The walls of my office are covered with propaganda posters from all over the world – Britain, the US, Russia, Cuba, South Africa, Poland, North Korea and more.
What is propaganda? The dictionary definition is ‘information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view’.
Most of us have grown up with the idea that propaganda is a marginalised activity. We are generally aware of the techniques as described to us by history.
The air drop.
The silkscreen poster.
The simple, compelling message that feeds our outrage or guilt.
I think that the architecture of propaganda has changed in ways that we are only beginning to realise. Thanks to a tool launched exactly 10 years ago – a more important device, inadvertently, in the propagandist’s arsenal than any other previously invented – we all engage in the art of propaganda every day. More powerful than the silkscreen, more powerful than the printing press, more powerful than the air drop. The tool was the iPhone. Propaganda is now mainstream.
Our selfies taken from a higher angle subvert the truth about our double chins. Our Instagram or Prisma filters make us seem more tanned or youthful or hip than we really are. Our carefully nurtured social networks enable us to exert more pressure than we might as individuals over corporations and politicians.
Even the functional language of our devices inadvertently echoes the language of the propagandist’s toolkit:
We have learned the power of the image and the power of the agitated group. We have learned that our own perspectives, with sufficient traction, become the orthodoxy, at a minimum for our groups, and at a maximum gathering in the support at their porous edges.
History, it was once said, is written by the victors. We all write the history of the outcomes of our own small battles. The building blocks of our comprehension of the world are smaller. Finding the truth has become far more complex. Some of this is an unintended side effect of our smartphone, networked condition. Some of it, as we are discovering, is a more profound effect, based on the sentient awareness of the manipulative power of these new tools.
The first western politician, I think, to really understand the power of the new propagandist’s tools, is about to be sworn in as President of the United States. He is a case study in the art of contemporary image manipulation.
Here are five things to consider:
- Trump is often ridiculed for his appearance. But there is a fundamental misunderstanding here. Think for a minute about the clutch of world leaders who looked the most iconic and instantly recognisable. Trump’s Pantone reference isn’t Orange; it’s Gold. Those opposed to him underestimated him, partly because, metaphorically, they saw orange instead of gold. People subconsciously associate Gold with value and the accessibility of treasure. He has applied an impermeable Instagram filter to his body.
- Trump has put himself way beyond ridicule because he uses social media as a broadcast channel. He invites ridicule as an immunising strategy. No logical critique can find a purchase.
- Trump is obsessed with context and deploys imagery at a staggering rate. Look at the photo below of his desk. What stands out? He has created contexts in which he looks like royalty. He is creating a court, a dynasty. Look at the photos of him. Most have the iconography of a time when leaders were revered. Mostly the background is opulent or prestigious. Mostly they’re pictures of him on his own. If they’re not, they’re only with ‘people that matter’ or the trappings of wealth and power.
- Trump’s apparent petulance on social media might cause his opponents to tread more carefully than they would otherwise. His apparent readiness to go on the offensive, seemingly rattled at some minor slight, may be a more sophisticated play at forewarning opponents with greater power prior to him taking office.
- Trump is a floating point calculation. He has expressed so many contradictory views on so many subjects. Political orthodoxy is consistent control of your message. Trump relishes and wallows in inconsistency – and draws advantage from it.
Trump’s iPhone is an iThrone.
There are many aspects of this, of course, which are deeply troubling. That’s a matter for another post, other than to point out that the impact of the immediacy of Trump’s communications (approaching 20 million Twitter followers hanging on his every word, plus all the lurkers, as I write this) is that the normal vetting process for Presidential pronouncements (through the filter of advisors, editors, experts) is bypassed. In place of considered analysis, we get ‘banalysis’. See here today’s broadside against Meryl Streep:
Chomsky and Herman’s Propaganda Model held that:
“The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”
To this, in my view, we now add the individual as propagandist. Most of us use more digital channels than corporations. We have more power at a granular level than we have ever had, but the trade off is in macro-predictability.
It would be helpful and reassuring to believe that we will return to a society in which all or most news is measured and verified. I don’t think that that is going to happen. The world has become more complex. Our eyes, if not kaleidoscopic, are having to take in and interpret a kaleidoscope of variables. Our axis of analysis – what the papers say, what the newspaper tells us, what our neighbours think – have been added to in the thousands.
We wade through references and influences every minute of the day. It’s why polling no longer works. Our attitudes are not location-based. We move in global tribes of particular interest. The meaningful implications of connected devices are only just beginning to emerge. The truth is out there. We have to wade through a lot more stuff to get to it. These portals in our pockets might be GPS-enabled, but in every other respect, notably for our moral compasses as disseminators and interpreters, they leave everything up to us.