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The Propaganda Fork Revisited

Written by Subject: Propaganda

Although propaganda has been with man since the advent of language, there are times, when the pure bulk of propaganda is overwhelming; this is one of those times. Social and economic upheaval leads, I suppose, to people lining up on one side or the other of a disagreement and shouting to be heard. Claims go intellectually unchallenged, leading to more outlandish claims, which also go unchallenged, and so forth.

Since the public discourse has denigrated to a never-ending series of "nu-unh", "ya-hunh" and "yeah, well your mother's from Kenya"s, this is as good a time as any to revisit the propaganda fork to see if we can salvage some sort of civilized behavior. I apologize for not crediting the originator of the propaganda fork; I searched and could not find you.

We can start by defining propaganda.

Propaganda IS NOT necessarily false. In fact, since demonstrably false claims do not make effective propaganda, it is far more likely that propagandistic claims have at least a truthful basis, if not solid foundation.

Propaganda IS communication, by an individual or group, of principles and motivations. It may contain claims, information, rumors, ideas, or outright lies. The purpose of propaganda is to convince the recipient of the veracity of the things claimed and encourage appropriate action.

As with any endeavor, there are skilled propagandists and there are amateurs, but the efficacy of any propaganda relies on a relaxed intellectual standard in the recipient. You may be familiar with one or more people in your life who are more than happy to allow others to do their thinking for them; those people are a propagandist's dream audience. However, at one time or another, we all have weak intellectual moments where we are susceptible to accepting propaganda without question.

For that reason, one should approach all propaganda with a skeptic's eye. With a couple of rules and one very useful tool, the propaganda fork, we can cut through the chaff and get to the wheat.

Rule #1: Propaganda should not be rejected merely on the basis that it is propaganda.

That, in itself, sounds like a very propagandistic statement. However, consider the opposite, equally propagandistic statement, “propaganda should be rejected merely on the basis that it is propaganda.” That claim fails in that it assumes the very method of delivery in arguing its rejection; that is, if propaganda should be rejected because it is propaganda, we must also reject the propagandistic claim that we should reject propaganda.

Any communication of principles and motivations is propaganda, including advertising, religious tracts, how-to books, and any call to action or imperative statement. "Don't feed the bears" is propaganda that you reject not just at your own risk, but also thereby endanger others. The world is full of completely sensible suggestions that should not be rejected merely because they are propagandistic.

Rule #2: Propaganda should not be rejected merely on the bias of the source.

I'm sure you've heard that you should disregard some piece of propaganda or another because it was funded by some person or organization with an ideological bias. Well, first, no communication is lossless; all communication requires an expenditure of resources, even if it's just the lung power you put into a whisper. Second, since propaganda is a communication of principles and motivations, it is biased by definition. News flash: the “unbiased expert” you offer as counter-propaganda is just as biased, though perhaps in the opposite direction in this particular instance, and even if the “unbiased” party is you.

Additionally, offhand rejection of propaganda by source is easily countered. If you say, “always reject propaganda from Brock because he is biased,” I will quickly respond by announcing that you are extremely intelligent and should be obeyed explicitly.

Although you may call to question the reliability of the source, ultimately your rejection or acceptance must come from an examination of the propaganda with the propaganda fork, or similar method.

The Propaganda Fork
No matter the form or content of the propaganda, it must implicitly or explicitly make a claim regarding causation: A has or will cause B, therefore we must do or prohibit A. Since doing or prohibiting A so often involves violence or threats of violence against another human being, it would behoove us to verify the causality before we even consider the action or prohibition of A.

For that, a three-tined propaganda fork is very helpful.

Tine #1: the occurrences of A and B must be correlated

For A to be the cause of B, they must necessarily occur together. If A occurs and B does not always follow, A must not be sufficient to cause B. Or, if B occurs in the absence of A, A must not be necessary for B. Both of these would suggest that doing or prohibiting A is not appropriate. Rather, some other causal factor C should be investigated.

For instance, I may claim that Fords exiting a certain parking lot cause Nissans to exit the lot. Upon investigation, we find that 99% of the time, a Nissan follows a Ford out of the lot. However, a couple of times a Ford was followed by a Chevy, and several Nissans exited the lot without the exit of a Ford. As it turns out, we were observing the parking lot of a Nissan dealership, and the Nissan following Ford phenomenon was coincidence, not correlation.

Tine #2: the occurrences of A and B must be inter-temporal

For A to be the cause of B, they must occur in that order. A cannot retro-actively cause B. Additionally, if a period of time has elapsed between the occurrences of A and B during which event D, E, F, and G occurred, we must investigate the possibility that one of those events is necessary and/or sufficient to cause B. That leads us to Tine #3 of the propaganda fork.

Tine #3: all possible causes of B other than A have been investigated and ruled out

It is possible for A and B to be correlated and inter-temporal, and yet have some event wholly unrelated to A be the cause of B. Or, event C may be the cause of both A and B. Of course, no survey could be totally exhaustive, but propaganda that utterly fails to search for event C or lacks a mechanism by which A definitively causes B should be immediately suspect.

Now, having outlined the rules and the propaganda fork, I will not apply it to demonstrate how it works. To do so invites rejection due to bias based on the results of my application. Therefore, I leave it to you to apply the propaganda fork on a piece which you consider propaganda. In one fell swoop, you will see how well it works, and raise your intellectual standards.

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