Column: We are all propagandists now | Notice

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The United States is in an information war with itself. The public sphere, where Americans discuss public issues, is shattered. There is little talk – and a lot of fighting.

One of the reasons why: Persuasion is difficult, slow, and takes time – it doesn’t make good TV or social media content – and so there aren’t many good examples in our public discourse.

Worse yet, a new form of propaganda has emerged and has enlisted us all as propagandists.

I teach courses on political communication and propaganda in America. Here’s the difference between the two: Political communication is persuasion used in politics. It helps to facilitate the democratic process. Propaganda is communication as a force; it is designed for war.

Propaganda is undemocratic because it influences while using strategies such as fear appeals, disinformation and conspiracy theory.

Since there are few examples of persuasion in our public sphere these days, it is difficult to differentiate between persuasion and propaganda. This is worrying because politics is not war, therefore political communication is not, and should not be, the same as propaganda.

Consent and dissent

Mass propaganda techniques emerged along with mass communication technologies like posters, pictures, and films during World War I. This old model of propaganda was devised by political elites to “fabricate consent” at home so that citizens would support war.

According to linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, the fabrication of consent was seen by elites as necessary because they believed that “the mass of the public is just too stupid to understand things. … We must tame the disoriented herd, not allow the disoriented herd to run wild and trample and destroy things.

After World War I, according to Edward Herman and Chomsky, all kinds of elites turned to propaganda. The old propaganda was good for taming the citizens. But there has been one nasty side effect that has occurred over almost a century of use: disengagement.

Political communication specialists of the 1990s and early 2000s worried about what they saw as the crisis of democracy, which was civic disengagement characterized by low voter turnout, low political party affiliation and a growing distrust, cynicism and disinterest in politics.

The old model of vertical propaganda couldn’t resist the changes in communication brought about by participatory media – talk radio, then cable, email, blogs, chats, texts, video and social media. Now we all have direct access to the public sphere – and, if we wish, to create, circulate and amplify propaganda.

Many people use their social media connections and platforms to knowingly and unconsciously spread misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies and partisan talking points. We are all propagandists now.

Rather than the manufacturing consent of the elites, a new model of propaganda has emerged, what I call the “manufacturing of dissent”.

A new crisis

The new model takes advantage of our individual capacity to create propaganda. It can emerge from anyone, anywhere, and it’s designed to create chaos so that no one knows who to trust or what is true.

We now have a new crisis of democracy.

Citizens are called upon and trained by political parties, media, advocacy organizations, platforms, businesses – and more – to become propagandists, even without realizing it. Although both sides of the political spectrum are using the new propaganda, it has been adopted more on the right, largely to counter the old model of consent fabrication embraced by the general public.

For example, the slogan at the top of daily emails sent by ConservativeHQ, a longtime and influential Conservative news blog, states: Anti-Americans, Marxist New Democrats.

From this perspective, politics is a ‘battle’, it is a war, and ConservativeHQ readers can fight by educating and mobilizing – by spreading ConservativeHQ propaganda.

Social media platforms train users to communicate as propagandists: Research shows platform users learn to express polarizing emotions like outrage through “social learning”.

Users learn via app feedback – positive reinforcement via notifications – and peer learning – what they see others doing – to post their outrage even if they don’t feel outraged and don’t not want to spread outrage. The more outrage we see, the more outrage we publish.

Dissent and mistrust

Today’s new model of propaganda has dangerous consequences.

The January 6 uprising was a direct result of the fabrication of dissent. Right-wing politicians, citizens and the media have used disinformation, disinformation, conspiracy, appeals of fear and outrage disseminated through old and new propaganda to cast doubt on the country’s electoral process.

President Donald Trump has made his supporters believe the election will be “rigged,” which has led people to seek out and circulate alleged “evidence” of fraud. Courts and election officials certified the integrity of the election. The conspirators saw this as further proof of the “conspiracy” and supported Trump’s big lie that the election was stolen.

Trump supporters amplified the plot through social media posts, videos, texts, emails and secret groups. When Trump told people to walk on Capitol Hill to defend their freedom, they did.

But the Big Lie that led to the January 6 uprising was only part of an even bigger lie.

Since the 1990s and the emergence of the fabrication of dissent, the main premise of right-wing propaganda has been that “politics is war and the enemy cheats.” Each story from this perspective is an elaboration on this theme.

When politics is seen as war and the enemy cannot be trusted, every election is seen as disastrous and the electoral process that denies your side’s victory is seen as unfair.

The legitimacy of the American political system requires the real consent of the governed, and its vitality and health require that we allow real dissent.

But our shattered public sphere has neither consent nor dissent. Both come from persuasion – not propaganda.

Jennifer Mercieca is Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University. His column appeared on The Conversation news site (www.theconverssation.com).


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