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Propaganda 101: Objective, Subjective, or Pseudo-Objective?

When I wrote about the logical fallacies used to justify covid-19 “lockdowns,”1 I did so with the aim of empowering Christians to confidently think for themselves and, consequently, rationally decide for themselves how they will respond to covid-19. Since then, as I anticipated would happen, covid-19 and “lockdowns” have once again been given a prominent place in the mainstream media's reporting. And, as I also anticipated, the same fallacious lockdown pro-illegal-detainment/house arrest arguments are used.

Today, I want to begin a new series on how to spot propaganda. There is presently a dearth of understanding with respect to the nature of propaganda, and this is damaging for all people, especially Christians. If you desire to love God with all of your mind, then you need to be as wise as serpents yet as meek as doves. This means being able to think like the enemies of God, understand how they operate, expose their operations, and bring their operations to an end. If you desire to love your neighbor in a way like unto the first commandment, then this entails that you become a watchful and careful reader lest you consequently believe what is false, promote what is wicked, and harm your neighbor.

Defining Propaganda

Encyclopedia Britannica online defines propaganda as follows –

Propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth).2

Propaganda is then differentiated from other forms of communication as follows –

Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas. Propagandists have a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these, they deliberately select facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and present them in ways they think will have the most effect. To maximize effect, they may omit or distort pertinent facts or simply lie, and they may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people they are trying to sway) from everything but their own propaganda.3

Now, depending on who is doing the manipulating, the degree of obviousness will vary. In this series, we will be dealing some obvious examples, but will spend more time looking at the subtler forms of manipulation we encounter online, in the paper, on television, etc.

Unproven Allegations or False Allegations?

One of the more subtle forms of propaganda can be seen in writers who promulgate the idea that President Donald J. Trump is “refusing” to “concede” to Joe Biden, but is instead taking Biden to court over “unproven allegations” of voter fraud. While many have rightly underscored that the words “refusing” and “concede” suggest to most readers that the question of who won the 2020 presidential election is already settled, no one that I have come across has pointed out that the phrase “unproven allegations” is redundant. This is not good, seeing as the phrase is not accidentally used, but serves to manipulate the reader. Let me explain.

Firstly, let us note why the phrase “unproven allegations” is redundant. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word allegation as follows

The action or an act of alleging something; an unproved claim or assertion (in later use esp. of illicit or illegal behaviour). Also: an unfounded statement or accusation.4

This means that an allegation is, by definition, unproven. If an allegation regarding some person’s action is proven in court, then it ceases to be an allegation; it is to be understood as an historical fact. If I allege that x has killed y, and it is proven that x has, indeed, killed y, then it is no longer an allegation, but a statement of historical fact – it is the case that x has killed y. Prior to being proven, my assertion was an unproven assertion, which is to say an allegation. Subsequent to being proven, my assertion is a proven assertion, which is to say an historical fact.

We must now ask why the author has chosen to use the phrase “unproven allegation,” seeing as the phrase is redundant. In non-professional composition,5 the phrase could be passed over as a basic error stemming from a conversational looseness of diction that we typically do not expect to conform to compositional norms. However, professional writers are trained to use language with precision – and this is especially true of journalists. Most, if not all, introductions to journalistic composition teach that one must eliminate redundant phraseology in order to more concisely and accurately report his information.6 In persuasive writing, the situation is different. Within that practice, the phrase “unproven allegation” is known as a rhetorical tautology. The use of the word unproven colors the reader’s interpretation of Trump’s allegations, in order to make him feel as though something bad has been, or is being, done by Trump. Consider, for example, the following sentence from an NBC article:

Trump has refused to concede defeat and made unproven allegations of voter fraud, even though state election officials from both parties have rejected the allegations.7

Note here that the equation of unproven and false is rather subtly accomplished by the writers. They assert that Trump has made unproven allegations which election officials from both parties have “rejected.” If the allegations have been rejected by “officials,” this suggests that they are, in fact, false. In this article, therefore, an “unproven” allegation is an allegation that has been rejected on the grounds that it does not correspond to objective reality – i.e. it is a false allegation, a lie.

However, even if we grant for the sake of argument that the rhetorical tautology is not intentional, we are still forced to ask the question –

Are unproven claims equivalent to false claims?

The answer is simple – No. If I claim my son has stolen cookies from the cookie jar, but I have not established this as true, nor has it been rejected as false by the analysis of evidence proffered, then my claim remains unproven. Until evidence is proffered, analyzed, and a conclusion is reached, my claim’s logical value remains undetermined.

What Does It Matter?

The real life consequences of propaganda are many, but in this article we will only look at one – the subversion of the rule of law. Presenting President Trump as “undermining the democratic process” by making “unproven allegations” and “refusing” to “concede” the election, the media is insinuating that questioning the results of an election is anti-democratic behavior, even if it is done through the proper legal means afforded to the standing president of the US. In a word, the media is urging us to forgo the proffering and analysis of evidence in favor of Trump’s claims, as well as attempting to pressure the president into conceding (a word which could either mean admit or surrender) the election. And this is not as distant of a concern for the rest of us as we might think.

You are not merely being told to “accept that Biden won” (a highly contested claim), but to ignore the fact that governing authorities can be challenged in court. You are, moreover, being told to ignore the legal process of (1.)making allegations, (2.)proffering evidence in support of your allegations, (3.)having that evidence objectively analyzed in a court of law, and (4.)proving your allegations true or having them disproved by an objective assessment of your evidence and argumentation. If the President of the US is being told to accept as true and binding the declarations of opposing governing authorities and powerful media personnel made against him, and that if he doesn’t then he is undermining the democratic process, what makes you think you would be exempt from such behavior when they turn their sights on you?



1 See “Language, Logic, and Action” Pts.1-5, here: https://www.invospec.org/search?q=language%2C+logic%2C+and+action.

3 ibid.

4 “allegation, n.”. OED Online. September 2020. Oxford University Press. https://ezproxy.lcsc.edu:2366/view/Entry/5200?redirectedFrom=allegation (accessed November 11, 2020). (emphasis added)

5 e.g. Text messages, emails, and handwritten notes shared between friends and/or family members, etc.

6 For more on this, see Berner, R. Thomas. Language Skills for Journalists, Second Edition (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 11-12.

7 De Luce, Dan; Williams, Abigail. “‘There Will Be a Smooth Transition to a Second Trump Administration,’ Pompeo Claims,” NBC News, Nov. 10, 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/donald-trump/there-will-be-smooth-transition-second-trump-administration-claims-pompeo-n1247309, Accessed November 14, 2020.

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