In 1765 Voltaire warned that “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” We already have seen such atrocities given birth by the falsehoods of political misinformation manifested by the acts that led to the Oklahoma City bombing and that encouraged the participants in the Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol.

The general public is being inundated with misinformation in general and deliberate malicious disinformation in particular. Yet based on the reaction exhibited by the populace as a whole, people seem unable to discern misinformation for what it is.

This unawareness is both dangerous and a fundamental threat to our democracy. As we saw on Jan. 6, thousands of people believed Trump’s Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Blinded by his Big Lie, many of these same people subsequently stormed the nation’s center of democracy.

Unless a substantial majority of the populace recognizes misinformation and outright lies when they are presented, absurdities will be perpetuated, people will be perilously misled, and atrocities will be inevitable.

Our primary defense against being victimized by misinformation is the exercise of critical thinking by each individual. Don’t accept anything at face value without first thinking it through. In other words, don’t believe everything you hear. When exposed to a complex or controversial subject, always think it through — peel back the onion, so to speak, and look beneath the surface.

Even simple things can be surprisingly distorted. And unless people think things through, absurdities will be perpetuated. Too many people appear to be fundamentally inept at distinguishing facts from hoaxes, a condition made even worse by so much misinformation pervading the Internet and social media. Too many of us fall victim to classic propaganda.

Classic propaganda appeals directly to the emotions through processes that are intentionally designed to hide the truth and facts. Its objective is to bring about a specific action, typically by methods the propagandist does not want to have carefully scrutinized. The public needs to be enlightened on how to explicitly identify the major tenets of classic propaganda and to recognize how each principle persuades.

People are fooled by misinformation because they don’t recognize it. We have all been exposed to these misinformation techniques, and all of us have occasionally fallen for them. But the situation now seems more dire than ever.

The seven most common techniques used by the propagandist to intentionally mislead and misinform the public are the following:

1. Name calling is a technique appealing to our hate and fear, designed to cause one to form a judgment without examining the evidence. Bad names are assigned to brands, groups, policies and the like that the propagandist wants us to condemn and reject. The use of bad names with the purposeful omission of their implications is probably the most common of all misinformation techniques. For example, “All Democrats are socialists.” Why is it only Democrats, and what exactly is a “socialist” anyway?

2. Glittering generalities are used when the propagandist wants to appeal to the emotions of love, generosity and brotherhood. Here, the ploy is to identify his program with virtue through the use of virtue words like freedom, honor, patriotism, and the American way. All people who believe in good believe in these ideals — and hence will accept and approve this cause without examining the evidence. The “patriots” who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 to “Stop the Steal” were rallied to the cause in the name of freedom, justice and “save our nation.” They blindly accepted the Big Lie and committed criminal acts without questioning the motives of the perpetrators.

3. The transfer is a technique where the authority, sanction and prestige of a highly respected and revered institution, organization, or power is carried over to something the propagandist wants accepted. Political cartoons are some of the better examples of transfer. The inverse of this technique is also often applied. If one of the propagandist’s favored positions is seen in a bad light, he will attempt to transfer the “blame” in such a way that this bad light is actually the opponent’s position. For example, the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol “… were not really Trump supporters. They were Black Lives Matter and Antifa supporters pretending to be Trump supporters!” Even some members of Congress are espousing this lie.

4. The testimonial is essentially an endorsement from some “credible” person, like a celebrity, to induce the populace to accept the misinformation. Negative testimonials are often employed in social, economic, and political issues to bring about their defeat.

5. The plain folks device is where the propagandist wants to appear “just like everyone else” — especially in an election year when a candidate is shown on television sitting on the front porch in some small Kansas town while holding a 4-year old on his lap. One supports these people because they are “just plain folks.”   

6. Card stacking is probably the most insidious of all the misinformation techniques, as here deception is deliberately and often maliciously employed. The purpose of card stacking is to evade the truth through offering false testimony, under- or overemphasizing points to evade facts, introducing “red herrings,” letting half-truths pass for truths, making the unreal appear real, and the weak seem superhuman. Sham, hypocrisy, brazenness and outright lies are the tools of card stacking. If one does not have the information access or other means of independent verification, one is at the mercy of the card stacker. The draconian voter suppression under the guise of “assuring election integrity” that we are witnessing is an excellent example of card stacking. The “assuring election integrity” is a malicious red herring. The intended objective of this act of card stacking is to prevent the “wrong” people from voting.

7. The bandwagon technique appeals to the human social instinct to “follow the crowd” and motivates through the emotion of needing to belong. “Everyone is supporting Joe Lackluster for mayor. Why aren’t you?”

In today’s world, so much misinformation is diffused among the real facts that truth has become difficult to recognize, a condition that must not continue unrectified. The commitment to the preservation of an informed public is vital to the health and well-being of our nation. Unless the general populace is properly educated in recognizing truth and in identifying malicious misinformation, a democracy can’t survive.

— Philip Moynihan