Note: This is an updated and expanded version of a paper I presented in 2014 at a conference entitled “Jacques Ellul, 20 Years On: Communicating Humanly in an Age of Technology and Spin.” This version will be included as a chapter in the book Political Illusion & Reality: Engaging the Prophetic Insights of Jacques Ellul, forthcoming from Wipf & Stock publishers.
The 2016 presidential campaign in the United States offered significant new examples of the issues discussed in my original paper. Revelations concerning the influence of fake news on the election of Donald J. Trump continued to appear as this revise was being written. Developments subsequent to November, 2017, will not be included in these reflections.
"Identifying the ‘truth’ is complicated.”
Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook
If ever a series of events testified to the prophetic vision of Jacques Ellul, the 2016 campaign for the presidency of the United States and the election of Donald J. Trump surely did. In particular, the campaign was flooded by an unprecedented avalanche of "fake news" that uncannily and uncomfortably affirmed Ellul's analysis of propaganda more than fifty years earlier.
This is not to say Ellul could have foreseen the variety and quantity of propaganda that contributed to Trump's victory. Dispatches with little or no regard for the truth were promulgated not only by domestic organizations and individuals with agendas to promote but also by foreign agents impersonating American citizens and by hustlers whose only interest was in making money. After initially denying that it had helped influence the election, Facebook turned over to Congress more than 3,000 election-related ads sponsored by Russian organizations, most of them aimed at fanning the flames of divisive social issues. Other investigations, meanwhile, found that hundreds of Twitter accounts connected to Russia had posted thousands of tweets, many of them produced automatically by bots, attacking Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton, while Google found that Russian agents had spent "tens of thousands of dollars" buying ads on Gmail and YouTube as well as its search engine. The fact that Trump regularly added his own truth-challenged claims to the mix added to the confusion.
Although Ellul could not have anticipated the scope and scale of this deception—no one could have—I don't think he would have been surprised by its effects. The specifics of technical applications change, but their impacts on human beings remain more or less the same. The essential difference is captured in one of Ellul's favorite aphorisms: A change of quantity often becomes a change in quality.
In this chapter I will review key points in Ellul's discussions of propaganda, drawing mainly on Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes (originally published in French in 1962; English quotes from the 1973 Vintage edition). The chapter's title is taken from The Technological Society (originally published in French in 1954; English quotes from the 1964 Vintage edition). My observations will concern what’s happening in the United States, although much of what is happening in the States applies in some fashion to other countries.
Propaganda as friend
At the time of Ellul's death in 1994, Google, Facebook, and Twitter did not exist and the Internet in general had not achieved anywhere near the sort of influence it exerts today. Technology enthusiasts have long argued that the world wide web would democratize public discourse by offering virtually anyone with a computer connection the opportunity to publicly share his or her ideas; no longer would the gatekeepers of traditional media determine whose voices could be heard. In some circumstances this is true. The Internet and other media can expose us to enlightening, empowering information. However, it has become increasingly obvious that the Internet and other media can expose us to vast amounts of misinformation, thereby encouraging us to base our opinions and behaviors on distorted perceptions of reality. The role of fake news in the election of Donald Trump has irrevocably affirmed the legitimacy—indeed, the urgency—of that concern.
The question that has been most often raised in response to the fake news issue has been how the major Internet companies can reduce its prevalence on their sites (no one believes it can be eliminated). Ellul, by contrast, devoted much of his attention to explaining why people respond to propaganda as favorably as they do, emphasizing that the pejorative connotation attached to the word “propaganda” obscures how we really feel about it. We think we don’t like propaganda, that we don’t want to be subjected to it. To the contrary, Ellul said, propaganda achieves the power it has precisely because we so desperately need it. Propaganda helps us maintain our senses of identity and self-worth in an environment in which, thanks to technique, our confidence in those crucial convictions are under constant assault. “There is not just a wicked propagandist at work who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen,” Ellul wrote. “Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving."
Political analysts believe Trump's positions on immigration and trade and his anti-Establishment persona appealed to voters who feel they've been displaced by social and economic trends of recent decades. For example, surveys conducted during and after the campaign by the research organization PRRI and The Atlantic found that large percentages of white working-class voters believe the American way of life "has deteriorated since the 1950s" and that "the U.S. is in danger of losing its culture and identity." Nearly half of working-class Americans responded that "things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country."
