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Unboxing Modern Propaganda


Unboxing Modern Propaganda



Modern propaganda is polarizing society and promoting extremism. Ethiopians are among the primary victims of modern propaganda. Political and religious extremist use social media to incite conflict by polarizing the masses. The dictatorial regime in Addis continues to fabricate inaccurate and misleading information to score political points. International actors who should be neutral issue incomplete or biased report on the country. Despite all, a substantial number of people continue to heed, believe, and support actors that are leading them astray. This massive scale of confusion is unprecedented, making one wonder whether propaganda has changed. This brief essay opens the gearbox of modern propaganda. It attempts to shed light on systemic forces shaping modern propaganda which is the root cause of contemporary polarization and conflict inEthiopia.

Modern propaganda retains the fundamental traits of traditional propaganda as coined by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 and developed by Lippman and Bernays in the 20th Century. Bernays (1928) defined propaganda as “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society” (p. 37). But it was Lippman (1922) who foresaw its potential by saying: “the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies”. But neither Lippman nor Bernays could have imagined the scope and consequences of modern propaganda in the 21st Century.

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Modern propaganda is primarily driven by modern capitalism. Chang (2014) defined capitalism as a production system intended to make a profit beyond merely meeting the needs of subsistence farmers or fulfilling the quota of feudal or socialist ruling elites. But modern capitalism is fundamentally different than classical capitalism which Adam Smith described. This is due to the proliferation of corporations, i.e., impersonal entities having legal personalities. These corporations are often organized in terms of limited liability whereby the people who set them up are legally unaccountable for the harm that corporations incur. The rise of the corporations transformed the market structure from perfect competition to monopolies (single seller), oligopolies (few sellers), and monopsonies (single buyers). But the most important change in capitalism occurred in corporate management.

Modern corporations are run by managers whose primary goal is increasing shareholder profit. Shareholders do not hire managers to prioritize sustainable projects that will address the long-term needs of society. Corporate social responsibility is a supplementary factor to shareholders. Instead, shareholders hire managers to focus on projects that will secure big profits in a short amount of time. Managers cannot ignore shareholder interest because modern shareholders are powerful players. Modern shareholders are oftentimes venture-capitalists wielding high positions within the board of directors. These venture capitalists cannot afford to pay huge opportunity-cost by investing in sustainable companies or managers when they could invest their money on startups that will deliver quick buck.

Now, how is this all relevant to modern propaganda? Modern propaganda, as mentioned above, retains the essential traits of traditional propaganda. However, it operates under modern capitalism. Modern capitalism finances modern technology. Particularly, the investment in silicon chips ushered the information revolution vis-a-viz pioneering start-ups. These start-ups transformed how and how much we produce, access, and exchange information. But these start-ups did not operate in a vacuum for every business, no matter how altruistic seeks financiers. They needed to convince their investors they will deliver a huge profit in a short amount of time. These companies deal with information. So, advertisements and data are the two products they could sell. But mainstream media companies do the same thing. This led the tech companies to employ a sophisticated method of getting our attention dubbed persuasion technology.

Persuasion technology is the employment of artificial agents (AAs), i.e., artificial intelligence (AI) and robots, to command peoples’ attention and influence their behavior. A recent study by Kim and Dubachek (2020) shows that AAs are more persuasive than human agents because they operate on a low-key note, rendering people to “focus toward how these agents implement actions to serve humans rather than why they do so” (2020, p. 363). But AAs are not centralized. Instead, there are multiple AA centers run by engineers working for different IT giants competing to get our attention. This competition, which is a consequence of modern capitalism, forced these companies to be more assertive. Rising IT companies began poaching skilled engineers and managers from successful competitors for better pay (Zuboff, 2019). Effective methods of persuasion technology like A/B testing spread across the information industry over time.

If these IT companies are to survive, they had to implement five strategies. These are: (1) Gather as much information about their users. (2) Use the information to predict the users’ psychological makeup. (3) Tailor information in a way that will keep users to stay in their platform for as longas possible. (4) Monetize the time spent by the user on their platform by attracting advertisers. (5) Sell the big data they gather to other AA users in the market. Zuboff (2019) called the transformation of IT companies from information providers to information gatherers for a profit: surveillance capitalism. Zuboff (2019) distinguished this new version of capitalism from industrial capitalism in the following terms:

In our time, surveillance capitalism repeats capitalism’s “original sin” of primitive accumulation. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of claiming work (or land, or wealth) for the market dynamic as industrial capitalism once did, surveillance capitalism audaciously lays claim to private experience for translation into fungible commodities that are rapidly swept up into the exhilarating life of the market. Invented at Google and elaborated at Facebook in the online milieu of targeted advertising, surveillance capitalism embodies a new logic of accumulation…This mutation quickly spread from Silicon Valley to every economic sector, as its success birthed a burgeoning surveillance-based economic order that now extends across a vast and varied range of products and services (2019, p. 11).

