Anonymous Sources and Propaganda
Part 2 in the series Propaganda
Next time you watch, read, or listen to the news, pay attention to who is reported as providing the information. Why is this important? Back in the early days of radio, people that tuned in to listen to the news were alarmed by a broadcast about Martians coming to Earth and wreaking havoc. Turns out, it was Orson Welles reading a radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’ classic War of the Worlds in a news bulletin manner.[i] Was it real? No! Did it affect people’s perception of reality? Yes. Knowing where your news is coming from is important, because the news is only as trustworthy as its source.
There are various examples of people making the “news” their own mouthpiece, be it the Soviets, Maoists, Nazis, Benjamin Franklin, or Yellow Journalism. Sure, many of these sources had real items of news, but they were also open to adding their own optics or outright falsehoods into the system.
The thing is, that most people are not really able to fact check. Sure, if they are directly related to someone in the news story, they can call them up and ask them, but almost everyone else is at the mercy of whomever is reporting the news. Obviously there are fact checkers out there and other people that would like the truth to be correctly reported, thus any news story of import is checked by a variety of people. They communicate with sources, send out their own people to interview witnesses, and even request available information from a variety of record keeping offices. If an item of interest is reported, sources will be checked and that story verified; if there are any sources named.
You see, if there are no sources named, people would question the story. How do we know that the reporter isn’t just making the story up? This is where it gets tricky. We know that not everyone is going to want their name dragged through the mud after it gets in the news. We also know that some people, due to their job, may leak information or otherwise provide information they would be forbidden to because of their job. Sometimes this is self-reporting and biased by the person providing the information, but sometimes it is entirely made up! How exactly are facts going to be checked when “a military general who wishes to remain unnamed for security reasons” or “an aide to the president who wishes to remain anonymous” supposedly stated something? Sure, we can wait around to see if they were right, but here is the kicker, even false information can be “right”.
How could something false turn out to be right? Simple, the fallacy can cause people to act in a manner that makes causes it to become true. This is called a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy. Say it is falsely reported that a country is preparing to invade and is beginning to amass troops along another country’s border. This information goes out and the country that isn’t amassing troops on their neighbor’s border wonders why this false information was published. They start patrolling that border, hoping to find what was reported. They deny the whole thing, but their neighbor sees their patrol vehicles and assuming the report was right, increases border guards. Things quickly escalate so that the original false information proves true.
The problem is that journalists aren’t exactly assumed responsible. Maybe someone gave them false information. They “have to protect their source”. In such a system, there is really no accountability, unless it can be proven that they intentionally reported false information; which is nearly impossible to prove.
The idea of protecting sources and giving journalists free reign is assumed to be a cornerstone of a free society. It is true that it is, as long as it isn’t working to undermine the free society. Next time you are watching the news and no names are mentioned for the sources of the story, ask yourself, “Is this propaganda?”
Writes about politics from a Conservative Libertarian viewpoint. While pushing for a government that is Fiscally Conservative and Socially Liberal, he personally appreciates the Socially Conservative lifestyle.
Copyright R. A. Welkin