Everything is propaganda. Occasionally, it’s not

Propaganda in 21st century is no longer an exclusive domain of top players like the state, national media, church and political parties. It’s now everyone’s game

Human are social animals. Whatever we strive to achieve in life, is dependent on cooperation from other people. Consciously or unconsciously, all of us strive to instrumentalize others in order to get through another day.

Therefore, as a propaganda veteran, I believe that hardly anything people tell each other, is ever unbiased. To be on the safe side, you always must assume that every piece of information passed around by humans is propaganda— you just have to accept that, like death and taxes.

And only then you may have a luxury to pick occasional bits that are not propaganda. Because around humans, non-propaganda happens, too.

  1. Propaganda is communication. It must involve at least two persons. That means the propaganda poster I put up on the inside of my bathroom door to admire while taking a dump is not a propaganda. The communication bit is missing. I’m alone with myself.
  2. Propaganda is a human communication. That means that the dog repellent I sprayed along my fence is not propaganda. While the sign “Trespassers will be shot, survivors will be shot again” propagates the message of inviolability of my territory.
  3. Propaganda has an intention to impact. Teacher writing 2+2=4 on the chalkboard in front of the class, doesn’t do that with the intent to impact the kids’ behavior. Simple acts of education don’t impact behavior in predictable ways. But a poster saying “2+2=5” is propaganda because it tries to convince the target to work 25% more productively for the same pay. In the same way, telling kids to clear their mess under the threat of being grounded is propaganda of parental control, not education.
  4. Propaganda wants to impact the target in a very specific way. The proverbial weather talk among true Englishmen has the explicit meaning of communication without any hidden agenda. At the same time, a Jewish mother insisting that her son takes on a cap when going to an open-air rock concert is a propaganda of maternal control over her son’s well-being.
  5. Propaganda must serve the source’s objective. Telling a girl about a boy “He loves you” is not a propaganda if it just confirms something she already knows and won’t change anything for her. At the same time, it is a propaganda if your name is Iago, the girl’s name is Desdemona, and your objective is to surreptitiously record a video with Desdemona’s private parts in lively action that you can use later to ruin her relationship with Othello.

In my time in propaganda, people believed that propaganda is something that only flows in the top-down direction. That is, it’s something only those in power do: governments, the church, political parties, established gurus, religious cults. The classic Marxist definition of propaganda is:

popularization and dissemination of political, philosophical, religious, scientific, artistic or other ideas in society through oral speech, the media, visual or other means of influencing public consciousness”.

The arrival of the Internet and social media made this definition outdated. The new tools of mass communication made each of us capable of what earlier only governments could do. Nowadays, words of many celebrities on the Facebook and Twitter make more impact that of presidents, prime ministers and the Pope. This makes it necessary to modify the XX-century definition. The new one, that takes the 360-degree impact of today’s communication, would be comething like that:

Propaganda is any act of human communication intended to impact the behavior of the target to suit the source’s objective.

The photo below shows an example of 360-degree propaganda in the XXI century. The shoelaces of this Twitter user are tied to form Cyrillic letters ПТН ПНХ. This is an improvised attempt to communicate an anti-Putinist message in terms of the urban youth subculture: the letters are known to be the code for a subversive rally cry Pútin, poshól nákhui (“Putin, f*ck off”), which can get you a couple years in a Russian prison for “extremism”.

shoelaces tied in anti-Putinist knots
A young Russian uses his shoelaces to broadcast an anti-loyalist message. An obscure pattern reveals coded words in Cyrillic “Putin, f*ck off” familiar to anyone in the target group.

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