THR Web Features   /   November 15, 2023

You Can’t Fact Check Propaganda

A common media practice misunderstands the nature of its quarry.

Jonathan D. Teubner and Paul W. Gleason

( THR illustration.)

As news of Hamas’s murderous October 7 surprise attack on Israel started to circulate in the global information space, so too did the propaganda. According to one estimate, the Israel-Hamas war sparked the highest volume of global propaganda—emanating not just from Israel, Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries but also from Russia, China, and Iran—that experts had ever seen. Even more so than after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas was springtime for propaganda.

The actual narratives that started to circulate ranged from the outright absurd—Ukraine provided Hamas with weapons—to the misleading, as when a famous Iranian mosque raised a black flag, which some Facebook users took as a declaration of war. News services and experts tried to assure the public that the black flag was more a symbol of mourning, but it was hard to tell how many of the excitable social-media users actually believed them. 

Propaganda comes in all shapes and sizes. Unfortunately, the response has been one-size-fits-all: the fact check. Over the past 15 years, the number of “fact-checking outlets” has exploded. According to the Duke University Reporter’s Lab, there were 11 such outfits in 2008. By 2023, the number had risen to 417.

Checking for factual accuracy seems like a natural role for the press to play. Standing outside the political fray, journalists are expected to serve as referees, blowing the whistle whenever one side or the other commits an offense. Results, however, have been mixed. While fact-checking might be useful in, say, presidential debates, in the context of war-time propaganda it is generally ineffective and can even be counterproductive. The practitioners themselves seem to realize that something is amiss. As a Brazilian fact-checker told the New York Times in September: “It’s not getting better.”

Why not?  

Part of the problem, of course, is the sheer volume of rumor, innuendo, and falsehood that sloshes around the worldwide digital media ecosystem every hour of the day. Thousands of fact-checking outlets couldn’t correct it all. Four hundred don’t have a chance.

But the problem runs deeper. Fact-checking tacitly assumes that propaganda and misinformation are, ultimately, lies. In a retrospective on his Washington Post “Fact-Checker” column, journalist Michael Dobbs wrote that he originally pitched the column because he thought that the press had traded its “truth-seeking” role for a “both sides” approach, which let politicians get away with flagrant false statements in the name of balance. By fact checking, the journalist would join the fight against falsehood. Point out the lie, tell the truth instead, and victory is won.

If propaganda isn’t lies, then what is it?

Would that it were so simple. On the contrary, at least since World War II, the most effective propagandists have insisted that propaganda should tell the truth. In his Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, French sociologist Jacques Ellul observed that propagandists on either side of World War II were as truthful as they could be. The manual for the American and British expeditionary forces warned that “when the listener catches you in a lie, your power diminishes.… For this reason, never tell a lie which can be discovered.” Joseph Goebbels, Ellul found, “never stopped battling for propaganda to be as accurate as possible.”

If propaganda isn’t lies, then what is it? The modern study of propaganda dates to the 1920s and ’30s, when historians and sociologists tried to understand how governments—from Europe to the United States—had convinced their citizens to enter into the disastrous First World War. 

The first order of business was defining propaganda itself. According to political scientist Harold Lasswell’s seminal Propaganda Technique in the World War (1927), propaganda “refers solely to the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, to speak more concretely and less accurately, by stories, rumors, reports, pictures and other forms of social communication.” It is “concerned with the management of opinions and attitudes by the direct manipulation of social suggestion rather than by altering other conditions in the environment or in the organism.”

Or as the psychologist Leonard Doob put it in his Propaganda: Its Psychology and Techniques (1935), “Intentional propaganda is a systemic attempt by an interested individual (or individuals) to control the attitudes of groups of individuals through the use of suggestion and, consequently, to control their actions.”

Note the absence of any mention of truth or falsehood. Instead, these classic definitions place propaganda within the airier realm of rumor, report, picture, suggestion, and symbol. A baldfaced lie would theoretically be open to falsification, which would leave the speaker exposed and discredited. So the skillful propagandist instead works by insinuation, by spinning the significance of events in one way or another, by bringing the reader, listener, or viewer around to a particular point of view. Propaganda creates a general atmosphere in which a particular conclusion seems undeniable, even though it is suggested rather than stated. What matters is not the facts, but their significance.

If so, then fact-checking has some obvious weaknesses. First, since much of what skillful propagandists say will be true on a literal level, the fact-checker will be unable to refute them. Second, no matter how well-intentioned or convincing, the fact-check will also spread the initial claims further. Third, even if the fact-checker manages to catch a few inaccuracies, the larger picture and suggestion will remain in place, and it is this suggestion that moves minds and hearts, and eventually actions.  

