Propaganda is a form of communication that attempts to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.
The recent publication of This Is Not Propaganda  has created a lot of buzz amongst aficionados of disinformation and digital propaganda. I haven’t read the book yet, and I’m sure this isn’t Pomerantsev’s fault, but I’m noticing a particular misconception getting tossed around in the hype. According to this bad take, the root of all our current problems with deception and information-ecosystem collapse is that the internet has given common people access to a lot of information. Supposedly in the good ol’ days of 1998, most people relaxed in the soothing prehistoric darkness just like they did in 10,000 BC, unburdened by the complexities of multiple competing sources of news and knowledge… when suddenly the Internet changed everything by giving them more channels and turning their brains into festering cesspools of Too Much Information.
“In the 1960s, there were great hopes that the computer would somehow solve the problem of this accelerated rate of change, especially because of its ability to handle the vast amounts of information becoming available, and that it would therefore simplify the increasing complexity of life. But a computer, like any other decision-making apparatus, is only as good as the quality of information it receives. Today, the speed at which information travels, whether in ‘cyberspace’ or on what is termed ‘real-time’ television, does not automatically produce a situation conducive to sensible, considered decisionmaking.”
But this is wrong. News and information in general was never the purview of only the elites. Commoners have had good access to information at least since the 1500s when the first “real” newspaper was printed. Even before that, commoners were informed by couriers, travelers, town criers, family members, bartenders, barbers, preachers, etc. This venerable network of interpersonal news dissemination was so pervasive that it is partially preserved in language: in many European languages, “What news?” is still a recognizable, if archaic, form of greeting, because person-to-person social contact was such an important means of networking news.
“The Reformation was Europe’s first mass-media news event. The quantity of books and pamphlets generated by interest in Luther’s teaching was quite phenomenal. It has been estimated that between 1518 and 1526 something approaching eight million copies of religious tracts were placed on the market. This was a very one-sided contest. Luther and his supporters were responsible for over 90 per cent of the works generated by the controversy.”
I point to the 1500s (in Europe, at least) because the first media revolution, the first sharp increase in mass access to information, came from the invention of the printing press. At first, there was a heavy religious slant to the output of the presses—official edicts were basically the staple market for their services, and (then, as now) the economics of the business influenced all the content. And so with mass printing came hundreds of years of religious wars. Jan Hus was the original reformer, but Martin Luther is the one who took off. Mostly because of his publicity gained by his writing. He was a prolific writer of religious texts, and he was probably the most popular author of the time. The invention of the book cover is sometimes attributed to Martin Luther’s pamphlets. Printers started putting woodcut graphics on the front page so customers could rapidly identify his works.
In any case, even the recent media revolutions haven’t all revolved around the Internet. Remember Desktop Publishing? It’s hard to remember now, but it was a big enough deal in the 1980s that some of the companies it raised to prominence are still significant, to say the least (you’ve heard of “Apple”?) The rise of cable TV fragmented the news market into niche groups, and created the idea of “real-time news” (no, Twitter did not invent real-time news, sorry Jack.) This meant there was no longer time for analysis, just reporting “as-is”, sometimes practically even stream-of-consciousness, so the news ecosystem became a “release-and-patch-later” system. With all the problems that go with that model.
‘Multichannel systems…have fragmented the audience into narrow niches based on taste, hobbies, avocations, race and ethnicity.’ 52 And this process is likely to continue as individuals become increasingly able to import the information and entertainment that meets their needs as individuals rather than as members of the mass.
When the Internet finally did arrive, the truly disruptive revolution wasn’t access to information; it was the final unification of all the previous revolutions: the niche audiences and frenetic pace of cable TV news, coupled with the “desktop publishing” democratization of access to audiences, taken to the extreme, where broadcast platforms became essentially free.
The economic factors are one of the most important ways the Internet has impacted the news media: this lowering of the bar for broadcasting devastated advertising markets. Newspapers, the first news broadcast medium of the 1500s, remained relevant in the cable-news era by differentiating themselves as the last stronghold of thoughtful analysis. As a result, they became the gold standard for establishing credibility. Then the internet blew up advertising and made newspapers much less relevant for accessing advertising markets. They’ve lost significant revenue and have been drastically cutting staff. Many have shut down. But the crucial thing is that newspapers remain the major source of credibility. The news validates a story by covering it, and once a story is in mainstream newspapers, then it is more or less universally accepted as “true” and “important”.
…the chroniclers also reveal a profound concern that the events they record should be credible and recognised as such. They offer repeated testimonials to the quality of their sources, the social status or number of the witnesses, and whether the writers were personally present. Even the recording of distant events reflects a clear concern to report only what was credible. Thus the chronicler of St Paul’s Cathedral in London recorded, of an exceptionally severe frost in Avignon in 1325 in which many froze to death, that ‘according to the testimony of those who were there and who saw it, for one day and night the ice covering the Rhône, which is an extremely fast-flowing river, was more than eight feet thick’. Note how the addition of a seemingly precise but unverifiable detail, the thickness of the ice, adds greatly to the credibility of the account.
It’s interesting to note that credibility, not information, is the real currency. Newspapers were resisted at first because people naturally judge credibility of information based on the person delivering it. At first people thought, “How can I trust words on a page? I don’t know who said it!” Newspapers’ reputations for credibility were carefully cultivated over the centuries. The earliest papers took extreme pains to have multiple sources, preferably eye witnesses. The editor would articulate exactly who the witness was, how close they were to the event/how they came by the information, and so on. They essentially replicated a trusted personal account of events delivered by a person. While the internet allows anyone to broadcast, it certainly doesn’t grant everyone credibility. And information without credibility has little effect on the public.
So, this “access to information is the problem” thesis is wrong. The problem is that the Internet democratized access to the production and dissemination of information and simultaneously destroyed the economics of high-quality journalism while leaving in place the culture and custom of credibility and truth. The problem isn’t that people can see more information; the problem isn’t even just that more people have the power to shout their propaganda from the virtual rooftops. The problem is that we now have a credibility vacuum and the means for any sufficiently motivated entities to fill that vacuum, regardless of actual credibility per se.
- Pomerantsev, Peter. This is not Propaganda. PublicAffairs, 2019.
- Jowett, Garth S. and O’Donnell, Victoria. Propaganda and Persuasion. 7th Edition. Sage Publications, 2019.
- Taylor, Philip M. Global Communications, International Affairs and the Media Since 1945 (The New International History). Routledge, 2002.
- Pettegree, Andrew. The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself. Yale University Press, 2014.