Why is everyone so angry? Because that’s what they want.
The US is in an information war with itself. The public sphere in which Americans discuss public issues is broken. There is little discussion – and a lot of fighting.
This story also appeared in The Conversation
One reason for this: persuasion is difficult, slow, and time-consuming – it doesn’t make good television or social media content – and so there aren’t many good examples of this in our public discourse.
Worse still, a new form of propaganda has emerged – and it has recruited us all to be propagandists.
Conviction versus propaganda
I teach courses on political communication and propaganda in America. Here is the difference between the two:
Political communication is persuasion in politics. It helps to facilitate the democratic process.
Propaganda is communication as a force; It is designed for warfare. Propaganda is anti-democratic because it influences strategies like fear appeals, disinformation, conspiracy theory and more.
With few examples of belief in our public today, it is difficult to tell the difference between belief and propaganda. This is worrying because politics is not war, so political communication is not and should not be propaganda.
The production of consent
Mass propaganda techniques emerged with mass communication technologies such as posters, pictures and films during the First World War.
This old propaganda model was developed by the political elites to “build consensus” domestically, so that citizens would support the war and demoralize the enemy abroad.
According to linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, the elites felt it was necessary to build consensus because they thought “the mass of the public is just too stupid to understand … we need to tame the confused flock, not let it” the confused flock to rage and trample and destroy things. “
During World War I, George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, a federal agency, oversaw the production of war films such as the 1918 silent film America’s Answer. When Americans saw the film in theaters, they would often come across a speech by one of the Four Minute Men “- the locals who Creel hired to give patriotic speeches during the four minutes that the film role change lasted.
A poster for America’s Answer, the second official US war film. Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress Washington, DC
After World War I, according to Herman and Chomsky, all sorts of elites turned to propaganda to “tame the confused herd.” The old propaganda was good at taming citizens. But there was an unpleasant side effect that showed itself for almost a century: the disconnection. Political communications scholars in the 1990s and early 2000s worried about the crisis of democracy, which was characterized by low voter turnout, low political party affiliation, and increasing distrust, cynicism, and disinterest in politics.
The production of dissent
The old vertical propaganda model controlled by the elite could not withstand the changes in communication brought about by the new participatory media – first talk radio, then cable, email, blogs, chats, texts, video and social media.
According to recent Pew research, 93% of Americans are connected to the internet and 82% of Americans are connected to social media. We all now have direct access to communicate in public spaces – and, if we want, to generate, disseminate and amplify propaganda.
Many people use their social media connections and platforms to knowingly and unknowingly spread misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, and partisan topics of conversation – all forms of propaganda. We are all propagandists now.
Instead of the elitist approval of the manufacturers, a new propaganda model has emerged in the 21st century: what I call the “Manufactory of contradiction”.
New crisis of democracy
The model of “producing dissent” uses our individual abilities to produce, disseminate and amplify propaganda. It sets us in motion to, in Chomsky’s words, “rage, trample and destroy things”.
The new propaganda can come from anyone, anywhere – and it is supposed to create chaos so that nobody knows who to trust or what is true.
Now we have a new crisis of democracy.
Citizens are being called on and trained by political parties, media, interest groups, platforms, companies – and more – to become propagandists without even realizing it. Although both sides of the political spectrum can and do use the new propaganda, it has been adopted more by the right, mainly to counter the old consensus-building model adopted by the mainstream.
For example, the slogan that dominates the daily emails from ConservativeHQ, a long-standing and influential Conservative news blog, reads, “The grassroots Conservative home that leads the struggle to educate and mobilize family, friends, neighbors and others to defeat the anti-god. Anti-America, Marxist new democrats. “
From this perspective, politics is a “fight,” it is warfare, and ConservativeHQ readers can fight by educating and mobilizing – by spreading ConservativeHQ’s propaganda.
Likewise, the conspiracy website InfoWars is telling its audience, “There is a war for your mind.”
Social media platforms train users to communicate as propagandists: Recent studies show that platform users learn to express polarizing emotions such as outrage through “social learning”. Social media users are taught to spread outrage through app feedback – positive reinforcement through notifications – and peer learning – what they see what others are doing – even if they don’t feel or want to spread outrage.
The more outrage we see, the more outrage we post.
A screenshot of the ConservativeHQ home page, describing themselves as “leading the fight to educate and mobilize family, friends, neighbors and others to defeat the anti-God, anti-America, Marxist New Democrats”. https://www.conservativehq.org/
Dissent and distrust
Today’s new model of propaganda has dangerous consequences.
The January 6, 2021 uprising was a direct result of creating disagreements. Right-wing politicians, citizens, and the media used disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy, appeals for fear, and outrage spread through propaganda old and new to cast doubts on the nation’s electoral process.
President Trump prepared his followers to believe that the elections would be “rigged,” leading people to search for and circulate so-called “evidence” of fraud.
Courts and election officials certified the integrity of the election. Conspirators saw this as further evidence of the “conspiracy” and supported Trump’s big lie that the election had been stolen.
Trump’s supporters added to the conspiracy through social media posts, videos, text messages, emails, and secret groups – spreading doubts about the choice among their friends, neighbors, and the audience.
When Trump told people to march on the Capitol to defend their freedom, they did.
Politics is war
But the Big Lie that led to the January 6, 2021 uprising was only part of an even bigger lie.
Since the 1990s and the rise of dissent, the most important premise of right-wing propaganda has been: “Politics is war and the enemy is cheating”. Any news item from this perspective is an elaboration of this topic, including that of the 2020 elections.
If politics is seen as war and the enemy cannot be trusted, then any election is seen as terrible and the electoral process that denies your side victory is seen as unfair. According to a recent poll by Monmouth University, 30% of Americans still believe in Trump’s big lie.
The legitimacy of the American political system requires the actual consent of the governed, and its vitality and health requires that we allow actual contradiction. But our broken public doesn’t have either.
Both come from conviction, not from propaganda.
This is not about nostalgia for traditional propaganda. Both the old and the new propaganda are anti-democratic. The old propaganda generated American approval by using communication as a force to keep people unmotivated and docile.
The new propaganda produces dissent. It uses communication as a force to occupy and upset people – and it sets us in motion to trample and destroy things.
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