The study of propaganda is becoming increasingly important for a number of reasons, and although not one of my top ten insights, throughout this course I have learned this to hold great weight in our current world. The proliferation of social media (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, etc.) expands the reach of the communication landscape, as well as the dissemination of persuasion. What is granted access into the media isn’t necessarily true or informative, but it can still easily influence and persuade. We need to be able to think critically and weed through this information. With media-ownership in fewer hands, a reduction of critical commentary, and an increase of infotainment in the news media, we have the perfect storm to create a propaganda-thriving environment. Propaganda is here to stay, so here’s a handy guide to my top 10 insights on learning about propaganda.
1. Propaganda is fluid: It it shaped by the whims of people
What is propaganda? This may seem like an obvious question/answer for some, but I would argue that one of the most interesting things I have learned about propaganda lies within its definition. Not only does understanding the definition of propaganda lay a necessary foundation for this course and the following insights, but it brings forth an important underlying ideal that the English language, or language in general, is (1) incredibly powerful and (2) astonishingly fluid; completely subject to the whims of people.
I have to admit that I began this course with a mix of common misconceptions of propaganda and a general knowledge of the ways in which my limiting definition of propaganda relates to the 21st century. In week 1, after seeing how the various definitions of propaganda have in fact changed over time, and how many authors seems to have their own take on what they believe propaganda to be, we were asked to weave together our own personal definitions of propaganda.
Initially, I clung to the definitions given by those who posed propaganda as something that is not fact and research based, which is simply not true. I more or less made the assumption that most, if not all, propaganda targets those who have a close-minded view of the world and who will not do their due diligence by fact checking and finding the source of their information. What I found common among definitions and my own understanding of propaganda at the time, was that there was a strong emphasis on distortion and the need to bypass critical thinking. You can see where my general modern-day knowledge comes into play when I relate this idea of propaganda to trolls who intentionally spark controversy and advocate for policy to be de-linked to any sort of feeling or emotion.
While some of this is true about propaganda, you may already be able to tell at this point that it is an incredibly limiting, and perhaps outdated, mindset as to what propaganda not only is, but what it can be. In the article A Retrospective on Early Studies of Propaganda and Suggestions for Reviving the Paradigm, Curnalia explains that analysis of propaganda started with messages used during wartime. As we progressed through history, there was a stronger emphasis put on social scientific research methods. The focus on the individual effects was placed above the message itself and the message content. Today, there are much easier and more advanced ways for propagandists to create mass influence and broadcast their messages, as well as for them to analyze their audience’s behavior and what they are most likely to be influenced by/be receptive to.
Therefore, the question of “what is propaganda?” is imperative to a larger learning point for me in this course: propaganda does not fit into one mold, and the factors influencing contemporary propaganda, such as the continued development of advanced technological mediums to reach new and larger audiences, has allowed it to influence us and shape the world around us at an accelerated rate because it. is. everywhere.
Due to the somewhat erratic nature of propaganda, we can now broaden our mindsets, make room for the remaining insights to take shape, and see how the below qualities are especially important and true:
2. Reaching a mass audience: Propaganda is made to be spread and we all participate
Propaganda is made to be spread. This is important as it relates to the overall goals of propaganda: to persuade/influence. After all, propaganda would not be effective if its message fell on deaf ears and it did not reach a mass audience.
An important turning point for me in this course was realizing the extent to which propaganda is created for it to be spread and shared. This is an issue outlined in Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying, where he goes over his deliberate techniques to get his content read, shared, and spread for a variety of purposes. This not only influences the form that the propaganda takes, but also the message of the propaganda itself, considering that in the name of virality it utilizes eye-catching headlines, half-truths, or altogether deceptive messages.
This can especially be seen in the KONY 2012 that we all likely remember and have discussed in this course. This class activity highlighted the differentiation in interpretation of the video based on how the genre was perceived. Perceptions of art or advocacy allotted for a much more positive interpretation by means of an emotional appeal, where as if it were perceived as journalism, it was seen as inaccurate and outdated. The video directly relates to real life situations, uses imagery, emotion, and a strong call-to-action. All of which is done purposefully and for a cause.
We share things that we can offer our interpretation to, things that shock us, things that wake us up. Propaganda is intentionally designed this way, good or bad, these kinda of tactics are always used. If we share it, regardless of the reason, we are thus participants in the creation of this message to shape our realities.
3. A culprit of propaganda dissemination: Bots and trolls
Week 8 proved to be a very interesting week for me considering it discussed the immense power of what we often consider silly memes to influence people and to change their minds. It is facination, perhaps even a tad absurd, to think about memes being used as a powerful propaganda tool utilized by bots and trolls, but, as we have learned in class, we know this to be the case.
The intense strategy exemplified by bots and trolls to make us question our ability to understand the truth. Powerful propaganda tools like memes have a large effect on misleading and deceiving the public in humorous ways that we otherwise may not be able to detect.