Surveillance capitalism, for Zuboff (2019), broke down the reciprocal relations between labor and capital that Adam Smith envisioned. This reciprocal relationship began eroding when “globalization and neoliberal ideology, operationalized in the shareholder-value movement, went a long way toward destroying these centuries-old reciprocities [since the 1980s]…[Today] Surveillance capitalism completes the job” (Zubofft, 2019, p. 21). If companies could dictate their behavior, people are puppets, not consumers. Beyond widening class rift, unfettered surveillance capitalism also caused a series of problems ranging from psychiatric diseases to political crises. In the political realm, Phil Howard summarized the threat of surveillance capitalism to democracy by writing:

Concentrated in a few hands, big data is a threat to democracy. Social media companies and political data-mining firms such as Cambridge Analytica have built their businesses by manipulating public life using personal data. Their work has helped heighten ethnic tension, revive nationalism, intensify political conflict, and even produce new political crises in countries around the world-all while weakening public trust in journalism, voting systems, and electoral outcomes (Howard, 2018)

The political maladies are the unintended consequence of surveillance capitalism. There is no evil genius pushing the buttons deliberately. The oligopolistic market structure intensifies the quest for profit. These platforms channel infinite yet unfiltered information towards their users to keep their attention and make more money. This willingness to admit unfiltered information opens the door for bad suppliers seeking to benefit by engaging in mis/disinformation campaigns. These bad actors, which include state actors, use these platforms to disseminate misleading (misinformation) or inaccurate (disinformation) information. DiResta (20) summed up the scope and impact of what she called “computational propaganda” as follows:

There has always been propaganda. But it has not previously been algorithmically amplified and deliberately targeted to reach precisely the people who are most vulnerable. It has never before been so easy to produce or so inexpensive to spread. The idealistic vision of citizen journalism and “the fifth estate” has manifested as an information ecosystem in which polarized partisan extremists, state intelligence services, and terrorists push self-serving propaganda and attack the very idea of objectivity. A sitting president advances the mantra of “alternative facts” and retweets conspiracy theorists to his hundreds of millions of followers (DiResta, 2020)

The information platforms intensify the political polarization of the society as they compete for attention. The eminent moral psychologist, Jonathan Haidt, argued that our very design makes us susceptible to political and religious polarization. He writes:

People are divided by politics and religion…[not] because some people are good and others are evil. Instead, the explanation is that our minds were designed for groupish righteousness. We are deeply intuitive creatures whose gut feeling drive our strategic reasoning. This makes it difficult-but not impossible-to connect with those who live in other matrices, which are often built on different configurations of the available moral foundations (p. 367).

The AAs embedded in the information platforms grow to learn about our culpability to group-think, intuitiveness, and emotional impulsivity as they gather our data. They “recognize that people find comfort in seeing things that conform to their own worldview…have an emotional response to anger…and hateful content” like a moral psychologist would (DiResta, 2020). Unlike the moral psychologists seeking to help us; these “unsophisticated yet phenomenally astute algorithms serve up content that meets these base needs” (DiResta, 2020).

Instead of bridging our gaps between us, these new platforms widen our rifts. Instead of connecting to others, we glue to our kind. We are not exposed to a wide variety of opinions because these platforms bar us inside our local enclaves. The news feeds, video footages and notifications we receive are designed to confirm our worldview, not challenge it. At the extreme level, we seek to harm each other without having a reasonable justification because, as Kahneman tells us, “what we see is all there is”.

To conclude, modern propaganda continues to push Ethiopia towards implosion. Most people attribute this problem to evil actors. Indeed, certain bad actors have caused serious damages. But we cannot understand the full scope of the problem without understanding how modern propaganda works. Modern propaganda is a product of surveillance capitalism. Modern capitalism induces IT companies to prioritize shareholder profit. These companies provide information and earn attention. They monetize this attention to advertisers and companies that need big data to sell goods and services. Competition forces them to learn more about us so they may tailor information to our needs. They feed us information that confirms our worldview without checking its validity. Bad actors exploit this business model by supplying these platforms with mis/disinformation, further intensifying the political and religious polarization among people, begetting conflict, and extremism. Hence, when we think about assuaging damage caused by modern propaganda, we should start with the game, not the players.





Bernays, Edward. 1928/2005. Propaganda. New York: Ig Publishing.

Chang, Ha-Joon. 2014. Economics: The User's Guide. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

DiResta, Renee. 2020. "Computational Propaganda." The Yale Review. Accessed September 17, 2020.

Howard, Phil. 2018. "Commentary: Phil Howard on democratizing data." The Computational Propaganda Project: Algorithms, Automation, and Digital Politics. July. Accessed September 17, 2020.

Kim, Tae Woo, and Adam Duhachnek. 2020. "Artifical Intelligence and Persuasion: A Construal-Level Account." Psychological Science 363-380.

Lippmann, Walter. 1922/1997. Public Opinion. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Zuboff, Shoshana. 2019. "Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action." New Labor Forum 11-29.

—. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs.

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