From Marvel to Call of Duty, pop culture is rampant with varieties of propaganda.
Propaganda is everywhere. We see fake news posts on social media all the time, hear about fake Facebook accounts and Russian bots influencing elections, but we’re too smart to fall for it – aren’t we? We can separate the truth from the lies, and we – as clever, well-educated individuals – know what’s really going on, right? Nah. This shit goes deeper than you think.
Now, don’t worry, I’m not leading into some mental-conspiracy deep-state Trumpian nonsense. That stuff is properly bonkers. However, the sentiment that the institutions of modern society, and the popular culture we are led to consume, are dispensing a prejudiced version of reality is not that wrong. The way we learn and experience the world in the 21st century is primarily dominated by the news we read, the education we receive, and its popular media. And these sources are far from objective.
News sources have acknowledged biases (and in the UK that bias is predominantly right-wing, though that is a rant for another day) and the decisions they make about what to report and what to ignore can lead to their readers having a skewed perception of events. My bias, for example, is to the left, so the examples I would give here are the Sun’s treatment of Extinction Rebellion (note the repeated use of inverted commas and the dismissive phrasing of “eco-warriors” intended to belittle activists) and the demonisation of families living on or below the poverty line on British TV, exemplified by the ”documentary” series Benefits Street.
These are just the overt instances of propaganda possibly slipping under the radar. Claims that popular media such as Call of Duty or the Marvel Cinematic Universe push the agenda of the capitalist west – and thus qualify as covert propaganda for the current socio-economic status quo – are, on closer inspection, correct. Any media that seeks to portray the US military on screen that is seen by a wide audience in the west is usually subject to scrutiny by the US Department of Defense, and you can bet they use their power to edit scripts and ensure a positive portrayal of American militarism. The US Army has been seeking to use video games as a recruitment tool since 2002, and now has an active presence on Twitch and an official Esports team whose aim is to reach potential recruits early.
Less officially influenced – but arguably just as effective – Iron Man is probably the best advertising campaign Elon Musk never paid for. The central conceit of the Marvel adaptations being a billionaire entrepreneur with the drive to fix society as humanity’s best defence against outside forces that seek the destruction of the western way of life sounds somewhat familiar. If you stan Marvel and this bit pisses you off, just swap out Iron Man for Batman. The point is the same. These films – whether intentionally or not – play out like perfect examples of the neo-liberal (Tory) idea that the rich, by dint of being rich, are better equipped to combat the evils of society that government institutions.
By far the most insidious however is the way that government propaganda plays into the education system here in the UK. I remember my secondary school being pushed to teach “British Values”, as defined by Conservative education minister Michael Gove, and more recently schools in the UK were ordered to stop using education resources provided by groups that “criticised capitalism”. The rationale given of course is that any deviation from these values is “politically extremist”, but any discussion of climate change, historical events like the Digger’s revolt, and even the work of writers like Thomas Paine is made technically illegal by the order. The government’s attempts to blinker children into conforming to their narrow, conservative worldview culminated in the statement in parliament that schools should offer “alternative views” to the “narrative” of White privilege.
This is propaganda at its most insidious.