Log Index


Horizontal propaganda or auto-brainwashing

As opposed to propaganda ”from above”, Ellul emphasized the more recent phenomenon of ”horizontal propaganda”, which he described as an autonomous process taking place in immediate social interaction with little need for external support.

In essence, you have a self-reinforcing process that only needs to be properly seeded to keep functioning indefinitely, which integrates the important narratives in the social reality as the latter is used as a tool of ideological formation. Horizontal propaganda is basically the hijacking of the normal social processes for establishing a consensus among human beings, so as to exploit them for the dissemination or strengthening of perspectives, ideas, viewpoints or values of strategic importance.

In the early 60s, Jacques Ellul described horizontal propaganda as follows:

”This propaganda can be called horizontal because it is made inside the group (not from the top), where, in principle, all individuals are equal and there is no leader. The individual makes contact with others at his own level rather than with a leader; such propaganda therefore always seeks ’conscious adherence.’ Its content is presented in a didactic fashion and addressed to the intelligence. The leader, the propagandist, is there only as a sort of animator or discussion leader; sometimes his presence and his identity are not even known – for example, the ’ghost writer’ in certain American groups, or the ’police spy’ in Chinese groups. The individual’s adherence to his group is ’conscious’ because he is aware of it and recognizes it, but it is ultimately involuntary because he is trapped in a dialectic and in a group that leads him unfailingly to this adherence. His adherence is also ’intellectual’ because he can express his conviction clearly and logically, but it is not genuine because the information, the data, the reasoning that have led him to adhere to the group were deliberately falsified in order to lead him there.”

There’s a lot to take home here. First, the horizontal propaganda is intimate. It removes much of the distance between oneself and the often abstract information characterizing ”propaganda from above”, and places us in a tangible situation where actual human persons act out their belief in the narratives. This has the effect of making our roles and our identities in relation to the group dependent upon these authoritative narratives in a very direct sense, which reinforces them as true, and creates emotional and psychological ties to them by way of our interpersonal relations.

Also, it affords the recipient of propaganda the feeling of autonomy in a social context. It seems like we’re only navigating a real situation with the help of our peers, and discovering and structuring our roles and relations with regard to concrete problems in a perfectly normal manner. This has two immediate consequences. In presupposing and further building upon its validity, this obscures any problems with the information implicitly acted upon since focus is upon problems secondary to the premises of the consensus reality. Secondly, this autonomous and social anchoring of the propaganda makes it much more difficult and costly to question. Not only are we freely invested in it, we also have connected our identities and our social roles to it, so that any radical dissent will imply a rejection of the group and possible social ostracization. The propaganda, disseminated and interpreted in a concrete social context, will also be naturally linked to the general worldview of the participants and its central values in a self-determining manner, which will render it all the more difficult to challenge.

The further the process goes, the more anchored the recipient of propaganda will be, aggravating all of these problems.

Horizontal propaganda thus has two distinct functions. It reinforces already seeded narratives, and integrates them into our social relations, identities and roles, inciting us to voluntarily act out the narratives and anchoring us to them psychologically and emotionally.

Social media is an extremely powerful tool for facilitating a form of strongly controlled horizontal propaganda, yet one with important limitations. By effectively and repeatedly seeding narratives in the mainstream, these will reverberate in social media, and can easily be amplified by preferentially highlighting them in the feeds. Assuming a basic plausibility of the mainstream seeds, this will engender a multitude of effects useful to the propagandist. First of all, the narratives will be ”retweeted” as true, they will be represented by actual persons in private interactions and in social media feeds, which ostensibly reinforces the seed with a personal testimony. This immediately creates the type of social interaction essential to horizontal propaganda, capable of strongly reinforcing selected narratives by integrating them into our personal relations.

We then respond to this retweet, the reproduction of the narrative, and against the backdrop of the dominant media seed and hundreds of similar retweets in people’s networks, a seemingly voluntary consensus forms around it, which is all but impossible to openly stand against without a significant loss of social capital. ”Influencers” play a special role in this process, occupying a niche between the peer and the authority figure, and can function as force multipliers of important narratives. This development immediately both crowds out and discourages dissenting viewpoints, which narrows our access to information counter to the narratives in question. The effect is that recipients of such propaganda, lacking significant evidence to the contrary, are generally truly rational and conscientious in accepting the seeded narratives, while they also would be severely punished for failing to do so.

However, the nature of social media and our heavily mediatized information environment, implies the possibility of contrarian ”bubbles” (which are much more unlikely in a context dominated by face-to-face social interactions). In other words, the very nature of the digitized social context implies that it can be used subversively to obstruct and undermine propaganda by the emergence of opposing viewpoints providing their own narrative seeds and rejecting those of the mainstream. So where horizontal propaganda in the Age of Facebook can in principle be much more effective and strictly controlled, it’s also fragile, whereas such propaganda in Ellul’s time was difficult to use and supervise. Since the social network was so strongly interconnected, the society allowed little space for viewpoints strongly critical of the mainstream narratives to suddenly emerge and gain influence in the horizontal social interactions.

Contemporary in-built fact-checkers are a tool to counter precisely this type of fragility, discouraging the emergence and growth of contrarian narratives by functioning as Ellul’s ”police spy” or ”discussion leader”, coupled with the ascendancy of the social media ”influencer” as a form of political commissar during latter years. At this very juncture of the narrative seed and its dissemination and voluntary reproduction in various forms of social media, one of the most important battles for power and political influence of our time are taking place. If both the mainstream institutions providing the narrative seeds and the pre-propaganda, and the social media platforms that disseminate them, can be effectively challenged, narrative control could plausibly countered and possibly even decentralized.