“Propaganda has a negative connotation, which it partially deserves… But I think there is some propaganda that is very positive.”
A history of harm and hate becomes the thoughts we have when considering Propaganda, but it’s future could be far brighter.
Over the years thanks to propaganda close relationship with politics and warfare, society has developed a misconception as to what the true definition of propaganda is.
Propaganda is ‘a certain type of messaging that serves a particular purpose of spreading a particular culture, point of view or philosophy.’
It is not propaganda itself that is to blame, but merely the uses that it has been put to in the past. Thanks to proliferation of mass communication and technology in our society we have been able to chisel new ways propaganda can appear and widen the purposes it can be used for. Today it is a tool of the people, not of the elite.
Grass Root Campaigns
For Shepherd Fairey, it comes in the form of Street Art. His work aims to provoke reaction, challenge ideologies and is the perfect platform for him to voice his social activist attitudes. The Madison Social Text Collective analysed his 2008 ‘Hope’ poster as a strategic political campaign that contributed to Obama’s victory. It had more effective results than other techniques that have been previously employed by other right wing parties.
The strategy behind Fairey’s work is similar to that of the model proposed in the study of Memetics.
As described by Godin author of the ‘Idea Virus’, by using technology you can use the ‘word of mouse to tell one hundred friends or even a thousand.’ In his book he describes how quickly an idea can spread in society. Godin says ‘we used to focus on making food and stuff, now we make ideas. As he points out ideas never die.
The spreading of propaganda works in correlation with the model of the idea behind how memes spread and reduplicate as it were. If you were to think of memes as cells; that retain information and copies itself to form strands of information known as DNA, that then in turn make up the whole of us; you begin to see how a meme works. A meme is like a cell is to the body; a building block of information that creates the society all around us that we interact with.
Memetics provides a useful insight into the way our minds work and interact within society and culture. The problem with this model however means that it can be used to spread both good and bad messages. In Fairey’s quote he admits that propaganda ‘partially deserves’ the negative associations people have in regards to it.
A Past of Exploitation
This is as a result of our history where propaganda has being used exploit the masses during times of warfare. Also, thanks to its ability to address mass audiences in cases like this propaganda has emerged as an important tool in democratic society, in order to gain voters during campaign elections. In situations like this, it has been criticised that propaganda is not aiding the everyday individual but is only been used to dupe them.
From a Marxist approach it could be used as a way of exploiting people and serving only the interests of the ruling classes. However from a liberal viewpoint propaganda can be seen as medium of communication between the private and public spheres, informing the audience on areas they otherwise would not know about. Propaganda in its rightful definition is a ‘value free term’ that is open for use by anyone, in any way. Fairey uses Street Art.
People define Street Art as a form of ‘alternative distribution’ meaning that is expression ideas opposite to the dominant ideologies of western culture. Many Street Artists practice their work outside of mainstream art collectives because they believe in spreading their message without the agents of state controlling them.
In 1974, Lynda Benglis became one of the first artists to seek independent publication of her work outside of galleries and traditional art institutions. She wanted to express her discontent at the male dominance and patriarchy that resided within the institutions of the art world.
She did so by releasing an advert for ArtForum magazine. The advert was a double page spread featuring her wearing an over-sized dildo, which she used a metaphor for the phallus that was weighing down on her and other female artists. The advert received many complaints, proving Benglis’ theory that a male was free to express himself, but women were not.
Her example demonstrates how alternative distribution can be used to spread a positive message because it provides an opportunity for the oppressed and the unheard to speak out against the conventions that are condemning them.
The power of alternative distribution has been harnessed in other areas also, besides street art. As literature has in recent years move towards a trend for self-publishing many youths are finding a voice through the medium of zines.
Zines in the past have often been used to champion a prominence for feminist and gender inequality causes. There are many ‘riot grrl’ titles ion popular sites such as ‘Etsy’ where you can purchase zines, the aim of them has been to provide an outlet for women and build a community for them ‘outside surveillance, silencing and appropriation’
Naif Al-Mutawa published an Islamic comic series called ’99.’ Each issue was dedicated to relaying the backstory of 99 Islamic super heroes. In the stories he provides information regarding the culture’s belief and religion, and his driving force for the project was he hoped to combat the issues of extremism and islamophobia prevailing in our media saturated society.
The aim of the series was to converge to the demands of children, and using the persuasive techniques of excitement and adventure, engage the children with new role models in their society for them to look up to. The series collaboration with DC’s ‘The Justice League of America’ set an example of harmonisation between Islamic and Westernised culture. An idea Al-Mutawa wishes to cement and breed.
In today’s society many have become disillusioned with the pretence of democratic society; they believe it is more a theoretical utopia than a practical ideal. Zine culture is one way people are finding to remedy this. They are using it as a medium of propaganda to spread positive messages and ignite a social consensus of awareness and demand for change.
The Philippine Strategy
This was demonstrated by the ‘Philippine strategy’ of 2001. During the impeachment trial of President Joseph Estrada, it appeared as though he may be let off the charges against him. After learning this fact many outraged Filipinos launched a campaign via text message that was forward to thousands of recipients, to form a protest at a major crossroads in Manila. In response to the masses that turned out the trialling jury found the President to be guilty of his crimes.
The event marked the first time social media had aided in forcing out a national leader and established the instantaneous and overwhelming power of social networking to spread a message. ‘The Philippine strategy’ has been adopted many times since in a variety of ways and its effectiveness only enhanced since the emergence of re-blogging and hash-tagging that have become the modern day embodiments of Godin’s’ ‘idea virus’
One of the most successful examples of this is the #likeagirl campaign launched in 2014 by ‘Always,’ a feminine hygiene company whose TV advert aimed to attack the negative connotations associated with the idea of doing something ‘like a girl.’
#Spreading the Idea
The advert uses several techniques to highlight misrepresentations society holds surrounding gender and the shameful stereotypes we hold in regards to the idea of femininity. It ends using several quotes designed to empower women and challenge these ideologies. It has become one of leading campaigns in the new movement of feminism that has emerged in past couple of years.
Of course hash-tagging and campaigns do not always have to be started by some kind of organisation. The internet also allows for common day news events to transform into a social activism movement that can be started by any individual.
This is what happened in the case of Leelah Alcorn whose gender identity was unaccepted and shunned by her family. Before her death Leelah posted a suicide note on Tumblr expressing the difficulties and rejection she had faced.
In the wake of these events, a viral campaign was born demanding awareness, support and access to surgery for those with gender dysphoria.
Through the mediums of popular culture and alternative distribution it can be argued that there is such a thing as positive propaganda. People are using the technologies and mediums available to them to spread messages of change for the better. The proliferation of technology has led us to age where anyone can be an activist and where anyone possesses the power to make people think.
We possess this power because we are the only animals on Earth to possess language and look at what it can do for us. Yes some may use it for bad but that makes the opposite, that is can also be used for good, just as true.
‘Literature can help to recreate, inwardly, that shared sense of being human without which our world would truly be a wilderness’