Co-Written  by Thomas Klikauer and Nadine Campbell

Ever since the Catholic Church gave the world propaganda in its Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide) in the year 1622, propaganda has been with us. The triumph of populist propaganda has been shown in the USA with the election of Donald Trump. As in the USA, right-wing propaganda also works its magic in various European countries like Hungary and Poland. In Germany, the single most propagandistic party is called the AfD or Alternative for Germany. Some say “A F*** Disgrace”. Like many other countries, Germany is in danger of pop-populism turning democracy into a popcorn autocracy. Essentially, European policy advisor Johannes Hillje, for example, argues that Propaganda 4.0 needs to be differentiated from its three previous versions:

  1. Propaganda 1.0 which is the Catholic Church’s original propaganda of 1622;
  2. Propaganda 2.0 is Stalinism’s propaganda (1920 to 1953);
  3. Propaganda 3.0, the Nazis’ propaganda (1930 to 1945); and
  4. Propaganda 4.0 is the current right-wing propaganda relying on the Internet.

Propaganda 1.0 relied on preaching by Catholic priests in churches. Propaganda 2.0 and 3.0 relied on printed newspapers, radio and later TV. By contrast, Propaganda 4.0 uses mainstream media as support functions. More importantly, Propaganda 4.0 uses the Internet, such as websites, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp. It uses them in two ways. First, the Internet separates party supporters and voters from mainstream media. This traps them inside what has become known as echo chambers. In the context of the extreme radical right, these are virtual places reinforcing its ideology.

Second, Propaganda 4.0 works with mainstream media where corporate media are increasingly driven by attention-getting methods – every click means advertising revenue. For propagandists, this means creating attention granting right-wing populist parties disproportional importance. One might make two arguments. Firstly, right-wing or authoritarian populism is successful because it communicates successfully; and secondly, that right-wing extremists have established a new form of propaganda – Propaganda 4.0. Together with the imperatives of the attention economy, these two factors underwrite the electoral success of right-wing populists, catapulting their parties into many parliaments around the world and into various local and state parliaments wherever they put up candidates.

During the last decade, the anti-democratic forces of Propaganda 4.0 have grown stronger, enabling it to propagate and broadcast lies systematically. Today, right-wing party conventions are carefully choreographed for maximum impact. The process works by eliminating the many right-wing party conventions with open forums for discussion, debate, and critique and replaced it with Propaganda 4.0 conventions of multi-media shows. The show always begins with the entrance of the heroic leader [the Führer]. This is followed by short, sharp and polemic speeches with no debate or discussion. After that, well-dressed politicians deliver a group photo for the press with smiling faces.

Gone is outright militarism, Nazi uniforms, and bold gorillas called Neo-Nazis. Then comes a lengthy press conference where right-wing ideology is rolled out. All this is rounded up with a dinner for the selected few. This formula demonstrates that Propaganda 4.0 also works well at the European level and elsewhere. At the European level, Propaganda 4.0 shows four key commonalities:

  1. Authoritarian populism has established a successful trans-national network of resources;
  2. There is a Euro-wide commonality of ideologies (anti-Muslim, anti-EU, law-&-order, etc.);
  3. European populists exchange marketing methods (conspiracy theories); and
  4. Right-wing parties have set up Internet TV channels propagating right-wing ideology.

These strategic arrangements allow European right-wing extremists and populists to learn from each other. By connecting with each other, right-wing populists can intensify the broadcasting of their ideology using the methods of populism and Propaganda 4.0. Populism is understood as setting the pure white Volk (the people) against the corrupt elite. The people are moral while the elite is immoral. The elite is not a clearly defined entity in right-wing propaganda. Instead, the idea of the elite is deliberately kept nebulous. What remains significant in Propaganda 4.0 is that some “hazy” elite wants to eliminate the Volk.

It is imperative to understand that Propaganda 4.0 – like most previous forms of propaganda – operates through fear. This sets an in-group against an out-group. Many crypto-neo-Nazi parties call the dividing line between the in- and out-group ethno-pluralism, which is more politically correct term word for racism – setting those of Aryan blood against anyone of non-white stock.

In short, ethno-pluralism signifies a plurality of ethnicities. These ethnicities are to be separated – we here and you over there. Defining the nebulous but infamous “we”, German right-wing extremists suggest one must be of German stock [the Aryan Abstammungsprinzip], e.g. being of German blood. The in- vs out-group ideology also defines the foreigner as the enemy. Then, the populists are the only true representatives of the pure Volk, representing the uncontaminated will of an anti-pluralist, illiberal, and anti-democratic Volk. For right-wing populists, a contaminated will is represented by democratic parties, trade unions, the churches, and the elite as such. In other words, authoritarian populism is deeply undemocratic. It is neither pluralist nor liberal.

