How propaganda works in the digital age

Activists coordinate a “die-in” in front of Fox News to call attention to misinformation spread by the broadcast news company surrounding the climate crisis in New York City, on October 10, 2019. | Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Propaganda has evolved, and it’s transforming politics.

What is propaganda?

The question is not as simple as it seems. When it’s posed, images of old Soviet posters of Lenin spring to mind, or perhaps you think of “Big Brother” from Orwell’s 1984. The basic idea is an information ecosystem controlled by a central authority that dictates what the population sees and hears. But in the 21st century, propaganda has evolved beyond that image into something more slippery.

In a fragmented media environment, an Orwellian top-down model of propaganda just doesn’t make a lot of sense. The idea that the state — or any institution — could get everyone to believe the same thing was only viable in a world in which people got their information from a handful of sources. In the digital age, where news consumption is like shopping, manipulating public opinion looks a lot different.

The notion that propaganda is a technique for spreading a coherent ideology also feels a little anachronistic. Most of what we would call propaganda today, like much of the content on Fox News, is more about pushing conspiracy theories or misleading spin than anything else. The main goal is to undercut the very idea of truth and distract the audience.

And it’s not just Fox News or partisan websites. Because so much propaganda today is about framing the conversation on false terms or overwhelming the public with disinformation, even mainstream outlets like the New York Times or the Washington Post can contribute to the problem. An attempt to debunk a conspiracy theory can end up giving it more life; an ethos of journalistic fairness can result in the toleration of misinformation by bad-faith actors.

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Portrait of Lenin in Moscow, Russia.

And yet, if we think of propaganda more broadly as a tool for stifling free thought, then maybe these new forms of propaganda aren’t all that different from their historical precursors. Maybe the only thing that’s changed is the shape of propaganda, not the nature or goal.

To sort this out, I spoke to Jason Stanley, a Yale philosopher and author of the 2015 book How Propaganda Works. We discussed the logic of propaganda in the digital age, how it’s evolved from its pre-digital forms, and why the goal of propaganda is no longer to make people believe lies — it’s to make information irrelevant altogether.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

As a backdrop to this conversation, let’s start with you laying out the simplest definition of propaganda you can.

Jason Stanley

Propaganda is the use of images or language to manipulate people. It’s almost always a manipulation of the political space, and it can be done for all kinds of purposes.

Sean Illing

And how is propaganda different from marketing or public relations?

Jason Stanley

Public relations and propaganda are intimately linked. In many languages, it’s actually the same word. In my 2015 book, I make a distinction between political propaganda and what I call mere advertising. Political propaganda has a structure. It takes a political ideal and uses it in manipulative support of some other political ideal.

Sean Illing

Can you clarify what you mean there?

Jason Stanley

So in advertising, you might see a beautiful woman or man next to a car and the message is that you might attract that beautiful woman or man if you own that car. In other words, the aesthetic value has no connection to the goal.

With political propaganda, all of the manipulation is in service to some broader political goal, whatever it happens to be. And the language used to push that goal is inextricably linked to the goal itself. It’s about manipulating you, but it’s also about establishing the truthfulness of the political ideals behind it.

Sean Illing

I wanted to have this conversation to think about how propaganda is evolving in real time. We’re in this weird post-ideological age, or at least an age where the traditional ideological identities don’t mean as much as they used to, in which power protects itself with a combination of pushing a clear message and flooding the information space so that people can’t distinguish the signal from the noise.

This feels like a new form of propaganda — but is it actually new?

Jason Stanley

Well, yes and no. What we’re seeing now is the destruction of reality under the guise of reality.

So think of RT, Russia’s propaganda news network. Their slogan is, “Question More.” Now, what are they trying to say here? On the face of it, they’re just saying, “We’re going to give you all the possibilities and that will make you more free.” But the Russian spin doctors and media strategists discovered long ago that when you open the information space to every kind of conspiracy theory, you destroy reality.

So “Question More” seems to be in the service of more objectivity and knowledge but, in fact, it destroys it. And that’s the distinctive nature of the novel propaganda.

Sean Illing

Right, and that’s why this new form of propaganda seems so insidious — it’s all about blurring the line between reality and unreality rather than imposing some coherent “truth.”

Jason Stanley

Absolutely. And the purveyors of propaganda want you to think that in order to be real, we’ve got to counterbalance everything. We have to always have the “other” side, the other perspective, the other truth. And a lot of media outlets play right into this model.

It’s why CNN or Fox News or whoever will have Rudy Giuliani on air again and again, so that we can get his perspective, because that’s just fair and it’s more reality. But all it does is muddy the waters and undermine reality and reduce everything to spectacle and show. It has this pretense of fairness, but it’s ultimately destructive.

Sean Illing

I heard you say recently that Donald Trump has “destroyed the information space so that everyone thinks it’s just us versus them.” That seems to capture the ultimate goal of this 21st-century digital propaganda, and it reminds of me how former Trump campaign chief Steve Bannon once described Trump’s media strategy as “flooding the zone with shit.”

