21st Century Propaganda #5: Propaganda and Social Media
Again I want to emphasize that the study of propaganda must be conducted within the context of a technological society. Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world. – Jacques Ellul
People have often reacted in a utopian manner as new technologies burst onto the scene. The automobile promised the endless joys of travel, and without having to feed a horse! We now know that the car and the highway are not anything resembling unmixed blessings. Traffic, commuting nightmares, highway fatalities, pollution, the entire social fabric of many communities being completely enveloped by the spaces created for the automobile. It would be easy to argue (and to win) that the car is one the greatest devil’s bargains of history. As Paul Virilio has pointed out: When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck; when you invent the plane you also invent the plane crash; and when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution… Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.
And thus the utopian hopes of the internet as being a mode of open communication and knowledge, have now given way to the realities of commercial control, spam, invasion of privacy, trolling, endless payments, and most sinisterly, the constant monitoring of our activity below the horizon of our intended purposes. Visit a clothing website and then see an ad for the same product you just searched for on your Facebook page. Pay for an item in another country and have your bank shut down your card through their fraud detection services. (Both of these things have happened to me.)
Not many years ago people were naïvely and insanely lauding the glories of social media as though there could be no problems attached with same. I’m imagining the reader will already be aware many instances of issues related to cyberbullying, texting nightmares, even Facebook depression, when you see your friends supposedly wonderful lives of headlines and captions and realize that your own life isn’t like that. Recently I have been made more aware of the neurotic result of connecting one’s Facebook notifications to your smartphone, as it has negatively impacted at least one friendship. But I’d like to discuss the growing dilemma of social media as perhaps the best platform for spreading Propaganda that has ever existed.
A word before I proceed: Jacques Ellul discusses two directions of Propaganda, the Vertical, what is often top down messaging, and the Horizontal, what we pass along to each other. Vertical Propaganda is what we are more familiar with; government statements, corporate slogans, public health warnings, political campaigns, etc. But I would say in these times Horizontal Propaganda is what has the biggest effect upon us. Horizontal Propaganda effects us much like the old illustration of crabs in a bucket. No one crab is allowed to crawl out because the other crabs hold the individual down when it tries to escape. Likewise how easy it is to live within the walls of one’s favored ideology without being allowed to raise serious questions about those same ideological presuppositions.
Now you may not notice this issue much if all of your ‘friends’ and ‘followers’ are in the same air bubble you are. That is you don’t see the ‘meme wars’, because to you all of those snide jokey little images with words imbedded in them are just humorous little moments crushing the opposition. Just press ‘Like’ and LOL along with the flow of friends all the while feeling superior to the idiots out there who voted for ‘them’, or ‘him’, or ‘her’. Or maybe suddenly you’ve discovered a cause? Here are a few causes that suddenly seemed to overshadow the humanity of various friends of mine: PETA, Gun Rights, Gun Control, Pro-Life, Gay Marriage, etc. etc. ad nauseum. Personally I’ve got to tell you this: If anything starts to infest my Facebook page I immediately ‘unfollow’ you. I keep you around as distant background noise, but until I see evidence of genuine human sharing I don’t need the clever little film with the ironic music tearing down yet one more political figure. And I feel exactly the same way about online game invitations, quizzes and surveys (really these are just clickbait sites for monitoring your cookies), product recommendations, jokey sites (often more clickbait with motives other than spreading humor) etc. and again I repeat ad nauseum.
These ‘shares’ eats into our human time as we swat away the technological flies. And then there is that most egregious symbol, the changing of your profile avatar image to coincide with some recent political event. Suddenly your photo is rainbow tinted or painted with the French flag or an anti-abortion campaign. And here’s what I know… These people usually have little direct connection to these things, they are merely ‘virtue signaling’. In the French case I’m pretty sure I had far, far more direct connections to Paris or France than 99.9% of all of the folks that posted French flags after the terrorist bombings. And does anyone even think about France anymore? (I do). Or are we now just thinking about Trump and Charlottesville, Virgina? Or have we moved on to hurricane victims? Or maybe Muslims in Myanmar? Or wherever we are when you finally read this?
In the wake of the Charlottesville fracas I’ve been astounded at how quickly people have simply reacted. And immediate unfiltered thoughtless reaction is the key to this new ‘public’ life of ours. The idea of trying to understand the event seems to be an impossibility. For too many people there can only be one version of the event. And yet I’m pretty sure that if we sat down together as human beings I could show anyone enough raw feeds, without interpretation of the event, to convince you that this was not a simple narrative. And yet the frightening thing is that to ask any questions at all about the dominant interpretation of the event is to instantly invite a witch hunt of, again, immediate reaction without the benefit of research or meditation. We create precisely what we fear because we push those with differing opinions away into extremes. I am convinced that many folks today are considering white nationalists ideas who would never have done so if the extreme left hadn’t been allowed to dominate the interpretation with their own version of identity politics.
The sad thing is this: I had a friend, not too close, but with whom I once had meaningful real world conversations years back. This person mentioned something in a post that seemed to invite reflection and comment. I commented in a mildly questioning manner of the dominant ideology. I was ‘unfriended’ instantly. Since then I have learned that it is not important to post political topics at the expense of human friendship. This doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions. I do. I most certainly do. I can also guarantee that they do not tick off neatly on the right or left side of the page. I have tried to be thoughtful. (And sometimes I am so tempted to reply to some ill considered idea posted somewhere and add to the Propaganda morass, but my convictions won’t let me.) It could be argued that my friend was not a good friend and, well, good riddance. Or it could be said that she was in the grip of ideological Propaganda as many others are in these days. Should I reject them out of hand? Or should I attempt to show them in some insignificant way what it means to be human. I choose the latter. But I am under no illusion about these folks. They are under the spell of something intractable, fearsome and unforgiving. Yet I still believe in compassion, courage and forgiveness.
So where are we now? That will be the subject of my next essay. Come back again. You probably won’t want to know what I need to say. Nevertheless, like a car crash on the side of the highway, you will have to look and ponder.
This entry was posted on September 12, 2017 by The Anadromist. It was filed under Alt-Right, Alternative Culture, Charlottesville, Christian Propaganda, Commercial Logos, Communism, Computers, Facebook, Jacques Ellul, National Socialism, Paul Virilio, Propaganda, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, Propagandes, Social Media, Social Networking, Television, The Anadrome and was tagged with Christianity, communication, Jacques Ellul, Paul Virilio, Propaganda, Social Media, Social Networking, technology.