Propaganda is endemic to politics, economics, and culture in mass society. Any attempt to make sense of the modern world must take propaganda into account. To propagandize is to disseminate and popularize narratives which people then use to make sense of the world and their behavior within it. The purest forms of propaganda take the form of ready made judgments, labels, slogans, and memes.
Man Needs Propaganda
The French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote that man needs propaganda. He drinks it in and asks for more (p. vi). This is because the ‘informed man,’ or ‘responsible citizen,’ is uprooted from the micro groups of his past such as extended family, church community, and village, and plunged into a world to whose events and ‘news’ he is connected only in the abstract. He needs simplistic narratives to retain his sanity in such a world, and propaganda provides them. Propaganda helps deracinated 21st century man to avoid thinking or forming his own opinion (p. 163). It gives him a raison d’etre, a feeling of personal involvement in important events, and an outlet for some of his more doubtful impulses. Notwithstanding Ellul’s belief that propaganda — all propaganda — is a direct attack against man, I think it is reasonable to distinguish between relatively benign propaganda which is largely true, has a unifying effect, and functions as a palliative for modern life. And, on the other hand, malicious propaganda based on lies, that is deliberately manipulative, that sets man against man.
Techno-scale: A Necessary But Insufficient Condition for Modern Propaganda
To understand modern propaganda, one must understand the technological environment in which we live. The modern world is hyperconnected through communication technologies, and massive in terms of the number of digital nodes in this communication network. I call this quality techno-scale. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the significance of techno-scale. Like fish in water, we swim in it, oblivious. But, unlike fish, we can shake off our ignorance through thought experiments which ask how things would be different in the absence of techno-scale.
For example, the John Hopkins University of Medicine recorded 6.8 million deaths from COVID over a period of three years. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that these figures are accurate. The world’s population is 8.1 billion. This means that COVID killed 0.03%, or approximately one in three thousand three hundred people each year, for three years. Now imagine a hypothetical medieval town with a population of about three 3000 people in which three extra people, most likely sick and elderly, and some of whom may have died anyway in the meantime, died in as many years. In our techno-scaled world, the COVID pandemic itself (not the response to it) is perceived by many — to be blunt, the propagandized — to have been an unprecedented disaster; in the medieval town, to all intents and purposes, it didn’t happen.
As well as thought experiments, we can also look to the slightly less techno-scaled past. COVID is similar in lethality to the Asian flu of 1957–1958 and the Hong Kong Flu of 1968-1969. These pandemics provoked no mass panic, no lockdowns; life went on as normal with negligible economic consequences.
Public enthusiasm in the West for the escalation of the war in Ukraine also could not have occurred without techno-scale. How else could millions so effectively be worked up into a frenzy about a country thousands of miles away they knew nothing about, that is of little direct consequence to them, and that they could not locate on a world map before 2022?
The Limits of Technological Determinism
Some things are an inevitable consequence of techno-scale, others less so. We can say with confidence that the Internet dictates a shift from lengthy text to audio, video, Tweets and Internet memes. We can predict that economics, politics, and culture will adapt to this new environment. We can predict that the Internet will undermine the traditional model of commercial journalism by depriving it of advertising revenue and audience. We can predict that anonymity on the Internet will lead people to break with existing norms of interpersonal politeness. We can predict the rise of organizations that will profit from storing, organizing, and channeling the tsunami of information on the Internet, and that these companies will attract the attention of those who wish to promote certain narratives or to stifle others.
But techno-scale alone does not determine that the corporate media must become hyper-politicized and divisive, that offensive or factually incorrect information on the Internet should cause politicians to hit the feinting couch before making the fight against disinformation—as Richard Ellefritz notes—a pillar of public policy. It does not determine that big tech must acquiesce so completely to the nanny state, or that there must be a revolving-door jobs program between big tech, three-letter government agencies, ‘think tanks’, and NGOs. Nor does techno-scale inevitably lead to a massive censorship program to suppress opposition to lockdowns and vaccination mandates.
To understand these phenomena, we must examine the ruling elite. Societies have always, and always will, consist of a minority ruling class and majority of the ruled. The beliefs, motivations, and competence of this ruling class, and the nature of the institutions they populate, are the key to understanding what is happening in a society no matter the technological environment. At the same time, it is true that this elite is itself shaped by the technological environment, among other things.
Governance by Slogan
Neil Postman titled his most famous book Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he warns of the decline of serious thought in an era in which television images replace the written word, demeaning and undermining political discourse and turning real, complex issues into superficial images, less about ideas and thoughts and more about entertainment. We can view much of the passion in the West for the war in Ukraine as akin to the passion of a sports fan for his team — a form of entertainment that distracts from real problems closer to home. My claim is that the elite institutions, particularly those in the West, have become a stage for entertainment, or performance art. Politics is less likely these days to be underpinned by coherent political ideology, or sober assessments of the success or failure of policy, but by chants and slogans. Bereft of serious ideas, having abandoned tradition for progress, the primary policy objective is to control the narrative. It is no longer the case that the narratives or propaganda are being used as means to an end by serious people to bolster public support for serious policy, but that the narratives have taken on a life of their own (even if the narratives started off as means to an end, they somehow take over). The slogans come first; the rationalizations are secondary. Authorities no longer use propaganda; their propaganda uses them. The tail wags the dog.
