14 Propaganda Techniques Fox “News” Uses to Brainwash Americans

By Dr Cynthia Boaz | 2 July 2011

(Image: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Alan Turkus, ario_, Eddi van W.

There is nothing more sacred to the maintenance of democracy than a free press. Access to comprehensive, accurate and quality information is essential to the manifestation of Socratic citizenship – the society characterized by a civically engaged, well-informed and socially invested populace. Thus, to the degree that access to quality information is willfully or unintentionally obstructed, democracy itself is degraded.

It is ironic that in the era of 24-hour cable news networks and “reality” programming, the news-to-fluff ratio and overall veracity of information has declined precipitously. Take the fact Americans now spend on average about 50 hours a week using various forms of media, while at the same time cultural literacy levels hover just above the gutter. Not only does mainstream media now tolerate gross misrepresentations of fact and history by public figures (highlighted most recently by Sarah Palin’s ludicrous depiction of Paul Revere’s ride), but many media actually legitimize these displays. Pause for a moment and ask yourself what it means that the world’s largest, most profitable and most popular news channel passes off as fact every whim, impulse and outrageously incompetent analysis of its so-called reporters. How did we get here? Take the enormous amount of misinformation that is taken for truth by Fox audiences: the belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that he was in on 9/11, the belief that climate change isn’t real and/or man-made, the belief that Barack Obama is Muslim and wasn’t born in the United States, the insistence that all Arabs are Muslim and all Muslims are terrorists, the inexplicable perceptions that immigrants are both too lazy to work and are about to steal your job. All of these claims are demonstrably false, yet Fox News viewers will maintain their veracity with incredible zeal. Why? Is it simply that we have lost our respect for knowledge?

My curiosity about this question compelled me to sit down and document the most oft-used methods by which willful ignorance has been turned into dogma by Fox News and other propagandists disguised as media. The techniques I identify here also help to explain the simultaneously powerful identification the Fox media audience has with the network, as well as their ardent, reflexive defenses of it.

The good news is that the more conscious you are of these techniques, the less likely they are to work on you. The bad news is that those reading this article are probably the least in need in of it.

1. Panic Mongering. This goes one step beyond simple fear mongering. With panic mongering, there is never a break from the fear. The idea is to terrify and terrorize the audience during every waking moment. From Muslims to swine flu to recession to homosexuals to immigrants to the rapture itself, the belief over at Fox seems to be that if your fight-or-flight reflexes aren’t activated, you aren’t alive. This of course raises the question: why terrorize your own audience? Because it is the fastest way to bypasses the rational brain. In other words, when people are afraid, they don’t think rationally. And when they can’t think rationally, they’ll believe anything.

2. Character Assassination/Ad Hominem. Fox does not like to waste time debating the idea. Instead, they prefer a quicker route to dispensing with their opponents: go after the person’s credibility, motives, intelligence, character, or, if necessary, sanity. No category of character assassination is off the table and no offense is beneath them. Fox and like-minded media figures also use ad hominem attacks not just against individuals, but entire categories of people in an effort to discredit the ideas of every person who is seen to fall into that category, e.g. “liberals,” “hippies,” “progressives” etc. This form of argument – if it can be called that – leaves no room for genuine debate over ideas, so by definition, it is undemocratic. Not to mention just plain crass.

3. Projection/Flipping. This one is frustrating for the viewer who is trying to actually follow the argument. It involves taking whatever underhanded tactic you’re using and then accusing your opponent of doing it to you first. We see this frequently in the immigration discussion, where anti-racists are accused of racism, or in the climate change debate, where those who argue for human causes of the phenomenon are accused of not having science or facts on their side. It’s often called upon when the media host finds themselves on the ropes in the debate.

4. Rewriting History. This is another way of saying that propagandists make the facts fit their worldview. The Downing Street Memos on the Iraq war were a classic example of this on a massive scale, but it happens daily and over smaller issues as well. A recent case in point is Palin’s mangling of the Paul Revere ride, which Fox reporters have bent over backward to validate. Why lie about the historical facts, even when they can be demonstrated to be false? Well, because dogmatic minds actually find it easier to reject reality than to update their viewpoints. They will literally rewrite history if it serves their interests. And they’ll often speak with such authority that the casual viewer will be tempted to question what they knew as fact.

5. Scapegoating/Othering. This works best when people feel insecure or scared. It’s technically a form of both fear mongering and diversion, but it is so pervasive that it deserves its own category. The simple idea is that if you can find a group to blame for social or economic problems, you can then go on to a) justify violence/dehumanization of them, and b) subvert responsibility for any harm that may befall them as a result.

6. Conflating Violence With Power and Opposition to Violence With Weakness. This is more of what I’d call a “meta-frame” (a deeply held belief) than a media technique, but it is manifested in the ways news is reported constantly. For example, terms like “show of strength” are often used to describe acts of repression, such as those by the Iranian regime against the protesters in the summer of 2009. There are several concerning consequences of this form of conflation. First, it has the potential to make people feel falsely emboldened by shows of force – it can turn wars into sporting events. Secondly, especially in the context of American politics, displays of violence – whether manifested in war or debates about the Second Amendment – are seen as noble and (in an especially surreal irony) moral. Violence become synonymous with power, patriotism and piety.

7. Bullying. This is a favorite technique of several Fox commentators. That it continues to be employed demonstrates that it seems to have some efficacy. Bullying and yelling works best on people who come to the conversation with a lack of confidence, either in themselves or their grasp of the subject being discussed. The bully exploits this lack of confidence by berating the guest into submission or compliance. Often, less self-possessed people will feel shame and anxiety when being berated and the quickest way to end the immediate discomfort is to cede authority to the bully. The bully is then able to interpret that as a “win.”

8. Confusion. As with the preceding technique, this one works best on an audience that is less confident and self-possessed. The idea is to deliberately confuse the argument, but insist that the logic is airtight and imply that anyone who disagrees is either too dumb or too fanatical to follow along. Less independent minds will interpret the confusion technique as a form of sophisticated thinking, thereby giving the user’s claims veracity in the viewer’s mind.

9. Populism. This is especially popular in election years. The speakers identifies themselves as one of “the people” and the target of their ire as an enemy of the people. The opponent is always “elitist” or a “bureaucrat” or a “government insider” or some other category that is not the people. The idea is to make the opponent harder to relate to and harder to empathize with. It often goes hand in hand with scapegoating. A common logical fallacy with populism bias when used by the right is that accused “elitists” are almost always liberals – a category of political actors who, by definition, advocate for non-elite groups.

10. Invoking the Christian God. This is similar to othering and populism. With morality politics, the idea is to declare yourself and your allies as patriots, Christians and “real Americans” (those are inseparable categories in this line of thinking) and anyone who challenges them as not. Basically, God loves Fox and Republicans and America. And hates taxes and anyone who doesn’t love those other three things. Because the speaker has been benedicted by God to speak on behalf of all Americans, any challenge is perceived as immoral. It’s a cheap and easy technique used by all totalitarian entities from states to cults.

11. Saturation. There are three components to effective saturation: being repetitive, being ubiquitous and being consistent. The message must be repeated cover and over, it must be everywhere and it must be shared across commentators: e.g. “Saddam has WMD.” Veracity and hard data have no relationship to the efficacy of saturation. There is a psychological effect of being exposed to the same message over and over, regardless of whether it’s true or if it even makes sense, e.g., “Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States.” If something is said enough times, by enough people, many will come to accept it as truth. Another example is Fox’s own slogan of “Fair and Balanced.”

12. Disparaging Education. There is an emerging and disturbing lack of reverence for education and intellectualism in many mainstream media discourses. In fact, in some circles (e.g. Fox), higher education is often disparaged as elitist. Having a university credential is perceived by these folks as not a sign of credibility, but of a lack of it. In fact, among some commentators, evidence of intellectual prowess is treated snidely and as anti-American. The disdain for education and other evidence of being trained in critical thinking are direct threats to a hive-mind mentality, which is why they are so viscerally demeaned.

13. Guilt by Association. This is a favorite of Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart, both of whom have used it to decimate the careers and lives of many good people. Here’s how it works: if your cousin’s college roommate’s uncle’s ex-wife attended a dinner party back in 1984 with Gorbachev’s niece’s ex-boyfriend’s sister, then you, by extension are a communist set on destroying America. Period.

14. Diversion. This is where, when on the ropes, the media commentator suddenly takes the debate in a weird but predictable direction to avoid accountability. This is the point in the discussion where most Fox anchors start comparing the opponent to Saul Alinsky or invoking ACORN or Media Matters, in a desperate attempt to win through guilt by association. Or they’ll talk about wanting to focus on “moving forward,” as though by analyzing the current state of things or God forbid, how we got to this state of things, you have no regard for the future. Any attempt to bring the discussion back to the issue at hand will likely be called deflection, an ironic use of the technique of projection/flipping.

In debating some of these tactics with colleagues and friends, I have also noticed that the Fox viewership seems to be marked by a sort of collective personality disorder whereby the viewer feels almost as though they’ve been let into a secret society. Something about their affiliation with the network makes them feel privileged and this affinity is likely what drives the viewers to defend the network so vehemently. They seem to identify with it at a core level, because it tells them they are special and privy to something the rest of us don’t have. It’s akin to the loyalty one feels by being let into a private club or a gang. That effect is also likely to make the propaganda more powerful, because it goes mostly unquestioned.

In considering these tactics and their possible effects on American public discourse, it is important to note that historically, those who’ve genuinely accessed truth have never berated those who did not. You don’t get honored by history when you beat up your opponent: look at Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln. These men did not find the need to engage in othering, ad homeinum attacks, guilt by association or bullying. This is because when a person has accessed a truth, they are not threatened by the opposing views of others. This reality reveals the righteous indignation of people like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity as a symptom of untruth. These individuals are hostile and angry precisely because they don’t feel confident in their own veracity. And in general, the more someone is losing their temper in a debate and the more intolerant they are of listening to others, the more you can be certain they do not know what they’re talking about.

One final observation. Fox audiences, birthers and Tea Partiers often defend their arguments by pointing to the fact that a lot of people share the same perceptions. This is a reasonable point to the extent that Murdoch’s News Corporation reaches a far larger audience than any other single media outlet. But, the fact that a lot of people believe something is not necessarily a sign that it’s true; it’s just a sign that it’s been effectively marketed.

As honest, fair and truly intellectual debate degrades before the eyes of the global media audience, the quality of American democracy degrades along with it.

Dr Cynthia Boaz is assistant professor of political science at Sonoma State University, where her areas of expertise include quality of democracy, nonviolent struggle, civil resistance and political communication and media. She is also an affiliated scholar at the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace International Master in Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies at Universitat Jaume I in Castellon, Spain.


  1. My good Doctor… your statements could also be used to apply to all media outlets. Ratings drive revenue and revenue drive programing. Dry up or control the revenue source and you can control the media. Ayn Rand showed us that in her book.

    • Ayn Rand is a dead hypocrite who took social security benefits while complaining about a 'nation of parasites.' She was a Russian that emigrated to America and made a career out of complaining about our democracy after her dreams of being an actress predictably failed. She said selfishness is a virtue and compassion is a flaw of the weak. She utterly detested Ronald Reagan and the traditional nuclear family.

      The fact that she has been deified by the right illustrates how tortured their reasoning is: Take what you want, ignore the rest.

    • Actually, Ayn Rand had her head on pretty straight, and was quite clear about separating Corporations from Government, for instance.
      She is yet another of Fox's "conflating" victims.

  2. About the only difference between Fox and other networks looks to be 10 and 12. Other networks tend to promote "experts" above and beyond the degree of respect they are due. Unfortunately, learning enough basic science and scientific method seems too much for most people, and so it makes certain issues incomprehensible for those people.
    As long as other networks treat conservatives as dumb hick hillbillies to be treated who can't speak proper English, people are going to look for outlets where they perceive they are being accorded respect. Fox is not the best source of information, but it is sometimes the only source for certain stories that involve legitimate issues for Americans to know about.

    • And what legitimate issue exists that only Fox news can deliver? In terms of social issues, they are, for the most part, Tea Party conservatives and will preach that point of view without accepting any form of compromise. Foreign policy (whether it is North Korea or the middle east) can be found almost anywhere since it affects the security of Americans.

    • Sure, accept that "legitimate stories" carried by Fox almost always mean any story that makes non-conservatives look bad. You've missed the entire point of this article.

  3. I think that the International Jews are laughing at us in the West. People post about the violent tendencies of other races and just stir up animosity for White people in our multicultural societies. To me, this is misdirected anger because most non-White people come to the Western countries because of poor economic conditions, famine, and war created by International Jewry, and International Jewry allows these non-Whites into the White countries. All of our focus must be directed to the International Jew, because they are the nation-wreckers who have created all the problems that we have in our world. I also think that trying to wake up Christian Zionists is wasted energy. These Christian Zionists have a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with Jews, and nothing you say about them will change their mind about them. You explain to them that the tribe of Judah are not the Children of Israel, and it would not even matter. I tried with these people and I just got labeled an anti-Semite. What we must understand is what is happening in Gaza and to the Palestinians is the blueprint for how the world will be when International Jewry has a total grip on the world.

    • My wife is a Jew. Let me tell you – when we married I found out soooo much. Like did you know that there is a secret International Jewery periodical. They send one to each Jew (along with their periodic disbursement of gold coins and Christian children’s blood). Then each Jew is asked to vote on a series of related issues. For example, if the discussion is about Palestine, the International Jewery publication will ask said Jew to vote on how many Palestinians to bomb. It’s just great how organized and democratic the whole secret Jewish Cabal is.

      Put that in your crazy pipe and smoke it! Seriously though, you might want to think about seeing a doctor for some psychotropic meds, or take your meds if you’ve already been prescribed them.

    • You ARE an Anti-Semite! Obviosly by your post. I married a Jew, was raised Mormon, and am an atheist… and Not one religion has talked about hurting others (with the exception of some extreme Muslim and baptist groups) It is PEOPLE of ALL Races and religions who because of a lack of education refute proof and facts.. not just one group. All I can say is if you put your finger down and stop blaming people and just do good things regardless of anyone's color, race or religion maybe you can make a difference….and if everyone else did the same this would not even be an issue, but greed, and a selfish attitude is what is destroying our world. For some reason people think they're entitled to feel special or that one person is better than the other. There are other ways to feel special, do it by helping someone who truly needs it. Feel special by knowing you helped improve someones life and didn't hurt anyone in the process…..Stop buying into whatever propaganda that is being spoon fed to you….it is disturbing.

  4. It's hard to classify you as an anti-semite, I mean obviously you are anti-semitic: dislike jews. But the over-arcing problem is that you're probably a paranoid schitzophrenic. The internet gives people like you the ultimate in validation cause you find others like you and thus think you must be right.

  5. As a former K12 educator, I’ll speak on #12. Anti-intellectualism and education has grown in popularity via movies, radio and teen pop culture for some time. Fox news is just piggy backing on that. Taking advantage and increasing viewership. Just a guess, but the two may be connected. There are communities across this country that resist education & learning despite not being viewers of Fox. A problem that we’ve failed to address as a nation except cor hyper-high-stakes testing.

  6. Fox plays to a class of gullible Americans who are willing shell out money every three months to read the same book written by different authors. I believe it's Glen Beck's turn next

  7. I have no idea who Dr. Boaz is, other than her HuffPost lackluster credentials which include being an Associate Professor at some California community college. Her laser aim at Fox News with criticisms that actually apply to most if not all contemporary media outlets discredits her thesis and any purported ability to write critically.

    • Because her having her doctorate doesn't mean anything. Way to prove the point she made regarding the conservative "laser aim" at education; if someone says something you don't agree with, then their level of education is irrelevant and their credentials MUST be questioned and attacked to invalidate the argument. Aces.

  8. The author forgot one: the False Equivalency. This is a clever dodge whereby an opponent's single, possibly inadvertent, use of a proscribed tactic brings as much indignation as one's own repeated and deliberate use of same. See multiple examples above.

    P.S. @JJames: Dr. Boaz is an Assistant (not associate) Professor at a State University, not a community college. Nice try.

  9. I’m neither a supporter of MSNBC or Fox News (actually, they’re an “entertainment” group…), but Fox isn’t the only media outlet that relies on chicanery to sway peoples’ opinion. You can’t really trust either side of an increasingly polarizing media circus. Whatever happened to good old “Who, what, where, when, why, and how?” I believe that until we begin to focus on the beliefs we share, and assign less importance to those beliefs upon which we differ, that we are in for a rough, rough ride as a country. We’re all Americans, we all have valid points of view that are a product of our journeys, and we need to be respectful of one another. If I’m not respectful of your ideals, how can I reasonably expect you to be respectful of mine?

    By the way, you may note that my politics aren’t clearly indicated here…

  10. This entire article is a propaganda technique. Just because the rest of the media tells the same story doesn't mean that story is right. Fox News generally gives a different side of the story, and we need other perspectives. As for rewriting history, it's nothing new – ever heard the phrase "history repeats itself"? Look at the sins committed in the Bible and they are the same sins still committed today. Look at the four gospels – four different takes on Jesus life. We need different viewpoints because we all "see through the glass darkly."

  11. I would politely suggest/request that you cover all news media with this same "ruler"! At least Fox COVERS THE NEWS……..many, many stories are NEVER seen on other media. I am an educated woman and discern all news with a "grain of salt' until I have done my own perusal…..ONE HAS TO USE GOOD JUDGEMENT for all stories…..But it is difficult to judge when MANY important stories are NEVER covered by the "main stream press" most particularly if "those" stories don't meet the criteria of that particular liberal media outlet.

    • Fox covers stories never seen on other media precisely because they have been proven false or misleading by all the other media. This is especially true when it comes to crackpot conspiracy theories, such as Obama not being born in the US or his being Muslim, or ay number of long debunked foolish or non existent scandals. Benghazi is a perfect example. Only the brainwashed Fox viewer thinks there's any scandal involved. Everybody else knows better.

  12. I only watch fox or listen to hannity on the radio for entertainment – to see and hear just how ridiculous they are, and how they repeat the same crap, over and over and over and over again; as though their dimwitted audience are going to "forget how to think".
    Granted, MSNBC can be annoying as well – or certain hosts. I've long disregarded anything that ed Schultz says, and he sounds too much like "the flip-side of rush limpballs" to be taken seriously.
    You have to listen to it ALL – if for nothing else, to realize what crap is being tossed out to the weak minded listeners in the land.

  13. I came to this site for the first time today in order to get an unbiased view on the news. Then I see this garbage. To say that Fox News is biased without commenting on the same tactics used by other news agencies screams bias itself. Well done NewsTrust, well done. I will continue my search elsewhere.

  14. The most entertaining thing about reading the article along with the comments is that, not only does Fox News do all of the things the article mentions, but they have also trained their viewers to do them.

    "other than her HuffPost lackluster credentials which include being an Associate Professor at some California community college" – #2
    "your statements could also be used to apply to all media outlets" – #3
    "At least Fox COVERS THE NEWS" – #7
    "As long as other networks treat conservatives as dumb hick hillbillies" – #9
    "Other networks tend to promote "experts" above and beyond the degree of respect they are due" – #12
    "I think that the International Jews are laughing at us in the West" – #14

  15. Well since this article I'm linking to came out a full month before this drivel, I'd say it is the author here that has issues with the truth. http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/peter-roff/20
    Despite the evidence that Palin was correct, Dr Boaz refuses to admit it, and uses her own opinion as fact. Where was her outrage when CNN & MSNBC allowed Barrack a pass for saying the US has 57 states. She has absolutely no credibility.

  16. I think this is all true. It doesn't take a genius to find cracks in Fox's approach to news. You just have to follow them for a week and you'll see a lot of discrepancies.