Last month Facebook’s status, “I’m a monster in the closet,” officially landed with a squishy thud. We now know for certain that their likes include creepy levels of global espionage, stalking everyone, and undermining democracy.
With Facebook feeling the heat and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on a whirlwind apology tour for his role in unhinging an American election, I would like to talk to you about propaganda as it relates to social media. Now if you’re anything like me, whenever someone mentions the term propaganda in those painfully earnest tones, you’ll roll your eyes and have the words ‘yes, and?’ tumble around your glazed-over dome.
This reaction doesn’t stem from a lack of interest but rather the lack of anything new. Propaganda is ancient, it has been a part of society for as long as one group of humans has wanted to influence or control the thinking and behaviour of another. Which means forever.
Fortunately for humanity as a whole, propaganda has never been very good at doing much of anything. Sure there was considerable sound and fury and individuals were absolutely frightened, angered, or sent into hysterics, but the macro scale changes were insignificant. The work of Dr Christopher Tuck and Professor Greg Kennedy, “British Propaganda and Wars of Empire,” for example, demonstrates how limited propaganda was during the world wars at changing or even maintaining the trajectory of a country. Either it was too personally tailored to have any real impact on the masses or too generalized to significantly alter the individual. That has remained true even as the medium and techniques of propaganda have gained in sophistication. That is, until social media and Facebook.
The late great Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” which distilled down to its essence means that the medium used to transmit a message alters the perception of it. Social media has bridged the gulf between micro and macro scale messaging and propaganda has found its perfect medium.
Facebook has taken what has been an unwieldy blunt tool of influence and made it relevant. Propaganda now represents a powerful and effective means to control the direction of nations by applying sharp individual pressure on members of an entire group. It is worth taking a step back and asking why that is and what we can do as individuals to lessen its effects.
Straight off, Facebook is not your friend, and social media is not a benign social forum building community. It is important to remember that Facebook is a corporation whose sole product is you. You are the livestock and every piece of information you share makes you a fatter, juicier chicken. Facebook provides a pretence of free access to their platform all the while taking the keys to what makes you tick. They then sell access to you, informing anyone with enough money the ways in which you are vulnerable, and precisely how to get you to do what they want.
Short of unplugging and heading for the hills, this is the reality of modern life. We are all being manipulated, every day and in every waking moment. Some pressures are good, most are neutral and make no difference to our lives. Propaganda, however, in this new age of surgical precision of mass manipulation, is dangerous and troubling. It is a deliberate, conscious effort to alter behaviour, and social media is the most powerful outlet for propaganda that this world has ever known. Free will is earned. We must accept that we are being manipulated. Awareness of this manipulation is the only way to attenuate its effects. Think critically about the information which is making its way to you. If democracy is to have a future we will have to earn it, we will all need to have our guard up.