“Propaganda Analysis Revisited:” Key Insights from a Recent Review of Misinformation Studies
By Anthony Nadler and A.J. Bauer
Below is a summary of key ideas from a recent special issue we co-edited of The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review on “Propaganda Analysis Revisited.” This issue starts from the premise that the ongoing post-truth impasse in the US and abroad has deep historical roots.
Scholarly, journalistic, and activist concerns with problematic forms of information provision are nothing new. History is littered with methods and practices for identifying and countering misinformation and propaganda. Historical research helps us recover these ideas and best practices to assess whether they might be of some use to us now. This issue situates contemporary concerns with misinformation within the context of popular and scholarly concerns with propaganda during the Interwar period in the United States and Europe.
For example, C.W. Anderson’s commentary places the study of misinformation in relation to modern and postmodern research investigating complementary and often conflated categories of problematic information—propaganda, ideology, and conspiracy. He urges researchers to reflect on the normative assumptions driving their study of misinformation and calls for more direct political and theoretical engagement among misinformation scholars.
Other contributors mine historical case studies, uncovering insights into definitions and genres of critique. Analyzing the public politicking of the A&P supermarket chain in the late-1930s, Tim Wood suggests that propaganda critics have relied too heavily on exposé as a way of labeling and counteracting propaganda. Instead, he calls on journalists and policymakers to develop means of opposing forms of propaganda that lie in plain sight. Renee Hobbs’ piece finds a possible path forward through revisiting the media literacy work of media ecologist Neil Postman. Postman’s vision of a media literacy capable of countering the power of propaganda involves developing a self-awareness of the interrelation of emotion with factual evidence. Following Postman’s lead, Hobbs prescribes dialogue and discussion as a means of combating propaganda by helping us engage information more critically.
As our current pandemic has made clear, sometimes the best defense against problematic information is a good offense. Sonia Robles explores the Mexican government’s public health campaigns in the early 20th Century, which illustrate the need for considering medium, genre, and audience in effectively communicating accurate information in the midst of rampant misinformation. Looking to other national contexts allows for imagining and validating state-oriented solutions to the misinformation problem–solutions often downplayed by the anti-statist biases in the US.
Several contributors to this issue further point to the value of research analyzing the political and social conditions that enable propaganda (or misinformation) to flourish. But they also explore why this type of study is less likely to receive funding and institutional support. Jefferson Pooley’s article traces the trajectory of two early 20th Century researchers—James Rorty and Theodor Adorno—who took part in the prestigious and influential Princeton Radio Research Project in the 1930s. When they started to pose critical questions about the commercial basis of US radio though, support for their research was canceled. Pooley suggests that these past experiences might warn us about today’s misinformation studies if the field continues to valorize methods dependent upon access to data and other forms of support granted by social media companies.
Victor Pickard goes on to ask why concerns about propaganda diminished in the field of communication research over the past several decades. The structural roots of misinformation in commercial media systems were a key subject of analysis in early communication research, but Pickard argues that the field took a “convenient turn” away from such questions in the 1940s and 1950s. In the field’s established centers of power, research shifted toward prioritizing positivist methods and experimental and survey studies, which led to approaches and theories that de-emphasized misinformation, systemic racism, and their connections to the concentration of media power. Aman Abhiskek argues similar tendencies persist in contemporary research on misinformation. He demonstrates that dominant research trends ignore questions that are particularly urgent in the Global South’s climate of misinformation. Tracing the historic flight from structural propaganda analysis through a meta-analysis of recent misinformation research relating to the Global South, Abhishek shows this literature overwhelmingly focuses on individual-level psychological and behavioral effects. Such a research agenda leads to an advocacy agenda narrowly attuned to media literacy efforts, deflecting away from scrutinizing the role Facebook and other media institutions play in propaganda-related violence.
One reason scholars and critics today may be more apt to embrace the term “misinformation” rather than “propaganda” is due to the promise of greater objectivity (or less subjectivity). The former offers the hope of a clear definition without ideological presupposition. If “misinformation” is figured as factually inaccurate information regardless of the intent of the sender, some might hope to escape the normative questions and political knots bound up in the ethically loaded and elusively defined term “propaganda.” However, this issue tempers any confidence that a name change can shed these burdens. The histories our contributors offer illuminate tensions encountered by earlier propaganda researchers that continue to pose challenges for misinformation studies today.