The relationship of propaganda to populism

Table of Contents:

This volume is focused on the broad sweep of populism and its relationship to propaganda, a synergistic partnership that is discussed in detail throughout the book. For the purposes of this chapter, it’s important to consider how propaganda, misinformation, and the digital age create such a promising environment for populism. Indeed, this is a particularly important question because there was so much earlier focus by analysts on the exact opposite: how the internet would foster genuine debate and stronger democracies.

As noted in the introduction to this volume, populism can be considered to be ‘a political movement that both reflects the crisis of liberal democracy and challenges core democratic premises’ and has flourished in environments with the ‘spread of fake information, conspiracy beliefs, and propaganda’. Although populist movements are typically grounded in genuine grievances, these grievances are often magnified or distorted in ways that make it easier for politicians to manipulate the masses. This is in opposition to the notion of a democracy founded on informed debate and rational voters.

The success of populist movements around the world from the United States to Russia to Brazil suggests that propaganda is a better pair with populism than with traditional democracy. This chapter has discussed how populism, particularly in the 2016 US elections, can be fuelled by propaganda and misinformation. In addition to the features outlined by Wardle and Derakh-shan, the new media ecosystem allows malicious actors, both foreign and domestic, to ‘hide in plain sight’ by posing as media outlets or (in the case of social media) as trusted fellow citizens.

This leaves us with two significant challenges to traditional US democracy. First, political actors can now see the power of populism. Even if your goal is not to undermine democracy, it is very tempting to use propaganda and misinformation, rather than informed debate and traditional party politics, in order to win elections. At the same time, the current US media ecosystem asymmetrically favours populist propaganda over informed debate. Not only did many citizens preference misinformation and propaganda over real news in the 2016 campaign, but there is also a growing body of evidence that social media actively misinforms the public by its very nature. The dilemma that remains is whether the global rise of populism, as well as the new media environment engendered by the digital age, will permanently disadvantage responsible journalism and democratic elections. There is a pervasive power in rewired propaganda, the modernisation of classic propaganda infused with misinformation that is supported by the nature of traditional and social media. It remains to be seen if rewired propaganda will outpace the democratic function of the media in democracies such as the United States.


1 This leaves aside the issue of democratic states that broadcast propaganda in foreign countries.


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