Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Propaganda in an age of transparency

My instructor and social media guru Kelli Matthews recently directed me to a story about how the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) ssupporters responded to the late March raid of the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, which ended with 437 children in state protective custody. View the original press release.

Photo from Web site:

advocates recently posted a Web site, which includes heart wrenching videos and photos clearly designed to tug at the heart strings of visitors. Videos include sobbing little girls being taken away by state officials, who confess to not having a search warrant in another clip.

Watching the videos I can't help but feel manipulated. Seeing pioneer children in tears conjures my childhood associations of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I feel frustrated with the way they are side-stepping the main issue. The Web site does not attempt to defend the FLDS way of life Rather, it frames the story in terms average Americans can relate to, the need to return innocent children to their parents, avoiding the real issue completely.

What would have happened if FLDS had taken a more transparent approach? Instead of insisting that the FLDS does not perform the weddings of underage girls, and the lifestyle is really not different from that of average Americans, the sect could have admitted their lifestyle differences. Then they could have argued that different is not wrong that it does not automatically result in child abuse.

I am not sure if many people would buy this argument, but avoiding the issue completely and producing propaganda will only make people assume that you have something to hide.
Unless the primary purpose of material is to give additional fuel to those who already hold this viewpoint, rather than changing public opinion, the site will be completely ineffective. I do not see a place for propaganda in an age of transparency.


Kelli Matthews said...

Hannah, this is a good post and well thought out. I like your approach. I didn't look at much of the FDLS site, but I agree with your assessment. Unfortunately, the reason for a lack of transparency is probably rooted in wrong-doing of some kind. "Oh! Oh! Look over here... no, don't look at that... look at all these sad kids!"

Katrina Heilman said...

I agree with you too. The pictures are a diversion from what the real issue is here, the alleged abuse. Its a propaganda website i believe too

Eva Sylwester said...

I don't think propaganda is necessarily intrinsically bad. I see it as a morally neutral medium that can be used to communicate a variety of content. It's simply a much bigger syringe than the average PR person uses to inject his or her message, and any syringe can be life-giving when filled with a polio vaccine or deadly when filled with a live AIDS virus. In short, it's not the syringe itself that's evil; it's what you load the syringe up with.

I'm reminded of After The Ball by Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen. The book was written in 1989 by two gay men who wanted to get rid of anti-gay laws, stop violence against gay people, and generally raise social acceptance of homosexuality. One of the authors was an expert in brain science, and he used that knowledge to formulate what he explicitly referred to as a propaganda campaign that would tug at people's emotions and get them to think more highly of gay people.

If you read the book (I'd recommend checking it out from a library rather than buying it, as the writing style isn't that great) and look at the world today, you'll see that many of the strategies Hunter and Madsen advocated have been carried out in some way or another, and that the world is a more hospitable place for gay people than it was in 1989.

If you Google "After The Ball" and the authors' names, most of the sites you'll find are far-right paranoia sites using the book as proof of a gay agenda and so on. But many people would say it's a good thing that gay people are treated better now than they were in the past. If propaganda was used to achieve that end, does that make it wrong?