Fighting propaganda in today’s newsfeed (A viral video)

By: Elena Souris


Alfred Einstein has been attributed to various quotes that essentially come down to this: if you can’t explain something complex to a six-year-old, you don’t actually understand it.[1] Whatever the form, the quote serves as a good reminder to ensure comprehension of each piece of an argument. Sophisticated topics can be explained in careful, reduced terms. Essentially, this describes the learning process. What Einstein does not mention, however, is that no six-year-old has the attention span for this process. The cynic’s argument would be that there is not much difference today between a six-year-old and a social media consumer. An adult and six-year-old do have a great capacity to understand the complications of science, world history, and politics, but typically not the attention span–or time–to devote to comprehension.

Einstein’s concept is appealing. It promotes the idea that nothing is too difficult to understand. That with the right explanation, any complex theory or philosophical argument could be understood by anyone. Better access to knowledge should be empowering, but the assumption of quick, simple comprehension can be dangerous. The 2016 interpretation of Einstein’s quote is a short, viral clip that explains complicated news stories, political arguments, and historical events in bite-sized pieces, essentially distilling hours of research to the most dramatic takeaways. These videos aren’t propaganda in a traditional sense, but they do represent an interesting control of information. Any simplification really just means leaving information out, and lessons from propaganda should be applied to realize the potential problems with such a model. But three questions of propaganda can be easily applied: 1) Who is providing the message? 2) What is the message? 3) Why are they spreading this message?[2]

One notable messenger is the Facebook page NowThis. As described above, the message is a simplified presentation of daily news that both hits on trending topics and aims to reiterate liberal beliefs. Recent videos on their Election page include “Watch Bernie Sanders change a Trump supporter’s mind in 90 seconds” and a clip about Donald Trump’s secretary of state nominee.[3] The videos are slick and professional, yet unpretentious, but informality belies their source. The page is part of a digital news outlet founded by Ken Lerer and Eric Hippeau, the previous co-founder and CEO of Huffington Post, respectively.[4] Their company, NowThis News, is currently part of a merge to create a new digital media company, Group Nine Media. So far, Discovery Communications has invested $100 million.[5] A company currently involved in a multi-million dollar merger has a clear goal in spreading their message: high consumption numbers–here, in likes, shares, and comments–that will translate to advertising profits. Their current efforts are also building the future Group Nine viewer base.

While not traditionally manipulative war propaganda, these videos are also not created with the goal of purely spreading informative news, but rather to build profit. When viewed within a social media feed largely made up of shared opinions,[6] a short video that explains something complicated simply reinforces previously held beliefs, and creates the illusion of educated awareness results in profitable shares and likes at the expense of faux-informed voter-consumers.

This can’t be accused of knowingly spreading simplified media or half-truths: most of their videos just quickly touch upon new legislation or cool inventions. This project was inspired less by the actual content of NowThis and more by their potential. These informative viral videos appear to be an answer for the modern question of wanting to stay educated and informed without a lot of time or attention but only provide one-sided information, which makes audiences vulnerable.

To match the style of Facebook viral videos, the project used the same visual cues: Franklin Gothic appearing at the bottom of the screen on top of slowly zoomed in photos. Overall, the first aim of this project was to show just how easy over-simplification is and how using selective-facts can create an inspiring message. The imagined audience was a liberal social media consumer who cares about issues like feminism. By presenting a superficial explanation of the benefits of a political gender quota system, the video shows how easy it is to convince that primed audience to support something potentially ineffective or even detrimental. Also, because the implementation of such a policy would ultimately be unconstitutional in America, it shows how easy it would be for consumers to be convinced to support reform that would not withhold legislative scrutiny. The second goal was to invite the viewer to imagine what the second half of viral videos should be if they followed the same model.

One of the most important lessons from the history of propaganda is to be wary of any one-sided claim of truth. This project aims to prove that. This project did not aim to inspire academic-level rigor as a part of daily Facebook consumption. But hopefully it raises awareness about the propaganda-like dangers of simplified, partisan media.

[1] Barry (2013 Dec 6). “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”. The Quotable Coach. Retrieved from

[2] Center for Media Literacy (n.d.). Five key questions form foundation foundation for media inquiry. Retrieved from And Delwiche, A. (2016). Propaganda Lennox seminar. Class lectures.

[3] NowThis (2016). Facebook. Retrieved from

[4] Lerer Hipeau (2016). Team. Retrieved from

[5] Spangler, T. (2016 Oct 13). Discovery Investing $100 Million to Merge Thrillist, NowThis, The Dodo in New Digital Venture. Variety. Retrieved from

[6] Keegan, J. (2016 May 18). Red feed, blue feed. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from