The Eternal Propaganda War
People often talk about a “War of Ideas” that must be won. Depending on who you are, who needs to win this war will vary relatively widely. We are in an eternal propaganda war. Who is “we”? Every human being on the planet. How long have we been in this war? Likely since at least the first occurrence of language in the species that came before and around us in our evolutionary heritage. Human brains are designed to persuade, manipulate, and otherwise cajole each other into doing things that benefit the one doing the persuading. From small scale skirmishes of getting someone to do your dishes for you, all the way to convincing someone to participate in the Holocaust, we all know of the consequences of some of the most mundane and egregious misuses of this ability. Since globalization, and especially the advent of the Internet, have brought us together into one virtual community, the pace and consequences of this war have increased drastically. We are rapidly approaching a time at which the self-centered manipulation of others for immediate gain (of any kind) will lead directly to the destruction of humanity, if not all intelligent life on this planet. We may, in fact, have raced past it with the last election. In this post, I hope only to begin a discussion about propaganda, its misuse, and what we can do to keep ourselves (and, if we’re lucky, our friends and family) from falling prey to it.
What is propaganda, exactly? Dictionary.com defines it as follows:
information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.
I’ll admit that the title of this piece is a little hyperbolic, but only just. One reason that conspiracy theories are so attractive to everyday people is that they can feel the psychological influence of entities bigger than themselves on their psyches. Ironically, the people spinning the specific conspiracy theories are just such people, as well. That’s the problem with propaganda, you see. You never think the propaganda you’ve bought into is propaganda. That’s the beauty and the terror of good, truly effective propaganda: you never know you’re consuming it until you don’t even care.
It may be instructive here to digress into a short story about my own liberal, Democratic Party upbringing as a child. Dogmas I was given in my own household were few, but among them were:
- To be tolerant of all beliefs.
- To not impose one’s own view of the world onto others.
- To never (and I mean never) resort to violence.
If you, yourself are a Liberal, a Democrat, or otherwise on the left of the political spectrum, you may be wondering what is wrong with any of these precepts, as written. The problem lies in the inherent contradictions between the principles if someone else does not share them.
If someone thinks precisely the opposite things, in fact, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a way of handling them:
- Be tolerant of no beliefs.
- Impose your worldview on the rest of the world.
- Resort to violence if someone will not submit to your worldview.
If your political opponent held these principles, while you held fast to yours, you would quickly find yourself dead in an exact ratio to how good you were at convincing people of the truth of your worldview (ironically nearly violating your own principle 2 in the process). Yes, you read correctly. My claim is that the more people you had believing that we should tolerate everything and never resort to violence, the quicker you would end up hopeless: politically impotent, enslaved, or dead.
While there are some ways that you could avoid this fate, the basic principle is as follows: if even one of these political opponents were left alone (as your own principles would demand), they could systematically conquer anyone who was on the fence and then undermine the very stability which allowed your pacifistic philosophy to flourish in the first place.
As I’ve briefly shown, having these extremely benign, if not positively laudable beliefs would result in abject destruction. This aside is all in service of the original thesis: we’re in a propaganda war, and the consequences of the war are very real, and can be very dire.
Anatomy of Propaganda
While there are many facets of each instance of propaganda, the main requirements are bias and an intention to persuade. In the above poster, the bias is so implicit that it seems almost absurd to even mention: the US is a good entity, and in order to serve your country, you should want to join the army. The intention is to persuade you to join said army.
This is merely one example, to get a feel for the kinds of things we’re dealing with. Where, other than by the government, are we being bombarded?
There are both new and ever-present fronts in the uber-war that we are submerged in. I list them here, to be expanded upon later.
- Interpersonal — How do you perceive those around you?
- Religious — How do you relate to the world spiritually?
- Political — How do you relate to society?
- State — How do you view your country’s place in the world?
- Advertising — What do you think is important to own, buy, or use?
The thing that unifies all of these is that, in general, someone is trying to convince you that their way of viewing the world is correct: a person, a corporation, or even a country. However, our goal is to have an accurate picture of reality. In order to achieve this, we must rely on well-sourced pieces of evidence, eventually being cached out in terms of reliable direct observations of the world. In the end, this is the only way to avoid being propagandized.
