How to Thwart the Nefarious Propaganda Technique of Projection

Agresti, J. D. (2024, January 19). How to Thwart the Nefarious Propaganda Technique of Projection. Retrieved from
Agresti, James D. “How to Thwart the Nefarious Propaganda Technique of Projection.” Just Facts. 19 January 2024. Web. 20 May 2024.<>.
Chicago (for footnotes)
James D. Agresti, “How to Thwart the Nefarious Propaganda Technique of Projection.” Just Facts. January 19, 2024.
Chicago (for bibliographies)
Agresti, James D. “How to Thwart the Nefarious Propaganda Technique of Projection.” Just Facts. January 19, 2024.

By James D. Agresti
January 19, 2024

Credit: mikute/


One of the most effective and devious methods of mass deception is falsely accusing others of one’s own misdeeds. This is called “projecting” or “accusation in a mirror,” and it was used by:

  • corrupt politicians in ancient Rome to purge a statesman who stood in the way of their graft.
  • the Nazis to launch World War II.
  • influential people in Rwanda to incite a genocide.

Certain moral frameworks that have gained traction in modern times permit and even encourage this type of propaganda.

Although it can be hard to determine who is projecting and who is the target, this can be accomplished with an awareness of human nature and vital research skills.

What is Projection?

The social scientist Jacques Ellul explained the nature of projection in a classic book titled Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes:

The propagandist will not accuse the enemy of just any misdeed; he will accuse him of the very intention that he himself has and of trying to commit the very crime that he himself is about to commit. He who wants to provoke a war not only proclaims his own peaceful intentions but also accuses the other party of provocation. He who uses concentration camps accuses his neighbor of doing so. He who intends to establish a dictatorship always insists that his adversaries are bent on dictatorship. [Hat Tip: Stella Morabito]

Another social scientist named Roger Mucchielli explained why projection is so effective in a French book titled Psychology of Advertising and Propaganda. Loosely translated via Google, he notes that “the advantages of mirror charging are many,” such as:

  • placing “honest people” in a “state of self-defense.”
  • depriving “the enemy” of “his arguments.”
  • convincing “everyone” to “be on the side of ‘the just Cause’.”

These “advantages” are vividly illustrated in history and current events.


In the first century BC, a Roman statesman named Publius Rutilius Rufus—who was famed for having high integrity—was prosecuted for and convicted of extortion. According to historians of that era, this was an unjust act of revenge by corrupt officials because Rufus had stopped them from overtaxing citizens and pocketing the excess money.

Modern philosophers Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman describe the tactic used against Rufus like this:

Accuse the honest man of precisely the opposite of what they’re doing, of the sin you yourself are doing. Use their reputation against them. Muddy the waters. Stain them with lies. [Hat Tip: Larry Reed]

While this projection was targeted at an individual, it has also been used against nations.

World War II

Fast forward to September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany launched a pre-dawn military raid on Poland. This marked the official start of World War II, the deadliest and most widespread conflict in world history.

Ph.D. historian Alexandra Richie explains how the Nazis used projection to justify their assault on Poland:

  • “The military attack against Poland was masterminded by Hitler,” who was “determined to make it look as if the Poles had provoked the hostilities” by “staging numerous false-flag operations and ‘Polish provocations’ against Germans.”
  • “The most infamous of these was the staged attack at a radio station” near the German-Polish border just hours before the Nazis raided Poland. To carry out this plot, the Nazis murdered a local German who was “sympathetic to Poland,” placed his body at the radio station, and “pretended that Poles” had killed the man—using his dead body as “evidence.”
  • “It was a lie from beginning to end,” but the Nazis were “soon churning out stories about the heinous attack,” and by the next morning, “Hitler was already using” this Nazi-committed murder “to justify his invasion of Poland.”

Evidence of this scheme mainly comes from a former Nazi military official who testified that he participated in it. Yet, Nazi sympathizers claim that “the whole story might have been invented by the Allies to cover up an actual attack by Polish insurgents.”

