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We are all propagandists now

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The U.S. is in an information war with itself. The public sphere, where Americans discuss public issues, is broken. There’s little discussion – and lots of fighting.

One reason why: Persuasion is difficult, slow and time-consuming – it doesn’t make good television or social media content – and so there aren’t a lot of good examples of it in our public discourse.

What’s worse, a new form of propaganda has emerged – and it’s enlisted us all as propagandists.

Persuasion versus propaganda

I teach classes on political communication and propaganda in America. Here’s the difference between the two:

Political communication is persuasion used in politics. It helps to facilitate the democratic process.

Propaganda is communication as force; it’s designed for warfare. Propaganda is anti-democratic because it influences while using strategies like fear appeals, disinformation, conspiracy theory and more.

Since there are few examples of persuasion in our public sphere these days, it is difficult to know the difference between persuasion and propaganda. That’s worrisome because politics is not war, so political communication isn’t – and shouldn’t be – the same as propaganda.

The manufacture of consent

Mass propaganda techniques emerged with mass communication technologies like posters, pictures and movies during the first World War.

That old propaganda model was designed by political elites to “manufacture consent” at home so that citizens would support the war, and to demoralize the enemy abroad.

According to linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky, the manufacture of consent was believed by elites to be necessary because they thought “the mass of the public are just too stupid to be able to understand things…We have to tame the bewildered herd, not allow the bewildered herd to rage and trample and destroy things.”

During World War I, George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, a federal agency, oversaw the production of pro-war films like the 1918 silent film “America’s Answer.” When........

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