It's fair to conclude, as Ellul surely would have, that the conspicuous expansion of various applications and ramifications of technique in recent decades—globalization, automation, and corporate downsizing, to name a few examples—have contributed substantially to these feelings of displacement and resentment.
One of Ellul's central arguments is that human beings are "diminished" by life in the technological society. The stressful conditions in which many of us work; the blighted conditions in which many of us live; the overwhelming pace of change; the constant threats of obsolescence and unemployment; the deadening cascades of information competing for our attention; the impersonality that characterizes our interactions with public and private institutions—all create conditions that undermine our capacities for balance and security. "Never before has the human race as a whole had to exert such effort in its daily labors as it does today as a result of its absorption into the monstrous technical mechanism," Ellul wrote in The Technological Society. " . . . It may be said that we live in a universe which is psychologically subversive."
It's hardly surprising that in such a universe, certain audiences would be receptive to the message that they've been cheated out of what is rightfully theirs by a rogue's gallery of scapegoats—politicians, Wall Street bankers, foreign interlopers, politically-correct liberals, and criminal or lazy minorities among them. And despite Trump's labeling of mainstream news outlets such as CNN and the New York Times as "fake news," numerous reports have documented that his supporters responded to real fake news (an oxymoron if there ever was one) in vastly greater numbers than did Clinton's supporters. This suggests that Trump's supporters were in general more aggrieved than Clinton's supporters, which would fit Ellul's profile of propaganda's ideal target.
Pre-selection, Justification, Community
What specific benefits does propaganda offer the beleaguered citizen of the technological society? Most practically, it provides a sorting tool; it tells us what’s worth paying attention to. This is a key reason why propaganda has become steadily more important in the era of the Internet. Information is power, we’re told, but for most of us wading through the volume of information available today is an overwhelming challenge, one that at some point we simply decline to take on. “It is a fact,” Ellul wrote in 1962, “that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image." Propaganda web sites, radio, and TV programs take advantage of this situation by giving us pre-digested packages of pre-selected information. It may not be comprehensive, balanced, or true, but it’s all we have time for.
As pressing as our need for information management might be, there’s a far deeper need that propaganda satisfies: the need of individuals living in the technological society for reassurance of their value as human beings. Propaganda offers us an antidote to our diminishment. It tells us that we know things and that what we know matters. That we matter. As Ellul put it, propaganda justifies us. Bolstered by propaganda, he said, the individual can look down from the heights upon daily trifles, secure in the knowledge that his opinion, once ignored or actively scorned, has become “important and decisive…He marches forward with full assurance of his righteousness."
Obviously human beings have always been prone to confirmation bias—as Paul Simon put it, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. But technology has provided us not only with the motivation to immerse ourselves in an all-encompassing confirmatory environment but also the ability to do so. At the same time propaganda platforms can serve as a gathering place for others who feel the same way we do and opportunities to join with them in mutually-reinforcing groups. In a technological environment of alienation and isolation, propaganda can bind us to a community. But these are highly selective rather than diverse communities. They are actively, aggressively disinterested in sharing discussion and views with members of other communities. Again, the point is affirmation, not an exchange of ideas. This leads, Ellul said, to “an increasingly stringent partitioning of our society.” The more propaganda there is, he added, “the more partitioning there is.”
|The Onion's "Bruce Costas," searching for affirmation|
During the presidential campaign the satirical web site The Onion made fun of these conditions with a (fake!) article headlined "Man Forced to Venture Pretty Far Into Wilds of Internet to Have Opinion Confirmed." It began:
Trekking well beyond the comfortable terrain of the first few pages of his Google search, local man Bruce Costas, 35, was reportedly forced to venture deep into the harsh wilds of the internet Wednesday to have his opinion confirmed by outside sources. Costas, who had fervidly espoused the opinion during a conversation earlier in the day, was said to have spent most of his evening slogging through a dense and oftentimes disorienting jungle of uncharted news sites, rarely visited blogs, and broken links in hopes of coming upon some hidden spring of affirmation, however small or isolated, that could corroborate his viewpoint.
