How Propaganda Really Works

I subscribe to a Substack newsletter titled Persuasion. (I assume there’s a URL to link to, but I’m clearly too stupid to figure it out, so you’ll have to trust the accuracy of my quotations). Recently, that newsletter added to my understanding of how contemporary propaganda works.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who hears statements from the cult of Trump and thinks “No rational person would believe that!” or “That doesn’t even make sense!” (And I’m not even referring things like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s evident belief that using solar energy means the. lights go off after sundown….)

How does crazy spread?

The  Persuasion newsletter focused on the Kafka-esq experience of a Republican county recorder named Stephen Richer. After winning that post in what was described as a “razor-thin upset,”  he took charge of counting the vote in Maricopa County, Arizona,  the nation’s fourth-most-populous county—”a swing county in a battleground state, and thus a magnet for the angry eye of MAGA following the 2020 election.”

You can guess what came next. Accusations, challenges, recounts, threats…

In February of this year, multiple checks by county officials and outside auditors had confirmed Joe Biden’s solid win, but MAGA was having none of it. Conspiracy theories swirled around the election. On the evening of February 24, Richer drove to West Phoenix to meet with a grassroots Republican group that had stalwartly supported his candidacy. His staff thought attending might be unwise. “They knew, as I did, that it would be an uncomfortable situation. I would say 90-plus percent of the people who were there were of the mindset that the election was absolutely stolen.” Within the first minute, they were yelling. Chaos ensued as people interrupted, argued, and shouted at Richer. Every half minute or so he had to pause for order. When he left, attendees followed him with cellphone cameras, yelled imprecations, banged on his car. Recall that these people had been, a few months earlier, his supporters.

Given the incoherence and sheer lunacy of the accusations and the continued lack of anything that remotely resembled evidence, you have to wonder why belief in Trump’s “Big Lie” persists.

The proofs he had produced, the explanations he had given, the debunking of the lie—none mattered. It was “one of the most dystopian moments of my life,” an eye-opening demonstration of “the extent to which one can speak untruths without any support, and a sizable percentage of the population will believe it.”

By now, Richer could see he was fighting not just frivolous fabulism but the black-hole gravitational pull of a mass disinformation campaign, a version of the “firehose of falsehood” method perfected by Russian propagandists. Such campaigns spew lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories through every available channel, heedless of consistency or logic or even plausibility. The goal is as much to disorient and demoralize the target population as to inculcate a specific deception. Amid the onrush of misinformation, victims lose any sense of what to believe and whom to trust. It’s no accident that two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen.

The newsletter pointed to the likely outcome of Richer’s experience, which has been mirrored in numerous other states: what sane Republican (assuming  some remain) will run for a position overseeing elections if doing the job properly will subject them to threats and constant harassment? A quick survey of GOP nominees for these positions provides the answer: very few. Instead, most Republican candidates for electoral supervision positions are “Big Lie” proponents.

Clearly, we should all support Democrats running against these candidates. But we should also ask what would it take to disabuse these cultists of a clearly ridiculous lie.

In a famous 1951 experiment, the psychologist Solomon Asch showed how easily humans can be manipulated by social pressure to conform. If everyone else in the room affirms even the most blatant falsehood, we will very often affirm it ourselves, even denying the clear evidence of our own eyes.

But a variation of the Asch experiment gives hope. If only one other person in the room—a single reality ally—tells the truth, the pressure to conform drops sharply and we become much more willing to buck the lie. That is why authoritarian regimes work so furiously to stifle opposition voices, even seemingly weak ones. It is what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was getting at when he said, “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that [lie] come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”

In Arizona, Stephen Richer was that “ordinary brave man.” We need a lot more Republicans like him, but it doesn’t seem promising…..


  1. This problem started when other R candidates for president in 2016 decided to fall in line, back trump and even help spread his lies. Many chose to join his campaign of lies after he was elected because it gave them access to him and the power of that office.

    The sheer number of despicable republican snake oil salespeople in Congress who care only about their own pursuit of power and money is truly shocking. They have learned from trump that they can spread lies, contradict their own lies and change their stories as needed – with no consequences. As long as fox spews and all of the far right radio host cockroaches are willing to join in and spread those lies to their gullible bases they all get rich.