To the true believer, reality must be made to conform to ideology, even if this ideology consists of a smorgasbord of slogans. The more at odds with the concrete real-world constraints that policy driven by these slogans becomes, the greater the reliance on narrative control. Should people object to mass immigration, for example, these people are the problem. Because diversity is our strength. If the people are tired of being brow-beaten with rainbow flags and corporation-propagated storylines of the trials and tribulations of men wearing dresses, they (the disgruntled majority) are the problem. Because love, not hate. If people do not wish to give up their personal freedoms for the sake of a virus that everyone is going to catch anyway, they must be punished for the collective good. Why don’t they care about protecting the elderly? The soundbite, the slogan, reigns supreme.
Simplifying the Complicated and Complicating the Simple
Narrative control is conducted through an interesting combination of simplifying the complicated and complicating the simple. The news media simplifies the complicated. The origin of the conflict in Ukraine, for example, is complicated, and it must therefore be stripped of historical and geopolitical context and made simple, ideally reduced to slogan form: Putin’s war, unprovoked attack, defending democracy.
COVID, on the other hand, in terms of the level of understanding most useful to the public, is simple (for example, it’s like the flu). To justify measures such as lockdowns that lack scientific justification, COVID has first to be made complicated before being made simple. This is done with the help of research findings, facts, statistics, explanations, computer modelling, and analyses. The cumulative effect does the opposite of inform, it eliminates personal judgment and the capacity to form opinions (p. 87). When a television viewer has watched a report on case rates or the features of the new vaccine, he can recall few of the details a day later. Only the general picture, a feeling, remains. This complication is the prelude to simplification, and this simplification is a real humdinger, perhaps the prevailing narrative of our era: things are so complicated that you must trust the experts (well, you’re not anti-science, are you?) COVID propaganda consists of the reification of detail in order to impose a misleading whole. Facts become the principal constituent of falsehood (p. 56).
Naturally, all this is presented as science, but it is actually The Science™. Its models and arguments all point in one pre-ordained direction, and they are promoted by institutions and people who benefit from doing so. Some of these benefits are financial, some relate to the accrual of power and control, but for the majority of, so to speak, useful idiots, who tag along for the ride, these benefits take the form of a feeling of moral righteousness and community spirit—the sense that one is on the right side of history. Let’s examine just a few purportedly scientific decisions or judgments that were taken behind the scenes, consciously or unconsciously, to make sure that ‘the science’ supports the lockdown and vaccine narrative, come hell or high water. In no particular order:
- If an obese person dies after contracting COVID, he died from COVID, not obesity, because COVID came later in the chronological sequence.
- We take no account of the nocebo effect—the sister of the placebo effect—whereby negative health outcomes are caused by fear, in this case the unsubstantiated fear that COVID poses a significant risk of death to the young and healthy.
- We will judge lethality according to deaths rather than life-years-lost.
- We will not include in assessment of the severity of the pandemic a consideration of the number of people who would likely have died of old age or infirmity if they had not caught COVID.
- We will provide funding for research that emphasizes the severity of COVID and decry as irresponsible and politicized that which does not.
- The COVID response must be coordinated worldwide, not left to individual countries, and certainly not individual doctors.
- We will suppress or condemn in the most vociferous language anyone who publicly raises the potential efficacy of non-vaccine treatments, palliatives, or preventative measures—fresh air, exercise, sunlight, weight loss, vitamin C, D, Zinc, Ivermectin. These people undermine vaccine uptake and lockdown policies. Besides, the absence of any treatment other than vaccines was the basis for the Emergency Use Authorization for the MRNA vaccines—a process carried out by experts.
None of these choices are scientific. They were strategic choices made to herd public opinion in one direction, unintended consequences and opportunity costs be damned.
The Expert Problem and the Deracination of Language
Modern man can be forgiven for wondering whether he can make sense of anything anymore without resort to experts. He is increasingly required to subordinate his values to their facts (p. XV). In certain realms this is appropriate—pilots, structural engineers, and surgeons are privy to expertise and skills that we lack, and we sensibly submit to them. But we should be wary of putting our faith in those who claim, by way of their credentials, expertise in the social realm, and this includes hard scientists who advocate for social policies. Besides anything else, they all disagree with each other (and if they don’t, something is afoot). As a result of academic inflation, we have a surplus of credentialed experts who form an aspirational managerial class. They earn their pay, and their self-esteem, by complicating the simple. To take a topical if extreme example: Defining a woman, they will assure us, is in fact intractably difficult. Well, of course it is. How else to justify ten-thousand-word papers and government grants? (What are you, transphobic?)
