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Political slogans as a form of fake news

By Philip Seargeant

The aim of this article is to bring together two different elements that play a significant role in current political communication and see if an understanding of the one can inform an understanding of the other, and vice versa. The two elements are political catchphrases – and in particular political slogans– and the communication or dissemination of mis- and dis-information, or what’s popularly referred to as ‘fake news’. The speculative question from which I’m starting is to what extent political slogans, as a popular element of political rhetoric, contribute in some way to the creation and communication of mis- and disinformation.

A very simply definition of political catchphrases, which is used and discussed in many of the other articles on this blog, is that they’re concise terms or sayings which become, usually for a short length of time, both very popular and omnipresent in political discourse. As a starting point for the discussion of disinformation, I’m going to use part of the definition from a project that’s currently exploring the use of artificial intelligence to detect and track disinformation (CIMPLE: Countering Creative Information Manipulation with Explainable AI), and which does so by focusing on what it calls ‘creative manipulation’ as a resource for cognitive warfare. The project’s definition of creative manipulation includes rhetorical or presentational strategies which ‘render the information [being spread] not entirely false, but omit key detail, sensationalise and emotionalise the content, and promote certain content over others.’ As with many other studies into disinformation, the starting point then is an investigation of how the discourse around a topic or issue is framed and discussed – and how this framing renders a particular perspective on the issue, which can be false, misleading, partial, and so on.

The key factors from this definition can be summarised as follows:

  • appeals to emotion;
  • processes of over-simplification;
  • the use of omission to create an unbalanced picture of a situation;
  • and a process of sensationalisation.

What’s notable here is that these are very much the same ingredients as are found in propaganda. The table below catalogues some of the main devices used in propaganda, many of which map directly on to these bullet points. The fourth column in the table, for instance, includes a number of ways of appealing to emotion, including the use of fearmongering and loaded language. Both the second and third columns include simplification and cherry-picking strategies, such as one-sided arguments, exaggeration or minimization, stereotyping and so forth. Many of these then lead to a sensationalising of the issues at hand.

Strategies of argumentation Simple rhetorical strategies Epistemological approaches Appeals to emotion
  • straw man fallacy
  • false dichotomy
  • one-sided argument
  • argumentum ad populum
  • whataboutism
  • reductio ad Hitlerum
  • constant repetition
  • exaggeration or minimization
  • use of vague language and stereotyped ideas
  • dead cat strategy
  • appeals to authority
  • casual over-simplification
  • avoidance of abstract ideas
  • thought-terminating clichés
  • loaded language
  • constant criticism of your opponent
  • slogans
  • insults
  • fearmongering, and the identification of a main enemy
  • jingoism

There’s no particular surprise here, given that ‘fake news’ can be and is used as a type of propaganda – that’s to say, it’s a tool for overt political persuasion which uses deceptive methods. Indeed, it’s one of the most high-profile forms of propaganda currently used in political discourse.

Another useful concept to introduce at this stage is narrative, in that this functions as one of the main ways in which many of these manipulations are achieved, and as such it’s a particularly powerful tool for persuasion and propaganda. There are a number of ways in which it achieves this function:

  • Narrative personifies issues, transforming them from the abstract to the concrete and relatable, thus playing on people’s emotions rather than reason alone;
  • It entails dividing events into conflicts between protagonists and antagonists: identifying an enemy, demonising that enemy, and again pushing for an emotional response from the audience;
  • In doing this it tends towards seeing things from a single perspective, thus overgeneralising things;
  • It also simplifies thing by ascribing causality to everything; for example, otherwise complex issues are blamed entirely on one person or group rather than on complicated social or political factors;
  • And finally, it’s goal-oriented, i.e., it specifies resolutions which, within the logic of the narrative, are easily attainable.

As we can see then, the short list of factors identified as part of the creative manipulation of information aligns very closely with how propaganda works, and with how narrative is used as a tool for this.