Hitler’s minister of propaganda—the infamous Joseph Goebbels—was well aware of the tactic of projection and brazenly accused Germany’s opponents of utilizing it. “The cleverest trick used in propaganda against Germany,” said Goebbels in a 1934 speech, “was to accuse Germany of what our enemies themselves were doing.”


Another projection that spawned a tidal wave of murder was deployed during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In just 13 weeks, hundreds of thousands of people in the nation’s ethnic majority (the Hutus) tortured, raped, and slaughtered about 75% of the nation’s minority (the Tutsis) and anyone who tried to shelter them. Estimates of the death toll range from at least 500,000 to more than 800,000.

In the “most authoritative source” on this bloodbath—a book titled Leave None to Tell the StoryPh.D. historian Alison Des Forges details how projection was employed:

  • Government officials, journalists, scholars, celebrities, business leaders, teachers, and healthcare workers stirred hatred of the Tutsis by accusing them of planning to murder the Hutus, which was “false information meant to spur the Hutu massacres of Tutsi.”
  • A photocopied document found in one of the nation’s most blood-soaked cities called for recruiting more Hutus to join in the killings by:
    • using “lies, exaggeration, ridicule, and innuendo to attack the opponent.”
    • staging fake “events to lend credence to propaganda.”
    • imputing “to enemies exactly what they and their own party are planning to do.”
  • Although “there is no proof” that leaders of the genocide “were familiar with this particular document,” “they regularly used the techniques that it described.”
  • Since the leaders of the genocide “regularly attributed to others the actions its own supporters had taken or would be taking,” potential victims learned to listen to the leaders’ radio broadcasts “to find out” what they “would be doing” next.

Moral Relativism

The author of Rwandan genocide recruiting document appeals to Vladimir Lenin—the leader of Russia’s Communist revolution—to convince readers that “moral considerations are irrelevant” when it comes to “how to sway the public most effectively.”

That mindset echoes a speech Lenin gave in 1920 before the Russian Young Communist League. After declaring that “we reject ethics” based on “God’s commandments,” Lenin stated that “our morality is entirely subordinated to the interests” of advancing Communism.

Lenin’s doctrine was also embraced by Saul Alinsky, the influential leftist who was the topic of Hillary Clinton’s 1969 college thesis. In his famed book, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote that the “ends justify almost any means,” and the “most unethical of all means is the non-use of any means.”

In other words, Alinsky, Lenin, and the Rwandan demagogues considered it immoral to let ethics get in the way of what they wanted. This stance permits and even embraces slander, which is the core of projection.

Slander is strictly forbidden by the Bible’s ninth commandment against giving “false testimony against your neighbor.” Thus, Albert Einstein noted in 1940 as Nazis were vilifying Jews that “only the Church stood squarely across the path of Hitler’s campaign for suppressing truth.” In contrast, Einstein was sorely disappointed that Germany’s “universities” and “newspapers” were quickly “silenced.”

However, the portion of the U.S. population who identify as Christians has declined from about 90% in the early 1990s to 63% in 2022. As for others with biblical moral foundations, less than 2% of U.S. residents say they are Jewish by faith.

Even more telling than that, a scientific survey conducted in 2005 found that “just one out of every six adults (16%) claim they make their moral choices based on the content of the Bible.” And this percentage would undoubtedly be smaller if one could actually measure what people do instead of what they claim to do.

Concurrent with the widespread decline in biblical ethics, many have adopted a framework called postmodernism. Generally speaking, this is the belief that there are no moral absolutes and that all ethics are personal and situational. This has rapidly become the dominant view in America.

Less than two decades ago in 2007, a scientific survey conducted by Pew Research found that 78% of U.S. residents completely or mostly agreed that “there are clear and absolute standards for what is right and wrong.” Just seven years later in 2014, Pew found that only 33% agreed with that statement.

The surrounding language of the survey questions in 2007 and 2014 was different, so some of the drastic drop from 78% to 33% may be due to this. Regardless, these data suggest that many millions of people could justify slander to achieve their objectives.

