With fake news propagating at the speed of light, it has never been more important to understand how we absorb information. Academics often cite the dangers of “echo chambers,” or platforms in which people only collect information that aligns with their preexisting views. The information within an echo chamber might be true, partially true, or entirely false, but it all qualifies as propaganda.
Whether you realize it or not, every time you look at your smartphone or turn on your TV, you’re exposing yourself to a certain degree of propaganda. However, the concept of propaganda has been muddled in recent years with the mainstream acceptance of partisan news and pay-to-play media companies. In other words, objective facts are currently in a fierce battle with digital propaganda machines that know how to appeal to our existing beliefs and give us a quick shot of dopamine at the same time.
Even in its earliest days, the cinema was used for propaganda. The Soviet Montage directors of the 1910s and 1920s invented this movement, in which films — through form and narrative — echoed the sentiments of the Soviet State. Today, there are still many films that function as propaganda, but direct examples often exist within larger echo chambers. Thus, they do much less in the way of gaining new followers.
Alternatively, many fiction and non-fiction films play with the concept of propaganda, dissecting it, and studying how it affects us as individuals and as a society. Most recently, Taika Waititi’s 2019 dramedy, JoJo Rabbit, reimagines Nazi Germany (in a somewhat whimsical fashion) and the devastating effects that unquestioned propaganda can have on the people of a nation.
JoJo Rabbit: A Study on Propaganda
If you haven’t seen JoJo Rabbit, I highly recommend it. The film dances the line between offensive and hilarious, while also portraying the real effects of untethered nationalism. Though I won’t give away any spoilers, I will provide a brief overview of JoJo Rabbit for those who have not seen it yet.
The film centers on JoJo, a young and enthusiastically patriotic member of the Hitler Youth. He becomes completely indoctrinated by the propaganda of the Nazi Party, with the help of his imaginary friend, who happens to be a playful, goofy version of Adolf Hitler. As JoJo’s sense of patriotism grows, he worries about his mother’s apparent concern with the changes taking place in Germany. To make matters even more complicated, JoJo discovers that his mother has been hiding a young Jewish girl in their home. JoJo must wrestle with his beliefs as a member of the Nazi Youth and his allegiance to his own mother.
Needless to say, JoJo Rabbit is a film that subverts expectations in many ways. Prior to its release, it would have been hard to imagine a story about the Nazi Party, indoctrination, and ethnic persecution that also managed to be relatively light and funny. While JoJo Rabbit excels as both a comedy and a drama, it is most effective as a study on propaganda and the human psyche.
Why Do People Believe Propaganda?
In the film, you see that two central factors add to the power of propaganda. First, it is the naivety of youth. JoJo is young, with little understanding of the world around him. Thus, when people feed him information over and over again, he’s inclined to believe it. Even when presented with examples that refute his existing beliefs, he’s inclined to dismiss them as lies. For example, he comes to see that the young Jewish girl is much like him, despite what the leaders of his Hitler Youth organization would have him believe.
The second factor that enhances the power of propaganda is the natural desire to be a part of something larger than oneself. JoJo struggles to fit in but desperately wants to be a model citizen. The Hitler Youth program provides him with a way to help the war effort and feel like part of something powerful and morally righteous. As the propaganda machine turns, he becomes swept up in a storm of hateful ideology that is, to his young brain, completely convincing and unquestionable.
Setting aside the film for a moment, why do people in the real world succumb to blatant propaganda and fake news? One of the primary reasons (which is also demonstrated in the film) is the Illusory Truth Effect. This phenomenon occurs when people pick up false beliefs because they have heard them multiple times or are repeatedly exposed to them. This, in turn, is why “echo chambers” are so effective and dangerous. If you’d like to learn more about the science by the Illusory Truth Effect, be sure to check out this illuminating article on the subject.
How JoJo Rabbit Fits into the Era of Fake News
Personally, I don’t like to get political. That said, I’m a believer in facts, data, science, and objective truths. As a result, it’s impossible to see the condition of the United States without addressing the issue of fake news. Fake news comes in many forms, but over the last decade, far-right organizations have turned themselves into propaganda machines for the Republican Party and Conservative ideologies.
Most notably, Fox News and Breitbart (among others) have become extensions of the Trump Administration. When he says jump, they all ask, “how high?” As a result, we have a situation in which popular media outlets that market themselves as “fair & balanced” operate as extensions of a central, powerful figure and his respective political party. This is one of the most dangerous forms of propaganda, as it gives its creators the appearance of neutrality and objectivity, while still allowing them to propagate state-sponsored news.
JoJo Rabbit shows the extremes to which propaganda can affect society. While I think we are a far cry from the Nazi Party of the 20th century, we still must be wary. Fake news differs from propaganda in a few ways, too. Not only can fake news be used to sway the masses into distrusting (or trusting) certain people, ideas, or organizations, but it can also be used to create confusion and chaos. This threatens the very fabric of our society by sowing discord and mistrust in any form of media that goes against the “status quo.”
This is one reason that I founded The Doe. At a time when people don’t know where to turn for trusted media sources, they need a place where people can engage with meaningful, agenda-less, narratives. I only hope that more independent publishers will adopt more purpose driven missions, or return their focus to the ones they already have.
In any case, JoJo Rabbit is not the only film to take on issues like fake news and propaganda. In Sidney Lumet’s 1976 drama, Network, we see a dramatized version of a news network willing to do anything to get good ratings. In a very different way, Oliver Stone’s 2008 biographical film, W., functions as an in-depth look at the life of former president George W. Bush, with particular emphasis on the propaganda campaign surrounding the invasion of Iraq and the now-infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.
It’s truly frightening to see how easily masses of people can be swayed by false or misleading information; to say nothing of racial scapegoating and fervent nationalism. In the 1930s and 40s, Hilter built his campaigns around the hatred of Non-Germans and Jews. In 2016, Donald Trump rallied his supporters against liberals, socialists, and the “bad hombres” crossing the southern border into the United States.
While propaganda travels faster than it did in the past, the methods by which leaders, governments, and large organizations indoctrinate people have remained largely the same. Hopefully, more people will become aware of the tactics used to indoctrinate them and the era of fake news will become a thing of the past. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the dangers of propaganda and still have an enjoyable experience, I highly recommend checking out Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit.