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The U.S. is in an information war with itself. The public sphere, where Americans discuss public issues, is broken. There’s little discussion – and lots of fighting.
One reason why: Persuasion is difficult, slow and time-consuming – it doesn’t make good television or social media content – and so there aren’t a lot of good examples of it in our public discourse.
What’s worse, a new form of propaganda has emerged, and it’s enlisted us all as propagandists.
I teach classes on political communication and propaganda in America. Here’s the difference between the two: Political communication is persuasion used in politics. It helps to facilitate the democratic process. Propaganda is communication as force; it’s designed for warfare.
Propaganda is anti-democratic because it influences while using strategies like fear appeals, disinformation and conspiracy theory.
Since there are few examples of persuasion in our public sphere these days, it is difficult to know the difference between persuasion and propaganda. That’s worrisome because politics is not war, so political communication isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the same as propaganda.
Consent and dissent
Mass propaganda techniques emerged with mass communication technologies like posters, pictures and movies during the first World War. That old propaganda model was designed by political elites to “manufacture consent” at home so that citizens would support the war.
According to linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, the manufacture of consent was believed by elites to be necessary because they thought “the mass of the public are just too stupid to be able to understand things. … We have to tame the bewildered herd, not allow the bewildered herd to rage and trample and destroy things.”
After World War I, according to Edward Herman and Chomsky, all sorts of elites turned to propaganda. The old propaganda was good at taming citizens. But there was a nasty side effect that played out over almost a century of its use — disengagement.
Political communication scholars in the 1990s and early 2000s worried about what they saw as the crisis in democracy, which was civic disengagement characterized by low voter turnout, low political party affiliation and rising distrust, cynicism and disinterest in politics.
The old vertical propaganda model couldn’t withstand changes in communication brought on by participatory media – talk radio, then cable, email, blogs, chats, texts, video and social media. Now we all have direct access to the public sphere – and, if we choose, to create, circulate and amplify propaganda.
A lot of people use their social media connections and platforms to knowingly and unknowingly spread misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy and partisan talking points. We’re all propagandists now.
Rather than the elite manufacturing consent, a new propaganda model has emerged, what I call the “manufacture of dissent.”
A new crisis
The new model takes advantage of our individual ability to create propaganda. It can emerge from anyone, anywhere, and it is designed to create chaos so no one knows whom to trust or what is true.
Now we have a new crisis in democracy.
Citizens are called upon and trained by political parties, media, advocacy organizations, platforms, corporations – and more – to become propagandists, even without realizing it. Though both sides of the political spectrum use the new propaganda, it has been embraced more on the right, largely to counter the old manufacture of consent model embraced by the mainstream.
For example, the slogan topping daily emails sent by ConservativeHQ, a longstanding and influential conservative news blog, says, “The home for grassroots conservatives leading the battle 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 “battle,” it’s warfare, and ConservativeHQ’s readers can fight by educating and mobilizing – by spreading ConservativeHQ’s propaganda.
Social media platforms train users to communicate as propagandists: Research shows that platform users learn to express polarizing emotions like outrage through “social learning.”
Users are taught through app feedback – positive reinforcement through notifications – and peer-learning – what they see others do – to post outrage even if they don’t feel outraged and don’t want to spread outrage. The more outrage we see, the more outrage we post.
Dissent and distrust
Today’s new model of propaganda has dangerous consequences.
The Jan. 6 insurrection was a direct result of the manufacture of dissent. Right-wing politicians, citizens and media used disinformation, misinformation, conspiracy, fear appeals and outrage circulated via the old and new propaganda to cast doubt on the nation’s electoral process.
President Donald Trump primed his followers to believe that the election would be “rigged,” which led people to look for and circulate so-called “evidence” of fraud. Courts and election officials certified the integrity of the election. Conspiracists saw that as further evidence of the “plot” and supported Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen.
Trump’s supporters amplified the conspiracy via posts on social media, videos, text messages, emails and secret groups. When Trump told people to march on the Capitol to defend their freedom, they did.
But the Big Lie that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection was merely part of an even bigger lie.
Since the 1990s and the emergence of the manufacture of dissent, right-wing propaganda’s major premise has been that “politics is war and the enemy cheats.” Every news story from that perspective is an elaboration on that theme.
When politics is seen as war and the enemy can’t be trusted, every election is seen as dire, and the electoral process that denies your side victory is seen as unfair.
The legitimacy of the American political system requires the actual consent of the governed, and its vitality and health requires we allow actual dissent.
But our broken public sphere has neither consent nor dissent. Both of those come from persuasion — not propaganda.
Jennifer Mercieca is a professor of communication at Texas A&M University. Her column appeared on the current affairs website The Conversation (www.theconverssation.com).