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Rejoinder: "The Effects of Participatory Propaganda"

Published onAug 27, 2019
Rejoinder: "The Effects of Participatory Propaganda"


Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments on “The Effects of Participatory Propaganda.” First, I want to clarify that it was never my intent to claim notion of “participatory propaganda” as an original concept developed by me. This notion has appeared numerous times in academic literature in different contexts (e.g. Abby, 2001)1.

One of more recent efforts to introduce the notion of participatory propaganda has been offered by Wing Ki (2015)2 in the context of producing new forms of protest-related content. Wing Ki defines participatory propaganda as follows:

Participatory propaganda is a paradigm shift in the making and spreading of political persuasion. It is meant to subvert conventional propaganda in that it serves the political interests of the powerless. How the grassroots receive information is no longer determined by the powerful: rather, information itself is created and then shared by civil participation.

Here, the notion of participatory propaganda is presented as a subversion of traditional propaganda. However, the way that new forms of participation allow state-driven manipulation of the public has been conceptualized in a brilliant way by Repnikova and Fang (2018), who use the notion of “participatory persuasion 2.0” in order to be “distinct from the participatory propaganda practices in the pre-Internet age” (p. 771)3. According to Repnikova and Fang “the conceptualization of ‘authoritarian participatory persuasion 2.0’ includes direct co-production of persuasion, with netizens called to repost, share and create content, as well as the indirect participation, whereby netizens are invited to partake in the life of the top leader, Xi Jinping, and to consume exclusive practical tips provided by the state.” (p. 763).

The literature on propaganda, digital technologies and participation is very rich. In my essay, I tried to address mostly the part of this literature that refers to the Russia-Ukraine context and discusses the emergence of peer-to-peer propaganda, crowdsourced propaganda and privatization of propaganda. I admit that, unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of the discussion of “Participatory propaganda” by Wanless and Berk (likely because it hasn’t been published yet in academic publications). However, I am grateful for your response since it allowed me to review their work based on blog posts and a conference paper that could be found online. They define participatory propaganda as following:

“Participatory propaganda is the deliberate, and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions and direct behaviour of a target audience while seeking to co-opt its members to actively engage in the spread of persuasive communications, to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”

This definition seems to be in line with the majority of literature about propaganda and participation. I think it can be considered as something that builds on the classical two flow communication model by Katz and Lazarsfeld (1955),4 (which highlights that people have more capacity to influence opinions of other people than media does) and argues that new digital opportunities to engage people in spreading propaganda make it more effective and persuasive. Wanless and Berk’s work describes in details how new digital platforms allow people to more effectively engage in proliferation of propaganda.

Here, I would also like to highlight the major conceptual difference between our approach to propaganda and participation: While Wanless and Berk discuss how new digital propaganda relies on users’ participation, I am mostly interested in how propaganda drives participation and the consequences of various forms of activities that have been driven by propaganda (including various forms of crowdsourcing and disconnective actions). Therefore, content-related participation, which is the focus of Wanless and Berk, is only one element of a much broader phenomenon examining how propaganda is linked to various forms of digitally mediated activity. From this point of view I am not interested in how participation empowers propaganda, but how propaganda-driven digitally mediated participation changes the relationship between users and their environment in specific political context.

To some extent, the differences in our approaches to propaganda have been driven not only by very different theoretical concepts, but also different empirical cases. The analysis of the American election as it is presented by Wanless and Berk, contributes to instrumental discussion of propaganda, namely what makes propaganda more efficient as a form of persuasion. For me, the role of propaganda and participation was driven by research that grew out of a different ground. Since 2012 I’ve started to explore the notion of “participatory warfare.” I later presented this notion at different conferences (e.g. International Studies Association conference in 2014), and it turned out to be the major topic of my post-doc project supported by the Leverhulme trust.

In that light, I consider participatory propaganda as a specific case of a broader notion of participatory warfare that is concerned with how new information technologies change the relation between digital users and conflict situations. As I learned from the response by Dr. Berk, Ms. Wanless actually attended my presentation on participation and propaganda in Summer 2017 and also presented her research at the same panel. Unfortunately, I don’t remember this meeting, though I consider it as a missed opportunity for a potentially interesting collaboration. If I could learn more about this research, I would certainly refer it in the original text of my paper.

We live in a reality where it’s challenging to claim a “trademark” on a particular combination of words as an original concept. Apparently, the idea that propaganda in the digital environment has a participatory nature is evident and it continues to be addressed independently by various scholars (e.g. in case of a recent paper by Sutzl, 2019)5. That said, we are fortunate that the affordances of hypertext reality allow us to link with people who think independently on the same issues, and potentially to form new networks of collaboration. I am happy that the publication of my essay raised attention of Wanless and Berk, and allowed me to study their work. I also look forward to reading their chapter in a book that I understand will be soon published by Sage.

Best Regards,

Gregory Asmolov


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