The Orwellian mechanics of modern propaganda
On propaganda, pt. 5
Welcome to the bleak and uncertain future.
We have never seen propaganda at this scale, complexity and level of intensity throughout modern history. This is not an overstatement. The architecture is immense, its synergies are labyrinthine. Distribution is near-total, even infiltrating most of our private interactions.
The mediatic framework for this development was erected during the last 15 years or so, with the full transformation being pushed through during the covid event and propaganda’s blatant and explicit usurpation of our consensus reality.
But I would even argue that an entirely new mode of communication now has emerged, a new way of discursively framing social interactions, identity formation and basic civic agency that completely eschews free face-to-face communication for something quite different. And when natural human intercourse does take place, it’s increasingly according to the logic of this latter thing.
In other words, actual human interaction is increasingly marginalized, being replaced with consumption of an artificial hybrid of entertainment and information where almost every aspect of transmission, reception and context is meticulously structured and automatically supervised and regulated. The digitally transmitted meme and the way it’s structurally situated becomes the dominant media metaphor.
We find ourselves immersed in this huge, interactive panopticon geared via algorithms towards the ends of the authoritarian core of the social order, towards reproducing politically expedient narratives by acts of consumption and self-branding masquerading as rational consent. Hidden beneath a thin simulacrum of reasonable exposition that’s really just noise.
Returning to the concept of propaganda
I previously used Jacques Ellul’s general model in defining propaganda as a set of techniques that’s particular to modern mass society, i.e. to a society characterized by mass communications media, that combines active psychological and social influence with methods of institutional organization with the purpose of shaping human behaviour.
I think this is a rather solid definition to begin with. It brings into view the whole apparatus, the spectacle on the scene as well as the complex, force-multiplying structures hidden behind the curtain. It also precludes reductive interpretations of this or that specific content or message as “propaganda”, since no such thing is really propaganda at all unless it’s connected to this complex framework whose power is conducted through the particular act of communication.
For instance, a common trope you still hear is that “propaganda” is tantamount to false statements with some sort of strategic aim. This is much too reductive. A specific act of communication connected to propaganda can be entirely true or entirely false, that’s completely irrelevant. What matters is the intended or structurally inherent effects upon human perceptions, interpretations and behaviour, and the employment of specific techniques of influence and dissemination. Almost nobody seems to grasp this.
The basic description of the model above is lacking in detail, however. There’s a whole lot hiding behind “psychological and social influence”, as well as behind “methods of institutional organization” which really is the meat of the whole issue. Let’s just dig into the former set a little bit.
Psychological and social influence
First of all, what Ellul rightly emphasizes is the importance of the basic underlying worldview to all forms of propaganda. The worldview must somehow be tapped into; the fundamental myths of a society, its basic social imaginary, and the common understanding of how the world works, must in some way be connected with, for the act of persuasion to be effective at a society-wide scale. This goes for everything from razor adverts to Hollywood integration propaganda or war-time agitprop.
Worldviews and related issues such as fundamental values and the central aspects of peoples’ social identities are slow and lumbering institutions. They for the most part change very slowly, not least because they’re cognitively speaking very costly to alter. You can think of them as the very core structure of a person’s understanding of reality, and since they keep most everything else together, they’re for various reasons quite inflexible. In other words, the propagandist is generally going to have to make use of, rather than try to change, what he finds in this regard.
On a societal scale, the aggregate effect, the general tendency of people’s worldviews can be thought of as something like the fundamental currents of thought in a society. These are both expressed and reproduced through what anthropologically is known as myth (which has nothing immediately to do with truth and falsity), and which are basically strongly symbolic narratives closely related to existential meaning and purpose, generally used to imbue the social order with some sort of higher significance.
So propaganda needs to connect with the significant myths of a society. If it does this successfully, it can harness whatever higher significance is embedded in these collective beliefs, and thus resonate with pregnant narratives of meaning.
If, on the other hand, a propaganda narrative actually conflicts with dominant myth, it’s dead in the water. In that case, it has to contend with the cumulative force of the entire consensus reality and social imaginary, which is a… Pretty tall order.
Unless, of course, these fundamental currents of society are generally very flimsy, or for some reason or other apt to be moulded. Such as, for instance, if their reproduction is weak or contradictory due to low social and ideological cohesion - which is precisely why cults tend to thrive where conventional religious adherence is lacking.
The unreality of the contemporary social order
Modern society is pretty much characterized by such a lack of cohesion in terms of worldviews and the social imaginary. We live alone, far removed from the rich network of relationships seen in all traditional societies, instead dependent upon technological simulations. Our myths are bare-bone, mechanically reproduced, and reduced to a few basic pregnant symbols and tropes, with very flimsy apologetics surrounding them, if any, and lacking the verdant ecosystem of supporting legends or literature seen in almost every previous culture.
In short, our mythology, and the modes of communication establishing and renewing it (popular film, advertising, tv-shows) are superficial and one-dimensional, amounting to something akin to artificial monoculture farming as opposed to old-growth forest, and exhibiting a similar lack of resilience. In terms of dominant currents of thought, we’re basically left with the remnants of the myth of democracy, the salvific myth of science and progress, and the related narratives pertaining to individual success, physical health, longevity and happiness.
So in this context, where we’re staring at screens in relative isolation, with nothing to really ground us, not even a decent philosophical anchoring of basic critical thinking, then the massive transformation of the covid event is thrust upon us. This process intensifies the general detachment from the tangible world around us, and redoubles our dependence on the media technologies we’re already submerged in. Our libidinous attachment (i.e. our associating them with reward and gratification) to digital technology is entrenched through the atmosphere of terror that quickly poisoned industrial society, where the media technologies affords us escape, reassurance as well as a sense of control. The basic mythological themes of democracy, science and health are of course predominant throughout the media blitz, with a heavy emphasis on the latter two, and our fear of losing what we perceive as the highest good, i.e. our physical well-being, ties everything together. In this situation, we will have a very hard time defending ourselves from the propaganda narratives we’re exposed to.
But something more or less novel is also in play here. This can probably be summarized in a) the algorithmic regulation of the new media and of interpersonal communication; b) the new modes of communication that flow from the specific limitations and strengths of the digital architecture; and c) the comparatively large reach of any one particular act of communication in the framework of social media.
With regard to a), we have a centralized, automatic regulation of interpersonal communication in the new media, as well as of the reception of information. This regulation will tend to reflect and reproduce the structures of discourse and power inherent in the institutions providing the regulation.
B) refers to the format and types of communication that tends to be emphasized in the informational environment. The memifying of discourse, where communication is predominated by a simplistic format that focuses emotionally poignant recollection of clear and strong narrative themes in a polarizing manner at the immediate expense of subtlety and detailed exposition. When this sort of thinking colours people’s mindset, it will tend to guide interpretation and characterization of information, encouraging stereotypical interpretations, especially of content that seems to clash with established propaganda narratives. Since I’m indirectly interrogating “Western” propaganda in this article, there will for instance be a tendency to interpret my position as support for Russian foreign policy, since they currently hold the position of main enemy image.
B) also relates to the similarities between the marketing of brands and our “postings” in social media, which basically also follows the blueprint of advertising.
C) refers to what I’ve called “horizontal propaganda” in the specific context of digital social media, and can be summarized as both the tangible potential reach of your personal acts of communication, and must also be related to the cumulative set of incentives relating to “likes”, reposts, and the streamlining of discourse in relation to dominant narratives via the narrow and decontextualized character of such items as “tweets” or Instagram posts. This naturally also holds true for the information promulgated by large private interests and PR organizations, which effectively capitalize upon the pseudo-social dissemination.
So with this entire structure in place, spinning the covid record attained truly astonishing effects. A viral infection with lethality on par with the flu placed the entire developed world in two years of hysteria, suspending the rule of law and sidelining whatever vestiges of democracy remained. This, as most of you may recall, did not happen in relation to the heavily hyped swine flu pandemic of 2009, arguably since many of the above factors were then lacking.
And as we clearly see, it’s perfectly simple to move from one narrative to the other. Forget about covid, it’s harmless. With a fresh script in the machine, Oceania is now at war with Eurasia, this dastardly foe.
Back in Bernays’ day, propaganda and the management of public opinion was a much more capricious project. Nowadays, we literally do not have to guess at anything, since it’s trivial to just test in real-time the response to certain narrative key points. You basically just have to push a button.
How does it all work?
Imagine yourself ensconced in your multi-media masturbatorium. While browsing the internet, you encounter a social media post sharing a headline emphasizing the imminent threat of foreign dictator X. It’s the latest in a series of such posts, so you’re already to some extent primed to receive the narrative, and its general outlines are familiar. The general framing actualizes a conflict with predominant myths in your worldview since this regime is portrayed as threatening the sacred institutions of democracy, and their rampant censorship undermines the free pursuit of knowledge that is key to the sanctity of science.
Being an empathetic and somewhat virtuous individual, emotions of indignation and even fear stirs within the murky depths of your heart, reinforced by the synchronized support of this particular story across different media platforms. Logging onto Twatter, you see that acquaintances and celebrities you follow also are upset over the situation, and seem to agree that danger really is afoot. A few others distance themselves from the narrative, which already invokes a tinge of reprehension in you.
Of course, you have no real idea whether any of this is actually true or not, yet the notion of actually questioning anything never arises. That a relatively coherent and ubiquitous message such as this could be false in some meaningful way would seem to necessitate vastly implausible conspiracies, which is a concept you have come to associate with strongly negative emotions, as well as the implicit displeasure of the social hierarchy around you. Best not go there.
You then retweet the post about the imminent threat of dictator X and go down to the store to buy a few rolls of toilet paper. Over there, you see graffiti on a trash dumpster reading “Kony 2022” and smile to yourself, reassured that you’re part of a larger community of individuals, fighting for what’s good and true.
Meanwhile, you haven’t the slightest idea that half a million died in the Syrian civil war, nor the least apprehension at the fact that 400 000 have perished in the Yemeni conflict since 2014, a development enthusiastically supported by elements of the regime of your own country.
In Russia, public dissent in relation to the state’s dominant narratives is criminalized since last Friday. In Czechia of the Free West, expressing support for the Russian operation in Ukraine will likewise land you in prison.
Welcome to the Brave New World.
(edit: tune in to John Steppling’s Aesthetic Resistance podcast some time later this week for a discussion of related topics with the brilliant team of John, Cory Morningstar, Hiroyuki Hamada, Varun Mathur and myself)
Low supply of life
How to wake up?
Insane things grow like a funny fake-out
The world lines up for the Great Divider
A lasting dose from the low insider
The mind plays tricks, the big fix sticks
The mind rejects the master
The mind plays tricks, the monster fix
The gates seemed closed yet better than before
Safe after dark
Dreams fight the Old Ones
Scream, hear the dog, watch as he opines
The fame has to try extreme fights to hold on
Screams fear to flight, walks to the old song
The mind plays tricks, the big fix sticks
The mind rejects all matter
Feign, past the part, dreams, like an orphan
Extreme fear to die, talks with a cold tone
Frayed facts of time green lights the old guard
Seems here to die, walks in the ocean