Dan Gilmor, of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, has an interesting essay on the Principles for a New Media Literacy.   In it, he writes this:

“…the expanding and diversifying media ecosystem poses some difficult challenges alongside the unquestioned benefits. A key question: In this emergent global conversation, which has created a tsunami of information, what can we trust?

How we live, work, and govern ourselves in a digital age depends in significant ways on the answers. To get this right, we’ll have to re-think, or at least re-apply, some older cultural norms in distinctly modern ways.”

In the essay, Gilmor goes on to note several of the many ways that information on the web can be suspect including the stealth marketing by companies like Proctor & Gamble and Wal-Mart, sock puppets and PayPerPost bloggers.   He offers some sage advice about how to protect against these sorts of credibility issues, and the whole essay is worth reading.

Although Gilmor doesn’t use the word, I think it’s fair to characterize these examples I listed above as types of propaganda, that is, it’s meant to sway people’s opinions (often against their will) in the service of a particular agenda.    Perhaps the clearest example of this is case of the South Dakota bloggers who, only after the election, people learned were paid political consultants for the winning candidate Thune, who defeated Daschle.

This is something I’ve thought a good deal about, in particular around what I refer to as cloaked sites, that is, websites published by individuals or groups who conceal authorship in order to deliberately disguise a hidden political agenda (I have an article coming out in 2009 in the journal New Media & Society that explores this phenomenon in some depth, and I examine in my forthcoming book as well).   Propaganda, I contend, is much more difficult to discern in the digital age.   And the research I’ve conducted supports this contention.

Most of the sociological literature on propaganda dates from the post-WWII period, a time when many sociologists were fascinated by governments’ use of propaganda (e.g., Howard Becker published “The Nature and Consequences of Black Propaganda,” American Sociological Review 14 (Apr. 1949): 221-235).   Particularly relevant to the issue of resisting propanda – which is part of what Gilmor is suggesting we do with his principles of media literacy – is the work of the late Alfred McClune Lee.  In a 1950 article in Social Forces, called “Can the Individual Protect Himself [sic] Against Propaganda Not in His [sic] Interest?” 29 (1950):56-61.  Lee argues that:

“A grasp of propaganda analysis is a central goal of a liberal arts education.”

What was true in 1950 is true today, almost sixty years later.   However, the world in which that propaganda appears has changed dramatically.    Now, government propaganda in which those in power try to sell us on an unnecessary war exists alongside propaganda that seeks to sell us political candidates, television reality shows, and toothpaste.   And, all of these forms of propaganda exist within a media environment that is dispersed, many-to-many (rather than one-to-many), and easily accessible to a huge number of people.  This raises interesting quesitons for sociologists who are research social movements, countermovements, organizations, politics, state power, popular culture.   And, if as Lee suggested sixty years ago, the central goal of a liberal arts education is to have a grasp of propaganda analysis, then the emergence of hard-to-discern propaganda in the digital era raises real challenges for all sociologists who teach.