Which brings us to the question of what role slogans play in all this. The first point to make is that, as a form of communication, slogans are themselves doing very similar things to those described above – or at least, successful slogans are. The key elements of a slogan include the following:

  • Concision: they’re short but meaningful;
  • Design: they’re purposefully created rather than emerging organically from everyday discourse;
  • Ideology: they have a particular ideological bent as a result of being designed for a specific purpose by a particular group.

And then, as far as successful slogans go, they’re also catchy. A great many political slogans are instantly forgettable so we could perhaps say that while these are still slogans, they’re not catchphrases. Or to put it another way, although slogans are purposefully designed, it’s also the way that they’re organically taken up by the public that makes them into catchphrases.

Finally, then, we can address the key question of how this use of rhetoric can manipulate the ways in which issues are framed, and thus what part it potentially plays in the spread of disinformation.

One line of argument would be that slogans aren’t supposed to be understood as communicating information so they can’t be described as a form of disinformation. Or rather, they’re not assertions of fact – they’re rallying cries or expressions of values – so ‘truth’ is neither here nor there as far as they’re concerned. But this sort of response is to take a rather narrow view of what truth is or isn’t.

What slogans do is work from, and further promote, assumptions of how the world is.

And these assumptions put forward a particular framing of the world. As noted earlier, framing is the foundation for political persuasion, for propaganda, and for fake news.

Put simply, people are more likely to buy into your specific narrative if it aligns with their general underlying belief systems. To illustrate this, let’s look at an example I discussed in an article on ‘Stop the …’ slogans: the current UK Conservative government’s pledge to ‘Stop the boats’.

In addressing the question of whether this slogan contributes to the spread of disinformation, we can start with the three elements of a slogan, and how they lead to framing the issue in a particular way:

  • ‘Stop the boats’ is very clearly a concise statement, consisting of just the three words. An immediate consequence of this is that it necessarily simplifies things – and simplification nearly always results in distortion;
  • It’s purposefully created rather than organically emerging – and this, combined with the concision, suggests that each and every word has been specifically chosen for its effect;
  • And finally, it’s ideological – the context here being the British Conservative party which identifies itself with a strict immigration policy, along with related and broader ideas of ‘traditional British values’ – something which unregulated immigration is framed as challenging or imperilling.
  • It also has the typical dynamics of the rallying-cry – a call for action, for change, and an emotional appeal (the emotion in this case being fear of the other).

In the previous analysis of the slogan, I suggested that the middle of the three words, ‘the’, is key to the ideological meaning the phrase is aiming to communicate due to the way it assumes a certain shared knowledge amongst the target audience. The government don’t wish to stop any boats – they wish to stop ‘the’ boats – and the slogan takes for granted that we, the public, know which boats they’re talking about. In other words, the slogan refers back to an earlier discourse in which the defining details of this category of immigrant has already been established and with which the audience for the slogan is expected to be familiar.

In assuming this shared knowledge, it also assumes – and contributes to the creation and maintenance of – a community with shared values. For us to understand the meaning of the slogan, we have to pick up on the context it’s drawing upon, and in triggering this context the slogan consolidates the status of this context. As such, I would thus argue, the slogan contributes to the framing of a particular political issue and, crucially, it promotes this particular framing as simply the way things are.

If we return then to the factors we begun with related to manipulation of information in political discourse, we can see that for the most part this slogan covers all of these:

  • It appeals to emotion in the way that it creates an antagonist and presents the whole issue as a crisis that the country needs to resolve;
  • It simplifies a very complex political and human issue – and in doing so presents that issue from a sole perspective, entirely omitting the experiences of the immigrants themselves;
  • And although the slogan itself doesn’t do this, the wider rhetoric used around the topic – with metaphors such as ‘invasion’ and ‘hurricane’ – definitely sensationalises it all.

Whether this makes it disinformation, as such, I’m not entirely sure. But what it does do, I think, is to use forms of creative manipulation to set an agenda for public discourse – and the agenda is one which strips a greatly complex issue of its complexity and creates an environment in which a particular ideological narrative influences the way people interpret what’s happening in the world. 

Image credit: GDJ, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons