Journalism’s Pro-active Propaganda Tactic  

Journalists in the U.S. have lost public trust, and they’re scrambling to restore trust in their profession. One way they are attempting to regain trust is to present their viewpoints and to discourage the public from knowing anything else. They call their method prebunking.  

Simply stated, prebunking is “the practice of countering potential misinformation by warning people against it before it is disseminated.” Activist organizations like First Draft News (FDN) explain prebunking as “the process of debunking lies, tactics or sources before they strike.” They sell prebunk messaging as “quick and cheap for reporters, fact checkers, governments and others to make.” 

Trust Over Truth 

FDN admits prebunking isn’t about presenting facts as much as is about leading readers and viewers to adopt chosen positions:  

A good prebunk addresses people’s concerns, speaks to their lived experience and compels them to share that knowledge. Prebunks are empowering: The whole point is about building trust with your audience instead of simply correcting facts. 

Focusing on FDN’s urging writers to “debunk lies, tactics and sources before they strike,” consider these missing factors:  

  1. How does a writer debunk a lie before having even received and read the supposed lie? 
  1. How does a writer debunk a “source” before the source says anything? 

Debunking lies and sources in advance of any supposed statement is not reporting the news. Instead of giving news and describing “both sides,” FDN advises telling audiences to expect false statements and to categorically distrust certain identified sources. Thus, writers should be “pointing out bad sources of information” and identifying which “pre-existing narratives bad actors might exploit.” Without explaining its grounds, FDN presumes that it and its followers already know who the “bad sources” and “bad actors” are and what they think and will say. 

Overt Efforts to “Poison the Well”  

Prebunking falls squarely under the age-old “poisoning the well” (PTW) fallacy. In chapter 40 of Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy (2019), the authors explain

PTW occurs when we illegitimately prime our audience with a pre-emptive strike against, or with adverse information about, an argumentative opponent before the latter has had a chance to say anything in her own defense, or in defense of her point of view.  

Thus, PTW  

has the insidious effect of creating a conceptual framework according to which the audience … will interpret her claims as “fulfilling” and “confirming” the presumptions buried inside this conceptual trap. 

Notice that as a valid way to discover and present truth, the prebunking strategy fails immediately. Yet “journalism” sources like revere the trickery, declaring “prebunking is effective at fighting misinformation” and cheering the work time it saves: “Instead of the tedious undertaking of fact-checking every single false claim, proponents of prebunking advocate for mass inoculation.” 

Journalists and writers become the ones who decide which information is “misinformation” or “disinformation.” FDN advises journalists deploying the prebunking strategy to “focus on [the bad actors’] tactics if you want to build more generalized resilience to disinformation. A tactic might be the use of fake ‘experts’ to bolster a lie, or the use of emotional language to manipulate you.” 

FDN evidently can’t see how FDN itself uses “emotional language” to “manipulate” its readers. FDN refers to disfavored people as “fake experts,” “bad actors,” and “bad sources” without hesitation. Emotional manipulation much? 

Another journalist website, Pen America (, has bemoaned how too many writers are not actively fighting perceived misinformation and disinformation by using prebunking and other tools. Academics call for more prebunking as journalist sites urge governments and social media to censor free speech.  

Debunk the Prebunkers 

As a soldier in the prebunking brigade, FDN makes its goals clear. To help journalists carry out their mission, for example, FDN advises:  

Before you repeat the myth, warn your audience. Remind your audience that people are trying to manipulate us and why. This puts people’s guard up, increasing their mental resistance to misinformation. 

And FDN teaches writers to give their audiences “the tools to reject the [disfavored] claim in the future,” by, for example, urging readers and viewers “to focus on consensus. … Remind people of what experts agree on and why.” 

Your mind is the target— as always since the beginning. The press, the “media,” has long been the artery supplying information to everyday people. The reading and viewing audience depends on this information. It matters whether the journalists provide facts and whether they present—or conceal—the whole truth.  

Readers, be forewarned. The prebunkers are trying to manipulate their audience—you—by deploying ad hominem attacks and poisoning the well against differing views before the views are even presented. The prebunkers will cite opinion poll numbers and claim “experts agree” to persuade you not to consider other views. Wherever ideas are shared, the prebunkers will broadcast “the simplest version of the idea so it’s easier to remember and spot afterward,” and they will repeat it ad infinitum. Notice how identical sound-bites arise across media channels as though orchestrated. 

Prebunking is touted as a strategy to build trust in journalism as the source of truth. Does that strategy build your trust?

Richard W. Stevens, an appellate lawyer, holds degrees in both computer science and law, and has authored four books and numerous articles on various subjects, including legal topics, the Bill of Rights, and intelligent design.

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