Jason Stanley

Bannon is really just following the blueprint laid out by the Russians. He floods the media zone with all kinds of bizarre nonsense, and the networks happily play into it. [Before joining Trump’s campaign, Bannon was executive chair of the right-wing news site Breitbart.] And what this does is create a complete cacophony. It’s just too much for anyone to sort out. And the result is people just say, “Well, who’s on my side?” And then it becomes just like watching sports. It’s not about ideas or facts but about my side and your side, my team and your team.

It’s crucial to understand this: transforming politics into a post-truth contest of tribal identity is an explicit goal of modern propaganda.

Sean Illing

I’ve thought a lot about that Bannon phrase and what it means for journalism and politics. If the most effective form of propaganda in the digital age is to overwhelm the public with so much bullshit that they stop believing anything, then that puts people like me in a near-impossible position because we’re no longer debating what’s true and false; instead, the question of truth is off the table, and politics is purely about aesthetics and cultural identity.

Jason Stanley

Well, politics is always at least partially about those things, but I know what you mean. I started writing about propaganda about 10 years ago, and even then it was such a different information space. I thought that totalitarian regimes behaved like no one believes anything and it’s just sides and that democracy was an alternative space in which propaganda played a different and perhaps smaller role.

But all of this has been turned upside down, and the lines are blurred.

Sean Illing

The problem with the “flood the zone” strategy is that when you respond by debunking the bullshit stories — like the claim that Hillary Clinton sold uranium to Russia — all you do is amplify it and thus help to frame the conversation on false grounds. I just don’t see a way around this.

Jason Stanley

It would help if networks would stop insisting on having every representative of every view on television, or if outlets would be more selective about what they dignified with their attention.

The Russian model is perfectly designed for a media landscape like ours, and if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to lose the information space altogether. It’s not easy, but we have to give attention to things that bring us closer to the truth and not worry about chasing every story or airing as many perspectives as possible.

Sean Illing

You’ve mentioned Russia’s RT network a few times, but we haven’t discussed the elephants in the room — Trump and Fox News. As you know, John Dean, former White House counsel for Richard Nixon, famously said that Nixon might have “survived” impeachment if he had Fox News. We both probably agree with that, but do you think it’s fair to call Fox a propaganda operation? And how do you think about Fox relative to its competitors — MSNBC and CNN?

Jason Stanley

I do think Fox is in the propaganda business, but the problem with CNN, and to a slightly lesser extent, MSNBC, is the way they deal with the information space really makes things worse. So when Trump was running in 2016, CNN gave him billions of dollars worth of free airtime because it was great for ratings, because it was such a spectacle. Even when those rallies became eerily fascistic and violent, it was just exciting TV. So CNN really fell into a trap, and they’re certainly not alone — everyone was implicated in that.

But Fox is malignant in a way CNN and MSNBC aren’t. Fox is literally representing an authoritarian president’s worldview, recklessly peddling the very conspiracy theories that are destroying the information space, and they’ve been in lockstep with an obviously corrupt White House. CNN isn’t doing that. I don’t think CNN would do that. And so we have to maintain those distinctions.

The other networks are complicit in the propaganda problem insofar as they fall into the infotainment and “both sides” trap, but I really do think Fox is different. Fox understands that xenophobia pays off, and so they’re going to be promoting dangerous narratives and conspiracy theories long after Trump.

Sean Illing

A big part of our propaganda problem lies in the structure of the media, the fact that it’s guided by commercial incentives — and no one is really immune from that and it’s why bad-faith actors, like Bannon and Trump, have been able to weaponize the press.

Jason Stanley

This is Noam Chomsky’s point in Manufacturing Consent. Propaganda arises even if no one intends it. And that’s because it’s a corporate media. There’s a relationship between the media and the government. The government won’t share secrets with the media if they don’t comply, like we saw in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Today, though, we have a different situation. We have a president who’s intentionally lying, and lying not merely to mask his own self-interest or to deceive the public but to represent the whole damn system as a corrupt mess.

That’s different, and it’s the challenge we have to confront today.

Sean Illing

I’ll end this conversation with the quote that opens your book from Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister. He said: “This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gave its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.” I take that to mean that the openness of democratic society leaves it perpetually vulnerable to propagandists and bullshit artists and every anti-democratic actor you can imagine.

What does that quote mean to you?

Jason Stanley

What I tried to say in my book is that the central question of democracy, dating all the way back to Plato, is how is it possible given free speech? That Goebbels quote implies that it isn’t, that anti-democratic forces will exploit free speech to bring down the system.

The great 20th-century American political theorist John Rawls made the central question of democracy about justice. But I think it’s really hard to create and sustain a just society in light of all these traps opened up by our free and open society.

Democracy’s only possible when people aren’t afraid, when the system can absorb all the threats to its own stability. As you said, the openness of society makes that extremely difficult. And the constant battle against propaganda, in all its forms, testifies to that fact.

Author: Sean Illing

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