I am currently reading Propaganda a book by Jacques Ellul, that readers may be more familiar with his well-known work The Technological Society (which I have not read). I’ll probably have more to say Propaganda finishing the entire book, but I thought I’d take a moment just to meditate on a passage that struck me as strikingly prescient and worthy of some attention. As expected, a Propaganda He breaks down and analyzes in depth what propaganda is, how it manifests itself and imposes itself, shapes and forms the psyche of the mass man of modernity. We’re all doing propaganda all the time, but the more disconnected you are from the mainframe, the less likely the mind thief is to program you.
On page 80, Ellul discusses the nature and difference between vertical and horizontal propaganda. Vertical propaganda is a form of top-down indoctrination that emanates from an institution, political party, or authority figure. The BBC, CNN and Fox News are vertical propaganda. National Socialist Germany or the USSR would be classic examples of regimes that engaged in vertical propaganda, although, to his credit, Ellul acknowledges that this would not be a particularly prescient analysis, and therefore launches the your network further and also closer. at home.
Horizontal propaganda is indoctrination (messaging if you prefer) that is embedded more locally or within a network or social grouping. The various posters of right-wing memes online on Twitter or under comments across the Internet are examples of horizontal propaganda just like a Vietcong agent would distribute pamphlets in a village. Within a liberal democracy, horizontal propaganda is used more often than in a direct dictatorship because the masses must believe that they have come to an opinion through their own will and agency.
The effect of vertical propaganda on the target individual is, according to Ellul:
A feature of vertical propaganda is that the propagandist stands alone even though he is part of a crowd. His cries of enthusiasm or hatred, although they form part of the cries of the crowd, do not put him in communication with others; their cries are only a response to the leader. Finally, this type of propaganda requires a passive attitude on the part of the subjects. They are seized, manipulated, compromised; they experience what they are asked to experience; they really transform into objects. Consider, for example, the almost hypnotic condition of those who spread propaganda in a meeting. There, the individual is depersonalized; their decisions are no longer their own but those suggested by the leader, imposed by a conditioned reflex.
When we say that this is a passive attitude, we do not mean that the propagandist does not act; on the contrary, he acts with vigor and passion. But, as we shall see, his action is not his, even if he thinks so. Throughout, it is conceived and wanted outside of it; the propagandist is acting through him, reducing him to the status of a passive instrument. It is mechanized, dominated, therefore passive. This is all the more so because he is often immersed in a mass of propagandists in which he loses his individuality and becomes an element among others, inseparable from the crowd and inconceivable without it.
Unfortunately, the “passive mechanized instrument” is essentially what most Westerners have been reduced to precisely because they have been subjected to decades of vertical propaganda. We can also see that Ellul’s work, written 60 years ago, perfectly describes what in internet terminology is the ”NPC”. The NPC or non-player character is a feature of video games in which a character has a set of generic lines and behaviors that he repeats. In Skyrim, if you ask your companion Lydia to carry your loot, she will respond to your prompt with “I have sworn to carry your burdens.” Similarly, if you express the view that English people can only be white, the modern liberal will almost certainly respond to external stimuli with the clichéd response of “racist”.
It is a depressing realization that so many of our fellow citizens have been reduced to passive instruments of power, devoid of agency and any critical faculty.
The so-called ”Great Meme War” of 2016 offers a rare opportunity to study a period during which the system faltered a bit. Of course, there have been many studies of the populist surge, and rightly so. However, using the lens of Ellul’s horizontal/vertical paradigm we can see that what actually happened was a kind of system failure in the regime’s propaganda monopoly.
The new social media technology allowed—as the name suggests—horizontal propaganda to flourish, so much so that Power’s vertical propaganda was not only undermined, but subjected to scrutiny, exposure, and ridicule. As we later saw with Trump’s presidency, power itself was not threatened by internet memes and posters, but its ability to make efficient propaganda was. Manufacturing’s monopoly on opinion was temporarily lost, and NPCs were asked to respond to prompts they weren’t programmed to.
The regime’s response was to drop what were, in effect, napalm carpet censorship bombs on networks spreading horizontal propaganda, in order to protect liberal democracy, of course.
Since the Great Meme War, there has been a gradual shift from the centers of regime propaganda to the fertile ground of social media. This heralds a strategy to not only take advantage of the available reach, but also to fill the ash-like craters left by the (now) purged dissident content creators. Social media is full of chocolates and gatekeepers, peddlers of half-baked ideologies and conspiracies. In other words, the regime has replaced organic, emergent and horizontal propaganda with its own creations. Where a thousand crap posters once bloomed, there’s only the dead plastic dryness of the lawn.
