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Scholarly Discourse on Political Misinformation: Propaganda, Fake News, and Political Rumors

By Yi Ding

Propaganda, Fake News, and Political Rumors

Two predominant manifestations of political misinformation commonly encountered in daily life are propaganda and fake news. While propaganda typically indicates biased information designed to advance a specific political cause, the literal meaning of the term fake news, signifying inaccurate information disseminated through news media, invites diverse interpretations. Fake news may encompass a broader range of intentions than propaganda, including the dissemination of misleading political information for sensationalism or profit, whereas propaganda adheres to a more defined political agenda.

Scholars have undertaken critical analyses of propaganda methods and strategies employed, whether intentionally or unintentionally, throughout history. Choice previously published a bibliographic essay entitled “Modern Understandings of Propaganda.” Written by Burton St. John III, it details the evolution of the scholarly understanding of propaganda from 1920 to 2020; this essay will provide supplementary titles on the topic not covered by St. John.

In the 1978 volume The War That Hitler Won: The Most Infamous Propaganda Campaign in History, Robert Herzstein explores the use of propaganda during wartime, focusing on the historical context of Hitler’s manipulation of information and public perception. Published in 2003, Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present, written by Nicholas Cull, David Culbert, and David Welch offers a comprehensive, multifaceted overview of propaganda techniques and their impacts throughout history. The book spans diverse periods and contexts, thus serving as a valuable resource for scholarship on the historical roots of misinformation. The following year, the third edition of Phillip Knightly’s The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Iraq appeared in print. The text challenges idealized public perceptions of war reporting, offering insights into complex dynamics of the historical use of misinformation in war narratives and propaganda.

In 2022, with the world focused on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Norwegian political scientist Glenn Diesen published Russophobia: Propaganda in International Politics, in which he investigates the evolving dynamics of anti-Russian propaganda. He proposes understanding global complexities through the lens of national patriotism versus cosmopolitan globalism instead of the conventional liberalism versus authoritarianism framework. The following year, the collected volume Propaganda and Neutrality: Global Case Studies in the Twentieth Century, edited by Edward Corse and Marta García Cabrera, offered the first comprehensive study of the interaction between propaganda and neutrality, further adding invaluable transnational perspectives and nuanced interpretations of propaganda to the literature.

Two other recent manuscripts offer intriguing assessments of propaganda. These are The Currency of Truth: Newsmaking and the Late-Socialist Imaginaries of China's Digital Era, by Emily Chua, and Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror, by Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall. The former investigates the unique newsmaking industry in China, burdened with well-known propaganda and censorship limitations, while the latter explores the equally, if not more, striking government propaganda emanating from the post-9/11 United States. Read together, these two titles provide an insightful comparison on propaganda from governments in two distinct yet influential ideological and political spheres in today’s world.

The term fake news entails nuanced and loaded definitions in different settings. The “Technology and Media” section of this essay will review titles that cover a broader understanding of fake news, while this section focuses on two distinct forms of fake news to draw comparisons with propaganda. Firstly, a unique type of fake news that stands out is satire, elaborated in The Stewart/Colbert Effect: Essays on Real Impacts of Fake News, edited by Amarnath Amarasingam. Comedy news shows like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report do not intend to mislead their audiences with false political information. Instead, they transparently present their program as fake news and actually contribute to enhanced critical thinking, political awareness, and engagement.

Secondly, while fake news has been a more prevalent term than rumors in public discourse about political misinformation over the last decade, it is essential to underscore the distinction that scholarly literature and discourse makes between the two. According to MIT political science professor Adam Berinsky, the manifestation of fake news in the political realm does not inherently imply a focus on political rumors. Political rumors, as defined by Berinsky in Political Rumors: Why We Accept Misinformation and How to Fight It, are “a type of unsupported claim, often with a conspiratorial edge” (p. 3). Compared to the term fake news or the broader term misinformation, Berinsky emphasizes the weaponization of political rumors, deeming it integral to comprehending the contemporary political landscape, particularly in the era of social media and following the 2016 election. In a compelling exploration of the intricate realm of political rumors, Berinsky thoroughly analyzes the transmission of rumors across diverse audiences, encompassing disengaged citizens to skeptics of official information. He also investigates the information ecosystem, exploring various media types, key players within it, and the mechanics of misinformation from a rumor’s source to the tone of corrections. This comprehensive, evidence-based perspective on the production and reception of political information includes critical insights, such as the finding that individuals are more inclined to believe statements made by politicians they support, irrespective of their veracity, while efforts to correct misinformation have limited impact on support for politicians making false claims.

Works Cited