Propaganda is often thought of as a nefarious art favored by Nazis and communists in the past and the Chinese today. This has some truth, since democratic societies claim propaganda is a bad thing. Yet as Jacques Ellul argued in his 1965 book Propaganda: The Formation Men’s Attitudes, propaganda has become a necessity for all modern states. Even citizens of the West, he asserted, could become “totalitarian men with democratic convictions” when subjected to unrelenting democratic propaganda.
Things have changed since Ellul wrote that book. Back then, propaganda was largely the preserve of governments and political parties. Today we have become our own propagandists, feeding ourselves information by our choice. We persuade ourselves.
What happened? In earlier days, individuals lacked the ability to propagandize themselves. True, Nazis could immerse themselves in a Nazi echo chamber before 1933 and after that Hitler’s state restricted information flow. But in democracies people called editors exerted quality control over what people read and saw. Editors (and publishers) had biases, but leading newspapers, magazines, and television networks generally kept nonsense from reaching a large audience. There were curiosities like John Stormer’s 1964 None Dare Call It Treason, but wild conspiracy theories usually had restricted circulation. Local crackpots felt isolated, sometimes reluctant to be open with their views for fear of attracting the scorn of neighbors.
But then came the internet. Suddenly everyone could be a publisher. Just as in the biblical book of Judges when there was no king in Israel and “every man did what was right in his own eyes,” every person could be an editor. The strangest theory could attract wide and self-reinforcing attention. The isolated crackpot was no longer isolated, but rather a member of a world-wide group of people who knew what others did not, that Bill Gates is inserting microchips into COVID vaccinations, that the 2020 election was shamelessly stolen, that a sinister conspiracy of pedophiliac Democrats is committing terrible deeds. (I use current examples from the Right not because the Left is blameless, but rather because the greatest nonsense today is on the Right.) Before the internet, few such fantasies became “viral.” Now new ones emerge daily and by strange inversion of the principle of “the survival of the fittest,” the worst often become the most believed.
Since the profusion of internet sites promoted the development of silos, each its own echo chamber, proponents of peculiar views do not need to be unsettled by the work of doubters. People restrict themselves to sources that reinforce their opinions, that make them members of an elite far more knowing than the mass of “sheeple.” And nothing they read or see suggests anything else.
I wish I had a good solution, but at the least editors merit more esteem than they often get. We can ourselves read reliable sources that disagree with us. We can gently (and probably unsuccessfully) encourage friends and family to broaden their media.
Propaganda is bad enough when being done to us; it is even worse when we do it to ourselves.