I feel compelled to mention something both unfortunate and almost certainly intentional that the Guardian pointed out in this article from February 2017:
It’s unfortunate the word Infowars has already been taken by Alex Jones’s conspiracy heavy, Trump-cheering media operation, because it’s a portmanteau that better than anything sums up the position in which we’ve found ourselves.
It’s a total information war in which the combatants are prepared to use everything from the conventional weapons of rigorous reporting and government press releases, to weapons of mass deception including fake news and declaring the press the “opposition party”. Because it’s taking place in our online social spaces, there are no civilians, just people to be enlisted to one side or the other.
We are in a total war of information. Many have previously talked about a “war of ideas,” but the war seems to have spilled over into the lifeblood of truth. We now are faced with increasingly different pictures of reality itself, held together loosely by basic science and things which are so fundamental that they cannot interfere with the basic reality on which every worldview is founded. Even these are under attack at times: flat earth-ers, moon hoax believers, and many others tear at the very fabric of reality as we know it.
From where does the above image hail? It is not from a 2016 left-wing news outlet, railing against capitalism, the prison-industrial or military-industrial complex. It’s not from an alt-right screed against American diversity.
It’s from Nazi Germany during the second world war. Let me emphasize that: this is propaganda used to demonize the American efforts during World War II. The fact that the Nazis wanted people to believe these things about America doesn’t make them untrue, of course, but they do suggest we should be careful when seeing sources that repeat large clusters of them blindly; we should be especially careful if we see them given as gospel, without evidence.
On the surface, various dogmas of the left and right are vilified, and on the other hand, exemplified: prisons, prisoners, money, guns, awards, bombs, the American flag, the KKK, Jews, Native Americans, African Americans. The point of the propaganda, though, is to attack the very foundation of our society: that such diverse ideas and people can even coexist. In our society, one can express nearly any view, even if horrid, or obviously false. And this is a good thing, but we must recognize that horrid and false views will be in our presence, and they can range from blatant to nefarious.
With that in mind, I offer an injunction: don’t share something on social media or repeat something in person, just because it makes you feel enraged, joyful, or disgusted. Instead ask yourself: what is this source? Have I ever even heard of it before? Is there evidence? Where did the evidence come from? And finally (and most difficult to discern): are there emotive words here designed to make me infer false things from true facts?
You’d be forgiven if, at this point, you threw up your hands and said “this is too much work!” I present to you tools for spotting fake news, courtesy of Channel 4 News, which only takes around two minutes to view. Warning: there is music in the clip, unnecessary for understanding the content.
If you don’t have the time to fact-check things yourself, there are plenty of fact-checking websites that have a long history of being trustworthy: Politifact, FactCheck.org, Snopes, and my new favorite, Media Bias/Fact Check.
That worry assuaged, you might still be left wondering “what is the difference between propaganda and simple persuasion?” The heart of the issue is this: propaganda cares about outcome first, and reality not at all. Propaganda or propaganda-like behavior portrays things in a light so extreme it would, in another context, appear absurd. However, in the context it’s designed for, it will cause outrage toward the intended target, instead. Propaganda will present the opposing side as so wrong that they should be absolutely vilified, rather than have any reasonable points at all.
Normal persuasion and it’s neighbors, however, behave much differently. Instead of outcome first, the truth, and conveying that, should be the objective. Relay the reasons and evidence for what you think. Let those convince people.
The problem, of course, lies with the fact that people need to be emotional enough to pay attention. They still need to want to share things. You can’t be too complex, or people won’t understand. You can’t be too verbose, or people will lose interest. Being convincing without being nefarious certainly isn’t easy. It takes time. It can be tempting to fight opposing propaganda with our own.
We must resist this urge. The more we do this, the more we are divided, as friends, Americans, and people, the easier it is for some outside influence to successfully propagandize us against one another. In fact, it’s possible the groundwork has already been laid in your mind for you to reject me out of hand. You might, for example, think I’m some hopelessly deluded liberal. You might think my belief that conversation can change people’s minds is quaint. However, conversation is the only tool we have, and honest conversation is the best way to create lasting change in the minds of others.