(An idea for a book I’ll never write)
One of the most famous scenes of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four begins this way: “It was nearly eleven hundred, and in the Records Department, where Winston worked, they were dragging the chairs out of the cubicles and grouping them in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate.” As the office workers gather around the television, the face of Emmanuel Goldstein, the great enemy of the state, appears on the screen. “The Hate had started.” And people know what to do: “Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room…. In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy…. The Hate rose to its climax.” And then it is over. It is now time to chant a hymn of praise to Big Brother.
The scene has always been noteworthy for its disturbing power, but since the rise of social media it has become a central image of our time, and the phrase “Two Minutes Hate” is widely used to describe those moments when someone (usually inadvertently, though sometimes intentionally) arouses the outrage of some Twitter cohort or Facebook faction.
The relevance of the Two Minutes Hate to our social-media world is so obvious that we rarely pause to notice the fundamental difference between what happens in Orwell’s novel and what we do: no one organizes our sessions of loathing.
In Orwell’s novel, the Two Minutes Hate is a deliberate exercise created, scheduled, and enforced by the government for propagandistic purposes. It is a carefully designed strategy of negative reinforcement (loathing of Goldstein) followed immediately by positive reinforcement (love of Big Brother). But nothing like that happens in our world. We all know that Big Brother does not exist, and yet we feel his presence all around us. No centralized political force pulls our puppet-strings, and yet we feel pulled upon nonetheless. No one organizes a Two Minutes Hate, and yet Two Minutes (or Several Hours) of Hate we have, day after day after day. We affirm one another in key responses and exclude those who fail to exhibit those responses. (Note that what’s happening here is the performance of responses, not beliefs as such.) We monitor, we police the boundaries.
And it’s not just about Hate. It’s all the other emotions as well, experienced in some mysteriously synchronized collectivity. Some studies suggest that when people sing together in a choir their heartbeats synchronize; when they shout together on Twitter their emotions do the same. We live in a world of propaganda that succeeds beyond the imaginings of the propaganda-masters of the past, and yet no one has designed it. No one is organizing or scheduling it. It seems just to be happening, somehow. The propaganda of our world is emergent and ambient, and those two traits make it harder to understand and harder to combat.
In the preface to his justly famous book on propaganda, Jacques Ellul wrote, “Propaganda is called upon to solve problems created by technology, to play on maladjustments, and to integrate the individual into a technological world.” And he continued,
In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace. When man will be fully adapted to this technological society, when he will end by obeying with enthusiasm, convinced of the excellence of what he is forced to do, the constraint of the organization will no longer be felt by him; the truth is, it will no longer be a constraint, and the police will have nothing to do. The civic and technological good will and the enthusiasm for the right social myths — both created by propaganda — will finally have solved the problem of man.
We have clearly not reached the point at which the police have nothing to do; but in many respects, certainly among our cultural elites, Ellul’s forecast has largely come true. Without anyone directly telling them or persuading them to do so, they have, as their “enthusiasm for the right social myths” demonstrates, come to love Big Brother. Propaganda has ceased to be the function of government and become instead a kind of collective self-soothing, with social media networks the primary instruments.
Future historians of propaganda will not be able to do without Ellul’s book but will need to reconsider its significance in light of the realization of some of the prophetic elements of the book. His definition — “Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulations and incorporated in an organization” — will need to be revised.
And for those who wish to use rather than merely understand propaganda: Deliberate propaganda in the future will, if it wishes to be effective, need to mimic the character of emergent propaganda. Anything more direct will seem too, too crude.