Social Media and Propaganda

Among the key points Jacques Ellul makes in his magisterial book, Propaganda,is that one aim of modern (WWII and after) propaganda is to direct its communication to the masses so as to make individuals in the masses feel as though they are being communicated to more or less one on one.

The new social media only enhance this technique, it seems. For example, it is now routine for millions of Americans to receive an email “from” the President of the United States “signed” “Barack.” Of course, it’s a mass-email, but the tone is informal, as the signature appears to be. For another example, the cable “news” channels feature talk-show hosts and “news” anchors who routinely ask what “your” opinion is on a matter, and they invite you to send an email or to “text” (a relatively new verb) them. The effect on some people, even if they are jaded, may be, if only for an instant, to make them feel special.

The purposes are several: to raise money, to maintain ratings, to solidify a “base,” which might also be appropriately called group-think. These purposes haven’t changed much if at all over the decades, but, in my opinion, social media are something that would not have surprised Ellul (with regard to technique) but that may have astounded him, so perfectly tailored are they (email, Twitter, facebook, texting, etc.) to the mass/individual deployment of communication about which he wrote. I imagine his response (though it would be in French) to be something like a simultaneous “Of course/Wow!”

It may be important to emphasize that, with the kind of propaganda Ellul discussed and with which we are bombarded (or spammed), there is little if any difference in techniques between mass media and political communication and between any points on the political spectrum. That is, plenty of people probably receive emails “signed” “Mitt.” Also, don’t MSNBC’s ads about itself (one example) look basically like political ads? To what extent is almost anything a “news” cable channel does advertising? As they “report” (whatever!), they advertise themselves.

It may be the case that Fox News has virtually obliterated the boundary between a medium and a political party, at least compared to CNN (one example), but still, all mass media have to serve somebody (pax Dylan), such as a corporation, multiple corporations, or a corporate/political establishment. They’re not serving you and me, even though they ask us–personally!–to text our opinion.

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