    I am surrounded by trumpers and fox viewers in rural north Indiana. Unfortunately, I can only see darker times ahead for our country. It seems that the trumpers and far right conspiracy theorists will not be able to see the truth until they force our country to crash and burn. Once that happens we may never be able to take back our seat at the top of the pecking order in world power. China has their sight set on that seat and could quickly shut us down since we gave them control of the bulk of the manufacturing sector.

    Sorry to be a Debbie Downer today, but rural America has been given too much voting power. The Rs know this and have focused on manipulating the rural base for decades.

  2. Meanwhile – rational Hoosiers are either fleeing small towns or keeping silent. I belong to a group which meets monthly in a nearby small town – we are to avoid politics in conversations. A chap started in on Biden and the Democrats – I called him out for violating our rules. Told him – this is not the place. After the meeting two younger fellows and new members came to me to express not only appreciation but solidarity with my assumed political position.

  3. Edward Bernays is considered the godfather of PR. Hens=s, There is an excellent YouTube video called Century of Self about Edward’s time in the USA.

    It explains the motives of industry advertising and shows how it’s mind manipulation. Edward was hired by Big Tobacco and was also used to set up the CIA.

    The point is to convince people that something is missing or invoke deep-seated fears. Then it proposes a solution.

    Propaganda isn’t just used on Republicans by Charles Koch. 😉

    The only way to ensure that propaganda cannot work on you is to be awake, is to become enlightened or woke.

  4. Nancy; I sincerely believe that “rural America” today consists of those white Republicans who have moved into cookie-cutter housing developments in what was once farmland to leave minorities and rapidly declining areas, increasing the numbers of white Republican farm families who were already the majority. “rural America” is not only creating large enclaves of white Republican voters but is destroying our green spaces and are contributing to Global Warming and Climate Change. A reason for Republicans in office to fight against the Climate Change bills as we watch this country becoming vast drought areas; look at Lake Mead, down over 150 feet. Rivers are drying up around the country destroying what little farmland may be actually farming fresh, delicious produce which used to fill our groceries and supermarkets.

    “Given the incoherence and sheer lunacy of the accusations and the continued lack of anything that remotely resembled evidence, you have to wonder why belief in Trump’s “Big Lie” persists.”

    They believe they are safe in their homes, away from blight, crumbling infrastructure and those troublesome minorities. The drought areas aren’t their problem; but many have those huge retention ponds so that they have water-front homes and are safe. My son and daughter-in-law and grandsons live in a slowly declining middle-class, slightly racially mixed development isolated from convenient shopping, public transportation and we watch as the water level is now lowering after torrential spring rains brought the water level almost to their fence. It stood for months at that level and destroyed many of the trees lining the water edge. My family are Democratic voters in all elections; friends with the Black family across the street, druggie renters live next door and streets that are now cracked and crumbling and ignored by city and county infrastructure attention. It is one of the older “rural America” developments and they got it at a “good price”; can the newer developments escape the same decline? They moved from living one block south of the East Washington Street “stroll” in the declining Irvington area.

    Propaganda destruction of areas ignores gerrymandering and spreads like Covid-19 Pandemic through all areas; how long before “rural America” has nowhere left to go?

  5. It isn’t so much that they believe it, but it’s willful ignorance!

    They feel if they can be willful enough, the truth will be what they want it to be, the reality will conform to their will!

    It’s somewhat similar to a mob mentality, but it’s much much more than that. They wish to be willfully deluded. Because in their delusion, they envision forcing the majority of the populace to capitulate or conform to their particular visionary delusion.

    It also gives them a certain amount of permission to support known untruths for the most part. Of course you always have the least mentally competent of society which will swallow anything Hook line and sinker! But they’re just the cannon fodder. The others just direct the the lemmings off the precipice.

    Of course, it’s not just one side that does this! You have those screaming against desalinization plants to mitigate the drought crisis out west. So, when you have desertification of large swaths of populated areas, do you let that population suffer? I agree with being environmentally correct, but when your house is burning down, you need to do what you have to do to survive! Another example of a minority exerting undo influence over the majority. More than likely this planet is beyond the point of no return, but it’s everyone’s fault not just the completely stupid! Propaganda and self-righteousness sets up camp in all directions, and so does stupidity!

