In the book Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul argued that although hubris may lead intellectuals to believe that they are immune to propaganda, it influences everyone. Intellectuals are more equipped than the average person to explore a variety of issues, but their curiosity exposes them to a vast volume of literature, generalizations and out-of-specialty ideas. Since they do not have the time to explore everything critically, they become at least as vulnerable to propaganda as anyone else.
How was propaganda defined by Ellul?
The aim of modern propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.
Ellul wrote Propaganda in 1962, identifying key sociological myths such as that of historical progress, happiness as a life-goal and the innate good nature of humanity. Three to four decades later, thanks to the world wide web and its millions of websites, blogs, Facebook accounts and other social media, propaganda has not only gone digital, but its horizontal scope has been amplified exponentially. Due to economic investments and rewards, more myths have spread recently, and they have had a huge impact on science and education. Here are examples of myths perpetuated and the action they have provoked.
(1) Everyone can benefit from selling their image. But in reality, the pervasiveness of marketing techniques has come with a price. Blog and book publishers expect writers to provide biographies, give talks and market their work, and they comply, sacrificing time for relaxation, incubation and production itself. Scientists, self-conscious of metrics while securing research grants, compromise on their selection of topics for research. High school students spread their talents thinly, committing themselves to an avalanche of activities because they’ve been told that it looks good on their CVs. Schools advertise and compete with others, as if their primary function is to sell a service to the consumer.
(2) Technology brings the world together. We can easily phone, email, Skype, text or chat with people across the planet. We can converse with people having similar interests. Without technology we would never have known these people existed. Yet anyone can tell you that technology cannot transmit a person’s physical presence or their body language. The ease of having multiple interactions reduces the time spent with given individuals, the latter ironically being the hallmark of friendship. Of course, every popular social media network has no real concern for bonding people. While drawing in millions by providing either the veneer of interaction or a medium for narcissism, media sites sell advertising to sponsors who can now more specifically target people. Their task is made easier and more desirable because most users volunteer information about themselves. The on-the-go usage and small format on cell phones and tablets encourages the use of images, short videos and slogans to convey ideas. People are then exposed to hundreds of such stimuli; even those linked to literature are at best quickly read without further research. What better way is there for horizontal propaganda to spread?
It is a fact that excessive data do not enlighten the reader or the listener; they drown him. He cannot remember them all, or coordinate them, or understand them; if he does not want to risk losing his mind, he will merely draw a general picture from them. And the more facts supplied, the more simplistic the image.
-Jacques Ellul, from Propaganda
(3) Online learning is a more powerful educational tool than traditional crafts. In essence digital media are just another set of tools that have to be complemented by a host of other methods to be effective. But currently teachers are pressured to believe that chalkboards and lectures are a thing of the past. Its popular alternative, “active learning”, a title presumptuous because it implies that previous learning was passive, relies heavily on online media. Yet learning from an experienced specialist who is in the same room; gaining from real experiments and demonstrations; and thinking and imagining quietly in the absence of any gadgets remain essential to see concepts at work in different settings.
(4) Colleges do a better job when they focus on preparing students for the job market. As William Deresiewicz argues, educational institutions have surrendered their soul to the market and neoliberalism. A century ago colleges were committed to
developing in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully ,
but now they are primarily concerned with practical fields such as business and technology and in whatever brings in money for graduates and the college, as in the billions of dollars obtained from sports TV broadcasting contracts. This has had a detrimental impact on learning for its own sake and on studying for the purpose of enriching life.
since the 1960s, the percentage majoring in the physical sciences — physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and so forth — has fallen even more (than English majors), by some 60 percent. As of 2013, only 1.5 percent of students graduated with a degree in one of those subjects, and only 1.1 percent in math.