Propaganda 2.0

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We still know it from our student days in communication science: propaganda. Short definition: a form of communication in which an interested party tries to win over supporters to its ideas by deliberately spreading one-sided and fabricated information.

Usually we associate propaganda with abhorrent regimes in countries under a dictatorship. In the past definitely Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union under Stalin. Therefore, propaganda has a distinctive negative connotation. And what do we notice now? That propaganda in its purest form is given a second lease of life on social media and on the Internet. Whereas propaganda used to rely on state-controlled press, it is now within at the fingertips of anyone with a laptop or smartphone. The proliferation of technology has made propaganda a popular communication tool, and I doubt that this is a good evolution. Why?

Many more organisations – malevolent or not – now have a whole range of propaganda tools at their disposal. A widely used English expression says “On the Internet everyone is a dog“. Any social media user can pretend to be how he/she wants others to see him/her, and not as the person actually is. This leads to misinterpretation. After all, propaganda is a type of communication that only focuses on the importance of the “channel” and not that of the “receiver”. That “receiver” must only be misled or misinformed. And companies such as Facebook or Twitter do not prevent this in any way; on the contrary, they only make it easier. Their excuse is that they claim to be technology platforms, and not publishers. That is not entirely true. Just ask our Flemish publishers groaning under all kinds of legislation.

Technology provides a lot of possibilities to strengthen propaganda material. Images, and moving images in particular, are stronger than words alone. The algorithms of the Big Techs (such as Google) also provide a lot of techniques to redirect wrong messages in a better targeted way, and to strengthen or perpetuate the influence of specific target groups. All well and good for neutral messages or messages based on facts, but not to indoctrinate. The strength of these sophisticated algorithms is such that the “receiver” can no longer distinguish fake news from “real” news. That is a dangerous evolution. As a society and as communication experts we struggle with terms such as politically correct communication, and we do not know how to deal with it.

Propaganda is not restricted to political parties and governments, private companies also use it. That is also a trend. Companies lobby to create the best possible “subcutaneous” image on social media, with paid influencers and paid campaigns. Could that not be done with advertising in the past? Of course it could, but technology has provided a broader range of tools to do the same in a much more refined and sleek way. Being manipulated without realising it: that is called propaganda 2.0

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