Propaganda and Communication

About a week ago I was asking my friends to support the start of what will be the March for Science.  I was surprised then to hear back from 3 of them that they didn’t care to get involved with such things and that there was so much “propaganda” out there.  More than surprised.  Shocked.  These are people who are quite smart and I consider to have level heads even if we disagree on things from time to time.  So propaganda?

And so I went down a rabbit hole to try to figure out this discrepancy between what they were seeing that I was not.  And along the way, learned a very important lesson about the meaning of propaganda and how we might change the way we communicate with each other.

Now, it wasn’t that I’ve been completely blind to what they were calling “propaganda.”  I very much realize the divisiveness this country is experiencing, the vitriol, hate, shaming and blaming that goes on every day.  I know we joke about “alternative facts” (aka lies) but behind that joke is a bit of an existential crisis calling into question what we know and don’t know, who we trust and who we believe.  I do try to keep abreast of conversations on both sides, but admittedly my information sources lean liberal.  So while I wasn’t watching Fox news, I felt I had some idea of both sides of the issues and even at times have gone looking for sources with opposing views to mine.  Thus, again, the “propaganda” claim was perplexing.

As is my nature, I first turned to the dictionary to see if I even had the right definition of propaganda.  Turns out I didn’t.  The way propaganda was taught to me, it is the perversion of facts or even lies to promote a political idea, usually coming from an institution or organization.  The key being that it wasn’t truth, or if it was true it was misrepresentation of the facts.  Of course it was taught to me mostly in the context of Hitler’s propaganda campaigns during World War II.

According to Merriam-Webster though, propaganda is:

  • capitalized :  a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions
  • the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person; or
  • ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also :  a public action having such an effect

It is the 3rd definition that got to me because it does not imply that facts are perverted or misleading, it just says “facts.” As in, completely true things said to further a cause.  And it doesn’t say biased ideas or false allegations, it just says “ideas” and “allegations.”  And as in the 2nd definition, it does not say the idea, fact, allegation, information, or rumor need come from an institution or organization.  In other words, propaganda can come from anyone.

I looked up the history of the word and learned of it’s association with religion before it ever took on a political meaning.  I learned that it was much more of a neutral term, while I thought it always carried a negative connotation.  And most importantly, I learned that it was a much broader definition than I assumed. The fact is, I was wrong.

So reconsidering what my friends had said, I came to realize that this “propaganda” they were referring to wasn’t accusing the Democrats or telling lies in the New York Times (yes – NYT has a liberal bent, but I do believe they stick to the facts in their stories, with advertisements and opinion columns perhaps under question).  They weren’t accusing CNN or the Washington Post, they were referring more to their time lines on Facebook.  To the millions and millions of ideas, facts, and allegations inundating their social media to the point that they wanted to ignore it all or couldn’t process everything and thus wanted nothing to do with either side.  That I can understand and I think points to some big issues with social media and the way we connect with each other.

I don’t have Facebook.  I got rid of my account back in 2011 and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my mental health. But I’m even more grateful as of late that I do not use Facebook, because I avoid the very thing my friends were pointing to.  I don’t have a timeline propagated with propaganda. I don’t see the maliciousness, the contempt and rancor.

I do see it in small doses on twitter in comments by trolls and posts from opposing sides, but even then I am insulated from this as I rarely actually look at the people I follow.  Instead, I cultivated a few different private lists of news sources or reporters I trust and of course cute animals (for my mental health).  I choose things that I think will teach me something and that I feel I can pass along as an arbiter of information.  If I enter into a conversation, I try to provide links to information or speak directly from my experience.

I’m not perfect at it, but I do try to look at profiles before re-tweeting.  I read the articles before sharing.  I try not to share things that can’t be backed up with facts.  Though I will admit that I have certainly shared things that are inflammatory or impassioned or opinion.  Under any definition, I too share propaganda while living in my own bubble.

What next then? How do I climb out of my bubble and create something constructive rather than add to the problems of divisiveness and hate, misunderstanding and disengagement?