  6. “Firehose of falsehood,” or as Steve Bank on put it, “flood the zone with bullshit.” The right-wing disinformation campaign isn’t merely a spontaneous phenomenon of craziness spreading among gullible true belivers- it’s a defined and managed strategy.

  7. I call it “monkey see, monkey do” mentality (no offense to monkeys), and I don’t have to even leave the front porch of my middle class neighborhood to see it. Every single driveway has a gas-guzzling, air-polluting SUV parked in it. Can’t say I was the least bit surprised when the latest 10-year report from the International Energy Agency stated that “SUVs are the second largest contributor to an increase in global CO2 emissions.” It’s not just rural America that is being manipulated.

  8. Free speech for all, of course.
    But coupled with the right to speak must be some accountability for dishonest or harmful speech.

    And, no, I’m not smart enough to figure out how to do that.

  9. I sat on a jury years ago where one member disagreed with the other 11 as to the guilt of the defendant. It was interesting to watch the peer pressure at work. He was found guilty ultimately but it took hours to dome to that verdict.

    As to water shortages out west, there are some obvious changes that might help. Flying into LAX a few years ago, we could see miles and miles of subdivisions where nearly every backyard had a swimming pool filled to the brim. Maybe ban pools for a season? Fines if not compliant? Would the wealthy just pay to fine and fill the pool anyway like they apparently do in communities with lawn watering ordinances meant to conserve water?

    Propaganda applies to so many issues now. Case in point? The number of patients being admitted to hospitals, the number on ventilators and the number of deaths in Indiana are rising again due to Covid 19. I wonder how many lives have been lost to this virus because of propaganda for political gain? That is just one example. Baffle them with b*llsh*t, indeed.

  10. the right side of the isle and its followers,all of them look stupid in front of us,though, many of this mornings bloggers here would word it,unfortunate. that farmland turned into a decaying patch of lies, seems the good use of that land,now has many who live under debt to pay for it,cant see how and why they couldnt have it easier to pay for their,so called solitude. the lies ,deciet and party bought and paid for, well, the names are all on paper now. the social networks have now been turned into prapaganda machines,that overwhelm the mind and sensationalised the person. a form of propaganda in a new form. disinformation is now the information, because,the ones who they want to believe it,said it.. goebbels would be proud. if a political party isnt willing to admit its all a head game,then obviously,they are the issue,again,what is their end game? at least ask them that question rather than play the ignorant. its obvious this whole end agme is bigger than what they admit to. America isnt a game,its our home and what we built. we are seeing it distroyed by ignorance so one group of people who want to run it like a authoritrian regime.
    that IRS hire to bring out the whos and whys maybe the answers we need.they sure do sound scared…

  11. Lying is really illegal in many cases. In other words, the old adage, you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater!?!?

    Unfortunately the politicians can actually lie with impunity! They can knowingly repeat known lies and untruths and receive no backlash, they’re basically immune to any sort of prosecution for lying! Now, if that was repealed, you would have quite a few politicians at least not be quite as blatant about their untruths.

    JD, well said!

    Big Jack,

    Excellent analysis, I agree with your entire post.

  12. Our democracy became too pure.

    When everyone can vote, all it takes to conquer a country is to capture the imagination of the median person.

    We all know how stupid the average person is.

  13. I don’t know if the average person is stupid—Our politicians seem to be and their apparatchiks. Nevermind their respective organizations. Moreover, Today’s Democrats don’t seem to understand,It’s The Economy Stupid. The legacy of/for Democrats this November will be; “Carter/Biden Inflation”.

    The Democratic Party catchphrase should read as follows:

    After Forty+ Years,We Can Still Bring It When It Comes To Inflation! If You Don’t Vote For Us…Then By Golly You’re Stuuupid!

  14. All this hand-wringing blather about how stupid “They” are.
    Look in the mirror! How many of you believe in some god thing?
    Any evidence for it? Does it change your other beliefs?
    Willful compartmentalization, so you can participate here in what is provably just gossip.

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