Propaganda in the Social Media Age

Propaganda in the Social Media Age: A short history


The word propaganda has an indelible set of associations in the collective consciousness; it instinctively evokes images of totalitarianism, uniformity and the Third Reich.

But propaganda did not begin in 1933 with Goebbels’ eponymous Ministry, and it did not end with the fall of the Third Reich in 1945.

We have all increasingly become acquainted with the lexicon of a new set of propaganda for the 21st century. We hear constantly of the ‘post-truth’ world, of election hacking and of state backed agitprop campaigns conducted through social media. But while social media has provided a digital megaphone for mass manipulation, the methods employed by governments and corporations were firmly established in the analogue age of the 20th century.

On the bookshelf of Joseph Goebbels sat a prized volume entitled simply: Propaganda. This book was written in 1928 by Edward Bernays, nephew of the famed psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud. When Bernays died in 1995, his obituary stated that he was the father of public relations. But before the term became tainted in the public imagination, he was also the father to the wayward son known as propaganda. Drawing on the psychological insights of his uncle Freud, Bernays pioneered many of the propaganda techniques that have become the mainstay of our modern world. He marketed cigarettes to women by placing them in the hands of Suffragettes and branding them as ‘torches of freedom’; investing the product with an ideological and emotional attachment. He attempted to revive the flagging fortunes of American President Calvin Coolidge with a string of celebrity endorsements and helped shape the image of President Woodrow Wilson as a liberator making the world safe for democracy. And just before the Stock Market Crash 1929 he persuaded ordinary people for the first time to invest directly in stocks with the help of banks he represented.

Bernays was prescient in understanding that one of the key changes in the 20th century was the move from a society based on needs, to a society based on desires. Previous advertising and governmental information efforts had been focused purely on the dissemination of factual information and the emphasis had been on the utility and functionalism of a product. Shoes were sold as hard wearing and practical. Political candidates were defined by their positions on the issues. This approach was all predicated on the fundamental assumption that people were rational and responded to rational stimuli. But the Freudian approach to psychiatry was rapidly discovering that people were often motivated by irrational and dark desires; that beneath the surface was an Id that still operated on the primal impulses of our ancestors. By harnessing these often sexual and violent desires, ideas, products and people could all be marketed to the masses. Bernays first linked advertisements for cars to male sexuality. Like the Instagram influencers of today, he paid celebrities to use and endorse products for clients he represented. He harnessed desire in the quest to titillate the consuming crowds.

At its core, propaganda is the act of manipulating people’s emotions to get them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. In 2010, the UK government formed the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), known as the ‘nudge unit’ which aims to apply behavioural theory to government policy to improve its efficacy. It championed small psychological changes to increase compliance such as highlighting in HRMC letters that most people paid their taxes on time. This appeal to social norms increased payment rates significantly. It could be said that the BIT are the inheritors of the doctrines of Bernays and Goebbels, who came to realise that overt propaganda is less successful than implicit and subconscious propaganda.

One of the Nazi’s first forays into war time cinema was the now infamous propaganda movie Der Ewige Jude (the eternal Jew) which was an anti-Semitic diatribe masquerading as a documentary, lacking a traditional narrative structure. Viewers found it tedious and upsetting. Subsequent Nazi cinema sought instead to ape Hollywood with two goals in mind. Feel good comedies such as Münchhausen distracted from the war as the situation deteriorated in 1943. And movies such as Die Rothschilds (The Rothschilds) sought to set the Nazi’s world view of Aryan heroes and Jewish villains into a traditional narrative story, allowing the viewer to infer the moral message of the movie without stating it explicitly.

In the West when we think about the propaganda of our own age, we might perhaps think of the social media and state backed television campaigns that accompanied Russia’s aggressions in Georgia and Ukraine; or Russian so-called ‘troll farms’ that may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 US Presidential election by impersonating American voters on social media. Whether these could be considered successful examples of propaganda is another matter, however. While they do make some appeal to emotion, their overt nature has been their undoing. Put simply, these propaganda campaigns were noticed, and successful propaganda shouldn’t be.
As the existence of BIT shows, governments are continuing to apply the psychological foundations of the 20th century to 21st century technology and policy problems. And the fact the BIT has now been spun off as a public-private ‘social purpose company’ illustrates the disappearing lines between government and business in doing this. So, while you may notice North Korean and Russian style overt propaganda, it is less likely that you noticed that you are being nudged into paying taxes earlier, or that your favourite Instagram celebrity has been sponsored to show off that product.

Fake news, post truth, and mass manipulation are nothing new. Just as the 20th century applied these doctrines to advertising and cinema, the 21st century is applying them to social media and governmental services. The defence against this is the same in all ages: to engage critical thinking, to consider the source of information and who it serves and to always carry with you a healthy shield of scepticism. By understanding the propaganda methods of the past, we may well inoculate ourselves against its applications in the future...


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