The joke was not only that it would be newsworthy if anyone had to look very hard to find like-minded views on the Internet, but also that, if like-minded views were hard to find, people would be desperate to find them.
So it is that we live in a time when, despite the availability of unprecedented amounts of information, massive public delusions—climate change denial, the missing Obama birth certificate, the fear that vaccinations promote autism in children, the belief that Saddam Hussein of Iraq was involved in the 9/11 terrorists attacks, to name a few examples—can flourish and successfully resist any attempt at refutation, no matter how well documented. “Effective propaganda needs to give man an all-embracing view of the world,” Ellul said. “The point is to show that one travels in the direction of history and progress.” This all-embracing view of the world “allows the individual to give the proper classification to all the news items he receives; to exercise a critical judgment, to sharply accentuate certain facts and suppress others, depending on how well they fit into the framework."
The implications of Ellul's arguments regarding "sociological propaganda" are at least as troubling as his understanding of political propaganda, especially when one considers that a powerful interplay between the two forms played a significant role in the outcome of the 2016 election campaign.
In contrast to propaganda aimed at convincing people on a specific issue, sociological propaganda articulates a much more general collection of beliefs and assumptions that define for an entire society what is considered normal, acceptable, desirable, and beyond question. It is spread spontaneously, rather than as a deliberate act, promulgated by lifestyle magazines, advertising, movie stars and pop singers, school teachers, talk-show hosts, preachers, fashion designers, parents, and friends. It speaks out from the products on the shelves of supermarkets and department stores and from the mouths of the people we pass on the street as well as from the styles of their clothes and haircuts. Sociological propaganda produces, Ellul said, "a progressive adaptation to a certain order of things, a certain concept of human relations which unconsciously molds individuals and makes them conform to society." It is, he added, "a sort of persuasion from within."
Sociological propaganda exacerbated the resentments felt by the aggrieved voters who gravitated to Trump. The aggregation of aspirations and mythologies known collectively as "the American Dream" created a set of expectations centered around beliefs that if you work hard and follow the rules you are entitled to a certain degree of security and social position, in addition to a comfortable lifestyle. When those rewards didn't materialize, or when they evaporated, the result was copious anger and a desire to punish those responsible.
Again, Ellul could not have foreseen the massive distribution of fake news or the massive reach of blatantly partisan news platforms that characterized the 2016 Presidential election. The kudzu-like flowering of these poisonous offshoots of the technological tree are completely consistent, however, with one of Ellul's most fundamental convictions regarding technique: that its central motivation is to expand its sphere of influence.
The seemingly eager credulity of Trump's supporters was consistent as well with Ellul's belief that the brutality of the technological society makes affirmation more important than truth. This belief in turn caused him to issue one of the statements that have earned him a reputation for pessimism. “Democracy is based on the concept that man is rational and capable of seeing clearly what is in his own interest,” he wrote in Propaganda, “but the study of public opinion suggests this is a highly doubtful proposition." It is difficult after the 2016 election not to share those misgivings.
The subject of propaganda stirred in Ellul some of his angriest and least forgiving rhetoric. When we surrender ourselves to propaganda—when we fend off reality in order to reinforce our preconceived ideas of what is and what should be—we are guilty of an ethical failure, he believed. A person who does so is convinced "that he himself, his party, his class, his nation are right, that they represent Good and Justice. It is this conviction that is decisive and which effectively sways man into the field of propaganda." He called such a set of beliefs "autojustification" and condemned them unequivocally. "All ethical behavior seems to me to imply a questioning of self, a reassessment, and the acceptance of one's values being questioned by others," he wrote. "It is the price that must be paid both to measure oneself to the value, and to have a possible relation in truth."
This condemnation is somewhat at odds with Ellul's more compassionate understanding of human diminishment under the lash of technique, but, as the philosopher Randal Marlin has pointed out, Ellul was always passionate but not always consistent. This points to a challenge. It's hard not to judge Trump's supporters for failing to recognize his multitude of inadequacies, or for ignoring them. Ellul's insistence on the necessity of self-examination, however, applies no matter where we fit on the political spectrum. Technique, he once wrote, doesn't terrorize, it acclimates. Those of us who would honor his legacy must be on guard for ways in which we ourselves may have been acclimated.
©Doug Hill, 2017