There have been a number of debates raging within the United States about the effort and efficacy of Russian attempts to exert influence over the 2016 presidential election. President Trump, himself a controversial figure regardless of accusations of Russian collusion, has been at the center of the discussion throughout — with his opposition arguing that his presidency was secured through Russian information operations, and his supporters staunching denying the lasting effect such a campaign could actually have on the voting public.

The truth of the matter is, we’ll likely never be able to know the degree to which Russian efforts did influence voters because influence is difficult to quantify in the short term. The media tends to treat Russian meddling like a virus: if it reaches you, you’re affected, and we can tally your vote as among those that were swayed by the Kremlin’s efforts. It makes for more easily digestible think pieces, certainly, but it also grossly oversimplifies the way narrative and perception management campaigns work, creating a dangerous illusion of self-inoculation against disinformation. Americans, on average, believe themselves to be smarter than average Americans, so as we read stories about information campaigns affecting voters, most see it as a dangerous affliction targeting the other party, the dumber Americans, or only the types of people that are still filling your inbox with e-mails with FWD:FWD:FWD:FWD in the subject line.

This sense of perception management campaigns being a threat to someone else serves to bolster malign efforts, as we assure ourselves that our opinions are well informed and factually correct (many Americans also struggle to differentiate between facts and opinions) – when reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Information operations are effective on all sorts of people, from all walks of life and with all levels of education or intellect. We’ve studied it extensively, even weaponized it to a certain degree — the research has just been largely conducted outside the auspices of government, so we don’t call it propaganda, we call it something else: marketing.

At their cores, propaganda and marketing operate in very similar ways — it’s really only the intent that solidly differentiates one from the other at the conceptual level. Marketing aims to use language and imagery to elicit a shift in your perceptions of a particular product or organization to its benefit, while propaganda aims to do the same but in favor of a government or political enterprise. The same practices (like the use of word repetition to frame topics, witty and concise slogans, making seemingly grand claims, and convincing you that others are already on the “bandwagon”) can be found in efforts to convince you to choose Tide in the laundry detergent aisle and in the talking points of politicians trying to sell you on a new social program, and with good reason: these techniques tend to work. It’s not because the general public is stupid or uneducated, it’s because we’re human — and there’s a great deal of money involved in finding ways to manage your perceptions of the world at large.