In class last week, we discussed the weaponization of social media platforms by ISIS, the Trump campaign, the NRA, and the Wild Rose Party. Okay, well some of these organizations have been using social media more nefariously than others, but the point is, just like any media form, social media can be used to carry propaganda.
The quote that Neill shared saying that ISIS “Followed the rules of any good marketing company” really struck a chord with me and got me thinking about the relationship between marketing and propaganda, and how far back into history these simple PR rules could be found.
According to those studying the online presence of ISIS, the rules of viral marketing are:
1) Maintain Brand Consistency: Your message has to be clear and repeated often, whether this is Trump shouting “Crooked Hillary” day after day, or ISIS’s constant denunciations of the western world.
2) Create Intimacy: You have to seem like a real person who can relate to your followers. This often takes the form of “sassy” companies online, or in the case of ISIS, using many individual voices to carry their message.
3) Network: Connecting yourself with other popular accounts who share a similar brand. This allows you to absorb a large part of their audience through association with an already familiar brand.
4) Engage: Don’t just post. Talk to your followers, joke with them. Act like you’re their friend.
5) Troll: Troll the completion. Make them look stupid. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are guilty of this one, as well as ISIS.
These rules immediately reminded me of the strategies behind airdropped propaganda leaflets of the second world war, so I decided to investigate to see how many parallels there truly were.
The first rule is easy. Both allied and axis forces had one underlying message that dominated their propaganda: surrender. Though this message was communicated in different ways, each faction’s goal was to destroy the morale of the other. Yet it wasn’t necessarily through lies and subterfuge. Many propaganda pieces used hard facts and truthful statements about the hardship of war as a way to appear as friendly liberators rather than enemies. In other words, they were trying to create intimacy and trust.
Because of the delay between printing and distribution, information was often outdated and no longer relevant by the time the pamphlets reached the people. One way around this was through the use of spies. Each side would plant agents within enemy cities to create and distribute up to date pamphlets. These spies would also stir up conversation around them and seek to get groups like worker’s unions to begin discussing their merit. This sounds like networking and engagement to me.
That leaves trolling. The biggest obstacle in a propaganda campaign is high morale, and the best way to destroy this morale is to troll. When compassion and offers of friendship didn’t work, propagandists on both sides would instead spread misinformation and contradictory statements in an attempt to confuse the enemy and leave them questioning which information sources were true.
This blog post is already getting pretty long, so I’ll leave the rest of the examples for you to read on your own if you’re interested (Rutherford Library has a great section on the history of propaganda). They’re not named as such, but I’ve found examples these same viral marketing rules being used during conflicts like the protestant reformation and even as far back as the Roman campaigns against the Gallic tribes.
So I guess the use of Social Media as a tool for propaganda shouldn’t be surprising. It seems like propaganda is almost as old as communication itself, and as social media is the latest advance in communication, it stands to reason that propaganda campaigns would inevitably follow.
Brooking, E. Singer, P.W. (2016) “The war of social media”. Popular Science, 60-65
Series 2: Shelled Leaflets, Germany To Allies: 30 Days On Leave…Boy, Oh Boy !. N.d. Propaganda, Air Dropped And Shelled Leaflets And Periodicals. McMaster University. Archives Unbound. Web. 16 Oct. 2016.
(2011). Psychological warfare and propaganda in World War II: air dropped and shelled leaflets and periodicals. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, a part of Cengage Learning.
Edwards, M. U. (1994). Printing, propaganda, and Martin Luther. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Clark, M. D. H. (2010). Augustus, first Roman emperor : power, propaganda and the politics of survival. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press.