Is there a conspiracy afoot among Kurdish separatists, Zionists, and ISIS to use feminism to bring down the Iranian regime? Are Nazis, jihadis, and gays working in concert to exterminate Russian history and culture? Did the West prefer to let its own people die en masse rather than admit that crushed dragon bone contains the cure to COVID?  

Authoritarian propaganda can often, to Western ears, sound beyond belief. Laughable, even. But to those who follow closely, and the respective regimes who benefit from such beliefs, these outlandish claims are self-evident. Effective propagandists not only understand the assumptions, presuppositions, and biases of their audiences, but use their control over the creators and distributors of information to shape assumptions as well. 

This four-part series will explore how the regimes in Russia, China, and Iran use propaganda to cement their power. This first piece explains how propaganda works.  

The structure of propaganda can be defined as including a transmitter (the propaganda originator), the channel through which propaganda travels, and the receiver (the target of the propaganda). 

Those familiar with audio-visual systems, or with electronic engineering, will recognize this framework as Claude Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, which has been essential in describing how information propagates.  

Shannon’s work also introduced a metric called surprise. Surprise measures how much can be predicted about the next item in a sequence based on the information already available. The greater the surprise in each item, the harder the next is to predict, and the more instructions are needed, and processing required, for decoding the message. For instance, a message containing a 10 by 10 pixel image of an all-black square, need only be encoded with the instructions “repeat black 100 times.” An image of the same size but with entirely random colors requires instructions for each of the 100 pixels. 

These general concepts map well to how humans process new information. More surprising information — that is, new, less expected information — is much harder to process. Economists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman propose thinking broadly (if not literally) of two systems for processing information: Type I, or subconscious, and Type II, conscious and intentional. Type I thinking accepts what it processes automatically, whereas new information it cannot process, it turns over to Type II. 

The gold standard for successful propaganda is evading our Type II system. Propaganda that our subconscious can decode — propaganda with the least surprise, or least deviation from our expectations — will be accepted unquestioningly. Propaganda that triggers Type II thinking can still be accepted, but faces greater scrutiny, which is clearly anathema to the originator. 

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Successful propagandists, therefore, understand the receivers of their propaganda, above all their expectations, biases, and presuppositions (collectively, their worldview.) By delivering propaganda that follows naturally from the existing beliefs of their audience, the successful propagandist reduces surprise and increases the probability that their audience will accept it without question. 

Controlling worldviews is therefore key to the authoritarian project. To do so, such regimes focus heavily on controlling channels of information — communication networks, education systems, and religious institutions through which information propagates. Total control of media channels allows authoritarians to minimize the spread of alternate worldviews and ensures that everything from entertainment to sports to news reaffirms the dominant worldview.  

Of course, much of the information we process comes from human interaction or our own daily lives — and this is often the opening that dissenters can exploit. In Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan Province, for example, Arabs experienced water shortages, consumed Arabic-language media from abroad, and took to the streets by the thousands last year. In Tehran, Isfahan, and other cosmopolitan cities, liberals could access foreign media and communicate through peer-to-peer networks. Kurds in the northwest could access broadcasts from Iraqi Kurdistan

All this adds up to an unraveling of the regime’s informational control and the most robust challenge to its authority in a generation. In part II, the failures of Iranian propaganda beyond the state-controlled culture will be examined, along with the consequences of the protests that have roiled the country for nearly half a decade, and especially in 2022. 

Ben Dubow is CTO and founder of Omelas, a firm that provides data and analysis on how states manipulate the web to achieve their geopolitical goals and is a Non-resident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) 

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.