The Age of Propaganda?

The Program on International Policy Attitudes is a respected source for international opinion research. In the wake of the 2010 U.S. elections, it conducted a survey of voters, first looking to see those voters’ perceptions of how much misinformation was “out there,” and second, to determine just how misinformed voters actually were.


The poll found strong evidence that voters were substantially misinformed on many of the key issues of the campaign. Such misinformation was correlated with how people voted and their exposure to various news sources.

The website links to the questionnaire and the results, which are well worth reading, but here are some of the most consequential inaccuracies:

  • Though the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) concluded that the stimulus legislation has saved or created 2.0-5.2 million jobs, only 8% of voters thought most economists who had studied it concluded that the stimulus legislation had created or saved several million jobs. Most (68%) believed that economists estimate that it only created or saved a few jobs and 20% even believed that it resulted in job losses.
  • Though the CBO concluded that the health reform law would reduce the budget deficit, 53% of voters thought most economists have concluded that health reform will increase the deficit.
  • Though the Department of Commerce says that the US economy began to recover from recession in the third quarter of 2009 and has continued to grow since then, only 44% of voters thought the economy is starting to recover, while 55% thought the economy is still getting worse.
  • Though the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that climate change is occurring, 45% of voters thought most scientists think climate change is not occurring (12%) or that scientists are evenly divided (33%).

Incredibly, 86% of respondents thought taxes had gone up since 2009, although they’d actually gone down. Such is the power of propaganda.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to note the source of most of this misinformation. While there are certainly no truth-telling heros among cable news sources,

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (8 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points).

The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

In a country with freedom of speech, the only way to counter propaganda is with credible information,  persistent rebuttals of intentional misinformation, and an unflagging effort to make people understand when the emperor is naked.

We all need to participate in that effort–debunking Fox, certainly, but also being sure we aren’t giving a pass to sources that may be telling us what we want to hear.


  1. Yes, your title says it all. The only other possible one would be: “The Power of the Lie”.

  2. There is something wrong with the para about climate change… it is missing some words, I think.

  3. I went to the site and hoped to find a concise report of recent findings. The economic recovery data was from Dec. 9, 2010. Kind of old. Am I looking at the wrong report?

  4. Yesterday I mentioned semantics as a precursor for thinking in the context of offering money for influence being, no matter what other word we use, bribery.

    Today the topic is lying to gain influence even though other less offensive words could be used.

    Now folks might say that bribery and lying have always been part of politics at some level and exist at some level in every hierarchical institution where the power to benefit exists.

    But our times bring a new wrinkle. The incidence of lying and bribery are not evenly distributed among the political population. If we looked at the right left spectrum every study like this one would show that the incidence of lying and bribery today is right wing centered.


    At the core of right wing thinking is the notion of unequal distribution, hierarchy, power, class, privilege, entitlement, oligarchy, theocracy, autocracy. Structural pyramid scheming.

    That which they feel defines humanity is under attack by something new, networking and connectivity, and they feel deep in their guts that hierarchy is so essential to their entitlements that lying, bribery and even war as in what’s become a synonym for war, the Middle East, is justified.

    The friction here is great because of our great experiment in the concept of ultimate connectivity, freedom and democracy and equality under the law.

    The great experiment continues. The forces of hierarchy are cornered again as they were in the Civil War and the world wars. The level of desperation is again rising from those threatened by equality.

    Can we limit it to lying and bribery and avoid the ultimate pressure relief and resolution of war?

    What do you think?

  5. Fox News sometimes snares political candidates in its disinformation as when Mitt Romney said 47% of voters were living off the government’s dole. That had been reported on Fox various times before Romney used it. Only after Romney was caught making that statement did others learn that the percentage included military personnel and other government employees such as teachers, police and firefighters, doctors and researchers at national health research institutions (government employees pay taxes of various sorts); those receiving earned benefits such as veterans’ benefits and Social Security; those who receive government loans of various sorts, and more. The ‘propaganda’ certainly gave new definition to being on the government’s dole. But in one way, Fox and Romney performed a service.

    The propaganda did alert us to the major part government plays in our economic health. When the government stimulates the economy, the economy and jobs grow. When the government makes massive, across the board cuts (as with sequestration), watch out. The economy will take a hit.

  6. Yes Fox Noise is a huge problem but working guys still listen to Hate Radio (Rush etc) in their work vehicles and get filled with nonsense every day while working.

