“Maybe the only thing that’s changed is the shape of propaganda, not the nature or goal”

What is propaganda?

…The notion that propaganda is a technique for spreading a coherent ideology also feels a little anachronistic. Most of what we would call propaganda today, like much of the content on Fox News, is more about pushing conspiracy theories or misleading spin than anything else. The main goal is to undercut the very idea of truth and distract the audience.

p style=”text-align:start”>With political propaganda, all of the manipulation is in service to some broader political goal, whatever it happens to be. And the language used to push that goal is inextricably linked to the goal itself. It’s about manipulating you, but it’s also about establishing the truthfulness of the political ideals behind it.


Sean Illing

I wanted to have this conversation to think about how propaganda is evolving in real time. We’re in this weird post-ideological age, or at least an age where the traditional ideological identities don’t mean as much as they used to, in which power protects itself with a combination of pushing a clear message and flooding the information space so that people can’t distinguish the signal from the noise.

This feels like a new form of propaganda — but is it actually new?

Jason Stanley

Well, yes and no. What we’re seeing now is the destruction of reality under the guise of reality.

So think of RT, Russia’s propaganda news network. Their slogan is, “Question More.” Now, what are they trying to say here? On the face of it, they’re just saying, “We’re going to give you all the possibilities and that will make you more free.” But the Russian spin doctors and media strategists discovered long ago that when you open the information space to every kind of conspiracy theory, you destroy reality.

So “Question More” seems to be in the service of more objectivity and knowledge but, in fact, it destroys it. And that’s the distinctive nature of the novel propaganda.

Sean Illing

Right, and that’s why this new form of propaganda seems so insidious — it’s all about blurring the line between reality and unreality rather than imposing some coherent “truth.”

Jason Stanley

Absolutely. And the purveyors of propaganda want you to think that in order to be real, we’ve got to counterbalance everything. We have to always have the “other” side, the other perspective, the other truth. And a lot of media outlets play right into this model.

It’s why CNN or Fox News or whoever will have Rudy Giuliani on air again and again, so that we can get his perspective, because that’s just fair and it’s more reality. But all it does is muddy the waters and undermine reality and reduce everything to spectacle and show. It has this pretense of fairness, but it’s ultimately destructive.

Sean Illing

I heard you say recently that Donald Trump has “destroyed the information space so that everyone thinks it’s just us versus them.” That seems to capture the ultimate goal of this 21st-century digital propaganda, and it reminds of me how former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon once described Trump’s media strategy as “flooding the zone with shit.”

Jason Stanley

Bannon is really just following the blueprint laid out by the Russians. He floods the media zone with all kinds of bizarre nonsense, and the networks happily play into it. [Before joining Trump’s campaign, Bannon was executive chair of the right-wing news site Breitbart.] And what this does is create a complete cacophony. It’s just too much for anyone to sort out. And the result is people just say, “Well, who’s on my side?” And then it becomes just like watching sports. It’s not about ideas or facts but about my side and your side, my team and your team.

It’s crucial to understand this: transforming politics into a post-truth contest of tribal identity is an explicit goal of modern propaganda.


  • November 3, 2019