A recently published study of 126,000 rumours and false news stories spread on Twitter over a period of 11 years found that they travelled much faster and reached more people than the truth. It seems that Christians are no exception from being caught up in believing and promoting stories in the news that have no basis in facts or reality. This is worrying given that all Christians, despite our differences, have a solemn responsibility to believe, defend and communicate only what is true. Bearing false witness is a serious sin. We read in Scripture that Satan is called the ‘father of lies’ (John 8:44). Like quick-sand, once we get trapped inside the world of propaganda escape is not easy; but there are ways to discern propaganda and stand firm on the solid ground of truth.
How does propaganda work?
Propaganda always begins with affirming some aspects of the truth. There is an emotional appeal to people’s legitimate sense of grievance and powerlessness. Propaganda works because it tugs at the heart. Most of us have a natural tendency to believe what we feel in our hearts ought to be true. Anyone who has nurtured a sense of being a victim, often feels more attracted to propaganda, because it affirms their sense of wounded self. It also cultivates a false sense of hero-complex – “I am a victim and I must fight for the masses against the elite out there”.
After the initial emotional appeal, propaganda offers an explanation of the world that seems rational, straightforward and intellectually compelling. Why the world is the way it is, is explained in simple black-and-white terms. The world is divided between good people (everyone like me) and bad people (the elites, the establishment, the bureaucrats, the liberals, the immigrants, etc.), the ones who are held responsible for making decisions and doing bad things that have negatively affected me, and who must be blamed for all that has gone wrong in my world. In the world of propaganda, there are innocent victims and there are evil-doers who must be fought against and punished. The explanation is simple to grasp and quick to propagate, and leaves no room for nuance, complex-thinking, or our shared-culpability for the mess the world is in. In the closed universe of propaganda, there is no space for conversation or discussion, no need to check for counter-facts, only a sold-out belief that the “good” is under attack and the “bad” has to be defeated. Pluralism of opinion, critical thinking and dissent become unnecessary and unacceptable.
Finally, propaganda works, because it promises to have solutions to the problems affecting society. There is a way out, some kind of hope for a better and brighter tomorrow. This is so appealing to anyone who feels disgruntled with the present status quo. Of course, all political parties have some kind of election manifesto, which make several promises and offers solutions to people’s problems. While election manifestoes can include elements of propaganda, there are still subtle and key differences. Propaganda promises solutions that are radical in nature and quick to achieve. Any attempt at gradual change, seeking to engage all the different stake-holders over a longer timetable, is viewed with suspicion and dismissed as compromising with the “bad” guys. The solution has to be worked-out now. Everything becomes emotionally charged, and for the sake of achieving quick solutions, the threat and actual use of violence against the other side finds easy justification.
Propaganda is dangerous because it is the fuel that turns a mob-mentality into a blazing fire that cannot be quenched. While propaganda does give recognition to people who’ve been marginalised, it ultimately offers nothing that is constructive and sustainable, only what is calamitous and destructive.
A way forward
Let me offer three ways Christians can take a stand against propaganda. One, oppose and resist all social narratives that are based on “us vs them”. Just this simple commitment will go a long way in defeating propaganda in our society. A quick clarification is needed here. Rejecting “us vs them” narratives does not mean accepting all views and opinions as being equally true. Two, seek to build bridges of understanding between opposing viewpoints and testimonies. Though not all differences can be reconciled, and neither should we try to, we can do better at affirming the common “middle” ground on which divided people still stand together on. Three, grow in your ability to engage in self-criticism. You have to first be the change you wish to see achieved in society. Instead of making your Facebook posts about accusing other people of sin and shortcoming, make it more often about acknowledging your own sin and the failures of your own group. Believing you are a victim under attack does not make you guilt-free. This kind of courage and truth-speaking will draw the oxygen out of the fires of propaganda.
We are living in uncertain times and the dangers of media-driven propaganda are writ-large. We know what happened in the twentieth century in Europe and the destructive power of propaganda. As Christians we have a responsibility to take a stand against propaganda and make sure we are bearers and channels of the truth, even when at times this task is not easy and our understanding is limited.