The Case for Honest, Participatory Propaganda
Want to change the world? Time to learn the beautiful art and science of persuading the masses.
Last week I called on all of us to stop undervaluing meme lords.
Today I want to elaborate on what the most skilled meme lords do: they produce powerful propaganda.
Propaganda production is something I believe people who want to level America (or improve the world in any way) need to talk about a lot more than we do today.
I understand that you may have a negative reaction to the word "propaganda.
You might think of dictators brainwashing their subjects into submission.
You might associate “propaganda” with…
elites in board rooms scheming to get kids addicted to Juul pods, or
strategists of the political party you like least—who you see as unfairly ginning up hatred of the party you like more, or
bad people seeking to manipulate people for bad ends.
These are fair associations. But it’s an incomplete way to think about propaganda.
Ironically, your negative association of the word “propaganda” is itself a result of decades of effective propaganda against the word.
The most neutral AND useful way to define the term “propaganda” is “means to disseminate or promote particular ideas.” Or “a form of communication that attempts to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.” Or “communications where the form and content is selected with the single-minded purpose of bringing some target audience to adopt attitudes and beliefs chosen in advance by the sponsors of the communications.”
If you consciously craft content for the purpose of making people aware of an issue and changing their minds so they prioritize this issue more, you’re creating propaganda.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with producing propaganda.
People are constantly creating propaganda to get people to consider changing their food habits. Or voting preferences. Or what city or state people should live in.
If you see the art and science of mass persuasion as inherently wrong, BUT you believe you have certain ideas that need greater representation in the cultural consciousness, you are doing your cause a disservice by not being deliberate about changing people’s minds.
Of course, not all propaganda is morally neutral just because the word "propaganda" is technically neutral.
People should NOT create propaganda that contains falsehoods, even if the inclusion of said falsehoods is done out of the belief that the outcome justifies the lie. I tend to think that consequentialist justifications of misinformation are B.S.
When it was discovered that Anthony Fauci intentionally lied about the efficacy of masks, supposedly for the noble purpose of saving masks for hospital workers, it destroyed millions of Americans’ confidence in the government’s trustworthiness when giving public health information.
President Lyndon B. Johnson may have genuinely believed that the USSR-allied North Vietnamese were a force for evil in the world, but it was a grave mistake to falsely claim that they launched an unprovoked attack in the Gulf of Tonkin and then use that as a reason to declare war. That lie launched a war that would cost 58,220 American and more than 3 million Vietnamese lives—a devastating loss of life and a huge blow to the reputation of the United States.
Propaganda that deliberately includes falsehoods is not only morally wrong, it will backfire if your goal is to build trust with the people you are communicating with.
The alternative to deceptive propaganda is "honest propaganda."
This is not an oxymoron. It's possible, and the propagandists who do it effectively should be celebrated.
What is honest propaganda? It is propaganda that…
Conveys a truth or a sincere opinion in a distilled form that makes the content of the communication more likely to be received by the targets of the propaganda.
Does not pretend to come from people who are completely unbiased and objective journalists who are simply reporting undeniable facts.
If you sincerely believe that veganism is the morally right thing to do, and you create content that doesn't quote falsehoods and is designed to spread that belief, this falls under “honest propaganda.” See Earthling Ed’s videos as an example of honest vegan propaganda.
If you seriously believe that TikTok is a grave danger to the United States, and you call it "digital fentanyl" (as some elected officials like Congressman Mike Gallagher have) because it's an emotionally evocative metaphor that can be honestly backed up by facts that legitimize the metaphor, then the "TikTok is digital fentanyl" meme should qualify as "honest propaganda.”
If you sincerely believe that the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is the best legislative achievement in recent history, and you create content arguing why, and you have a friend who sincerely argues why it's actually the worst piece of legislation in years, both you and your friend could be considered "honest propagandists.
Ryan Reynolds is probably one of the most famous “honest propagandists.” His ads work so well in part because he makes it so transparent that he is trying to sell you something.
This art by former Black Panther propagandist Emory Douglas comparing Obama to the devil is "honest propaganda" even if you hate the association it makes, because Douglas is pointing out the reality that Obama signed off on drone bombings despite being awarded a "Peace Prize."
Who are not examples of honest propagandists?
People who hide behind the label of "journalist" and pretend they're just "objectively reporting the news" when they're just consistently pushing a particular point of view.