The whole idea of computational propaganda is the use of automated algorithms to purposefully distribute misleading information across social media networks.
What I found especially powerful was an example of the affect the focus on memes has on America given by the article How Russian trolls used meme warfare to divide America, which says,
“The focus on police brutality and content targeting African Americans wasn’t limited to YouTube. Among more than a dozen web domains the IRA registered, the vast majority, including DoNotShoot.us and Blacktivist.info, were aimed at black communities. Of the 33 most popular Facebook pages linked to the IRA, nearly half focused on black audiences. This effort was particularly successful on Instagram, where the account @blackstagram_ amassed more than 300,000 followers and elicited more than 28 million reactions. Much of this content seemed designed to stoke distrust among African Americans in democratic institutions and depress black turnout for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton” (Thompson & Lapowsky, 2018).
All of which is to say that bot and trolls are LARGE culprits of the dissemination of memes which blur the lines of reality to bolster a distrust in the media and government.
4. The Receivers of Propaganda have a greater impact then the Propaganda itself
In this course we have talked a lot about the influence and effect of propaganda, but what I found to just as important, if not arguably more important, is the impact that the “consumer,” the reader, viewer, audience, receiver, has on the propaganda, and, in a larger sense, the world.
Learning how to analyze propaganda and being aware of the seven devices of propaganda, in theory, helps us not to fall prey to the common tricks of propaganda. The goal is to get us to become more aware of our own views that allow us to interpret messages certain ways; we must be aware of what is shaping our own opinions. All of this is essentially done to build a resistance to propaganda and to strengthen our critical analysis/thinking skills.
Propaganda is everywhere. These messages are what make up our reality and it is our interpretation of the propaganda that creates the meaning. Often in this course, my fellow classmates and I were asked to provide our opinion about certain topics. Through this, I have come to be more conscious about asking the questions of: what factors are shaping my opinion and the other around me? How do these perceptions influence my own? To some extent we all hold a responsibility to the truth.
This is something I especially learned and applied in Leap 1 where I analyzed a feminist advertisement. Through this analysis I found that there were both positive and negative connotations based on interpretation and context: The ad could either be seen as beneficial in the sense that it simplifies ideals and makes it easy to communicate a general inequality of women to men. Or, it could spread a more negative view in the way that it make implications of added oppression of Muslim women.
5. Positive vs. Negative Propaganda: The importance of perspective
As mentioned briefly above, propaganda can do a lot of bad and a lot of good, or maybe a little of both. This again is something that largely relies on one’s perception or interpretation of the propaganda, both of which require a proper analysis.
I think a really great example of both positive and negative propaganda is the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster, because is it arguably both in one. For years Rosie the Riveter has served as a symbol of strength and motivation for women.
Rosie the Riveter was a large symbol of American feminism to usher women into the workplace and was plastered all over mainstream media. Although going against an idea that the woman’s place was in the home, mainstream media appropriated this feminist icon as a way to get women working and to help the economy during the war. Rosie the Riveter was used as a symbol in mainstream media to portray ideals that were both feminist and anti-feminist. This is to say that the meaning of the poster is highly dependent on context and interpretation.
6. Propaganda’s Partner in Crime: Marketing & Advertising
This is a topic I explored during my LEAP #2 assignment where my partner and I did some digging into propaganda’s relationship to advertising. Propaganda plays a major role in the marketing and advertising realm where both are critiqued on their tendency to misinform the public and manipulate human emotions and desires. Interestingly enough, my partner and I found that most advertising fits five out of the eight definitions provided in the Mind Over Media curriculum, mainly in reference to a major goal of the two: conditioning people to act in certain ways.
However, as not discussed in my LEAP #2 paper, are the differences between advertising and propaganda. This is why the two are siblings, not twins. Although advertising and propaganda aim to persuade, advertising supports sales and generating revenue or consumption of a product or service. The public is generally more aware of intent of advertising and recognizes this goal, whereas the same may bot be true of the audience of propaganda.
7. Yes, propaganda is even in the News: A journalistic hierarchy
The news and media have become a very prominent channel for propaganda to spread and create influence. Journalism is not typically associated with the spreading of propaganda, but there is a large connection between the news media and propaganda. What I found to be especially interesting is “unintentional propaganda” can be circulated by journalists because “news organizations are contained by corporate-state power” (Zollman p. 2, 2017).
Journalists are essentially the unintentional gatekeepers of what gets to be circulated in the public based on what they deem to appropriate considering dominant norms, values, and ideologies. Dominant terminologies applied by the media and by journalist are what work to propagate ideologies within institutions; they are creating the norms. All institutions that output into the media, such as journalism, are aligned with state-corporate elite interests (Zollman, 2017).
This is important as the major decisions that happen in society are controlled by major executive positions and these are the same people/institutions that control the media and resources which is what influences dominant ideologies. Chomsky describes the target audiences for propaganda as (1) the political class that are active in social-cultural aspects of life and are deemed to be educated. (2) The rest of the population are the people who follow the dominant ideologies that are essentially created by the political class.