With all this in mind, let us now ask ourselves a question.
In typically dramatic and orchestrated fashion, Piers Morgan left the vertical propaganda zone of mainstream television and settled on the Internet a few years ago. His YouTube channel currently has 1.4 million subscribers, and his clickbait offal is disguised as content regularly reaching hundreds of thousands of views. Morgan is, in my opinion, the ”Gatekeeper” par excellence. Usually, when people refer to an influencer as a Gatekeeper, they mean a person who patrols a space or social network with the goal of keeping radicals and their ideas out or restricted. The fact that we are talking about social networks and conversations between people and groups means that we are here in the field of horizontal propaganda.
A quick browse through Morgan’s YouTube channel reveals that she talks about transgender, Barbie, slavery reparations, green protestors and a whole host of news stories. In these interactions, Morgan will take on the role of the common man with common sense who is tired of the madness. However, he is in the act of creating platforms and highlighting these causes because, true to his liberal personality, he “values freedom of expression”. The effect of this in propaganda terms is to “flood the area” with impotent centrism, meaning Morgan’s propaganda is not dictatorial but horizontal and designed to be a narrative rubber bullet rather than a titanium tip .
Recently, Morgan invited a young female internet personality on his show who had appeared before. This time there was a trap when Morgan went into attack mode because he was singing a song that questioned Jewish power and why it couldn’t be argued with. Morgan reframed the discussion to ask him why he wanted to defend or discuss Adolf Hitler. The young woman repeatedly (and clumsily) responded by asking why such moral condemnation was warranted whenever this particular group was in question. He wasn’t interested in defending Hitler or the Nazis, he was exploring the limits of discourse and why this area was off limits.
For Morgan, however, the task was to make it clear that discussing this topic was inherently repugnant and “unpleasant to most people.” Thus, Morgan’s sensible man in the central persona was deployed to watch over and maintain order in the discourse.
During the Covid pandemic, the fluctuating and chaotic dialectic was supported by the liberal left in favor of more draconian measures, such as lockdowns and vaccine mandates, and the broad spectrum of the more skeptical right. The tendency of the center-right was to downplay the severity of the virus and rely on various tropes that the liberal left was rather brazen and totalitarian.
Thus, the very demographic comprising Morgan’s audience had adopted a “don’t panic” attitude in opposition to left-wing hysteria. Morgan then flipped the script and claimed that everyone who opposed the most draconian measures possible was the whining coward. The cultural trope of the stiff upper lip was co-opted by Morgan and inverted, now it was the skeptics of quadruple vaccines and China-style lockdown policies who were wrong and inconsiderate.
In what must count as a perfect example of vertical propaganda, Morgan aligned himself with the most radical defenders of the Covid measures, matched only by a handful of NGO technocrats. Morgan later retracted his enthusiasm for the vaccine, claiming that “the science had changed.”
We see, then, that the gatekeeper is not only dedicated to keeping subversive ideas out, but also to opening the doors wide open when the Power demands that the same center adopt a radical stance. Morgan routinely uses eco-warriors who block traffic and stick to paintings, here he once again plays the beleaguered John Bull surrounded by thieves. However, scratch the surface a bit and you’ll see that Morgan is totally on board with the broader climate change agenda and when GloboCorp starts tracking your carbon footprint, you can bet Morgan will be the first to – the pillory for resisting you.
It should come as no surprise to see that Morgan has repeatedly set up Andrew Tate. Here we return from the vertical to the horizontal and we can reasonably ask: What is the point of Andrew Tate?
My view is that the reason Andrew Tate is so seemingly ubiquitous on the web is that he has horizontal propaganda designed, not so much to convey an ideology, but to clog the arteries and networks of horizontal opinion propagation and formation with nonsense and divisive theatrics. Counter-propaganda of the regime delivered horizontally does not need to be closely coordinated, it is enough for a producer to hire an influencer who courts controversy but also highlights truths, such as issues with feminism or young men. However, this package will come wrapped in various forms of sticky sweat that cling to and disrupt the smooth and effective functioning of the heretical propaganda effort. MAGA Communism is another nonsensical trend that is algorithmically broadcast on right-wing networks.
In an age of carefully selected opinion and a populace steeped in propaganda, Ellul’s work is a valuable asset as we try to navigate among the suspiciously planted weeds and pompous sunflowers in the garden of discourse. I can’t wait to read the second part…