We’ve all seen magicians manipulate cards in ways that make them appear to have astonishing gifts and the power to know things no ordinary mortal could possibly know. But all they really know is how to force a card — to present you with a choice that's no real choice at all, all the while letting you believe you’re the clever little monkey queering the illusionist's game via the exertion of free will. Our sense of self-determination is what gives the trick its tension and makes it fun. But there's also usually cautionary lesson or two embedded in the trickster's marvels.
Good propaganda is like a card trick. It appeals to the vanities of self-awareness and control. Good propaganda campaigns are like a Vegas act, replete with sexy assistants, ordinary misdirection, and lots of good old fashioned bait and switch. Great campaigns play all sides to the user’s advantage.
Internet memes create a spectacular opportunity for card forcing, and for injecting divisive, peer-to-peer-spreading viruses into our daily political dialogues. These memes won't look like propaganda, what would be the point? The worst will look like every right-thinking person’s heart’s desire or some piece of apparently unassailable conventional wisdom. It will also be framed in a way that ensures a healthy mix of reflexive consensus and bitter rejection. I noticed an elegant and completely insidious meme making its way around Facebook this week and thought it would make a great study example. I thought I'd share it with the aim of developing better conversations, and maybe a good set of questions for determining whether or not the content we’re sharing online will have a positive or negative impact.
Here's the meme:
While making a number of valid-seeming points, the ultimate message here is one of uncritical surrender to... well... whatever. There's also a healthy serving of Trumpian, “Get over it,” tacked on at the end. But to what or whom exactly are we all supposed to be surrendering and submitting? What kinds of imperfections are we supposed to start getting over in advance of discovery? Who’s going to have to wait (again!) for a place at the table? Which children will we open our hearts to and which ones will our drones open up on? Does the former hinge on a corrupt bargain requiring the latter? The decisions we make at the polls aren’t light ones. They should never be myopic, reactionary, or strictly self-serving. And whether you’re a Hill shill or a Bernie bro, finger-wagging at voters charged with the confusing task of group self-determination is always a poor community-building strategy.
I’m sure a lot of Trump-fatigued people can’t see a thing wrong with this meme — That’s what makes it genius. Whether it was developed by a Russian troll farm, or by a DNC troll farm doing the Russian troll farms' work for them, or by some doof on the internet doing work the DNC might otherwise do for the Russians, whoever created this black and white text-only marvel deserves all the rubles. With almost zero actual content, it has the magical ability to start fights and make people who agree about current POTUS being a nightmare, yell mean things at one another before they even have a candidate to back. That’s a tell if I’ve ever seen one.
Here’s a list of questions that might help us separate constructive content from memes that make ol' Vlad Putin dance the merengue. I'm not a propaganda expert, so I know this is not a perfect list. Corrections, suggestions, and contributions are all welcome. My objective here isn't to be right — I'm not invested in that at all. Instead of competing for that distinction, how about we start some critical thinking about critical thinking, and how the content we share actually functions on the internet versus how we feel about it?
1. Can any part of the meme’s overall content be reasonably interpreted, “fall in line or else”?
If so — and that’s completely evident in our sample — chances are good that the message you are about to share is divisive propaganda using fear and longstanding grudges to motivate. It’s the kind of meme that results in people who need to be in active negotiation with one another typing, “PIGFUCKER,” in all caps at 2 a.m. instead.
Of course, there’s truth at the core of this message: When people don’t unite they tend to lose. That attractive and real fact is like a wad of top shelf peanut butter in the mousetrap of political discourse.
2. Is the message specific or vague?
Also, is it active or reactive?
So you’re thinking about sharing a message you agree with. But is it addressing actual candidates, policy proposals, and goals, or is it making vague but nevertheless scary boogie-men? As we move closer to the midterm elections and to 2020, propaganda will personalize and get more specific, honing in on a handful of broad hot-button issues designed to provoke emotional and tribal response rather than critical analysis. But the most corrosive messages are sometimes the ones that keep us agitated, prevent old fissures from healing, and keep us squabbling over the past instead of plotting a course for the future. Our sample meme is exactly that kind of meme. When I shared it on Facebook with a cautionary message, people were arguing Bernie versus Hillary in a matter of seconds while trying to defend against my one and only point that this is purely divisive rhetoric with no tangible social value. Ralph Nader’s name made an appearance within the first hour, along with a few of the the usual odes to compromise and pragmatism that might also be reasonably translated, “Give up.” Absent any real objectives that might be debated or fine tuned, or named candidates with records and platforms to be parsed, vague memes create a perfect black mirror and purely reactionary environment. The latter of which is essential to herding.
3. Does the meme appeal to emotion or intellect?
We’ve all been exposed to some emotionally charged imagery lately. Mass shootings, children being separated from their families — it’s served up daily alongside a sampler platter of daily outrages. Emotional appeals aren’t intrinsically bad, but when a stated aim is to subvert rather than answer or engage critical analysis, chances are you might want to step back and take a second look.
4. Inclusive or alienating?
If your awesome meme’s goal is to recruit voters who must stand together to defeat a monstrously evil candidate that a good third of the country will enthusiastically support based entirely on racism and pissing off liberals, you probably want to build a big, strong coalition that includes a lot of the folks who didn’t, and still probably wouldn’t, vote for [insert your favorite 2016 here], regardless of your feelings for said candidate, their feelings about Trump, or any number of grievances regarding dirty politics, rigged systems, Russian trolls, or any other extenuating circumstance. Re-fighting this long lost campaign or even thinking about recreating it actually or by proxy in 2020, is insane by definition.
Our sample meme truthfully addresses the fact that no candidate will be perfect or pure, which is an obvious statement but with no evident value — like the attractive verities Shakespeare wrote about when he noted that, “Oftentimes, the instruments of darkness tell us truths, win us with honest trifles, to betray us in deepest consequence.”
It’s been said that folks who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, and it sounds really good. But maybe that old axiom's not complete. Folks who don’t let go of history get stuck fighting the same battles with the same eventual results. But the topsy-turvy looking glass result of 2016 presidential election is drifting further into the past and and there are real opportunities to learn from past mistakes and not fall for the same tricks. When you're up against homogeneity, the most inclusive messaging is always going to be the most desirable. If the message demands unity but offers no unifying principle beyond "or else," beware.
That's all I've got. Now it's your turn.