Opinion: How we can confront propaganda

“We the people…” are late with this. It is time, now, to get started.

  • By Jerry Smetzer
  • Monday, February 1, 2021 9:30pm
  • Opinion

On Tuesday, Jan. 26, Mark Zuckerberg has decided on a way to deal with hate speech and propaganda on Facebook. Propaganda is the ugly step-child of mass communications. It has been with us as part of electronic news and entertainment since 1890 with radio. Web-based instant global communications today connect us all with all forms of social media, advertising, movies and radio. Propaganda comes with the package. It surrounds us and suffuses much of our daily lives and culture.

Zuckerberg’s attempt to slow down the propagation of hate speech on his global platform is praiseworthy, as is Twitter owner Jack Dorsey’s decision to remove former President Donald Trump’s user account. However, neither Facebook, Twitter nor any profit-making enterprise should have final authority to define what propaganda is or is not for the rest of us. When a private commercial company declares, unilaterally, that a media initiative is propaganda and then blocks it from their proprietary platform I doubt it will have much effect beyond feeding the paranoia that drives the membership growth of most hate groups.

A federal return to the Fairness Doctrine in broadcast news is being discussed. Unfortunately, I cannot see how our split Congress can even talk about fairness let alone restore a major policy that can so easily be manipulated with propaganda to look and sound like a communist plot. A presidential executive order might work to at least help us get started with discussions about the massive threat systemic propaganda poses to our U.S. Constitution.

Far better to get Facebook, Twitter and other public, private, commercial and government entities talking together under a federally sponsored multi-funded mechanism like an IRS 501c(3) nonprofit corporation. Such a corporation, guided by a board of knowledgeable and accomplished public and private directors could receive and manage the kind of massive financing and focus that it will take, with well-qualified tech support, to confront instances of propaganda wherever and whenever it becomes manifest.

Today, propaganda is published and available in every neighborhood on the planet. Confronting it where it occurs highlights another feature of IRS 501c(3) designation: It does not have the authority to block expression, no matter how hateful. With financing only available by performance contracts, a 501c(3) also cannot put at risk our individual human rights of free expression under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Finally, a 501c(3) is already prohibited from supporting political candidates or taking a side on political issues. The work of a 501c(3) corporation must be educational, not political. It must be able to state, with authority, and without bias, that a particular piece of media is propaganda and it must have the resources to purchase and place their statement where ever the propaganda instance appears.

Identifying propaganda as punishable, with penalties, is a good and valuable first step. Zuckerberg and Dorsey deserve credit for that. However, I think “We the People…” (in the sense embodied in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution) should demand that identifying propaganda and confronting it wherever it appears is our collective responsibility, and we are poorly equipped for the task.

We don’t have a working definition of propaganda and don’t have a common understanding of how it works. Since the beginnings of the first world war there have been many examples — in libraries and museums — of what propaganda looks and sounds like, but the more important questions today are how is it developed and used, and how is it distributed and paid for.

Propaganda uses a form of an advertising and marketing concept called “branding.” It is delivered by means of a “meme.” The clearest example in recent days is Trump’s propaganda-based “branding” of the 2020 election as fraudulent. Propaganda is a branding process. It involves the careful design of a simple phrase like: “Election fraud.” The phrase is the packaged with imagery and text containing a grain of truth into a meme. The meme is then replicated everywhere a target population of eager consumers of hate and slander live and work.

“We the people…” are late with this. It is time, now, to get started.

Jerry Smetzer is a longtime resident of Juneau.Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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