Viewpoints

What is post-modern computational propaganda?

Elnaz Babayeva & Sebastian Garcia, 15 October 2020

Understanding the various forms of propaganda that exist and how we can spot them

It is well known that Great Britain and the United States were the first countries to use mass media technologies for propaganda purposes, literally teaching Germany and the Soviet Union how to use the new technology to that end. As citizens, we know that propaganda exists, but we don’t identify the majority of current media manipulations as propaganda. In our minds, propaganda is vaguely related to something that is bad.

We know that propaganda is dangerous and we don’t want to be influenced, but what exactly is propaganda? Can we understand propaganda and create an operational definition that we can use to detect it?

What do people identify as propaganda?

Defining propaganda is difficult. This is because its definition has changed and adapted with time, and different versions of propaganda are used by different countries and societies. The style of propaganda even depends on the cultural beliefs of respective countries, since they may be based on different reinterpreted scientific and technological bases. Recently, 5G technology was accused to be used to cause Covid-19, encouraging some people in countries without 5G technology to vandalize 3G towers. These cases used different beliefs in technology and science as support for the political agenda of mistrust and societal division. 

There are even different types and stages of propaganda. Sociological propaganda is used to set the context, to create ambiguity and to reduce prejudices. Direct propaganda may come later to modify opinions. Some propaganda is hidden and secret (Black propaganda) and another is openly recognized (White propaganda). The problem with defining propaganda lies in the fact that it is a broad umbrella concept that covers myriad activities. 

Many definitions of propaganda have been proposed, but most of them simplify it as an analysis of how a piece of text was written instead of describing the political tool itself. The danger of simplistic definitions is that they can match almost any modern news story. This is because, first, they are created considering a very small amount of propaganda examples, and second, most modern news use techniques of propaganda to engage its audience.

There has been a recent outburst in the last years to recognize fake news, and although they are sometimes confused, fake news and propaganda are not the same. For starters, fake news is only one tool that propaganda may use. Propaganda is a bigger and broader strategic decision, while fake news is a tactical decision. Our discussion will move into how to recognize propaganda, independently of the way that is spread on the Internet.  

Instead of trying to define propaganda, we can try to see its characteristics in a social space. Propaganda may be seen as a way of controlling a social doctrine with multiple persuasion tactics. The three main characteristics that are usually recognized are:

  1. It is deliberately made to manipulate certain ideas.
  2. It presents only one view as the absolute truth.
  3. It uses psychological manipulation and convinces its audience that the propaganda’s aim and their own desires are one and the same.

As informative as these definitions may be, they are not operational definitions useful to detect propaganda in any meaningful and real way. In our next post, we will explore the characteristics of propaganda to find an operational definition that we can use to detect it and to be more protected against its influence.