The Meme is Not the Message – Joss Hands
In order to try and find some purchase on the place of digital propaganda first we need to ask what counts as propaganda, an often contested term. A good general definition is “highly organized doctrinal texts communicated throughout the sound and visual media in the service of state and corporate interest” (Sussman, 2011, p. 1). That such a view seems hard to dispute suggests a broadly singular perspective of propaganda as ideological indoctrination and manipulation. This is reflective of the age of broadcast, the era of ‘one to many’ mass media. The classic formulation is perhaps Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman’s well known ‘propaganda model’ with its five ‘filters’ (Herman & Chomsky, 1988). These are large-scale systemic blocks that prevent any significant dissent from entering the ‘democratic’ arena. While this model is helpful, and highly influential, it has gaps. It has a somewhat direct and limited sense of how ideas are transmitted, in fact says little about how propaganda actually ‘influences’ or affects its audience.
Another classic model that offers some embellishment of the mode of impact of propaganda comes from Theodor Adorno in the 1930s. In discussing fascist propaganda he argues: “It does not employ discursive logic but is rather…an organized flight of ideas. The relation between premisses and inferences is replaced by a linking-up of ideas resting on mere similarity” (Adorno, 1994, p. 223). We can see this as a kind of psychic trickery in which an audience is lulled into a sense of having knowledge, but which is based on nothing but drilled association. This provokes what Adorno describes as “The loosening of self-control, the merging of one’s impulses with a ritual scheme is closely related to the universal psychological weakening of the self-contained individual” (Adorno, 1994, p. 226). This fragmenting of the mind, the implementation of irrational belief and weakening of cognitive capacity is a common claim – this is often paired with the accusation of overly emotional communication that bypasses the critical faculties of an audience. Noam Chomsky, drawing on the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr talks of ‘emotionally potent over-simplification’.
In digital culture we can see a turn in the mode of communication from one rooted in ‘mass’ media, to one more closely related to the multiple communication channels of networked, computer-mediated-communication. This is not a centre to periphery model but a decentred, or even distributed one. Here, we simply no longer have the same models of communication that grounded earlier forms of propaganda. As such there needs to be a conception of propaganda more akin to the mode of digital circulation, from may-to-many. One powerful such model is that of the transmission of ‘memes’, or ‘viral’ communication, in which ‘propaganda’ does not land from above, but is passed on from your own associates. In fact a viral or mimetic approach lends itself very well to a reconstructed propaganda model. This is not a model that is so direct and procedural as Chomsky and Herman’s classic version, but operates more as an echo chamber, a model of seeding and self-reproduction on a quotidian micro-scale.
Memes (as a form of viral communication) play a key role here. Memes are singular digital objects that circulate freely and voluntarily, but which consist of multiple elements, blended together to be iterable, variable and simple. (Shifman, 2014). The combinations do not necessarily form propositions or logical claims; indeed this is characteristic of them – the more jarring and unexpected the juxtaposition the better – but they are designed to produce impact. Indeed psychologists have long since identified that strange often anomalous combinations of elements lodge themselves more firmly into our memories, which is why we often see grating apparently surreal combinations of images and concepts, even in traditional advertising, and even more so in a meme, which needs to communicate a message in a flash and lend itself to adaptation and voluntary redistribution. In short memes resemble somewhat the form of propaganda defined by Adorno. This is a form of message and process of circulation that well suits our neoliberal condition, in which we become the authors of our own containment; the meme becomes the mode of thought, but one that presents itself as a cool in-joke, a quandary, a piece of cultural capital, and even a gesture of defiance.
In that regard there has been much focus on the power of memes to disrupt and mobilize as a form of counter-propaganda. We see this in examples such as Adbusters, Occupy Wall St, in the work of Banksy or groups like UK Uncut. They have the power of humour at their disposal. They are playful and irrelevant, which provides a radical tinge. In a tradition of political satire 4Chan, Lulzsec and Anonymous all draw on its convention of biting and merciless humour. However, there is good reason to question the use of the counter-meme alone as an effective strategy. Slavoj Žižek has developed the notion of cynical reason, a concept aligned with interpassivity and the evolution of communicative capitalism, in which communication, whatever its character, is always already simply a commodity in circulation. Such a view suggests that while a counter-meme may create the idea that something is being done, that orthodoxies are being challenged, in an attention economy they do nothing to build concerted links and coherent programmes of action – we cannot plan with memes. In the end the message of the meme is no message at all. A supplement is needed.
One of the great propagandists, Edward Bernays, offers a prolonged rationalization for propaganda. While his rationale is deeply problematic his methods have something to tell us still in the production of digital counter propaganda. Bernays tells us, “The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest” (Bernays, 1947, p. 114). Above all else Bernays makes the importance of planning paramount, the success of which “depends on interlocking all phases and elements of the proposed strategy” (Bernays, 1947, p. 119). As such the imperative for digital age counter-propaganda is to take a leaf from Bernays’ book. The need is to triangulate counter-memetic action, with a strategic seeding of concepts throughout the mainstream media, the building of complete pictures of concerted positions that can then meaningfully interlock, plus the generation of counter-flak. This is what one might call an ‘Owen Jones’ model, but more than this is the need to build alternative movements that can undertake a long-term counter offensive to shift the public mind. This is not to engineer the consent of the masses from above, but to manage the managers from below, and in so doing manage them out of existence.
Joss Hands is Reader in Media and Critical Theory and Director of ARCMedia (Anglia Research Centre in Media and Culture) at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. His research focuses on politics, activism and digital media. He has recently co-edited a special issue of Culture Machine on ‘Platform Politics’ and is author of ‘@ is For Activism: Dissent Resistance and Rebellion in a Digital Culture’.
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