OAKLAND, Calif. — Part of what makes propaganda effective is the way it uses words that collectively sound like they mean something but ultimately signal very little. Speaking on this topic, Noam Chomsky noted that, “you [the propagandist] want to create a slogan that nobody is gonna be against and I suppose everybody will be for because nobody knows what it means because it doesn’t mean anything, but its crucial value is it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something. Do you support our policy and that’s the one you’re not allowed to talk about.”
The syrianpresidency Instagram account, which The Atlantic recently wrote about, is just such an example. Though it’s not quite selfies of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, it’s also not a parody account. Writing on the classic role of propaganda as distraction, Megan Garber pointed out the strategy: “It’s not neurotoxins and explosions and the violent deaths of civilians and children; it’s science competitions and basketball games and, as my National Journal colleague Marin Cogan points out, Tiffany-blue fitness-tracking bracelets.”
This issue of diversion is key and in a world of centrally-controlled media, diversion is a straightforward affair. Transferring these techniques to social media doesn’t quite translate — beneath each post from syrianpresidency is a comment section, and these comments are rich with dissent and debate. Comments alone don’t change anything, and it’s not like everyone who makes the comments agrees with each other. However, the simple act of being able to leave a comment breaks a key function of propaganda by raising the issue that isn’t supposed to be discussed.
There remains one very large group of people who have no way of talking back (yet). Two years ago, North Korea famously opened up accounts on YouTube and Twitter, but the majority of their citizens have no access (not even censored access) to the internet. One wonders what they would say if they could just add a short comment.