Propaganda: the impact of the internet

This article is part of Propaganda

Propaganda is centuries old, but through the years the way it spreads has changed. While the ancient Greeks had to rely on a theatre audience to spread their message, today the internet takes on that task. What is the influence of the internet on the spread of propaganda? And how is this reflected in the law?

Propaganda on social media

“Every time you share, like or comment on a post, you are contributing to its spread.”
Prof. dr. Renee Hobbs
University of Rhode Island

We are subjected to an overload of information via social media - information that often lacks nuance, and that we don’t always assess thoroughly. Research from Artevelde University of Applied Sciences in 2018 and 2019 showed that youngsters tend to briefly ‘snack’ on news reports on social media: 47% occasionally open an article, but even then they usually only read part of the contents.

When we like, share or comment on one-sided information like propaganda, that information can spread quickly. The algorithms behind social media base their decisions of what appears at the top of your timeline on likes, shares and comments. That’s why it’s important to put in some thought before you like, share or comment: are you sure that the message contains correct information, and that it won’t have any harmful consequences?

Propaganda disguised as memes

“With the advent of the internet and social media, everyone has become an author or ‘content creator’.”
Prof. dr. Renee Hobbs
University of Rhode Island

Propaganda is often spread on social media in the form of memes: images with a simple text that carry a very clear message. Memes are often the ideal way to draw attention to a cause quickly and to reach a lot of people. You can usually find the 4 effective propaganda techniques in memes:

  • Memes evoke strong emotions. Most memes are meant to make people laugh, which means they easily get liked or shared.
  • Memes simplify information. Because a meme is just an image with a brief word or sentence, there is little space for nuance.
  • Memes are recognisable. Because anyone can create a meme, memes tend to be very specific to a certain situation or context. They often match our personal experiences and speak to our fears, hopes and dreams.
  • Memes amplify us-versus-them thinking. Many memes invoke ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’: they attack a specific enemy and foster polarisation.

What about the law?

Spreading propaganda via the internet is not (yet) forbidden by law. But certain types of propaganda, like terrorist propaganda, are more dangerous than others. That’s why the EU decreed in 2021 that social media enterprises are obliged to remove or block such propaganda within the hour - the time span in which messages can reach a wide audience. That way, the EU hopes to stop the spread of extremist ideas.

Published on 16 October 2023