Beyond Spin: How to Spot False Propaganda


In early February 2017, Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that  “I bet it’s brand new information to people that President Obama had a 6-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. It didn’t get covered.”

CNN was quick to point out that these alternative facts were indeed brand new information, as there never was a Bowling Green massacre and that President Obama did not ban the Iraqi refugee program.

For false propaganda to work, the data is uncheckable but sounds checkable.  In this instance, the facts were checkable and CNN shot down the story.  A real Bowling Green case involved Iraqi emigrants Waad Ramadan Alwan and Mohanad Shareef Hammadi, residents of Bowling Green, Kentucky, who were granted refugee status and entered the United States in 2009.  They were picked up in May 2011 on terrorism charges, pleaded guilty, and sentencedtwo years later.  They wanted to smuggle weapons and explosives to al-Qaeda in Iraq, not to conduct attacks in the U.S., according to court documents.  Then-President Obama ordered a revetting of the 57,000-58,000 Iraqi refugees recently allowed into the country, causing a huge backlog and delaying any others to enter the U.S.

The case illustrates some noteworthy points of false propaganda.  (True propaganda is material that is true, but spun.  False propaganda is either falsely attributed, or inaccurate on the facts, or both.)

  • It has a whiff of plausibility and sounds vaguely familiar. There have been so many gun-related attacks on U.S. college campuses, and so many terrorism arrests, that one more could have gotten lost in the news cycle.
  • It has at least some tangential relationship to “classic” facts (real facts, not alternative facts).  There have been jihadi terrorist attacks in the U.S., and many planned that did not garner extensive media coverage.  There were two terrorist-related individuals in Bowling Green.
  • The teller relates the tale with such conviction that the audience believes that the teller believes it is true.  The American default to believe authority, particularly coming out of the White House, only adds to the supposed credibility of the story.  Americans also tend to give credibility to rapid-fire delivery when added to apparent conviction.
  • There is a reason given why the audience has not heard the particulars of the story.  In this instance, the media did not cover it.  It’s hard to believe that the media would skip a massacre.  Since it did not happen, it was not covered.  CNN covered the case of the two Iraqi supporters of al Qaeda.

If you find any/all of these aspects of a story, (classic) fact-check before going further.

One Reply to “Beyond Spin: How to Spot False Propaganda”

  1. Thank you for what you’re doing. So many folks lack perspective and discernment. If nothing else positive comes from this current era, a heckuva lot more folks will have both. Kudos!

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