HEEDING THE VISIONS OF HUXLEY AND MCLUHAN:

COUNTERACTING RACIST PROPAGANDA ON THE WORLD WIDE WEB

Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 after witnessing the power of using modern technology to spread propaganda. He quotes Albert Speer: “Hitler’s dictatorship . . . was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country”(37). Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Massage in 1967 when the boom of the technology age was on the horizon. He saw how the images and the processes of the media could influence society in a subconscious manner — “Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act — the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change”(41). Although both these men died before the World Wide Web came into existence, they have much to teach us about the dangers this new technology can bring.

There are many examples of the positive influence of World Wide Web as a resource for information and communication. Access to medical databases and the most up-to-date information available gives health care providers the ability to better serve their patients (NorthWest Net). Non-profit organizations can use websites to recruit volunteers without having to spend much money (Ellis). Families of soldiers stationed in Iraq can connect with their loved ones through video conferencing (Clarke). But we cannot ignore the dark side of the use of this technology. The same aspects of the World Wide Web that serve to unite civilization are being used by hate groups to divide society. We need to give students an education in media literacy to counteract the ability for a dangerous few to greatly influence a generation with their hate propaganda.

In Brave New World Revisited Aldous Huxley defines two types of propaganda: rational propaganda and non-rational propaganda. Rational propaganda encourages actions that correspond with “the enlightened self-interest of those who make it and those to whom it is addressed”(31). The Declaration of Independence is an example of rational propaganda, written by Thomas Jefferson to clarify the position of the American Revolutionists (MSN Encarta). Non-rational propaganda “is dictated by, and appeals to, passion”(Huxley 31). Advertising is a prime example of the power of non-rational propaganda, appealing to desires rather than facts (Russell). According to Huxley, this type of propaganda “. . . avoids logical argument and seeks to influence its victims by the mere repetition of catchwords, by the furious denunciation of foreign or domestic scapegoats, and by cunningly associating the lowest passions with the highest ideals”(32)

Huxley identified the tools of propaganda and noted the advancement in technology since Hitler’s reign. Broadcast television and the ability to distribute both sound and images on magnetic tape had the ability to increase a propagandist’s sphere of influence. The cost of running the mass communication industry put its power in the hands into an elite few, dictated by politics or economics (Huxley 34). This cadre of the powerful could use the force of mass communication to distract the populous from seeing a threat to their freedom. Huxley stated: “A society, most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera, of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who would manipulate and control it”(36).

Huxley also addressed the susceptibility of children to messages of propaganda. Instead of children reciting nursery rhymes and hymns taught in his childhood, Huxley heard commercial jingles from the mouths of babes (54). This conditioned them for the next step, where “. . . hundreds of millions of children are in the process of growing up to buy the local despot’s ideological product and, like well-trained soldiers, to respond with appropriate behavior to the trigger words planted in those young minds by the despot’s propagandists”(55).

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan showed us that the modern propagandists’ tools go beyond just the words. The graphic format of The Medium is the Massage is designed to illustrate how the medium influences the message. In McLuhan’s words, “[The Medium is the Massage] is a collide-oscope of interfaced situations”(10).

“The medium is the message” is a phrase penned by McLuhan which he used as the title of the first chapter in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan meant that phrase to be the title of his 1967 compilation of observations, photos, and graphics, but the typesetter made a mistake. According to McLuhan’s son Eric, “When Marshall McLuhan saw the type he exclaimed, ‘Leave it alone! It’s great, and right on target!’ Now there are four possible readings for the last word of the title, all of the accurate: ‘Message’ and Mess Age,’ ‘Massage’ and ‘Mass Age’”(Goux).

McLuhan died in 1980 before the age of the Internet, but The Medium is the Message certainly foreshadows the format of that technology. The book is not only words, photos, and drawings artfully arranged in pages, it is also non-linear. You can open to any place for your start point, and work forward, backward, or in a random order. The message, or “massage,” will still be evident. The type is black on white then white on black; there is small print then large print then no print at all; two pages have the words in mirror image, the next two pages have the words upside down. These techniques force the reader into a relationship with medium, illustrating McLuhan’s point by becoming part the message not simply the messenger.

Like Huxley, McLuhan saw television as the new age for mass communication. He saw the way it changed the political environment: “The living room has become a voting booth. Participation via television in Freedom Marshes, in war, revolution, pollution, and other events is changing everything.” (McLuhan 22). He believed that electronic circuitry would influence the transmission of information with instantaneous acquisition to all corners of the globe, shrinking the boundaries of the world around us. Over a photo of an African tribesman addressing villagers gathered around him, McLuhan writes: “The new electronic interdependence recreates the world in the image of a global village”(67).