People who intentionally create media that looks real but isn't, and don't make it clear that it isn't real. For example, a realistic deepfake video of President Obama saying "I like bombing children" that is not clearly labeled as a deepfake is definitely not honest propaganda. Another example is a fake screenshot of a tweet by Elon Musk that says something he didn't say and doesn't make it clear that it's satire.
People who spread outright lies. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, claimed that outrageous accusations inspire more belief than milder statements that only slightly distort the truth. That may be true, but it's wrong, and it pollutes the [epistemic commons] (https://consilienceproject.org/democracy-and-the-epistemic-commons/).
Honest propaganda can be very effective because it is based on clear facts. Elmer Davis, who headed the U.S. Office of War Information (also known as America's official propaganda office during World War II), once made a public statement confirming this: “The truth is that a fact — an incontrovertible fact — is often the most powerful propaganda.”
So, that’s enough about “honest propaganda.” But beyond the level of honesty undergirding the propaganda, there’s another dimension of variability I'd like to explore: how participatory the propaganda is.
What does that mean?
While some people have their own definitions of "participatory propaganda," I define it as propaganda that
Intends to build a grassroots movement
Empowers the consumers of the propaganda to also become producers and, in a sense, co-owners of the success of the movement.
Participatory propaganda moves beyond a one-way form of communication (the propagandist using mass media to persuade a passive target audience), to a “one-to-many-to-many more” form of communication.
Architects of participatory propaganda movements use the power of social media to dialogue directly with the target audience, so that these audience members take responsibility for creating and spreading persuasive messages to others. These architects seed the movement with memes, but the crowd takes it to the next level.
It can be exhilarating to participate in such movements. You can feel like you have the power to shape its direction.
Examples of movements that were powered by participatory propaganda include:
Trump's 2016 campaign, where it can be argued that his victory can be meaningfully attributed to the meme-makers of 4chan, as well as the fervent supporters who pumped memes into Facebook groups. Few memes in modern history have gained more traction than "Make America Great Again.”
Black Lives Matter, whose very name is an extremely catchy meme. The central role that protest played in BLM contributed massively to its ability to create a thriving memetic ecosystem. Every protest sign posted on social media fueled experimentation with phrases and symbols.
Crypto/Web3, a nascent space with a TRILLION dollar market cap, would be nothing without memes like "WAGMI" "gm" "hodl" "ultra sound money" "ReFi" "DeSci" and "web3" itself. There was no one person who created all these memes, but the release of the Bitcoin whitepaper opened the mimetic floodgates.
In a world where more people than ever are convinced that people are covertly trying to manipulate their opinions, the existence of a movement that is fighting to build a world that you agree with and that invites you to shape the future of the movement (by shaping the messaging and content that recruits new people) can be extremely exciting and refreshing.
People love to have strong convictions. People enjoy convince others to believe what they believe. People need to feel part of a team working on something much bigger than themselves.
Participatory propaganda taps into all of these wants and needs, while unleashing a creative explosion of memes that propel the movement forward.
The Power of Honest AND Participatory Propaganda
In a world where there's an arms race for people's attention, if you really believe...
That it is really important for people to believe something in order to flourish
That no one else is effective enough at getting people to believe that thing
And that you could do a better job and are willing to try.
... and yet you're NOT using the most effective tools to get the message out, you're dropping the ball.
Honest, participatory propaganda is a tool that democratizes the power of shaping society away from just the hands of the few.
Architects of honest, participatory propaganda movements can change the world on a relatively small budget, and can compete with mega-corporations with multi-million or billion marketing budgets, and even government agencies.
So if you want to level up America, if you want to move the needle on issues that matter to you, if you want to give your ideas more of a chance to be heard, then it's time to learn the beautiful art and science of persuasive messaging and honest, participatory propaganda.
How to architect such a movement is a topic for my next post, so make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss it
great post Gary.
Your essay made me think of the following quote from Keynes:
“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.“
Put another way, there’s no such thing as not “propagating”—only conscious or unconscious, inspired or cynical, generative or manipulative. The conceit of neutrality was a useful illusion for liberals societies for a long time, but now that liberalism itself is being increasingly regarded as just another ideology rather than the shared cultural background, there can no longer be a neutral stance. To not propagate good ideas is to let bad ideas and bad actors, to use Steve Bannon’s phrase, “flood the zone with shit.”