  7. Oh, one other question. Can our great experiment withstand the attacks of lying and bribery centered behavior from those who worship hierarchy?

  8. Nancy, I would add one thing to your economic observations. Government stimulation keeps us afloat when business is failing. But it’s at the price of borrowing from the future. Without it the cost of business failure would be prolonged and unaffordable. With it the cost of business failure over the fullness of time can be minimized.

    But when business is able to stand on its own two feet we need to rely on it to maximize employment without government support.


  9. I am one of those considered to be “living on the government dole”…my aunt (a staunch Republican) accused me of this after I became disabled at age 57. My income was and is Social Security and PERF; both of which I paid into for years. She and my uncle both collected Social Security; when I gave her my condolences when he died after their many years of marriage, her response was, “You have to remember; I not only lost a husband, I lost his income.” But as I said, she is a staunch Republican.

  10. During these times, it would be a good idea to read and listen between the lines of numerous sources of news, here and abroad. Not too hard to do with the internet. Weighing several differents sources on a single news story gives you at least some perspective and points out the propaganda quite well.
    Some years ago I use to be able to get a magazine titled “Atlas – window on the world”.
    It compiled the editorial stance of the leading newspapers from the around the world so that the reader could get a real picture of world opinion on major issues of the day. Miss that.

  11. Would we include gun control in the group of issues that have been hijacked? It seems reasonable that if there are more weapons in the general population as a whole, there is an increased probability that weapons will be used more frequently in the commission of crimes and to resolve heated personal conflicts. The spin that more weapons make us all safer is inconsistent with reality.

  12. JoAnn, your comment speaks volumes about how Republican minds work (or don’t work). They just seem unable to see reality. And then there is the belief that “entitlements are OK for me, but not for you”.

  13. I’m not sure who invented the concept of insurance, spreading risk, but it permeates much of modernity.

    Quite simple really. Rather than having huge winners and losers, at least financially, in the game of life have everybody chip in to cover the average cost of bad luck so that that risk has a minor affordable impact on everyone rather than an unaffordable impact on a few.

    Of course there is both elective private insurance and non elective public insurance in the mix.

    SS is an example. Most of us are lucky enough to grow older than our minds and bodies can be productive so it just makes sense that we elect to, or comply with requirements to, save when we are productive for the distinct possibility of living behind our productive income.

    Not entitlement by any stretch of the imagination but rather sound financial planning whether elective or required.

    Unfortunately those who worship hierarchy can make up lies that some fall for to present insurance as some sort of maker/taker Ponzi scheme.

    Romney was only the one who got caught telling that lie. Many others have told it but have not been held accountable for it as he was.

  14. Josef Goebbels would be in awe of what these latter-day propagandists and those that employ them have accomplished in this country. Thanks to them we are in a political tailspin today that is inflicting incalculable damage to this country every day. The looming questions are, likely among many others, are how do we stop it, do we have the will to stop it, can we recover from the enormous breach these people have created in our political and societal discourse by doing this to us, what will that recovery look like, and where will we be as a Nation at the end of that process? We are very much in unknown territory as a result of all this.

  15. @Pete, I agree with your assessment concerning putting away something, as in monetary terms, while we’re receiving the financial reimbursements of our chosen career pathways during our earning years. Of course, FICA deductions are not elective, and I have no issue with FICA deductions as they fund Social Security and Medicare, both of which I now am a recipient.

    On the other hand and perhaps there are others here who’ve lost a spouse, through death, at a relatively early age, as in age 56, and then remarried after age 60 making us eligible upon our retirement at age 66, in my case, to make a decision. Do we elect to receive SS benefits based upon survivor benefits of our late spouse or do we elect to receive SS benefits based upon our own contributions. One cannot have both.

    I chose the higher number and receive SS benefits as the widow of my late husband; however, I occasionally wonder where all my FICA deductions made over a long career as an educator went. There must be a FICA Heaven analogous to Erma Bombeck’s old joke that the single sock of a matching pair that went missing in the clothes dryer had gone to live with Jesus.

    Plan ahead for your retirement years or for any disability that may befall you before your retirement years.

  16. Taxes have gone up since 2009. Everywhere you turn, each tax, fee, permit cost, license renewal, traffic ticket fine, record retrieval cost, state college tuition and associated fees, and cost of filing a government application is increasing. The total tax burden of Americans increases every year.

    The solution is massive reduction in government.

