In a nation that holds free speech and expression so dearly, calling something propaganda is a sure fire way to suck the air out of a room. Propaganda violates all of our notions of the importance of free media: the independent ‘fourth estate’ that strives to report the truth and nothing but the truth. Our faith in the media has become rocky over the years, but we still vehemently protect the First Amendment and the conviction that the media adheres to certain ethical principles. The reports we read and the programs we watch are reliable, credible, and factually sound. That is, until someone says something with which we disagree.
Take a moment to think about why you like certain media outlets and not others. Why do you get uncomfortable when Fox News is playing in a waiting room but not CNN? Why do you scoff at people repeating Rush Limbaugh when half of your opinions derive from John Oliver? Why do you defend the Huffington Post but lambast Breitbart in your political posts on Facebook? How can you be the well-read intellectual you pretend to be if you only read one half of an argument? The answer is because of the propaganda of propaganda.
‘Propaganda’ is a loaded term. It brings with it many negative connotations that calls to mind images of Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, shadowy government leaders, and giant political machines churning out lies in the form of flowery rhetoric and colorful posters. Propaganda in this form surely still exists, but the popular use of the term has become greatly watered down. It has become what we yell out as a knee jerk reaction to information that we don’t agree with from outlets that we have been taught – whether by our peers, political party, school, or family – to distrust (and thus this article is three levels deep in meta-irony). This propaganda of propaganda is consistent and pervasive. A conservative is quick to ignore anything published through NPR with the same swiftness as a liberal and a The American Conservative article. In attempting to avoid the other side’s “propaganda,” both sides fall victim to their own.
The innate reaction to disagree with something and label it propaganda and subsequently deem it unworthy of one’s attention solely because of its source is a tactic used by those who wear their righteousness as a badge of honor. They’re the political equivalent of that guy at the party who gets a kick out of telling people that Gandhi supported apartheid in South Africa. In the same way that people are apparently unable to have a mix of good and bad beliefs, media outlets are apparently polarized into either the groups True or False. Legitimate theories, facts, and experiences that come from these outlets become guilty by association, their intellectual merits tainted by a skewed reputation.
The ability to discern and label propaganda no longer comes with a heavy burden of proof. Instead, it has become a cheap and easy way to end legitimate political discussions. If you don’t like what someone else is saying, claim that their facts or sources are just propaganda. If someone’s understanding of an issue is different than yours, make sure to tell them that they’ve been brainwashed by The Mass Media (which either caters to the Liberal Elites or the Republican Pundits depending on what argument you’re trying to make).
When we believe information has been swayed or distorted to fit an agenda we don’t like, we tend to disregard it. We are more likely to see the bias, understand that the prejudicial nature outweighs the substantial value of the information, and critique it until we tire of it and throw it aside. Meanwhile, we refuse to engage with information that we see through the lenses of the agendas with which we wholeheartedly agree. While opposing opinions are merely engineered political agendas, our thoughts and opinions are instead the product of logical analysis and objectivity. We constantly demand that others critically engage with the propaganda they insist on buying into while lazily consuming its counterpart, patting ourselves on the back for being so aware and savvy.
Political conspiracies about propaganda are no longer reserved for college dropouts living in their parents’ basements or the Fox Mulders of the world. Instead, they circulate in lecture halls and online forums, modern echo chambers that regurgitate the same old questions and the same old answers. These are the places where Stephen Colbert is the end-all, be-all source of knowledge and “Republican” is said with a sneer. Claiming propaganda not only allows people to justify why they aren’t reading something that clashes with their beliefs, but also provides ample opportunities to show-off that they have the “Correct Facts” and the correct opinions that are supported purely by objective logic, grayscale line graphs, and thirty page academic articles that no one ever reads.
Disregarding blatantly false information is a cornerstone of a well-educated society. Ideally, we want to solely rely on objective logic and sources to come to our conclusions. The issue, however, is that we tend to forget that there is no way to measure objectivity. It is such a flexible and nebulous concept that there are schools of philosophies dedicated to discerning what “truth” even means. Readers of The New York Times will quickly point to the publication’s 117 Pulitzer Prizes as a sign of quality and objectivity. But where does the Pulitzer Prize’s standards come from? Who decides what is and isn’t good journalism? The organization has been criticized time and time again as having a “liberal legacy”, openly condemning and mocking conservative journalists and opinions. If the Pulitzer Prize Board comes into deliberation with preconceived notions of what is and isn’t “right”, then they are not objective. If there is a clear and underlying bias, then they are not objective. If you only read what has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, then your reading list is not objective. Claiming objectivity while simultaneously never questioning why you believe what you believe is the mark of someone who can’t entertain the notion that maybe their understanding and experience of the world isn’t the only valid one.
Some could argue that reporting should be based on numbers and to let the numbers speak for themselves. Facts and figures might be black or white, but our interpretations of the information they present to us are much more colorful. Truth to someone subscribed to The New Yorker is different than truth to someone subscribed to Townhall. The facts revolving around NAFTA means two different things to a liberal elite in New England and a working class farmer in Oklahoma. A young black man in Louisiana and I, a young white woman, might be given the same data on police shootings, but our understanding of that information can vary widely. Our notions of what is true, accurate, and right are personal; it derives from our experiences and our upbringing. When we are presented with information that doesn’t fit with our personal brand of Truth, we disregard it. We claim media outlets are conduits for propaganda and refuse to listen to whatever legitimate thoughts they might have. We see a bias (a bias against our own beliefs, of course), understand that the prejudicial nature outweighs the substantial value of the information, critique it until we tire of it and throw it aside. Meanwhile, we either refuse to or are unable to question the information that fits our own political beliefs. While we consider the other side’s opinions to be meticulously engineered agendas crafted by the Liberal Elites or the Republican Pundits, our thoughts and opinions are instead the product of logical analysis and objectivity. We constantly demand that others critically engage with the propaganda they are fed while we lazily consume its counterpart, patting ourselves on the back for being so aware and savvy.
Can we dismantle the propaganda of propaganda? Probably not. It will be likely impossible as long as humans act like humans. It is in our nature to pick a belief and hold on for dear life through thick and thin (ironically, for example, my own belief on propaganda). However, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to better ourselves. Question your own beliefs. Self-reflection is painful and awkward, but it’s worth it. Deviate from your normal routine and read articles from a publisher you vehemently disagree with. Question the validity of that one zinger on Last Week Tonight that made your friends laugh. It most likely won’t change any of your opinions. It might, instead, get you to think about how ingrained our own biases are and how they color the information we consume to the point where we don’t even know our vision is distorted. If everyone is a sheep, what makes you any different?