Rewired propaganda: propaganda, misinformation, and populism in the digital age

Sarah Oates


This chapter aims to synthesise a working definition of propaganda in the digital age. The term propaganda often evokes a simplistic and overt attempt to persuade, such as the glorification of the Soviet worker on posters or an image of the American spokesman ‘Uncle Sam’ marketing bonds in World War II. While this chapter addresses the classic definition of propaganda, it also expands the definition into a concept of ‘rewired propaganda’ that demonstrates the utility of the term in understanding the interplay of misinformation and populism in the digital age. In particular, an awareness of the classic concept of propaganda allows us to see how the democratising effect of online information to create informed citizens is outmatched by the internet’s ability to leverage misinformation in the service of populist propaganda. In other words, propaganda can now ‘hide in plain sight’ as it is so difficult to disentangle from the broad range of information in the digital sphere. At the same time, those who adhere to principles of free speech and fairness are at a significant disadvantage both domestically and internationally in the sphere of rewired propaganda that lends itself more to the success of populist movements than traditional party politics.

Propaganda and media models

The classic definition of propaganda is ‘the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person’, as well as ‘ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause’ (Merriam-Webster online dictionary The key element that is often overlooked in these definitions is that propaganda is not, in and of itself, a negative communication tool. Rather, the term is defined by its ends rather than its means: you do not have to tell falsehoods in order to propagandise nor do you have to ‘dupe’ or fool people. This is reflected in the way that Russians, for example, have traditionally labelled propaganda as either ‘white’ or ‘black’. Propaganda can attempt to persuade through positive messaging, or it can attack and undermine through lies, half-truths, rumour, innuendo, or even fakery. Certainly, people may be propagandised into actions that do not reflect their core beliefs, but often people embrace propaganda that echoes their own values and desires.

That being said, propaganda has a justifiably negative connation in the contemporary media sphere that reflects a deep and enduring debate about the role of media in society in general. The media is supposed to function as the ‘fourth estate’ in the United States, a further balance against excess of power by the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the government. More broadly, freedom of the press allows for a constant watchdog on powerful elites, meaning that the press work in the service of the citizens, telling ‘truth to power’. While the notion of an objective media is more an aspiration than a reality (Hearns-Branaman 2014), the notion of the media as the critical ‘voice of the people’ is the central organising ideal for journalists in democracies, in the same way that the ‘first do no harm’ principle in the Hippocratic oath is the touchstone of the medical profession.

Siebert et al. (1956) address the operationalisation of media freedom in their classic work about models of the press, highlighting the varying roles that the media is expected to play in different societies by analysing how the media functions in different countries. They developed a libertarian (or commercial) model of the media from the United States system, in which the press meet consumer demand for information in a commercialised setting with little interference from the state. From the United Kingdom, Siebert et al. articulated the social-responsibility model of the media, which suggests that media function as arbiters of political norms and respect state needs more closely than in the libertarian model. Thus, one could find better justification for the persuasive elements of propaganda more clearly in the social-responsibility model than in the libertarian model. However, as Herman and Chomsky (1988) argue, the libertarian media system is particularly vulnerable to manipulation by commercial interests.

For authoritarian regimes, Siebert et al. suggested that the concepts of media and propaganda are fused. In the case of the ‘Soviet Communist’ model, Siebert et al. found that the media’s primary purpose in the former Soviet Union was to propagandise the citizens about ideals of communism. Practically, this also took the form of censoring a great deal of information on international and domestic opposition to communism. In their fourth and final model from their 1956 volume, Siebert et al. suggested that the authoritarian model placed the press in the role of promoter of a dictator and his oligarchic circle. Again, in practice, this meant a great deal of censorship and control of the mass media.

Thus, propaganda would have been a normal and expected element of non-free media systems. Overt propaganda, except during wartime, was much less acceptable in the libertarian and social-responsibility systems of the media in the twentieth century.1 This is what has made the concurrent rise of online communication, populism, and misinformation particularly jarring in the US media sphere. The following sections will discuss two case studies about this synergistic relationship in both a domestic and global setting: the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016 and ongoing Russian propaganda delivered via the US media system.

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