I have a super fun habit of talking to myself. It doesn’t bother me, but it does embarrass my family; my mother used to be ashamed to pick me up from junior high because I would walk out of school with my lips moving and gesturing with no one else around me. And after my hearing loss 20 years ago, there’s now sound involved because I sure can’t hear it. So, if you hear the over-made-up redhead six feet away from you in the pet food aisle of the Walmart chatting away, don’t worry: I’m not talking to you.
For some reason, this week’s internal dialogue with myself has been all about agitprop. Quick refresher: “agitprop” is political propaganda, particularly that used by the Soviet Union to mobilize, that is, manipulate, the masses. You know, big graphic posters plastered everywhere exhorting citizens to work harder for the Motherland to get more food. That sort of thing. Well, to me, I feel like Americans have been self-selecting their own agitprop for the last decade or so through broadcast, digital and social media.
Propaganda is interesting stuff. Traditionally, propaganda is a one-way communication effort to benefit the sender that involves manipulating the audience to bring about the sender’s desired result. And traditionally, propaganda originates with government or special interests. Now, it can originate with media outlets themselves.
The explosion of hundreds of new media outlets since the turn of the century gives audiences almost unlimited options to obtain information about the world around them—to “choose our news.” And we choose news that evokes positive feelings—agreement, proof of an existing belief or suspicion, triggering of an emotion meaningful to us. That doesn’t mean the news we choose is entirely factual, however.
The driver for any agitprop in news outlets today is isn’t the same as government propaganda, even though the messaging might run parallel to a specific government view. Private news outlets aren’t driven by greater worker output, or other political outcomes. They are driven by revenue. That’s right. Fox News and MSNBC aren’t running right- and left-wing content based on ideology. They are running highly biased content to get advertisers. And we watch those channels, and many others like them, because their coverage pleases us and satisfies our need to be right.
Example: No one seems to want a Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Liberals believe the White House is manipulating the FDA and the CDC to crank out something slightly less toxic than lighter fluid and slightly more effective than sugar water. Conservatives now believe it is “my body, my choice” and no government official can make them get a vaccine from the traitorous deep-state CDC who may or may not have questioned their President. Neither position makes a ton of sense to me but shows what happens when we only read or watch the news that we want to hear.
Of course, it’s not just major news networks, or fly-by-night start-ups in Macedonia looking to score some quick ad cash. There are some bad actors, as we know, and state-sponsored fake social media accounts, bots, and sites who are trying to manipulate us. Having a Tweeter-in-Chief also doesn’t help right now.
The November election is where one might really worry. In addition to no one wanting a vaccine, it could be easy to posit that no one will want to believe the 2020 election results, whatever they turn out to be. Remember 2000 and that hot mess over hanging chads in Florida? That was before Facebook and Twitter. With every crackpot on the right and left feeding us doomsday scenarios, and just enough real doubt (New Mexico in particular doesn’t have the best record with absentee ballots) mixed with abnormally high emotions, there are certainly indications of a very contentious, angry and likely litigious election outcome.
Unlike the vaccine no one wants, I am betting that voters are going to react differently to the election, at least on an action level. I predict record turnout among the core bases of Democrats and Republicans (as I have noted previously, I am unsure about the moderates). In this case, when we select our information about the election right now, it’s about making sure our vote counts. I know I am planning on early voting in-person, as are many others. Both parties are bombarding voters with recommended mail deadlines to ensure ballots arrive well in advance of Election Day. Unfortunately, the U.S. Post Office is definitely taking a beating on the digital media agitprop front over this. And that is where the narrative will unravel. There will be a lot of votes cast; I am afraid our biases built up over the last four years have too many of us ready to stand on rooftops and shout “J’Accuse!” on November 4.
But you know, I do try to see the bright side in tough times. Perhaps I should be grateful that although he may not be my guy, this President did actually make Democrats finally see the seriousness of the Russian threat to global security and the real specter of election fraud. I guess I am just a regular Pollyanna that way.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.