Since a decade or more, we have seen somewhat of a run to the right with election after election won by right-wing populists. Generously, supported by corporate mass media, right-wing populists use Propaganda 4.0 to move the public debate further and further towards the right. Many recent elections from Trump to Duterte to Modi to Bolsonaro to Johnson (the list continues) show how their election campaigns can be seen as perfect examples of Propaganda 4.0. Their success in applying Propaganda 4.0 means nothing good for democracy. Propaganda 4.0 engineers a digital counter-revolution.

In true Orwellian style, Propaganda 4.0’s digital counter-revolution often reverse the meaning of words. Truth becomes fake news, just as Orwell’s Ministry of Truth was a propaganda machine while the Ministry of Love and Peace was the place for torture. Historically, this is not new. Already Germany’s Nazis of the 1930s hardly ever expressed truth and reality. Instead, the Nazi’s Propaganda 3.0 created a Nazi version of reality. Nazi propaganda did this through specific words and phrases they used. But the Nazis also gave established words a new meaning. The key rests on a propaganda technique called political framing.

Propaganda 4.0 means the packaging of reality that is relevant to a specific audience and channelling it to deliver right-wing propaganda and ideology. Like natural catastrophes, the arrival of refugees, ef1 is framed as migration tornado and as a refugee flood. The so-called refugee flood came to Germany in the year 2015 when 890,000 people entered Germany. Given Germany’s population of around 82 million, the flood of refugees numbered around 1%. It was a 1% flood! Germany does not appear to have been overwhelmed by refugees and migrants. Historically, a significant number of immigrants have been living and working in Germany since the 1950s – the so-called guest workers enriching Germany’s culture. Perhaps one of the key mottos of all versions of propaganda is the well-known slogan: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

In any case, Propaganda 4.0 is not facts but about framing. Anyone who is an ethnic-national and not of white makeup is framed as a danger. Non-nationals and non-whites are presented to be a threat to a nation’s racial hygiene – a Nazi word conjuring up the worst excesses of Nazism’s racial madness. Not surprisingly, right-wing extremists called those not belonging to their pathological hallucination of a Volksgemeinschaft, a cancerous tumour. This is the language of Nazism.

Anyone disagreeing with such viewpoints or challenging such hallucinations and conspiracy theories (i.e. pathological mythologies) is abused. The right-wing sees them as being part of the Lying Press. This is yet another Nazi term. With Propaganda 4.0, many Nazi words made a comeback. Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels used the term lying press [Lügenpresse]. Nonetheless, lying press became increasingly used. The l’idée fixe of a lying press was used just under 1,000 times in 2014; this increased to 4,396 times in 2015 and to 6,212 times in the year 2016. This adoption of straight Nazi language marks the triumph of Propaganda 4.0.

Already Nazi demagogue Alfred Rosenberg saw in the lying press the enemy of the people. Donald Trump and many other right-wing populists also use the expression lying press. In any case, Trump and others are right-wing populists. They are not necessarily Nazis. However, in the case of Trump there is a borderline comment. Trump called Nazis that killed an anti-Nazi protestor in Charlottesville in 2017, very fine people. Still, it was Germany that created Auschwitz – not the USA. And it was a particular German policy of being of pure Aryan race the led to a particular and unique outcome – Auschwitz.

The success of Propaganda 4.0 in Germany was also seen, for example, when a journalist questioned right-wing AfD-politician Beatrix von Storch. The journalist asked, do refugees commit more crimes than Germans, I mean, bio-Germans?. AfD politicians in Germany do not need to use racist terms any longer; others do it for them. This marks the triumph of Propaganda 4.0. The term bio-German indicates being biologically and racially German. What is crucial for Propaganda 4.0 is not the fact that all of this is pure nonsense. What is important is that mainstream journalists have adopted the Nazi language.

Propaganda 4.0 works particularly well when it defines the debate in Nazi terms. This happens whenever the media deal with populism, asylum, migration, terrorism and crime in an ideological way that is underwritten by Propaganda 4.0. It creates the impression that these right-wing issues are pressing issues and that only the populists address them. In such debates, the Propaganda 4.0 trained populists use provocation as a communication technique. Just as Propaganda 4.0 predicts, right-wing populists break taboos, e.g. using Nazi language. Mainstream media reports such provocations. They are newsworthy. They create attention. They create Internet clicks. They create revenue.

