Back to the Middle Ages

Todd Nesbitt

Chair of Communication and Mass Media 

In a remarkable speech in Stuttgart 25 years ago, NYU professor Neil Postman cited George Orwell in declaring that people in 1990 are just as naïve as those who lived in the Middle Ages. 

Borrowing Orwell’s 1940s observation to describe the dangers of the information age, he illustrated his argument by explaining how advances in communication had created a chaotic stream of mediated content, making the world more or less incomprehensible to the average person. He explained that with no comprehensive and consistent view of the world – as there was in the Middle Ages - the chaotic din of information in high modernity had led to masses who could easily be led to believe anything. As a result, he suggested that the link between information and action had been severed. Reflecting on the late Postman’s thoughts a quarter of a century later, one can’t help but wonder how he would see the state of global communication today.

Back to the Middle AgesUnderstanding the period in which Postman was speaking is significant: The end of the cold war, the acceleration of global policies of deregulation, liberalization and privatization paramount, the cultural imperialism thesis so integral to theorizing international communication up to that point replaced with marketization. For today’s millennial generation undergraduate students, born and raised in the age of the triumph of quantity over quality, whose strategic cross-border communication experience has seen them almost exclusively in the role of consumers in the sights of commercial interests instead of citizens, there are few reference points for understanding a new age of international propaganda, and few may even be able to recognize them.

Yet in early 2015 we find ourselves in the midst of global propaganda campaigns the scope and scale of which in many ways triumph those at the height of the cold war. They may not be quite as dramatically expensive as the monolithic efforts demanded by the cumbersome technology of the time used to broadcast to citizens abroad in dozens and dozens of languages, or focusing research and labour on creating more and more powerful jamming systems to block incoming ‘enemy’ broadcasts. But they certainly are more complicated with the easy 1stworld vs. 2nd world ideological paradigm of the cold war a thing of the past. The international propaganda campaign today is thus much wider in scope, and demands a far more elaborate and comprehensive approach across many platforms. Interestingly, far from being approached by the mainstream news media skeptically, it is often greeted with great excitement. Motions for increases in the budgets of classic international broadcasters such as the BBC World Service and Voice of America, or newer ones like Russia Today are passed in unanimous agreement in houses of government regardless of political affiliation, and often to great fanfare. Entire military brigades are formed specifically to engage with foreign publics on social media - sexily dubbed as ‘Facebook Warriors’. Commentators salivate over the social media savvy of the unrecognized - Hamas, ISIS, and more. Incognito provocateurs are hired to counter online discussions in the comment sections under articles in strategic news sites. New government funded ‘news’ organizations are popping up right and left to serve the ‘truth’ to those abroad on an unprecedented scale. In short, the mobilization of aggressive communication forces to counteract hostile foreign mediated political content, and to spread the word of the domestic (or ‘allied’) political establishment, is nothing short of breathtaking.

Interestingly, it is useful to remember that international propaganda doesn’t really work very well. The trillions of dollars spent broadcasting, jamming, and publishing and airdropping in the name of ideology during wars of the 20th century was pretty much wasted in terms of attracting populations abroad to the domestic cause. When people are disenchanted with their government, they don’t generally tune in to hostile nations, but rather seek neutral, 3rd party sources. But international propaganda campaigns have been shown to be effective with one particular audience: Domestic – precisely the one whom the propagandist is ostensibly not making any attempt to reach. The primary motivation, then, can often be internal, with the public showing strong support for spreading the ‘truth’ to hostile enemies, regardless of the fact that the masses abroad either aren’t listening, or at times, using it for amusement.

So what would Postman think of the state of global communication, technology, and the public in 2015? Would there be a comparative point further back in history? The Dark Ages in particular seems to invite obvious comparisons. Or would this be seen as an unprecedented period of chaos and confusion owing to an explosion of channels that Postman could never have imagined? Perhaps we need look no further than the renewal of international propaganda campaigns as evidence of the breadth and depth of a spiral of naivety which we can’t seem to free ourselves from.

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