George Orwell once wrote, “The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Modern media technologists seem to be taking the denial and obliteration to another level by not only reinventing the history and historical facts, but also denying people any capabilities to put faith in the facts they encounter daily. In today’s post-truth world, propaganda itself is not so much a problem anymore, but propaganda about propaganda is.
However, defining the term propaganda and using it consistently are no easy tasks. The term has negative connotations in many cultures. Does propaganda have to be false or insincere? Do all propagandists do this in support of a bad cause? Can every act of persuasive communication be considered as propaganda? Can propaganda harm democracy? Ultimately, all these questions lead us to a dyad that using propaganda is either ethical or unethical.
Let’s imagine you are watching a late-night TV show where a certain president of an unnamed country is being criticized for a let-it-stay-unspecified action. Is this propaganda? Is somebody trying to persuade you in something? At first glance, it might appear as just a political discussion, but you might be feeling that the host is trying to influence you in some way.
Back in 1965, Jacques Ellul suggested a very useful distinction between sociological and political propaganda that can help us clarify some things when dealing with the problem of propaganda:
In a sense, sociological propaganda is reversed from political propaganda because in political propaganda the ideology is spread through the mass media to get the public to accept some political or economic structure or to participate in some action, whereas in sociological propaganda, the existing economic, political, and sociological factors progressively allow an ideology to penetrate individuals or masses.
An important distinction with political propaganda is that those who produce sociological propaganda often do so unconsciously and are themselves invested in these values and beliefs. The examples of sociological propaganda can be found almost in every media text about recent Russian propaganda scandal.
So, returning to our late-night TV show. Does this critique of an unnamed president constitute an act of political propaganda? It is likely that it does not. It does, however, account for a sociological propaganda as the host is trying to transmit her own values and beliefs to the audience.
Sociological propaganda is common not only on TV but in the press as well. Professor Patryk Babiracki, for example, in the article “Why Americans keep falling for Russian propaganda?” concludes that “Under Putin, Moscow’s effort to undermine moral authorities and credible news sources will only get more intense.” What he actually says is that Russian political propaganda will try to overcome the influence of sociological propaganda in the United States. In other words, because he shares certain values of these unnamed moral authorities and credible news sources, the deliberate attack on them is the act of political propaganda, but what he does not recognize explicitly is that those sources themselves are also sociological propaganda as they transmit certain values. At times, they become political propaganda as well if they are aiming at deliberate political persuasion.
Another example is the article “If you talk about Russian propaganda, remember: Britain has myths too” by Afua Hirsh. She criticizes all forms of political propaganda, explaining the propaganda history in Europe, and concludes, “One of the major differences between us and Russia is that you couldn’t have this debate about history and values there.” Ironically, the article about propaganda ends with the sociological propaganda misinforming the readers about the political regime in Russia. This statement is not only wrong but is laden with anti-Russian meaning. By trying to convey certain criticism about political propaganda, she ends up trying to protract her own values and beliefs.
Propaganda about propaganda is a very dangerous phenomenon. It leads to situations in which the information bubble is filled with unverified sources. On the top of that, when someone tries to convey their sociological propaganda, our understanding of any message becomes distorted further. Criticism and analysis are beneficial for any society. Misinformation, however, benefits none.