Less obviously, any effort to counter the propagandist at this larger, mythic level will risk undermining the fact-checker’s authority. Since the 1960s, journalists have tended to base their authority on their neutrality: The fact that they aren’t pushing one political narrative or the other is precisely what makes them  trustworthy referees. To reach propaganda at the level of its effect, on the level of narrative or even myth, fact-checkers are ineluctably drawn into a tussle about the meaning and interpretation of the facts and the intention and morality of the propagandist. In brief, they enter the realm of propaganda themselves, which the propagandists can gleefully point out.

Fact-checking will struggle to counter propaganda, then, because it will either focus on the wrong thing (facts instead of the bigger picture), or it will focus on the right thing and risk becoming propaganda itself.

Could it be otherwise? Probably not, at least at the moment.

One of the underlying weaknesses of the fact-check approach is ambiguity about how to establish a fact. Intuitively, a fact is often thought to be a given, a primitive feature of our world. David Hume maintained that a “fact” was simply something of which there can be a sensible “impression.” While this definition certainly had some trouble around the beginning of the twentieth century, when the atomic level of existence was discovered, it maintained a kind of status as the de facto definition. Facts are just what you see—look! But facts are rarely just that. Rather, they come in the form of statements, which are not bare observations but descriptions of some state of affairs. In other words, there are no “pure” facts available, as Karl Popper pointed out. All descriptions entail selections, implicit theorizing, and are attended by subjective factors such as interests, expectations, and wishes.

This is no mere philosophical speculation. Despite our common-parlance naivety about facts, our deep and troubling disagreements have much to do with the fact that facts as stated are contestable. And this is what is often propelling an information war: The two sides refer to the same events, but they diverge on the very first level of interpretation—on the description of the event or occurrence. And on this parochial foundation, they go on to build out competing narratives that further obscure the ineluctably intertwined nature of the information and communication we pass back and forth among one another.

To be clear, the result is not necessarily relativism or nihilism. Popper also insisted that any statement or theory, in order to be meaningful, must be falsifiable in the sense of being open to a single, devastating counter-example. In practice, though, there will have to be pre-existing rules and regulations regarding what will count as a counter-example, how it can be discovered and tested, and so on. For this, one needs a scientific community. The intellectual standards of this community, then, are what establish the likelihood of theories, which in turn makes sense of the facts. Inquiry of every kind—scientific as well journalistic—ideally bases its authority on the soundness of these procedures and their scrupulous observance.

Difficult as it was to abide by such procedures when Popper was writing in the middle of the twentieth century, it has become much more so in what media scholar Jay David Bolter has described as our current “digital plentitude,” in which the proliferation of information and media sources has overwhelmed traditional fact-finding institutions. “Today there is no single hierarchy of knowledge or of media forms that can provide the basis for organizing all our texts, images, audios, videos, and digital media,” Bolter writes. As a result, “our media universe looks like a map of stars rather than the concentric desks of the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.” When information was relatively scarce, fact-finding institutions from scientific labs to newspapers could follow their internal procedures, achieve informed consensus, and present their findings to the public.

Propaganda is the inevitable outcome of digital plentitude.

The information boom scuttled this arrangement. Propaganda is the inevitable outcome of digital plentitude, as commentators try to make sense of an overwhelming amount of information and, as often as not, push their own theory or interpretation of events. This is doubly so in the midst of an information war. To use Bolter’s map metaphor, different political communication operations are like stars, exerting their own gravity on the discursive field as they try to draw media consumers into their orbits.

The inefficacy of our much-expanded fact-check industry is thus an index of the broader crisis of institutional authority. A mid-century newspaper would not need a designated fact-checking column; an authoritative news source could produce widely credible accounts without having to establish their truth value or significance. But today even the largest and most powerful newspapers are single players in a vast and fragmented media ecosystem. The fact-check is an admission that consumers are already getting their news elsewhere, and now the newspaper must make regular efforts to establish its authority over what counts as a fact—or even over what a valid interpretation might be.

The rise of digital plentitude undermined traditional authoritative sources of information. And that was salutary, in many cases. After all, many of those sources had become complacent about, even oblivious to, their own biases and assumptions, whether “liberal,” “establishment," “pro-Wall Street,” or whatever. Decades on, however, the more pressing problem now is how to establish legitimate informational authority, or even to get a sense of what that would look like. It remains to be seen if any institution, under conditions of digital plentitude, can establish broadly acknowledged authority without itself seeming to engage in the use of propaganda.