I’d like to think that when someone “attacks” me on twitter, those “trolls” that can be rampant, that I engage them respectfully.  But, more likely, I have a long way to go in this respect.  I get emotional and impassioned as many of us do, we feel under attack or we feel the need to prove something.  Instead of being open to being wrong or learning something new, we more strongly advocate for our position while listening less and less.  We are likely to assume that we know someone or who they are by the 140 characters they type but we don’t.  This needs to change.

It starts with me questioning myself.  Am I open to being wrong?  Because if I’m not, we get nowhere. And if I am wrong, am I willing to take new information in and either change my position or integrate it into recognizing the limits of my beliefs?  Even if I am right and they are wrong (which it is often not that black and white), I have to accept that another may not be open to admitting where I am write.  Am I okay that they will never see eye to eye with me?  I think I am.  Because it’s highly unlikely that I will actually change someone else’s mind or convince them of my position, but regardless of who is right or wrong, I can still learn something and maybe even connect with someone.

I wrote in a post back in November* on the importance of connection and kindness.  I quoted Brené Brown who says “Connection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”  And I wrote that,

While sadness, anger, shame and blame rage across social media.  While many protest feeling they’ve been unheard or left behind or disrespected, I think that connection and kindness are desperately needed.

That still stands, and I think even more so.  But it’s not easy and it’s one we have to jump in and embrace.  So after going to the protest last weekend to protest the Muslim Ban and seeing tweets from those telling us to #gohome and that the protesters were paid, I decided to do some trolling myself.  This sounds awful, and it’s an odd way to go about things, but I think that it’s the best thing I could do to open myself up to those with radically different views from my own.

To be clear, my trolling wasn’t to attack and call someone names.  More it was responding to someone who I normally would have ignored that I didn’t know of any paid protesters and I surely wasn’t paid.  And instead of telling us to go home, that they are welcome to join us in an important cause (knowing they never would).  I tried to be respectful again by providing information, though I can see how it could be seen as accusatory.  I mean, who am I to just comment on some random person’s feed with my own views, my own propaganda as it were?

The great part is, I feel like it’s been a success.  In fact just these last 24 hours following the nomination for a new Supreme Court Justice, I’ve entered in a few very interesting conversations which started with comments I made on my feeling that Neil Gorsuch’s opinion in the Hobby Lobby case regarding an employer’s refusal to provide contraceptive coverage to it’s employees as required under Obamacare (others might reframe the argument as an employer’s right to freedom of religion versus a refusal).  The discussions have been productive and respectful around issues of insurance and health coverage as well as the Muslim Ban and the safety of our nation.  We don’t have the same opinions or ideas, we agree on some things, but the worlds we are involved in are very desperate.  Our twitter feeds are drastically different.  I certainly don’t know these people either and they don’t know me other than what we’ve posted and what’s in our profile.

But, that is the beauty of this – in a world where people are becoming more entrenched in their ideas and worlds, where facts are questioned, where people stop engaging respectfully, I have had the opportunity to change that narrative.  I’d like to keep doing it.  I’d like to keep reaching out to others with different views, just to talk.  To be curious about the propaganda they spread and share my own propaganda.  And mostly to be open to connection with another person.

I think Brie Larson gave us some good direction on moving in that direction with a recent instagram post:

And with that post, I think there is one more crucial aspect of these attempts to engage and connect – the need to show appreciation.  Not merely respect, but appreciation.  I think it is as important as part of the conversation to thank the other person.  I may not agree at all with another person, but telling them to “go f*** yourself” or “you know nothing” or other such name calling doesn’t help, hate doesn’t help.  Even if I disagree, if someone respectfully listens to me and engages, I think it is important to acknowledge that respect.

Whether it’s on matters of health policy or the nominee of a judge or any multitude of issues we face, I think we need a new way of communicating.  I think we need to actively reach out instead of being overwhelmed.  Look toward your trusted sources but also be open to learning more.  Stand by your ideals but not to the exclusion of understanding someone else’s.  And when you are shocked by something you thought you knew be open to being wrong.

I’m thankful for my friends for what frankly offended me at first.  Though I wish they would still engage instead of withdraw, they helped me realize I was wrong and that I can do better.


One Response to Propaganda and Communication

  1. feliciaharveyschrock says:

    Thank you Erin! That is a great reminder for me!



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