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What Can Past Propaganda Tell Us About Today’s Efforts? Researchers Want To Know

En Guardia magazine cover

The U.S. government created En Guardia to encourage Latin American support for the U.S. and its allies during World War II.

University of Texas at Dallas researchers are investigating whether attempts by the U.S. government to gain support from Latin American citizens during World War II can be applied to modern propaganda efforts.

The project will develop novel computational models to analyze text and photos from En Guardia, a magazine created by the U.S. government to encourage support for the U.S. and its allies during the war.

“The underlying theoretical strategies that we’re looking at are not unique to this particular time period or to this particular data set,” said Dr. Monica Rankin, associate professor of history in the School of Arts and Humanities and director of the Center for U.S.-Latin America Initiatives. “We expect we will identify techniques that can be applied anywhere.”

The project is funded by a $100,000 seed grant from the Office of Research. Rankin is collaborating on the work with Dr. Vincent Ng, professor of computer science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. Ng will perform natural language processing analysis on all aspects of En Guardia during its four years of existence (1941-45).

“We will be analyzing both images and text and then trying to understand how different propaganda techniques or devices are being realized in words or images,” he said. “For instance, are there particular characteristics that would let us know that a certain propaganda device is being used? Or what kind of messages are being conveyed in a given article that are being used for propaganda purposes?”

He said the goal is to use machine learning to identify characteristics of a particular propaganda device that is not overtly mentioned in the text or the photos.

“For instance, perhaps they emphasize a specific word in bold or italics, use a particular color for the background of the article, or position a photo in a certain location on the page. All those kinds of things would affect how a reader perceives the article,” he said.

Dr. Monica Rankin

Dr. Vincent Ng

En Guardia was created by the U.S. Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, which was established in 1940 to counter Italian and German propaganda in Latin America. The magazine was popular and distributed free to politicians, journalists and business executives.

“We know that, generally, it was a fairly successful project because there was a lot of demand for the magazine, and Latin Americans did stay on our side during the war. So that goal was achieved,” Rankin said.

The UT Dallas Seed Program for Interdisciplinary Research is an internal funding mechanism designed to stimulate research collaborations among faculty members across departments, programs or schools that will lead to external funding.

Rankin said the propaganda strategies employed in En Guardia are fairly universal and used today.

“We’re constantly being barraged with information that is designed to convince us to feel or act a certain way, and a lot of that information is coming from not-so-friendly sources,” she said. “Being able to have a computer help us identify when that’s happening and how it’s happening — and which strategies are potentially at play — can help us make decisions about how to respond.”

Ng said he and Rankin hope that the project’s findings will make it easier for individuals to get more clarity on the information they come across.

“Rapidly expanding access to information in recent years has made the need to identify and understand propaganda all the more urgent,” Ng said. “We hope this project will contribute to effectively and efficiently combating propaganda by designing and implementing an automated approach for identifying and analyzing propaganda content.”

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].