The Greengrocer and the Reposter: Propaganda Through Borrowed Words

I. Topic Introduction

    In 1989, a series of Color Revolutions swept across Eastern Europe, toppling the authoritarian communist regimes in those countries. The swell of popular uprisings in these countries that went from the first protest to the toppling of these deeply entrenched and extremely repressive governments had political scientists scratching their heads: had they completely underestimated the extent of popular discontent in these countries prior to 1989? How was it that scholars had missed the moment that public opinion had turned firmly against the communist governments and towards democratig rule? Why had their studies and in-person interviews throughout the 1980s so grossly overestimated the extent of popular support for these regimes? 

    The answer, argues Timur Kuran in his seminal work "Now Out of Never," is the ordinary greengrocer who insincerely signals his support for the regime by hanging up pro-regime propaganda on his shop window. Because individuals like the greengrocer displayed falsified preferences, people in these countries, and indeed political scientists who traveled there to study public opinion, consistently received the impression that the average citizen was supportive of the regime. Even though the greengrocer may have hung up pro-regime propaganda solely for the purpose of assuring his own safety from an oppressive government that took pains to quash dissent in any form, his action ultimately conveyed approval for the regime. This communicative act of reposting a sign may seem small, but in fact contributed to prolonging the rule of authoritarian governments and delaying democratization in these countries for decades. 

II. The Question(s)

    This paper asks the question: how should we think about the act of reposting? Is it propagandistic? Is reposting a coded or covert action? Does it undermine reasonableness? Can it threaten a liberal democracy? How do the answers to these questions change depending on the reposter's sincerity or lack thereof? In order to answer these questions, I will be utilizing the frameworks established by several authors who have offered different ways of understanding the contents and effects of propagandistic speech acts. Using their definitions of what constitutes propagandistic speech, I evaluate the characteristics of reposting and contemplate its consequences. I argue that reposting is a propagandistic act with perlocutionary effects, in that it convinces audience members that certain terms and phrases are acceptable within public discourse. Especially in a liberal society in which information is freely shared and individuals commonly take to their own platforms to spread information, reposting can contribute to the creation of echo chambers that ultimately threaten the rationality that defines these societies. 

A. The Interest and Importance

    The question of reposting is fascinating because it is an act that is not constrained to communist regimes prior to the Color Revolutions during the 20th century. As I will elucidate below when I define the exact parameters of reposting, reposting is not limited to a specific regime type. It can occur just as often, in fact, perhaps even more often, in a liberal democracy as under an authoritarian government. Nor is it constrained by the source of the propaganda. While the example of the greengrocer was specifically an instance of reposting the government's propaganda, reposting can in fact borrow content from a variety of different sources, whether that be an individual politician or a social justice organization.

    Reposting is also a timely topic to examine because the advent of social media has made it one of the primary forms of information spread. As people move online and increasingly communicate through social media channels, they are inclined to spread information via shareable slogans and graphics. Social media users are two times as likely to prefer sharing someone else's content, versus sharing their own. Therefore, my paper examines a mode of information sharing that will only continue to grow increasingly prevalent.

III. The Definitions

It is important first to establish the definitions for the terms that I will be using throughout this paper. I will first give a definition for reposting, before addressing the question of sincerity. Finally, I give an overview of Stanley's (2015) definition of propaganda. I will use this definition of propaganda in my paper, and specifically consider the reposting of this material. For each term, I will be very specific about its key characteristics. This might necessarily force me to exclude certain other cases. However, I believe my definition of reposting remains broad enough to encompass many different media and contexts, as stated above. 

A. What is reposting? 

Reposting differs from the act of posting because it means that the words the actor uses are borrowed from another group or individual. Reposted words or sentiments are usually borrowed from an entity with greater authority than the reposter, at least on the post’s subject matter. Today, reposting encompasses any instance in which someone uses a post originally created by someone else. This means that it could encompass all sorts of commentary and criticism; for example, when CNN retweets something from Donald Trump’s account, adding on their own critiques of the original tweet, this would also count as reposting if we were to use the term colloquially. For the purposes of my paper, however, I make a key distinction that the act of reposting is directly taking the words or sentiments from another group or individual without altering or adding to it in any way. This means that a CNN commentator retweeting Donald Trump and adding his own critiques of the president would not qualify under my definition of retweeting. Similarly, the greengrocer in my original example could have put up the pro-regime poster on his shop window, but defaced the poster in order to signal his disapproval of the government—by altering the original content, the greengrocer is no longer committing the act of reposting. 

    i. The question of sincerity

The reason that this distinction is important to make is that it is only by excluding cases where content is altered that the sincerity of the reposter remains ambiguous. The case of the greengrocer is interesting because he may have hung up pro-regime propaganda because he genuinely supports the government, or in order to signal support that he does not feel. If he had defaced the poster, his action would no longer be ambiguous. He would be instead discounting and delegitimizing the content. On the other hand, when content is purely reposted without any changes made to it, sincerity becomes questionable, which is what makes the question of whether this action is propagandistic, so interesting. If we only consider cases in which the reposter did not change or comment upon the original content in any way, it would not be unreasonable for us to assume that the reposting was meant to be taken literally.

         Even excluding cases of reposting for the sake of commentary or criticism, my definition of reposting still encompasses many instances, ranging from the greengrocer under the communist regime to a Dartmouth student who reposts something from their timeline. If the original content was propagandistic and it was reposted without any alteration, then it could be propagandistic. 

         The sincerity of the act of reposting is often ambiguous. Whether on Instagram today or in Poland before 1989, one can never be completely certain of a reposter’s intentions. However, as I will argue in this paper, this ambiguity strengthens rather than weakens reposting’s propagandistic effects. Whether or not the reposter is evaluated as sincere or insincere by the audience of interest in this paper is certainly relevant, but as I will argue, perceived insincerity of a reposter does not ultimately detract from the efficacy of that post. 

ii. The audience for reposters

         Reposting is distinct from posting on its own because it implies two audiences: the authority whose words the reposter borrows, and the rest of the viewers. Whether this second set of viewers is intended or not, this is the group whose response is of interest in this essay. To take the greengrocer in the communist regime, the first audience is the regime who produced the original propaganda, and the greengrocer’s goal is to signal support and approval of the regime. The second audience is anyone else who views this poster. In this example, the effect of reposting is to convince this second audience that support for the regime is in fact a widespread and mainstream opinion, thereby prompting the ordinary citizen to think resistance or democratization impossible. For either audience, the sincerity of the reposter might be ambiguous. However, it is the second audience that is of interest because it is within this audience that the act of reposting could have propagandistic properties. 

B. What is propaganda? 

         In order for the act of reposting to be propagandistic or otherwise harmful when used in public discourse, it must be true first that the content that is being reposted qualifies as propaganda. My job in this paper is not to define propaganda, but rather to look at the definitions of such speech acts as offered by other authors who have attempted to qualify different sorts of speech acts, and evaluate whether these definitions come close to helping us characterize the act of reposting. In each case, in order to remain consistent with my analysis, I will assume that the original content does qualify under that author’s definition of propaganda; therefore, the only remaining question is whether the act of reposting propaganda is in itself a propagandistic action.