Creators and Consumers

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Social Responsibilities

Everyone participates in the process of persuasion, which is the use of words and other symbols to influence people. People use persuasion to gain social power. But the term propaganda is generally used when someone is aiming to reach a large group of people, not just a few.

If you are an activist, you may have created propaganda yourself. People who create propaganda have a specific goal and design a communication message that is intended to circulate among a large group of people and create a reaction. Propaganda involves reinforcing existing beliefs, changing perceptions, activating an emotional response, or provoking a behavior.

Today, social media like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter make it easy for ordinary individuals to create or disseminate propaganda. Of course, communication is always oriented to a specific goal or purpose, as people use symbols to build relationships, convey information, entertain, inspire or teach. But the propagandist does not aim to encourage deliberation or reflection. The propagandist does not encourage independent judgment by presenting a variety of viewpoints and allowing the audience to determine which perspective is correct. Instead, the propagandist uses facts and information selectively, transmitting only those ideas that help accomplish the goal.

To hone your eye for propaganda, have a look at Media Education Lab and rate five of the images you find most effective. You can feel free to rate more than five but most importantly, look at the results after each time you make your rating. It will give you useful insight into the way people in the real world are affected by different types of propaganda.

Viral marketing or viral advertising is a business strategy that uses existing social networks to promote a product. Its name refers to how consumers spread information about a product with other people in their social networks, much in the same way that a virus spreads from one person to another.

TO SHARE OR NOT TO SHARE

More propaganda is spread virally—from person-to-person—than through one-way transmissions from newspapers, broadcasters, governments or advertisers. Today, “liking” and sharing a social media post can be a powerful way to influence the people in our social networks. This is because we trust our friends more than we trust people we do not know but we're affected by large numbers of people more than we know.

New forms of propaganda use strong emotions and surprising or unconventional content to inspire people to share content with others. Today, many people “like” or share a message after only a quick scan of the headline and image. They may choose to share content because it may be pleasurable or give them status among their social networks. But when people share content without first reading or viewing it, they can contribute to the spread of propaganda. We should “think before we share.”

Consider: Many people do not make careful decisions about whether “to share or not to share.” They might share online content automatically without too much thinking. They might share, for example, when their strong feelings are activated. But before sharing, we should first review the message carefully, understand it, and reflect on its value to us and its value to the people in our social networks.

Activity To Try

Can you find examples of propaganda you would feel comfortable sharing? In the images above, were any examples of the sort of thing you'd share with your social network? Why or why not?

Pick out one more image from the Media Education Lab and share it. It would be nice if you included us in your share!

Think through examples of propaganda you'd feel comfortable sharing with their social networks and other examples that you'd never share. What patterns are evident in your choices?

How might these patterns be exploited by:

  • a socially responsible activist
  • a politician
  • a corporation selling products
  • a subscription service
  • a pressure group

It’s important to evaluate propaganda by considering its social benefits and potential harms. Media messages can influence people’s attitudes, knowledge, beliefs, and values. Some propaganda can be interpreted as beneficial and other propaganda is considered harmful. But because we interpret media messages differently, people don’t always have the same interpretations about whether a particular example is beneficial or harmful.