By Jennifer Mercieca
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.
Persuasion versus propaganda
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, conspiracy theory and more.
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.
The manufacture of consent
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, and to demoralize the enemy abroad.
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.”
During World War I, George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, a federal agency, oversaw the production of pro-war films like the 1918 silent film “America’s Answer.” When Americans went to see the film in theaters, they would often encounter a speech from one of the “Four Minute Men” – the local citizens whom Creel enlisted to give patriotic speeches during the four minutes it took to change the movie reels.
After World War I, according to Herman and Chomsky, all sorts of elites turned to propaganda to “tame the bewildered herd.” 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 manufacture of dissent
The elite-controlled old vertical propaganda model couldn’t withstand the changes in communication brought on 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 now all have direct access to communicate in 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 – all forms of propaganda. We’re all propagandists now.
Rather than the elite manufacturing consent, a new propaganda model has emerged in the 21st century: what I call the “manufacture of dissent.”
New crisis in democracy
The “manufacture of dissent” model takes advantage of our individual abilities to produce, circulate and amplify propaganda. It sets us in motion to, in Chomsky’s words, “rage and trample and destroy things.”
The new propaganda 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 can and have used 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.
Likewise, the conspiracy website InfoWars tells its audience “there’s a war on for your mind.”
Social media platforms train users to communicate as propagandists: Recent research shows that platform users learn to express polarizing emotions like outrage through “social learning.” Social media 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 they 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, 2021 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.
Politics is war
But the Big Lie that led to the Jan. 6, 2021, 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, including those about the 2020 election.
When politics is seen as war and the enemy can’t be trusted, then every election is seen as dire and the electoral process that denies your side victory is seen as unfair. According to a recent Monmouth University poll, 30% of Americans still believe Trump’s Big Lie.
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.
Both come from persuasion, not propaganda.
This isn’t about nostalgia for traditional propaganda. Both the old propaganda and the new propaganda are anti-democratic. The old propaganda manufactured Americans’ consent, using communication as force to keep people disengaged and compliant.
The new propaganda manufactures dissent. It uses communication as force to keep people engaged and outraged – and it sets us in motion to trample and destroy things.
Jennifer Mercieca is Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.