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Truth and Propaganda

Developing a spy mindset means understanding truth and propaganda – what they are and what purpose they serve.

Most people embrace the idea of truth. We have debated the nature of truth since ancient Greece, but we still struggle with reaching consensus. One core question: in a world of constant change, is truth possible?

Plato and Aristotle argued that constant change and truth are incompatible – kind of. We all agree that 2 + 2 = 4 is true, but what about the claim that a particular organism is a human? If organisms are constantly changing (growth, decay, digestion, etc.), we must identify an underlying thing that doesn’t change, such as DNA. Armed with this, we can observe the world and state with confidence who is and who isn’t human – truth.

Truth is mind independent – valid for all. With the correct methodology, we should all arrive at the same conclusion.

On the other hand, many people do not embrace the idea of propaganda, even though we use it all the time, even for good purposes.

Merriam-Webster’s definition avoids negative connotations: “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause.” Propaganda is a call to action and should not be confused with rhetoric, which is designed to persuade.

Advertising is propaganda. Public Relations is propaganda. A football coach who fires up the team during half-time uses propaganda. A politician who gives a stump speech uses propaganda. Propaganda works by crafting narratives and appealing to our emotions and biases, not to logic.

Developing a spy mindset means understanding the relationship between truth and propaganda. We all promote various causes with propaganda, but how this relates to truth comes in three forms: true, pending, or false.

Most would agree that using propaganda in support of the truth can be a good thing. For example, a prosecutor might have irrefutable evidence that an individual did not commit a crime, such as a verified alibi, but he might resort to propaganda to overcome any blind spots or biases that might hinder the jury from seeing the truth.

Most would agree that using propaganda when the truth is pending can be a good thing as well. For example, if we don’t know who will win a football game or how well a sales team will perform next quarter, we can use propaganda to shape the results. Propaganda can move people from point A to point B, from possible defeat to victory.

However, we should all agree that using propaganda to promote something false is not a good thing. For example, if a pharmaceutical company fudges test results and pays bribes to get FDA approval for a drug that isn’t safe or doesn’t work, we should reject it, regardless of how many people in the commercials look happy.

Just as ethical issues are more interesting when they deal with good people who have conflicts with other good people, as opposed to good versus evil, propaganda is most interesting when the truth is pending.

Consider the war in Ukraine. Both sides are using propaganda because the Internet and social media have made propaganda a critical component of modern warfare. Like a football game at half-time, the winner is still pending, so both sides are engaging in propaganda to keep the advantage: to motivate their side to fight and their opponent to surrender.

When talking heads provide television commentary or write editorials about the war in Ukraine, many ground their analysis in truth, as best they can, but many are engaged in propaganda to help the home team.

If Ukraine takes a small town, the headline is Russia is in full retreat. If captured Russian soldiers speak out against the war, the headline is the Russian military is losing confidence in Putin. These claims are open to debate, but Russia uses the same tactics. Winning the narrative war often conflicts with embracing the unadulterated truth.

The sub-optimal (Nash Equilibrium) nature of international relations compels the players to engage in propaganda. If we don’t, others will, and then we might lose. We can “do the right thing” – reject our own propaganda and empathize with the enemy – but they probably won’t offer us the same courtesy.

Where we should draw the line is when our propaganda conflicts with the Constitution and the interests of the American people. In this case, we should prefer to lose the war and replace our representatives at the next election.

Developing a spy mindset means accepting that you will often have to manage gray areas with propaganda or “spin.” You might say some things that give you pause, but this is how the game is played.

Most important, developing a spy mindset means never believing your own spin and never losing sight of the underlying truths that serve as your North Star.

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