  17. One reason people don’t think there are more jobs is that most of the jobs created recently are more low wage, minimum wage jobs. People are working two and three jobs just to make ends meet, so I call foul on the ‘recession’ decreasing info. Plus, the stock market, which is reported daily, has little or nothing to do with what WE are feeling. There is no comparable info there. Quite frankly, I’m a bookkeeper, and when my health care premiums for a family of three are over 1300 a month, tuition is over 12000 a year, I’m not feeling very optimistic. And, yes, it is a matter of semantics. When utilities, food, and housing are all going up, real wages are going down. And I have to tell you, it has felt like a depression to me since the housing crisis. Also, there has been a negative trade imbalance since I graduated from high school in 1974. So I don’t think anybody is telling the truth. I haven’t had a ‘raise’ my entire working life. Plus, since the government pays out benefits based on cost of living increases, notice that anything that costs a lot is left OUT of the equation? The stimulus was a piss poor imitator of the 1930’s jobs creations. It was something, but how people can work full time and need TWO wage earners to just pay bills, there is something VERY wrong.

  18. I’m surprised that Gopper did not use the conservatives favorite word “bloated”. It’s integral to their faith.

    They assume with no proof at all that government is too big, or bloated. They don’t address how that conclusion gets reached but believe that it should be assumed as a matter of faith.

    We know of course that it is one of many lies told publicly by those with the agenda of enhancing personal wealth from extreme to whatever comes next. They tell it because the less control government has the more they have and control is the opportunity to make more money. Even more money than it takes to propagate lies and bribe officials in support of their quest for more.

    If there is anything that could be measured as bloated it is our joint life style driven by the lies told by business that are represented by the term “brand marketing”. We want endlessly not what benefits us but what benefits business and that connection is through big media distributed lies about life. Did you really think that buying a Lincoln would make you like an actor, Matthew McConaughey, playing the role of sophisticate?

    So we’re back to lies and bribery and one bit of evidence of their power is Gopper. He’s the minion of those trying to take over the country and remake it into their image instead of the design from our founders based in freedom through democracy and law that is applied equally to all.

  19. An interesting article by Tony Nitti on Forbes Taxes web site, January 14, 2013, regarding the belief that taxes went up since 2009 explains some of the misinformation deliberately dispensed by Fox News. The increased deductions on paycheck (probably explained by employers but ignored by employees) was the expiration of Social Security payroll tax cuts during 2011 and 2012; the temporary tax cut of 4.2% RETURNED to 6.2% of previous years. They only saw more taken out and less in their hands.

    BSH; Pete did have a good idea about savings and planning ahead, I always tried to have a savings account and added to it a bit at a time – with what I could scrounge from my low income after paying monthly bills. Suddenly, in 1994 I was declared 100% disabled and unable to work. After applying at Voc Rehab, who referred me to the Rehabilitation Hospital where my disability was found to be one that could not be rehabilitated, I was forced to apply for Social Security Disability. Being so honest I am boring, when the counselor asked if I had a savings I told him I had $3,100 in my savings account which had taken 11 years to save. THIS $3,100 DISQUALIFIED ME FOR MEDICAID, SSI, FOOD STAMPS, AND PUBLIC ASSISTANCE IN ANY AND ALL FORMS AVAILABLE. I had to withdraw what was available from my PERF account to add to savings to live on – sans any medical care. Fortunately, my SS Disability was approved after my first application and due to “hardship retirement” this qualified me to begin collecting against what was left in my PERF retirement with the City of Indianapolis when my Disability kicked in. This small monthly check added to my small monthly SS check, does allow me to eat regularly but also disqualifies me for any public assistance – which I would not apply for due to others who have nothing. Doing the RIGHT THING doesn’t always pay off with benefits to brag about.

    This age of propaganda is not new; it is simply wider spread, easier to access and comes from more sources. My friends who supported and voted for President Obama – many at my urging and being their source for information – came to me for answers when that Social Security payroll tax cut ended and more was taken from their paychecks. I simply researched and gave them the information and my source. This is a simple matter today; we live in the computer age and have countless sources at our fingertips. But why should people I talk to about the propaganda and the misinformation believe a 78 year old, deaf, disabled woman when they can turn on the exciting and excitable crew on Fox News for the gossipy facts? That is so much easier than expending a little time and effort to dig for FACTS, easily available.

  20. Another ooops; that first paragraph should say, “…the expiration of Social Security payroll tax cuts EXTENDED during 2011 and 2012…”

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