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Is social media the new propaganda?

24 May 2013 Julia Tatiana Bailey

As the British Library opens a new exhibition on the power and history of propaganda, we explore the ever-evolving world of persuasion

At the end of the British Library's fascinating new exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion, we are asked to consider that "social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, make everyone a potential propagandist".

The statement accompanies the ominous installation, Chorus, which reveals the speed with which Twitter users shared and cross-pollinated opinion on several events last year with propagandistic significance, including the Opening Ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and Obama's "Four more years" tweet. In a world where the term 'propaganda' has been tarred by the brush of notorious despots such as Goebbels, Stalin and Chairman Mao, this is an unsettling conclusion to the exhibition. Have the rapid developments in new technology really made us part of the state propaganda machine? Or are they instead reducing its potency, introducing the opportunity to remove propaganda entirely from our lives?

Any discussion of propaganda is constrained by the difficulty in defining and delineating the term, as is demonstrated by the range of opinion included in the British Library's exhibition. Whilst nowadays propaganda is predominantly cast in a negative light, the exhibition also qualifies government-initiated public health campaigns as propagandistic, although most of us are supportive of their aims. John Pilger, a documentary film-maker and journalist contributing to one of the talking heads videos in the gallery, states "PR has made propaganda respectable" although it is equally "insidious and all-powerful". Academic David Welch argues that while propaganda itself is "ethically neutral", the real danger lies in the monopoly of communication in certain states.

In the cynical, message-saturated Western world, where we are subjected to aggressive advertising and an unbridled media that overshadows the state in public influence, propagandistic techniques are in constant circulation.Many argue that social media are proving a beneficial resource in the fight for freedom of speech and the democratisation of public opinion. Two recent headlines spring to mind: the united front by Twitter users to overcome publicly-derided superinjunctions, a campaign which made a mockery of the UK's privacy laws and those hiding behind them; and the widely-acclaimed role of social media in launching the revolutionary Arab Spring.

These examples support the claim that social media in fact offer a genuine 'power to the people', presenting difficult challenges to those seeking to control public opinion and behaviour through propaganda. The increased opportunities for participation in public discussion offered by social media are often equated with increased self-determination. But as social media bombards us with trivial information, are we distracted from noticing and contributing to issues that will affect our lives for years to come?

Our universal literacy makes early examples of largely print-based propaganda, aimed at an illiterate and unworldly audience, appear obvious and unconvincing. But the majority of us are only barely literate in terms of our understanding of the new technologies to which we joyfully offer up our more personal thoughts and experiences, opening ourselves up to exploitation by those with a more sophisticated awareness of their potential. The scope of debate and range of opinions that encircle us in this online environment remain deceptively narrow and largely focused towards maintaining the status quo, while our self-congratulatory attitude towards new technologies can blind us to their shortcomings.

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is a stark reminder of the pervasiveness, immeasurability and inevitability of propaganda - and our susceptibility to its many forms. While easy to spot and discredit in unfamiliar contexts, we are often unable to discern propaganda in our own environment. One of the most striking characteristics of propaganda as presented by the British Library is its ability of adapt to new circumstances, absorb new technologies into its arsenal and grow ever more all-encompassing - suggesting that the rise of social media is just the latest step in the ever-evolving history of propaganda.

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