Notes on the contrast between propaganda and conspiracy

Conspiracy, from QAnon to “birds aren’t real”, is a staple weed on the public internet. Previously endemic to the public sphere, propaganda is being forced out of it natural habitat and being replaced by the rhizomatic proliferation of conspiracy after conspiracy. As more people spend time alone online in lockdown it is worth asking how the forms of conspiracy differ than that of propaganda.

Below I have jotted a scattered list of what I think constitutes the formal shape of these two modes of media distribution. Afterwards I substantiate this list with media models provided by two media theorists, Henry Jenkins and Jay David Bolter.

  • Propaganda is a technique of persuasion that seeks to insert a new idea into the population where there previously was not one. Conspiracy is a technique of uncertainty which seeks to fragment an existing idea and reassemble a new idea .
  • Conspiracy is derivative of propaganda. Conspiracies can be “categorized” into larger systems of propaganda, i.e. Left and Right politics.
  • Propaganda can learn to take the form of conspiracy.
  • Propaganda is a synchronized action coming from a centralized source. Conspiracy is asynchronous, disorganized, emergent, and comes from decentralized sources.
  • The form of propaganda is mechanical: repetitive, precise, rigid. The form of conspiracy is biological: idiosyncratic, imprecise, adaptive. The national newspaper represents propaganda, the public internet represents conspiracy.
  • Propaganda operates in shared spaces: town squares, church bulletin boards, national newspapers. Conspiracy ferments in closed spaces: internet forums, living rooms, podcasts.
  • Propaganda works in a surveillance society. Conspiracy works in a surveillance too, but thrives in a sousveillance society.
  • Propaganda loosely correlates to modernism, conspiracy loosely correlates to postmodernism.

Jenkins and Bolter both have models of mass media which I have adapted to talk about conspiracy and propaganda. Through Jenkins I play with the idea that “conspiracy is propaganda in cosplay”. Through Bolter I reiterate that conspiracy is emergent from new media.

Conspiracy is Propaganda in Cosplay

Henry Jenkin’s Convergence Culture theory discusses “transmedia storytelling” or when a media company like Disney might tell the story of Star Wars across muttiple mediums: films, books, graphic novels, and LEGO sets. Reflexive to transmedia storytelling which is top-down, is a bottom-up “participatory culture”, or fan culture. This is where fans of media remix the transmedia stories told by conglomerates like Disney into cosplay, fanfiction, and other non-canon storytelling techniques.

Through this lens conspiracy is an incarnation of participatory culture enabled by the public internet. If the Star Wars III film was a piece of propaganda, someone dressing up as Anakin is a piece of conspiracy. Conspiracy is propaganda in cosplay.

Conspiracy is imbued in new media

Jay David Bolter’s book The Digital Plenitude focuses on the inverse relationship between the rise of new digital media and the decline of the power in elite culture and in older media. In the book Bolter lays out this useful diagram to distinguish between old media (left column) and new media (right column).

Loosely, propaganda fits into the left column, which describes characteristics of older forms of media like cinema, theater, and literature. These media are one-to-many, meaning the one telling the story has complete control of how it can be received and interpreted.

Conspiracy more closely aligns with the column on the right, which describes new media characteristics. Conspiracy is a remix of primary source narratives told on cable TV and in print media. An individual takes this primary source material, adds personalized remix, then shares in on user-generated content platforms like TikTok, Spotify podcasts, and Twitch live streams. Over time these UGC platforms become de facto primary sources for many people, and the cycle continues. Remix is thus a many-to-many mode media.

Conspiracy also entrances listeners into a state of flow, partially because mediums like TikTok and Twitch are biased toward immersion, but also because the conspiracies evolve over time leading the listener along its winding, procedural path. Lastly, conspiracies are built by first asking “what if”. Taken down the logical path of “what if” one can construct an empire that is disconnected from reality except at key tie points. In other words this imaginary empire is a simulation of reality, wherein the primary purpose of the world is to answer a few key “what if” hypothesis.

This is all to say that Bolter’s diagram is useful in describing the form of conspiracy versus propaganda.

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