Reading Ellul on the massive and pervasive consequences of propaganda in the twentieth century, I found myself over and over again thinking: This is how social media work on us. For instance, that passage I quoted in my earlier post — “to the same extent that he lives on the surface of events and makes today’s events his life by obliterating yesterday’s news, he refuses to see the contradictions in his own life and condemns himself to a life of successive moments, discontinuous and fragmented” — seems even more true as a description of the person constantly on Twitter and Facebook. Many other passages gave me the same feeling:

Man, eager for self-justification, throws himself in the direction of a propaganda that justifies him and this eliminates one of the sources of his anxiety. Propaganda dissolves contradictions and restores to man a unitary world in which the demands are in accord with the facts…. For all these reasons contenporary man needs propaganda; he asks for it; in fact, he almost instigates it. (159, 160) 

Or this:

Propaganda is concerned with the most pressing and at the same time the most elementary actuality. It proposes immediate action of the most ordinary kind. It thus plunges the individual into the most immediate present, taking from him all mastery of his life and all sense of the duration or continuity of any action or thought. Thus the propagandee becomes a man without a past and without a future, a man who receives from propaganda his portion of thought and action for the day; his discontinuous personality must be given continuity from the outside, and thus makes the need for propaganda very strong. (187) 

Thus the very common type of Twitter user who expresses himself or herself almost completely in hashtags: pre-established units of affiliation and exclusion.

And yet — Russian bots and political operatives (who have turned themselves into bots) aside — social media lack the planned purposefulness intrinsic to propaganda. So they must be a different kind of thing, yes?

Yes and no. I think what social media produce is emergent propaganda — propaganda that is not directed in any specific and conscious sense by anyone but rather emerges, arises, from vast masses of people who have been catechized within and by the same power-knowledge regime. Think also about the idea I got from an Adam Roberts novel: the hivemind singularity. Conscious, intentional propaganda is so twentieth century. The principalities and powers are far more sophisticated now. I’ll be thinking more about this.


  1. I recently read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer , probably because you mentioned it in How to Think . This line from Hoffer's really struck me: "Propaganda thus serves more to justify ourselves than to convince others; and the more reason we have to feel guilty, the more fervent the propaganda." (§84) Propaganda, in Hoffer's sense, is about preaching to one's own choir, not evangelizing to the great unwashed.

  2. Thanks! Very interesting post. I just finished Jean-Pierre Dupuy's "Economy and the Future". His concept of "self-transcendence"–the way the collective mind arrives an an expected outcome, thus influencing our actions to make that outcome retrospectively inevitable–seems related to your idea of "emergent propaganda".

  3. I’d like to say these observations are duh! obvious, but why, then, are so few writers taking notice? From a slightly wider angle, culture and technology shift and move (or lurch), typically without a thoughtful plan or design. Central planning, when tried, has proven disastrous. So instead we run live social experiments without much foresight as to emergent or collateral effects. I suspect it has always been so. The only change in the last 150 years or so is how broadly and quickly transformations occur.

  4. The Hoffer quote posted by C.L. above is very much in tune with Ellul's thinking in "Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes." "There is not just a wicked propagandist at work who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen,” he wrote. “Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving." For more on "Propaganda," see my paper, "Sham Universe: Notes on the Disappearance of Reality in a World of Hallucinations," here:

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