How Effective Are Misinformation Campaigns in Manipulating Public Opinion?
Introduction (Via Scientific American)
History is riddled with examples of governments and media spreading information that lacks supporting evidence or is slanted to push an agenda. A recent U.S. example is the Bush administration’s rationale for invading Iraq in 2003—that Saddam Hussein’s regime was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the nation could be harboring weapons of mass destruction. There was no evidence to support the former assertion and, subsequent to the invasion, weapons were not found.
But government or media messages are only two potential components of misinformation campaigns. It could be said that, in general, the true power of such campaigns lie with the public, or audience, and how thoroughly they accept messages.
To get a better idea of the effectiveness of misinformation campaigns, Scientific American spoke with David Altheide, a sociologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. For several decades, he has been studying the mass media and propaganda. In his books, most recently Terror Post 9/11 and the Media (Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), Altheide explores how politicians and governments use fear and how the idea of terror has become engrained in our society.
Fascinating Excerpts (Via Scientific America)
Could you give an idea of how you would define a government misinformation campaign?
Based on a lot of my work looking at propaganda over several decades, I would define a government misinformation campaign as one in which the government intentionally distorts and/or promotes some very questionable information for public dissemination for a particular purpose. Usually the purpose is to gain support for a policy, an action—and typically this will involve some sort of an international conflict.
Would this be an instance where government groups say the opposite of what they know is true or fill in the truth with speculations? Or both?
I think that more typically it’s situations in which the information is partially true and a certain very clear slant is given to it. We’ve known since World War II and the work by the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels that extreme blatant lies that fly in the face of what an audience directly experiences don’t work. So Goebbels really argued that sometimes it’s more important not to deny, say, that a building was bombed, but rather to give it a particular spin to, for example, minimize the damage.
What do you think are the key ingredients in a successful misinformation campaign? It seems it goes along with the public opinion, plays off of fear, and maybe off of a lack of evidence?
Those are key things, and that [the message] is visual, and that it is repeated [with] some of the same kind of language and discourse—”Here [the enemies] are again. There they go again.” It can be very effective.
Look what we’ve done with health care in this country. We’ve somehow cast the whole health debate into cost. Whether or not children get health care [depends on if] we can afford it. How things get cast and then ratcheted up as being more important is always the fascinating bit. This is something that strategists, manipulators work at very carefully. We call it framing. How can we frame this issue in a way that will tap into something people are already worried about [such as cost] and that will discredit some other point of view? The cost of a war, however, is almost never an issue because this is something that we just have to do.