In an attention-based economy where news and reporting depend increasingly on advertising revenue, every look at a billboard and a TV screen, every click and every Internet search is relevant because it creates income for corporate media. Perhaps one might speculate that Hitler’s regime was based on a new propaganda medium, the radio [Volksempfänger]. Many post-war regimes were based on another new medium – TV. The success of right-wing populists is based yet on another new medium – the Internet and social media.

What Propaganda 4.0 has achieved is twofold. It has prevented the de-masking of right-wing propaganda, and it has led to a normalisation of NS language. This is what has been called, the mainstreaming of fascism. Right-wing populists call its increasing use of Nazi language a fight against political correctness. The goal of Propaganda 4.0 is to shift the public debate towards right-wing agendas, i.e. anti-refugee politics, racism, etc. In other words, the right-wing has started a run towards the right, and many are running with it. The current success of Propaganda 4.0 even encouraged some right-wing populists to admit to using aggressive NS rhetoric freely. That these things do not stop at the use of NS terminology can be seen by the fact that journalists reporting on right-wing rallies prefer to wear helmets. As the old saying goes first, they burn books; then they burn people. Propaganda is never just propaganda; it always has a political, and often violent goal.

It appears as if Propaganda 4.0 works best when it broadcasts its ideology in a new medium – social media and the Internet. Many right-wing populists have learned this from other populists. Some right-wing populists have already created their own ideological infrastructure. Still, the main ideological infrastructure of the right remains Facebook with millions of followers. Not many democratic parties come even close to such numbers. This is Propaganda 4.0’s counter-offensive against mainstream media. Beyond Facebook, the second most crucial network is YouTube. Armed with these social media platforms, right-wing propaganda reaches millions of people. This allows right-wing populists to match viewing numbers of many popular TV news programmes.

Inside such right-wing echo chambers, it is no longer truth and facts that make it to the top. Now, algorithms define what gets to the top of the news cycle. These algorithms push catchy issues, provocations, insults, etc. These are pushed through the Internet on a daily basis, reaching millions of supporters. Not surprisingly, voting for right-wing populists parties strongly correlates with heavy Internet users.

Just as the concept of Propaganda 4.0 predicts, right-wing populists support by websites that carry their ideology forward. Increasingly separated from mainstream media, right-wing populist supporters believe that these echo chambers deliver an objective picture of politics. The fact that these supporters are confined to a form of intellectual isolation escapes the notice of those trapped by Propaganda 4.0’s effects. Much of this is supported by what became known as confirmation bias, the favouring of news that supports one’s own worldview. A confirmation bias eliminates contradictions. Worse, it gives the supporters of authoritarian populism two misleading ideas:

  • Firstly, it aids the impression that they are against the elite; and
  • Secondly, it supports the misconception that we are many.

At least partly, the electoral success of many right-wing populists comes on top of the fact that mainstream media also broadcasts their ideologies. Mainstream media are used by right-wing populists to separate itself from their perceived political enemy. In semi-Nazi fashion, the enemies are those to be eliminated. This is the future of democracy under the authoritarian populism. To infiltrate and destroy democracy, Propaganda 4.0 issues four demands:

  1. Propaganda should provoke the political enemy;
  2. Propaganda should maximise attention;
  3. Propaganda should polarise society; and
  4. Propaganda should mobilise right-wing support.

Beyond that, Propaganda 4.0 pursues Democracy 4.0. For authoritarian populism, Democracy 4.0 is simply “one” vehicle to gain power. In any case, real democracy has to be converted into Democracy 4.0. By early 2020, Hungary had become a prime example for this. How an illiberal Democracy 4.0 can be achieved is also shown in Poland and a few other places. In both countries, right-wing governments have restructured the central institutions of democracy, such as the system of justice and the media. In both countries, the parliament is already downgraded to being merely the propaganda podium used to mobilise support for the ruling party. The entire structure is reinforced through echo chambers. In both countries, populism and anti-democratic – if not outright antisemitic – ideologies hold sway. The remaining journalists have been downgraded into a mere delivery system for Propaganda 4.0. In Hungary and Poland, populist parties have been successful in creating the hallucination of representing the silent majority.

Propaganda 4.0 also issues a dire warning. The key to understanding Propaganda 4.0 lies in comprehending its use of mainstream media and echo chambers to strengthen anti-democratic forces. Both are used to reduce and perhaps eliminate democracy. To this end, Propaganda 4.0 relies heavily on a parallel sphere – the Internet as it is capable of isolating party supporters so that the ideologues and demagogues of authoritarian populism can dominate democracy until they have made democracy obsolete.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of The AfD– Germany’s New Nazis or another Populist Party?

Nadine Campbell is the founder of Abydos Academy.



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