Chomsky describes this as the agenda setters and agenda followers. This is done to cater to certain dominant interests in society and they are thus perpetuated. The agenda setting media are those that larger corporations in control of the media, which is how the elites control the media. They also have a motivation of selling a products to targeted audiences. Therefore, a world is produced that is geared toward satisfying needs of certain elite people, and naturally marginalizes others.
8. Networked partisan propaganda: spreading disinformation through asymmetric gate-keeping
A cause the current propaganda-thriving environment includes the disconnect between the partisan media dominated right-wing and the rest of the “media ecosystem,” which is the part of the media that adheres journalistic norms. This is to say that the right wing hyper-partisan media sphere is influencing the larger media sphere, creating a feedback loop of falsehood propaganda in the right-wing that does not exist in the rest of the media. Thus, creates an imbalance. Those in charge of spreading this falsehood propaganda are Breitbart, Fox News, and mainstream media,” using agents like “agenda setting, priming, and framing” to spread the propaganda (Pyo, 2017).
This takes the focus away from blaming the usual culprits of spread falsehood propaganda, such as bots and trolls. While they still have an effect, it is not as great of an impact as right-wing partisan media outlets who spread entirely falsified information or disinformation intended to mislead (aka spreading paranoid leaps in logic).
9. Public interest propaganda: Question of sincerity
Another aspect of positive propaganda is a topic we discussed in week 12: public interest propaganda.
A testament to the powerful affect of propaganda is the thirty minute AT&T “From One Second to the Next” documentary that we watched for class. This public service announcement touches upon some of the dire consequences to texting and driving. Every second of this film was deeply disturbing and purely heartbreaking for me to watch.
Again, this is a good example of advertising and marketing as a form of propaganda. However, despite how moving this documentary is, we must not forget that this is a purposeful marketing strategy enacted by AT&T with the goal to convince viewers that (1) texting and driving is bad and (2) that AT&T is acting in ways that are socially responsible.
AT&T is playing with our emotions, and as a company that is trying to sell products and services, they know the power of emotional connection to customer loyalty.
The selling of values should bring into question the sincerity and authenticity of the propaganda at hand despite having a positive, important and sobering message.
For example, Barbie, which has been constantly critiqued for promoting an unrealistic body image, has this on their website:
The dream Gap project is to fund a research project to explore why young girls lose confidence…interesting right?
10. Propaganda in Hollywood movies
The final insight, and one of the aha moments for me in this course, was discussing the role of propaganda in Hollywood movies, and even more so, the censorship of Hollywood movies to promote militarized propaganda and a pro-war agenda. This was a topic discussed in the article titled, Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA by authors Tom Secker and Matthew Alford. Becker and Alford discuss the submission of Hollywood scripts to the entertainment liaison offices in order to receive military assets for their film. It is crazy to me to think that, to at least some extent, story lines of Hollywood movies are shaped to benefit the army. This quote in particular was very impactful,
“…we are looking at a vast, militarized propaganda apparatus operating throughout the screen entertainment industry in the United States. It is not quite an official censor, since decisions on scripts are made voluntarily by producers, but it represents a major and scarcely acknowledged pressure on the kind of narratives and images we see on the big and small screens. In societies already eager to use our hard power overseas, the shaping of our popular culture to promote a pro-war mindset must be taken seriously” (Secker & Alford, 2017).
This is a point that was reinforced by a video clip watched during class, Michael Parenti: Propaganda in Entertainment Media. In Make-believe Media, Parenti turns his eye to entertainment for an absorbing, challenging look at the way America’s “free and independent” television and film industries actually promote the ideas of the economic and political forces that control them. He discusses propaganda as a lever on public opinion to exert social power. This is especially concerning to me given the large role that movies play in constructing and creating our realities.
It is imperative to become more critical to what we are viewing!
CHECK OUT MY SPARK VIDEO >>HERE.
Benkler, Y., Faris, R. Roberts, H. & Zuckerman, E. (2017, March 3). Study: Breitbart-led right wing media ecosystem altered broader media agenda. Columbia Journalism Review.
Columbia Journalism Review. Pyo, Y. (2019). Review of Network Propaganda. International Journal of Communication 13, 462 –464.
Curnalia, R. (2005). A retrospective on early studies of propaganda and suggestions for reviving the paradigm. Review of Communication, 5(4), 237- 257.
Holiday, R. (2012). Trust Me, I’m Lying
Secker, T. & Alford, M. (2017, July 4). Documents expose how Hollywood promotes war on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA. Medium.
Thompson, N. & Lapowsky, I. (2018, December 17). How Russian trolls used meme warfare to divide America. Wired.
Zollmann, F. (2017). Bringing propaganda back into news media studies. Critical Sociology, 0896920517731134.