Another influential moral code is found in the religion of Islam, which generally forbids lying except in three circumstances, one of which is “at times of war, as a tactic or to demoralize the enemy and win the war.” Given that certain factions of Islam have declared a perpetual war until Israel is “obliterated,” and others have joined a jihad to “achieve global domination—through any means, including violence,” Islam’s permission to lie in “times of war” provides broad leeway for slander.

The bottom line is that significant portions of the U.S. and world populations have no firm moral barricades against projection.

Given the effectiveness and potential deadliness of projection, it is important to learn how to spot and expose it.

Confirmation Bias

The first bulwark against projection is to be constantly aware that people are prone to confirmation bias. This is the tendency to blindly accept anything that accords with their preexisting beliefs.

Skilled propagandists take advantage of this human weakness by using “pre-propaganda,” or easily believed ploys like quoting people out of context. As Mucchielli notes, they do this because:

the accusations of lies awarded to adversaries can be made easier when we have started by injecting the public with misleading information as if it came from these adversaries.

In other words, expert manipulators don’t try to deceive the public in one big leap but use a mounting series of falsehoods to make people receptive to the ultimate lie.

A simple antidote to such brainwashing is healthy skepticism, especially when it comes to claims that accord with one’s current beliefs. A rational and well-informed assessment cannot occur unless knee-jerk reactions are defeated.

Mind Reading

Another telltale sign of projection is the use of unproven assertions about people’s intentions, often woven with facts to provide an air of credibility. In the words of Ellul:

  • “The truth that pays off is in the realm of facts. The necessary falsehoods, which also pay off, are in the realm of intentions and interpretations. This is a fundamental rule for propaganda analysis.”
  • “The accusation aimed at the other’s intention clearly reveals the intention of the accuser. But the public cannot see this because the revelation is interwoven with facts.”
  • “The mechanism used here is to slip from the facts, which would demand factual judgment, to moral terrain and to ethical judgment.”
  • Even “intelligent people can be made to swallow professed intentions by well-executed propaganda.”

People are often susceptible to such disinformation because they think they are better at reading people than they actually are. Per a 2003 paper in the Journal of Research in Personality, “Every adult possesses and uses” the “ability to recognize emotions, intentions, and thoughts of others,” but “the results of our research show that the self-reported mind-reading ability was not correlated with actual performance.” This lack of self-awareness can make people suckers for projection.

Again, a little introspection goes a long way. Simply coming to grips with the fact that humans don’t have the magical ability to read minds can foil the tactics of propagandists.

Vetting the Accusation

In addition to being aware of how demagogues exploit human foibles, it is vitally important to learn the necessary research skills to determine the truthfulness of accusations and counter-accusations.

Certain influencers, like Washington Post columnist Philip Bump, claim that “doing your own research is a good way to end up being wrong.” This, he says, is proven by a 2023 study published by the prestigious journal Nature.

However, Bump fails to reveal that the authors of the study “hired professional fact checkers from leading national media organizations” to “determine” what’s “true” and “false.” Given the horrid track record of so-called fact checkers and the widespread breakdown of journalistic and academic integrity, this fatally flawed study only reinforces the need to conduct your own research.

Because the U.S. education system has failed to equip the vast majority of the general public and even most college graduates with basic analytical skills, Just Facts developed an initiative to fill a major part of this void. Called Just Facts Academy, this resource provides videos that teach the skills needed to sort out fact from fiction.

By utilizing these skills, Just Facts has consistently been on the forefront of cutting through widespread misinformation. Many research skills are easy and quick to learn, but applying them often takes considerable time and effort. This is the price one must pay for being a rampart against projection instead of a dupe for it.


In the words of Jacques Ellul, “Nothing is worse in times of danger than to live in a dream world.” This is what perpetrators of projection do by creating a false reality in people’s minds, and history shows how these mass mental rapes can be deadly.

To thwart this, stay aware that many people have no moral restraints against projecting, curb your own confirmation biases, don’t jump to conclusions about other’s intentions, master research skills, and share your findings as broadly as possible.

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