I’ve become obsessed with propaganda.
Not actual propaganda, mind you, but the concept. Actual propaganda I try to avoid. But therein lies my obsession.
You hear the word “propaganda” a lot lately, mostly preceded by the word “Russian.” But long before Russia invaded Ukraine – and began spinning a narrative about the war (or, ahem, “special military operation”) that bears little resemblance to the one being told by our own Western media – the idea of propaganda was plaguing me.
Have you noticed that everybody accuses everybody else of trafficking in propaganda, but nobody cops to it themselves? The Republicans accuse the Democrats and the Democrats accuse the Republicans. MSNBC accuses Fox News and Fox News accuses MSNBC. Frankly, none of them are wrong. But none of them see the planks in their own eyes, either. Eye planks are like that.
Everybody uses “propaganda” as a dirty word. Like it’s something only the bad guys do. Something only they engage in. Never us.
But Wikipedia defines the word in much broader terms, letting hardly anybody off the hook:
“Propaganda is communication that is primarily used to influence or persuade an audience to further an agenda, which may not be objective and may be selectively presenting facts to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is being presented. Propaganda can be found in news and journalism, government, advertising, entertainment, education, and activism, and is often associated with material which is prepared by governments as part of war efforts, political campaigns, health campaigns, revolutionaries, big businesses, ultra-religious organizations, the media, and certain individuals such as soapboxers.”
Whew! That’s quite a list. Translation? Propaganda is everywhere, and if you’re not producing it – which you very well may be – it’s at least quite possible you’re under its sway.
And this drives me crazy. I don’t like the idea of being “influenced or persuaded” by people trying to “further an agenda” – any agenda! – who may (or may not) be telling me the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I don’t like being had.
In his influential 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, the French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote:
“Those who read the press of their group and listen to the radio of their group are constantly reinforced in their allegiance. They learn more and more that their group is right, that its actions are justified; thus their beliefs are strengthened. At the same time, such propaganda contains elements of criticism and refutation of other groups, which will never be read or heard by a member of another group… Thus we see before our eyes how a world of closed minds establishes itself, a world in which everybody talks to himself, everybody constantly views his own certainty about himself and the wrongs done him by the Others – a world in which nobody listens to anybody else.”
This was written 1965, y’all! Before 24-hour cable news. Or the internet. Or social media. I guess there’s a certain comfort in knowing that things have ever been thus. But that comfort is pretty damn cold.
I’ve been particularly haunted, lately, by the notion that I might not be getting the full story about what’s going on with Ukraine. “The fog of war” and all that. My insatiable need to know – an essential personality trait since I was a child reading Nancy Drew mysteries – has sent me scampering down some fairly sketchy Internet rabbit holes in search of more details and better understanding.
But unfortunately, the former does not necessarily lead to the latter. As Jacques Ellul wrote back in ’65 – before YouTube! – “It is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him.”
So, what to do? How does one go about becoming informed, without drowning in data and/or falling prey to propaganda?
I Googled this question and found a whole website dedicated to that mission. It’s called Disinformation Nation, and describes itself as “an education project of the Freedom Forum Institute, a nonpartisan organization headquartered in Washington D.C., that fosters First Amendment freedoms for all.”
I had fun exploring Disinformation Nation, reading up on the different types of propaganda, how it works, and how to combat it. I even took a “profile quiz” designed to determine which propaganda “technique” I’m most likely to fall for.
The quiz asked various multiple-choice questions about me and my preferences: Food, leisure, travel, music, sports, fashion, home décor, etc. etc. I have no idea how it came to the conclusions it did, but according to Disinformation Nation, I fall into the category WARM-HEARTED AND CARING. Excerpt:
“You see other people’s strengths, understand their feelings and find ways to bridge differences. You have an abundance of empathy, even for those you’ve never met.
“First the good news! You have an amazing strength that protects you from certain types of propaganda. But the bad news is that you’ve also got a weakness that makes you more susceptible to other types of propaganda. Strength: DIVISION. You’re great at spotting propaganda that uses division to widen gaps and create friction. Weakness: EXPLOITATION. Propaganda creators could target you using exploitation because it tugs on your heartstrings.” There’s more to it than that, but as always… space constraints.
Reader, I highly recommend you check out Disinformation Nation at www.disinformation-nation.org. Learn how to recognize propaganda, and find out which technique is most likely to seduce you. The website pretty much nailed my personality type – and my greatest vulnerability – and it really does offer lots of helpful tips for avoiding the propaganda trap.
But why is that so important? Why should we care about fighting propaganda?
Well, according to Disinformation Nation, the damaging effects of propaganda run deep and wide, from the individual to the societal to the civilizational. Propaganda wastes our money, endangers our health, obscures our history, deepens our divisions, and destabilizes our democracy.
While these threats are undeniable – and absolutely crucial – I’ll repeat, for emphasis, the main reason I duke it out daily with the multi-headed hydra that is the propaganda machine:
I don’t like being had.