Propaganda: How Media Shapes Our Reality
We live in an era of fake news where everyone is unaware of the way they are being controlled. This manipulation is achieved by nothing but propaganda. You might hear this word being cavalierly used in everyday conversations. However, many do not realise its weight and intricacies. So what actually is propaganda, and how does it work? Propaganda is a type of persuasive communication in media that is used to strategically promote a point of view or narrative in the public sphere. It is aimed to influence the opinions of people and to ultimately control their behaviour. It often relies on misinformation or slight adjustments of the truth in order to obtain their desired results. The use of the word has increased since during the World War. The most common and egregious example is when Nazi Germany spread negative images and ideas about Jewish people in films, cartoons and magazines.
Propaganda is singularly successful because the subject of misinformation is not conscious about it. Thus, the more propaganda is spread and left unopposed, the more powerful it becomes. The information is naturalised as universal or masked as the only truth. This is called a ‘metanarrative.’ Jean Lyotard, a philopsopher, believes that metanarratives operate through inclusion and exclusion. It functions as a homogenizing force which silences or excludes other discourses. Think of it as naturalising a point of view by repetitive reinforcement. The lack of a counter narrative shapes our understanding of the truth and thus drives our actions based on our ignorant and limited perspective of the world. Therefore, propaganda works on an ideological level. Take films as examples. The movie ‘The Eternal Jew” (1940) is well known for its anti-semetic views. It portrays Jews as ‘subhuman’ creatures infiltrating the Aryan society. They are portrayed as wandering parasites, consumed by sex and money. Films make an impact on our unconscious mind and eventually drive our behaviour. This movie ‘excluded’ or muted the voices of Jewish people while only ‘including’ one bigoted side of the argument as the truth. Censorship complements the spreading of this propaganda as opposing voices or revolts are further suppressed. In the contemporary context, the internet is unprecedentedly accessible to each individual, making it a powerful tool for propaganda. Propaganda in the form of videos uploaded in Youtube, posts on Facebook or Twitter, or even careless comments, has extensive effectiveness and results in the dissemination of certain beliefs or values. The Internet Research Agency (IRA) is known for its Russian state-sponsored social media campaign, and used fake social media accounts to initiate discourse online to influence the voting choices in the 2016 US presidential election. It is known to undermine democratic functioning by targeting both the right and the left by producing and sharing misleading content, including manufacturing and selling “Black Matters” T-shirts.
Propaganda used in-house by political parties themselves is not unheard of, either. For example, a biopic about Prime Minister Narendra Modi was released on 5th April, just a week before India’s general elections. Similarly, a movie demeaning Manmohan Singh, the leader of the opposite party, was released called ‘The Accidental Prime Minister.’ The first movie implicitly portrayed Modi as a grand figure while the second movie outwardly questioned the Gandhi family’s legibility as rulers. These movies portray a very biased view about the political parties. An average viewer who is not aware about propaganda would think of these as the truth and internalize their message. Further, movies create an illusion of giving insights into the personal lives of political leaders and thus evoke an emotional response in their audience. This aim is often achieved by the “Plain Folks” technique where powerful politicians consciously present themselves as “ordinary Joes”, increasing their relatability to the public. Some famous examples would include photographs of Ronald Reagan chopping wood or Bill Clinton eating at McDonald’s. These tactics influence their audience’s voting patterns.
Propaganda has also been used in war to recruit soldiers or to shape opinions about the enemy. During World War 2, a poster was spread widely in the United States as part of a recruitment campaign. It featured ‘Uncle Sam’: a stern face pointed outward with his right index finger and eyes that stared directly at the viewer. It announced ‘I Want YOU for U.S. Army’ below in bold blue and red capital letters. The poster was rapidly printed into four million copies and pasted on walls and signposts from Maine to California. Within a few weeks, nearly every American had seen it. This rallied the people to fight for the U.S. Louis Allthusser’s theory of Interpellation was clearly at work here. These posters were used as Ideological State Apparatus (ISA). ISA is a term coined by Marxist theorist Louis Althusser to refer to institutions such as the media that serve to "interpellate" the values of those in power into the subjects in order to maintain the order of hegemonic rule in society. The poster directly addressed the audience with the word ‘YOU’ in order to interpellate the idea of dulce et decorum est in the audience’s mind. Propaganda works on an ideological level where we are implicitly fed the values and ideas of the people in power. While its tactics may vary, from name-calling to card-stacking to glittering generalities, its ultimate purpose has remained the same across history. In today’s day and age, the accessibility and popularity of social media has made it more difficult to recognize and debunk propaganda than ever before.