to my mind the Anita/Clarence battle with Ted Kennedy serving on the morals panel which decided the outcome of this “he said, she said” duel. Ted became an outstanding senator later in life but at the time, the choice of his appointment to any morals panel was highly questionable. A typcial situation of power and money vs. logic and common sense results from researching factual information. Clarence remains a questionable SCOTUS appointee whose decisions are often questionable but never explained even though they appear to be based on propaganda he opts to view as fact. He and his wife are both controversial people of power, together and separately, who operate under their own “information society”. As usual; follow the money – it always leads to the power source of any issue.

  2. (Sarcasm alert:) Indeed. Can’t the President just have the FCC kick those Fox bastards off the air once and for all? It gets so tiresome having to EXPLAIN ourselves, to try to enlighten yahoos who’ll never understand nuance; that there can be six sides to an issue, but ultimately, really only one — because we KNOW we’re right! People should just accept what they see in the NYT as the gospel it is and move on!

  3. Proctor’s book and insights are such gifts to the society, gifts that have the potential of saving the it. Someone has formally identified the cancer and found its simply applied cure. It’s the “First Amendment Cancer”that takes advantage of something that is otherwise wonderful and twists and replicates itself leading to the eventual death of the host. Now, we must find ways to let everyone know how to apply the treatment. This should be in every available document for all to know and use.

  4. “A lie can run around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” Terry Pratchett

  5. The article certainly explains why Republicans think they need to change their messaging rather than their message.

  6. “Please don’t give me the facts. I’ve already made up my mind”. The “under-educated” and “under-informed” want someone to validate and support their ideological beliefs, and prejudices. Fox Noise and right wing radio talk shows do just that and make millions off these people. Incidentally this is passed on from generation to generation.

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