Social Media: Democracy’s Ruin or a Better Planet?

With summer over and more time to read in the rainy fall days ahead, I decided to finally buy The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, a book by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine that I’ve been meaning to read since it came out in June. So I drove to the nearest Borders, but it didn’t have the book. Then I drove to Barnes & Nobles. It wasn’t there either.

Then I remembered the words of Jacques Ellul in Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, a brilliant book (but verbose as a French translation) that I read in one of my graduate school international communications courses. The book warns that modern mass communications technologies have opened a gateway for special interests to saturate people’s lives with propaganda and spur them into action—without them ever realizing it. One of the book’s most counter-intuitive points is that the most well-read members of society are most vulnerable to propaganda:

“Naturally, the educated man does not believe in propaganda; he shrugs and is convinced that propaganda has no effect on him. This is, in fact, one of his great weaknesses, and propagandists are well aware that in order to reach someone, one must first convince him that propaganda is ineffectual and not very clever. Because he is convinced of his own superiority, the intellectual is much more vulnerable than anybody else to this maneuver,” Ellul’s book says.

By spending time on Twitter managing my account and some nonprofits’, I’d become convinced that “The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change” is one of the best books to come out this year. Don’t get me wrong. I still am certain it is one of the best books—if not the best book—to come out on nonprofits and social marketing. The only thing is nonprofits and social media is a niche market, not one general audience bookstores, such as Borders or Barnes & Nobles, necessarily would seek to serve in suburbia.  My Twitter blinders had me acting on the assumption that the whole world shared my enthusiasm to read Kanter and Fine’s book, but common sense should have told me to buy it on Amazon.

That’s one of the points of Ellul’s book. Propaganda (a term he uses as an umbrella for all forms of information dissemination) is like a drug. People under its influence will stop thinking critically, will only seek out information that supports their beliefs, and will spread their ideology to others who will in turn reinforce their beliefs. They’ll begin to believe most people share—or should share—their viewpoint, and if people don’t, it’s because propaganda has duped them.

“Propaganda also eliminates anxieties stemming from irrational and disproportionate fears,” Ellul’s book says.“The point is to excite them, to arouse their sense of power, their desire to assert themselves, and to arm them psychologically so that they can feel superior to the threat.”

Thanks to social media, today you can limit yourself to news and blog posts from sources you agree with and trust—and block out information with opposing viewpoints—to a degree that would be impossible—if not unimaginable—in decades past.

It’s ironic that shopping for Kanter and Fine’s book reminded me of Ellul’s book. After all, their theses are polar opposites. Ellul believes that propaganda distributed through the mass media is one of the most serious threats facing humanity today, a threat which one day will destroy democracy and freedom “no matter what the good intentions or the good will may be of those who manipulate it.”  The whole idea of Kanter and Fine’s book, however, is that nonprofits delivering their messages (what Ellul would call propaganda) through social media, leveraging connections and increasing impact, can drive change for the betterment of our planet.

Ellul’s book was written 45 years ago and he died in 1994, so it’s anyone’s guess whether he would have only seen a dark promise in social media. To his credit, he anticipated techniques and practices that are more relevant today than in the 1960s. But let’s hope his clairvoyance stops there, and Kanter and Fine’s vision for the future, not Ellul’s, holds true.

What impact do you think social media will have on democracy and the planet? Please share your predictions in the comments section below.

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About Monica

Monica specializes in strategic communications, web and new media, and print materials with an international or multi-cultural context. She has worked on national public outreach campaigns targeting multi-cultural audiences and has conceptualized, written, and/or designed multiple websites. Monica also has written, edited, and/or designed high-profile newsletters, brochures, and reports, including some prepared in collaboration with the White House. She holds a bachelor’s in journalism and a master of international service with a focus on international communication. Monica is based in Washington, D.C.


  1. Monica, thanks so much for your kind words. Glad you enjoyed the book! I’m adding a link to your thoughtful review to our wiki –

  2. While I wish Fine and Kanter’s vision were correct, I think Ellul’s is unfortunately dead on. How else can you explain 30% of Republicans thinking President Obama is a Muslim? (see Thanks so much for your post. Very thought provoking.