Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

30 August 2013

The Internet, Social Media and Propaganda: The Final Frontier?

Dr Peter Johnston is an historian and lecturer who recently worked on researching and writing labels and other text to accompany our Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition. 

Until the invention of the radio, the means of disseminating propaganda remained much the same throughout millennia. Monuments, public speeches, coins, and the growing use of the printed word, were all common forms of propaganda from the time of Alexander the Great to the reign of Queen Victoria.

However, with the rapid technological change of the twentieth century, propaganda similarly underwent a massive change. The development of the radio – which Lenin called “a newspaper without paper… and without boundaries” – and in particular the moving image, first in cinemas, and then via televisions that ensured moving pictures could be brought into the home, gave propaganda even greater reach.

The growth of the internet, however, has transformed propaganda beyond anything those tasked with its production and spread in earlier generations could have imagined. The internet is a wilderness of information that is, unlike previous methods of disseminating propaganda, near impossible to regulate or officiate. What’s more, with the extent that we engage with this medium, and use it to share, spread and promote information, we have all become propagandists!

This thesis of course depends on the definition of propaganda. My preferred definition is that of the late Phil Taylor, who wrote that “essentially, propaganda is really no more than the communication of ideas designed to persuade people to think and behave in a desired way.” That means that, when engaging in social media, promoting ideas from politicians, intellectuals, friends, musicians or corporations through likes, shares, retweets and more, we are promoting that information and attempting to influence how people think about these things. How is that not engaging in the spread of propaganda?

Propaganda is not the insidious, deceptive, manipulative pattern of negatively influencing behaviour that many people consider it to be. While there’s no doubt it has been used for those purposes in the past, and continues to do so in the present, propaganda has also been used for good, in the spread of public health messaging, for example. Therefore, propaganda itself is an ethically neutral idea – it is the content that varies.

Due to the growth of the internet, and in particular the explosion of social media, the information-generating process has been democratised. Whenever we post an opinion on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site, we are issuing propaganda, a piece of information designed to make those who read it think about an issue or behave in a certain way conducive to what we want them to. Corporations have realised this, which is why they have such an active social media presence. Branding and advertising has become a major aspect of social media for all businesses, with a far greater personalisation to match the needs of consumers. By promoting brands, we are engaging in issuing propaganda on their behalf. 

Social media has enormous potential, which is why China, for example, has its own social media site, Weibo. In the popular revolutions, uprisings and protests across the world in recent years, social media has played a major part in mobilising, informing and influencing public opinion and shaping consensus of events from around the world. Modern communications are utilised by both sides, and it is here that the modern propaganda and information war is fought, in front of a global audience.

However, such a tool is not without its weaknesses. Disinformation regularly occurs, with fake or doctored pictures being used. Social media has the potential to spread information rapidly around the world. The recent uprising in Egypt has seen such images, and as testament to the times it is through other social media that such falsehoods are exposed. However, due to the sheer nature of information being generated on social media sites, reactions are often instantaneous, without any deep analysis being given. In that way, many people are often unwilling propagandists, deceived by the speed at which information is generated that compels an instantaneous response.

Social media also carries the potential for anonymity, and recently there have been several cases where accounts have been exposed as fake, or deliberately designed for political purposes. Such accounts operate very much in the black propaganda mould that was seen throughout the First and Second World Wars, deceptive propaganda that was issued under one guise but emanated from another source. This direct parallel demonstrates just how important social media is in the ongoing information war.  

Because of this, it means that you should never instantly believe everything you read, and that the same rules of scepticism and analysis need to be applied to digital propaganda as to any other, namely:

  • Who is producing the propaganda?
  • What they are saying?
  • Who is the propaganda directed at? Who are the intended audience?
  • Why?
  • With what effect?

By doing so, a critical engagement with information can be maintained.

Propaganda has always evolved along with communications technology. As new ways develop to spread information, so too will they be used to spread propaganda. That is what propaganda is! As such, the internet may currently be the final frontier, but there’s no reason not to think horizons will be extended further in future.

You can follow Dr Peter Johnston on Twitter @PeteAJohnston 


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