Disinformation, fake news & propaganda

Techniques used to incite hate, create discourse, spread lies, and/or mislead the masses, usually to achieve a specific, nefarious aim. Can be committed by individuals, groups, or governments.
Types of disinformation +Getting support +

Related terms

Disinformation, Fake News, Propaganda, Brainwashing, Indoctrination, Misinformation, Hoax, Spoof, Spin, Conspiracy, Coercive Persuasion

The Big Lie: manipulating the masses

The term ‘fake news’ has been gaining a lot of coverage in recent years, but what is it and why does it matter? Publishing fiction as fact is not itself the problem; it is the purpose behind getting someone to believe the lies that’s the issue. Writing, publishing, sharing, telling, or suggesting something is true when it isn’t, at best misleads the individual you are telling, and at worst creates a reaction that undermines that individual’s civil liberty. Increasingly, fake news is being used to manipulate individuals and groups into specific actions, changing the course of politics, supremacy, and civil liberty. This is a cause for concern for the future of state, and world governance, not to mention individual freedom and right to free speech. Key definitions include:

FAKE news

The active presentation of fiction as fact, with the specific aim of spreading discord, inciting hatred, or delivering political or financial gains. Fake news commonly spreads through social media, using viral marketing to gain traction. At best, this information can be harmless hoax, at worst, it can manipulate the course of politics, economies, and even individual liberties. It is often highlighted as a derived form of propaganda. 

Victims will often help to flame the issue, continuing to spread the lies and fake news that they themselves have come to believe. 



When considering fake news and the spread of false information, it is essential to distinguish between ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’. The difference all comes down to intent. ‘Misinformation’, which has the prefix ‘mis’ meaning wrong, simply means any incorrect or inaccurate information that is spread. It occurs because humans are fallible and make mistakes, misremembering facts or figures and repeating them to other people. Their intention isn’t to mislead, they merely represent poor quality information as fact. ‘Disinformation’ on the other hand, specifically requires a malicious purpose, where the spread of incorrect or inaccurate information has the specific aim of misleading those who hear it.  


Propaganda / SPIN

Specifically employed to sway opinion, propaganda is a form of ‘spin’, presenting facts (and often fiction or lies), in the best possible way to make them believable. It can be used for positive gains in morale, such as the UKs ‘dig for victory’ campaign during World War Two, but is most commonly used to elicit a strong response in a negative way, such as Hitler’s propaganda about Jews. Regardless of its intent, propaganda is rarely good, and exists specifically to corral the masses into action, often without a full understanding or knowledge of the context and circumstance.

Propaganda usually relies on eliciting feelings of personal pride or purpose, or that we have found our ‘tribe’. 


BRAINWASHING / Indoctrination

Brainwashing is an example of when fake news and disinformation are employed to manipulate an individual into a specific action. Manipulative techniques and carefully curated information are used to convert a non-believer to a specific manifesto, doctrine or allegiance. It is a technique often employed by groups to recruit new members, including cults and religious sects. 

Victims are usually converted and coerced over time, becoming staunch believers and defenders of their ‘truth’, often at the expense of friendships and relationships. 



Disinformation is information which is specifically released with malicious intent, to mislead those who hear or read it. The term can, and is often, interchanged with fake news and / or propaganda.

It is most commonly considered a tool of government to control the populace, but can also be used by the media, by religious or cultural groups, and by individuals, to specifically gain traction over another individual or group. Disinformation is commonly spread covertly and usually has a specific bias. 

Victims will often be misled using grand statements, which cannot be supported with action.  


A hoax is a malicious deception, often delivered in pursuit of humour. It regularly involves the planting or presentation of evidence to support bold claims, with a view to getting an individual to believe it. 


The true definition of a conspiracy is a ‘secret plan to do something unlawful or harmful’. While conspiracies undoubtedly exist, oftentimes, conspiracy theorists manipulate facts and information to support their own agenda. This in turn can manipulate other individuals to believe things which do not actually exist. 

Getting support

The type of support available to you is dependent on what information you have received, and its impact on your life. In its simplest forms, e.g. reading incorrect information on social media, prevention is your best hope of support, equipping yourself to proactively check facts, vet sources and consider the truth behind what you read. You can also take proactive action in these cases, reporting fake news to the platform that is carrying it, or the admin that is overseeing it. AT the other extreme, disinformation may have led you to behave out of character, resulting in joining an extremist religious group or cult for example. In these scenarios, additional support for recovery is available. 

