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Defending Against Rumors, Lies and Propaganda

Defense Against the Dark Arts

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Public relations is easy when all the news is good.

Imagine being the media director for a state lottery. Unless something really, really goes wrong, your job is 100 percent good news. The press releases you send are about a grandmother winning $50,000 or a single dad working two jobs hitting the MegaMillions for $125 million.

The real challenge is handling bad news, right? Disasters and scandals. Things you can't control.

Except that's not the worst thing you can face.

Rumors, lies and propaganda aren't the normal kind of bad news.

A flood means you no harm. People understand the fires happen, that bosses sometimes have personal problems.

When you're confronted with rumors, lies or propaganda, it's bad news aimed straight at your heart, and it's not random at all. Another human being is aiming that arrow.

How to Fight Rumors, Lies and Propaganda
Public figures are as effective as their reputations are strong. Rumors, lies and propaganda eat away at reputations. Defending against these cancers takes patience, skill and strategy. Part of the reason is that our brains are hard-wired to only keep the most important information about other people. You don't have enough space in your head to remember every little detail, good or bad, about all the people you encounter. Propaganda is even tougher to combat. It's an organized campaign of misinformation, fear, censorship, half-truths and lies.

Why Rumors are So Viral and Damaging
Once a rumor is in the wild, you can't unring that bell, especially in the age of e-mail chains, text messages and Twitter. The worst rumors are about non-factual things. That doesn't mean lies. It means things you can't know: future events, past mysteries and motivations. Rumors are inherently tough to squash because they have built-in defenses. Nobody can know the future. There's never any proof of another person's innermost thoughts, feeling and motivations.

Rumors Can Plant False Memories
Hearing a rumor can make you not only think it might be true, and believe it -- hearing a rumor can actually implant false memories that it actually happened to you. Perception is reality. That's not just a cynical bumper sticker. There's real science behind it now.

Examples of Rumors and Public Relations
Rumors aren't just a problem at the office or your neighborhood. They affect the biggest corporations in the world, politicians, professional sports teams and anyone who works in Hollywood. It's instructive to see the different strategies used at the highest levels in these professions. Should you never comment on any rumor? Should you try to squash them right away?

How to Fight Rumors
It's because of built-in defenses that rumors persist. People want to know the unknown. They will always gossip about public figures and people in power. It's inevitable. So how do you fight a damaging rumor without giving it legs in the media? This post goes through five ways to kill rumors.

How Lies Work
Lies are different than rumors. A lie tries to subvert a known fact. It's aimed at undermining the truth. A famous example is this lie: "The earth is flat." Despite mountains of evidence showing that the earth is round, some people persist in believing that the earth is flat, because they want to believe it.

Fighting Back Against Lies
When confronted with a lie, it's not enough to fight back with the fact and the truth. That's because people are motivated to believe certain lies. The best example of this is the birther movement that believes President Barack Obama was born outside the country, despite all the evidence that he was born in Hawaii and clear forgeries of supposed proof that he was born in Kenya. The first step in attacking the foundation of a lie isn't giving people the facts and the truth -- it's chipping away at the motive for people to believe it.

What is Propaganda, and How Does It Work?
Rumors and lies are often organic. They are sometimes manufactured and leaked by the opposition, but most often, they just happen. Propaganda is entirely different. It's an organized effort to manipulate the public using mass media, censorship, misinformation, half-truths and lies. Propaganda uses images, caricatures and fear like a weapon. Rumors and lies can damage you like shrapnel. If you're the target of propaganda, it's not random. It's a dagger aimed at your heart.

How You Can Defeat Propaganda
It's hard to fight fire with fire, especially when you can't use the same evil techniques, manipulations and lies as the other side employing propaganda against you. The playing field isn't even, either, as you will typically be David in a fight against Goliath, as propaganda is a tool of those in power and on top. Yet the greatest strength of propaganda is also its greatest weakness. You don't have to fight on their terms.

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