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Protecting yourself from propaganda

Welcome to today's blog (number 84!). My sources are some of the smartest people I know and have distilled the tactics many people use. I hope the approach below helps you get better informed overall, improve your mental health and save you time.

What is at stake?

I am concerned about propaganda. It is cheap to produce, can spread at pace and now has many places where there is no content moderation. Digital propaganda takes advantage of:

  • Our avoidance of things that do not confirm our existing views and gravitation towards things that do

  • Our tendency to be unduly influenced by the first framing of a certain

  • Echo chambers facilitated by algorithms aimed to keep you glued to the medium

If the information sources we expose ourselves to are poor, and it leads us to form views or expectations that are out of keeping with reality, we expose ourselves to faulty decision-making.

The dangers of free information

If I told you that I had a free food source, would you expect it to be of good quality? What if I told you there was a jacket for free, would it keep you warm? Much like good food is important for your health, good information is essential to make good decisions.

We need to remind ourselves that the person who is paying for the service is the customer. When news is freely available, we are not the customer, it is the person who is paying for the adverts. We are all well aware that if you want to keep people glued to their screens, you need to give them what will make them feel comfortable or excited, not good, well researched information. If my job as a journalist is to make you stay on my site, I can produce lots of thinly researched content with sensational headlines and opinion far more easily than I can provide a well researched article.

Do not waste your time on poor news sources . There is no amount of poor information that will get us informed. Looking at poor quality information is not fun, not enjoyable and not informative - why would you bother?

Health warning

Before we get to our approach to get better informed, remember that most people do not really want to know the truth. If your country or community was supporting an ally that was doing unacceptable things, or even worse, doing dubious things themselves, most people would prefer not to believe that. To do so would smash a part of most people’s identity, which is ‘we are good, they are bad’. That framing is a natural part of everyone’s defense mechanism, and it requires some very unusual soul-searching to see a situation as it is.

Even-handed and open people are generally not accepted as ‘loyal’. Each community has an accepted narrative of events and therefore any deviation is not appreciated. The journey to find out what happened without bias (if ever possible) is a challenging and potentially lonely one – you have been warned.

A 4-step guide to getting more informed

1) Know when you are reading for fun, doom-scrolling or getting informed and approach it differently.

The news can range from objective reporting to salacious gossip. You need to know why you are reading it. Reading gossip is a huge industry, and many people seem to enjoy the trials and tribulations of actors, sportspeople, politicians and rich people in general. It is fine to read for excitement, and know that you are not being informed.

Doom-scrolling is a relatively new phenomenon, where people look up negative article after negative article and get stuck in a loop of bad news stories. I would avoid this at all costs. It is not really getting you much more informed, and it is impacting your mental health too. Being cognisant you are doing it is a great start and stopping yourself when you notice it is good too.

If you are looking to get informed about world events, you cannot 'headline shop' on social media. You will be inundated with poor quality information.

2) Use good information sources

We know what bad information sources look like, but they are so easy and accessible, we sometimes think that it is fine to get an early read from these sources. This is a false economy. Bad news sources give you immediate, low accuracy, thinly researched information. Shut them down, completely. Do not get news from social media, whatsapp or newspapers which do not have high editorial standards.

Good news sources are more likely to have slightly less immediate, but higher accuracy information, where articles they cover are more likely to matter. They will use available evidence and have some logical and consistent reasoning, and reference experts in a given field to be able to interpret the information knowledgeably. Better start here for your journey of getting informed. There is no news source which is completely unbiased.

One good information source is not always enough. You might need a few for more divisive issues. In an ideal world, you will be able to choose your sources based on perceived bias. For example if it is a political view, try and have a source that is more about lower taxes, and another that is about better public services, and see how they interpret the move.

3) Use critical thinking to see what you really know and do not

News articles give you some piece of the puzzle. They might let you know what has happened, but that does mean you are informed. Some questions you would want answered before you progress to feeling informed:

- Why am I hearing about this now?

- Which side of the argument am I hearing and what are the most articulate thoughts on the other side?

- What is the historical, geographical, political and cultural background?

Charlie Munger's oft-repeated quote is good here, "I never allow myself to hold an opinion on anything that I don't know the other side's argument better than they do." We would all be served well to remind ourselves of that.

4) You do not need to have a view

There are two good reasons not to feel compelled to have a view.

Firstly when world affairs are rife with propaganda and bias, and you are finding it tough to get to the bottom of something, unless you have to, do not feel you need to have a strong view or take a side.

We are constantly forced to vehemently support or oppose something. My younger self certainly felt pressured to have figured it out but that haste to conclude or haste to have a view is misplaced. I have found that people who take views only once they have really understood it have resisted that pressure to sound or appear informed about everything and it is freeing for them. Only take a view once you have been able to satisfy high standards of critical thinking. In a world of uninformed confident opinions, it is rare to find people with the fortitude not be drawn in on things. I am working hard on this myself.

Secondly, remember for your own well-being that you cannot solve the world's problems and therefore things that feel completely outside of your sphere of influence might reasonably attract less headspace. For me, this is a better approach than spreading myself so thinly that I end up having a shallow understanding of many things.

How does this protect me from digital propaganda?

If you outsource your content moderation to excellent platforms (which you in reality have to pay for mostly these days) I think you avoid the worst propaganda. Combine that with maintaining high standards of critical thinking and suspending judgment until you feel you have a handle on things will prevent you getting unduly involved in a lot of the polarised behaviour we see.

Tech regulation advances

We highlighted last week, that AI generated content is now very easy to produce. Deepfakes are undoubtedly out there. President Biden’s exec order on AI requires AI generated content to be watermarked (but clearly technology could make this ineffective quickly). The European Union has also banned Facebook from the types of targeted advertising, that was used in the Cambridge Analytica case.

Whilst sounding promising, the incentives to mislead are just too high and therefore we need to protect ourselves rather than rely on institutions that are just not technologically equipped to police social media.

What about the children?

If you take a cocktail of young minds, persuasive propaganda and minimal controls, it does run the risk of having highly radicalised and polarised debates. Schools and Universities would do well to help young people navigate this and critical thinking is a key part of it. If you teach, drop me a line if this is something you are struggling with.

So what?

  1. We should be aware of and concerned about digital propaganda. It exploits our biases and the echo chambers created by social media algorithms. This leads to poor decision-making.

  2. Free information often lacks quality and depth, and is designed to keep users engaged rather than informed. Avoid poor news sources.

  3. Become better informed. Choose high-quality news sources, apply critical thinking to understand different aspects of news, and do not feel pressured to have a view on every issue.

Thank you for joining. The investment decisions series begins next week. Sign up to the subscription list on Blog | Deciders ( Follow me on twitter: @Decidersblog

Other blogs in the propaganda series:


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