Although the technology of the World Wide Web is more digital than electronic, it is the fulfillment of Marshall McLuhan’s vision of making the world a global village. Unlike Aldous Huxley’s view of the mass communications industry controlled by few, the World Wide Web is an anarchistic medium, virtually unregulated and uncontrolled. However, its use as an agent to spread non-rational propaganda fits perfectly with Huxley’s paradigm. This is evident when looking at the spread of racist propaganda on the World Wide Web.

In 1958, Huxley saw broadcast television as a major step in the wide scale distribution of propaganda. The reach of the World Wide Web makes television distribution limited in comparison. On a page giving the communication conditions in Tibet, TravelChina.com boasts, “There are dozens of internet cafes in Lhasa”; and the grandson of Sherpa Tensing is planning to open an Internet café at Mount Everest (Burubacharya). While I don’t think anyone planning to climb Mount Everest will be spending time looking at a racist website, this shows the far reach of the medium, increasing its potential for global influence.

Websites can be produced inexpensively without any technical knowledge. With easy-to-use software available for website creation, there is no longer any need to learn HTML, the coding language of the World Wide Web; server space and domain name registration are obtainable at a low cost (Rajagopal and Bojin). The ease of producing and publishing websites enables hate groups to create different sites to target specific demographics. The World Church of the Creator, a white supremacist group, has become an umbrella for many sites including World Church of the Creator Kids! which entices young users with activities such as coloring pages and puzzles (ADL). Hammerskin Nation and Aryan Nations Youth Corps are websites created to appeal to teens (Ray and Marsh). “Those directed at teenagers may offer free plug-ins to popular video adventure games, using persons of various religions, races, or sexual orientations as prey. Some offer “hatecore” and “white power” music featuring a contemporary sound and invective-laden lyrics”(Lamberg).

There are no regulations or restrictions governing information on the World Wide Web. While private Internet Service Providers (ISP) can prohibit users of their servers from creating hate websites, there are always other ISP’s that will host those sites (Rajagopal). An example of hate groups taking advantage of this lack of regulations and restrictions can be seen in a recent controversy involving the search engine Google. When you enter in “jew” as your keyword, the third website that appears on the list is JewWatch.com, an anti-semitic website. A complaint was lodged, but Google would not change the results, which are automatically determined by computer algorithms (Google). Alexander Linden, a research vice president at Gartner Research, noted: “Through the use of clever website-farming and self referencing (techniques), and also through purchased cross-referencing, one can build up a considerable page rank. . . . This problem is more about ethics, and sometimes even about compliance to certain national laws.” (qtd. in Brandon) The ease in which one of these sites can be discovered by casual web surfing and the ability to disguise their message when catering to children is a dangerous combination, increasing their potential to influence young minds.

We are now over forty years forward from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, over thirty years forward from McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage. Huxley’s warnings about the potential for the use of mass communication and modern technological advancements in the spread of propaganda coupled with McLuhan’s understanding of the power in the form of the media have been realized in the racist websites created on the World Wide Web. How can we combat the inevitability of the influence of these sites on the present and future generations? Huxley brings us an important starting point: “Education for freedom must begin by stating facts and enunciating values, and must go on to develop appropriate techniques for realizing the values” (101).

It is essential to teach students how to think and train them to evaluate the knowledge they gain (Friedrich 199). There is also the need to show students how to separate the content from the packaging. The pervasiveness of computer technology into the fabric of modern life has influenced how information is received. Perceptions of what is true have become more important than the truth itself (Reeves/Nass, 253). Giving students media literacy skills will allow them to analyze the information they receive and teach them to maintain control of their thoughts rather than relinquishing that power to someone else.

The same World Wide Web that hosts the racist websites contains the tools for teaching media literacy which are crucial in the fight against the spread of racist propaganda. The Center for Media Literacy offers a wide range of information and materials for teachers to use in their curriculum and parents to use when in the home environment. The Community Learning Network is a curriculum site “designed to help K-12 teachers integrate technology into the classroom”(CLN homepage). Here teachers can find lesson plans for teaching media literacy as well as links to resources for topics such as the influence of television and advertising on kids today. The Media Awareness Network houses a “comprehensive collection of media education and Internet literacy resources”(Media Awareness Network About Us).

Aldous Huxley realized the need for education to combat the spread of propaganda — “The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries” (Huxley 109). Marshall McLuhan saw the importance of teaching students to recognize the form of the new media as well as its informational content — “The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive ‘outside’ world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discover — to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms” (McLuhan 100). Education in media literacy is critical to counteract the use of the World Wide Web to spread racist propaganda. We need to heed the voices from the past and use the resources of the present in order to ensure that the future will not be controlled by those who preach hatred.

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