One product of the rise of the social expert is the deracination of language, which is another way of making the simple complicated. And this trend spreads through the institutions. Take the following variations on ‘propaganda’: public relations, spin doctoring, strategic communication, misinformation, disinformation, media ops, info ops, psychological operations, information war, messaging—this is all very complicated, you see, we’re experts. Political pressure groups are now called ‘think tanks.’ Those favoring foreign interventionism are given names such as The Global Engagement Center, or The Alliance for Securing Democracy; those calling for censorship are called the Digital Forensic Research Lab, or New Knowledge. One of their roles is to fill the space in the 24-hour news cycle. The media regularly uses the ‘findings’ from The Institute for the Study of War without informing the viewer that it is funded by the US arms industry. Or take the term ‘vaccine.’ Apparently, an experimental gene therapy that does not prevent you from getting a disease, or from passing it on to others, is a ‘vaccine.’ The CDC had to change their definition. Not only that, but despite all the evidence to the contrary, the ‘vaccines’ are ‘effective.’ Furthermore, even though they pose an unacceptable risk of adverse reactions by historical standards, they are ‘safe.’ The vaccines are safe and effective. (What are you? An anti-vaxxer? A COVID denier?). Words increasingly have no meaning. We do have an in-built response of repulsion to the dissembling politician or the acronym-spewing bureaucrat. But a lot of the changes to language go unnoticed. When language dies, truth-telling dies with it.
The Old Guard and the New Wave
The Canadian media theorist Marshall McCluhan believed that the print age shifted society from tribal to civilized. Print emphasizes semantic meaning. Thinkers of early and late modernity put down in writing the entirety of their message. This was the age of Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Newton, the great man with the orderly mind, the tidy desk, and the filing system. Meaning is visual in the form of text: ordered, chronological, logical, slow—one can go back and read passages. The print age invited increasing numbers of the public into the visual space. The decline of Latin and the growth of vernacular publications made possible national consciousness, the nation state, and nationalism.
But the electric age, according to McCluhan, brings us back into a tribal era. Meaning becomes acoustic, non-linear. Millions of people sitting in front of the television absorb the modern equivalent of shamanistic lore from authoritative sources in a manner analogous to the tribal systems of tyrannous instruction and control. The Nazis famously made great use of the new electric media. And now we are in the social media era. Donald Trump would not have been president if not for Twitter. Not for nothing did McCluhan argue that The Medium is the Message.
My contention is that the current ruling classes in the West identify as torch bearers for the great men with orderly minds. I call them the old guard. This old guard is the self-designated defender of a civilization under threat from powerful forces of irrationalism and tribalism in the form of trolls, provocateurs, extremists and populists—the type of people who simplify the complicated in the wrong way, those who don’t trust the experts. The old guard finds incompleteness, uncertainty, chance, and unintended consequences profoundly disturbing since they cannot be categorized and modelled. They are ill at ease with an Internet environment in which truth is probed at impressionistically through multiple media, humor, mockery, trolling, memes, rather than following a logical path from start to finish. They feel about the Internet age the way scientists in Newton’s era would have felt about particle physics: bewildered, under siege. More importantly, it threatens their position at the top of the institutions.
It may be useful to think of the old guard as participants in a costume drama who are unaware of being on stage. The plot concerns the fight against irrationality. But the audience sees tired actors desperate to remain relevant in a world that is passing them by. They believe they doing journalism, politics and science, but to the audience they play at journalism, they play at politics, and they play at science.
The growing opposition to the old guard I call the new wave. The new wave mocks the presumptions of the old guard, and scoffs at the idea that this aging troupe is fit to administer the modern world. They adhere to the ethos of particle physics rather than Newton, embracing the rich confusion of acoustic space; they recognize that ‘facts’ can be used to lie, they prefer common sense to expertise. They reject the idea that society, culture, economics, and politics should be governed by ‘facts’ alone. Rather than What do the experts say? They prefer to ask What kind of society do we want to live in?
McLuhan, a deeply erudite man, cautioned against making a cult of the scientific mind. Its boasted detachment, he warned, may not amount to much “besides not choosing to link the significance of one part of its actions to other parts” (McLuhan, 1951, p.108). Following Erasmus and More, who believed rationality required a unified ratio among the senses. McLuhan argued that a richer form of common sense involved “translating one kind of experience of one sense into all other senses and presenting that result as a unified image of the mind” (McLuhan, 1989, p. 25).
If the reigning propaganda apparatchiks and the institutions they control were as competent and powerful as they would have us believe, they would not be so widely despised. The more they rely on slogans, the more their policies fail, the more convoluted their language, and the more they resort to lying, the weaker they become. True, their control of the institutions makes them powerful, when mocked they turn to authoritarian measures. They managed to hoodwink large swathes of the public, and themselves, with the COVID response, and one has to doff one’s hat at their ability to get the Western public to look the other way when it comes to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline sabotage—an act of war likely carried out by a so-called ally (What are you? A Putin puppet?). The slogan class is dangerous precisely because it is weak, like a cornered, injured, animal willing to fight to the death. One way or another, it will be put out of its misery. What comes after that is anyone’s guess.