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Propaganda Sways Opinion

Propaganda is the evil twin of Public Relations. Although the founder of modern PR, Edward Bernays, preferred the term “propaganda”, most people nowadays equate propaganda with manipulative PR or “spin”.

The Spin-Doctors

Propaganda - Exploitative Techniques

Propagandists have a hidden agenda. They bend opinion at the expense of the truth, a truth that may be completely hidden from public view. Recent revelations about frequent accidents at nuclear power plants in the UK exemplify this tactic.

Political spin-doctors are adept at “stealing” the news by releasing a bigger story than the negative one about to break about their employer, which is then pushed into the middle pages (as shown in the film Wag the Dog, where a potential presidential sex scandal is eclipsed by a manufactured war). They know how to reword any proposition, using the most positive words possible, turning even the worst news into something to be celebrated.

 Spin-doctors can also undermine a competitor’s position. In an opponent, “caution” will be reviled as “paranoia”; the willingness to negotiate becomes “appeasement”.

Words That Work

Dr Frank Lutz, consultant to the Republican Party in the US, wrote a remarkable exposé “Words that work” about his profession, including some of his own stirring words as they were voiced by politicians. Lutz gives many examples of wrong and right words, for instance: never say “government”, instead say “Washington”; for “undocumented workers” say “illegal immigrants”; for “capitalism” say “free market economy”; for “wiretapping” say “electronic intercepts”.

Lutz understands the immediate emotional power of words. There are “snarl” words and “purr” words that are readily used to channel thinking, creating the desired emotions in the listener through the words used to describe the situation.

Public Relations vs Propaganda

The distinction between honest public relations and propaganda is often hard to make: Edward Bernays insisted that Goebbels had simply applied his American advertising techniques to the control of a whole population.

Propaganda can be used to deceive and to create hatred. It is a tool very effectively used by contemporary terrorist cults to attract recruits.

It is best to fight propaganda with truth. The Internet has given us both fact-checking and fake news. We need to learn to differentiate between them. A good start is Pratkanis and Aranson’s book, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion.

 More on Propaganda

by Jon Atack

Propaganda has come to mean the negative use of public relations. It covers deceptive advertising, political spin and fake news.

In the 1930s, the US Institute of Propaganda Analysis came up with a useful description of the methods used in the invidious art of propaganda. Here is our reworking of those methods:

Name-calling – using personal insults and slogans to attack an enemy or an unwelcome opinion, rather discussing the facts or answering criticism.

Glittering generalities – describing one’s own party, system, candidate or opinion in broad, glowing terms, keeping away from specific issues and instead using emotional appeal to align the cause with the highest possible ideals. This approach is typical of political speech-making.

Transfer – the propagandist aligns the target with a previously unrelated person or idea, using negative associations to malign and positive associations to boost credibility. This is similar to the advertising technique called “positioning”.

Testimonials – personal accounts of satisfaction from others, which may or may not be scripted or even faked to create the illusion that millions of others support the candidate, viewpoint, or cause. Marketeers and cult groups commonly use testimonials as if they were evidence. Science rejects such testimonials as anecdotal evidence.

Plain Folks – presenting the desired opinion as coming from “just plain folks,” that is, someone the audience can respond to and identify with.

Bandwagon – “Everyone else is on board, what about you?” It gives the false impression that the idea being sold is universally accepted. It is an aspect of Cialdini’s law of consensus, as is the testimonial.

Fear – similar to the phobia induction in a high-control group: the propagandist uses the fear of dire consequences, often exaggerated, to move whole populations into a compliant, fervent state of paranoia.

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis also published the “ABCs of Propaganda,” a six-point checklist designed to help us asses the value of any message, whether from a government or political party, a religious group, a corporation, or a news organization:

  • Ascertain the conflict element in the propaganda.
  • Behold your own reaction.
  • Concern yourself with today’spropaganda associated with today’s conflicts.
  • Doubt that your opinions are “your very own”.
  • Evaluate, with the greatest care your own propaganda.
  • Find the facts before you come to any conclusion.

This is a useful way to evaluate information to see if it is fake news.

Read more about propaganda here.