JULY 2022 IN

Propaganda Fatigue

People are becoming more aware of the presence of propaganda online, and there are indications that, collectively, we are getting sick of seeing it.

This goes beyond the mass user flight from Twitter three months ago. A large part of Twitter’s core users left in a few hours when it was rumored, then officially announced, that the platform had adopted a plan that would include rolling back most of its content moderation and laying off most of its staff. It was the prospect of bullying, bots, violence, and death threats that deterred some users, but for some, the propaganda was the issue.

Under the new regime at Twitter, state-sponsored propaganda would have free rein to spin completely false stories and magnify them through millions of fabricated personal accounts. That will surely be the bulk of content on Twitter in the future, and many of the core users did not want to stay around for even one day to see how it would go.

Now people are starting to respond to similar false statements in pharmaceutical and self-improvement advertising online. The degree of falsehood and the level of intended harm have started to feel more toxic, making the statements harder to overlook.

The decline in activity at YouTube in particular has been tied to the pervasive toxicity of the Google advertising on the platform, with fewer videos being posted and fewer viewers watching them.

Now that trend has reached advertisers, with the more reputable advertisers starting to reduce their presence on YouTube, reluctant to be seen before or after some of the most toxic messages to be found online.

It is similar on Twitter, which is now seeking to tie its business model to these more toxic advertisements. Advertising flight from Twitter is in a wait-and-see mode, but can only accelerate as big-budget content providers pull back in response to an increasingly toxic environment and the loss of viewers.

Facebook, the most toxic platform of all, continues its decline, and now that trend is starting to spread to its more upbeat platform on Instagram.

As viewers are watching less television, they are also watching fewer television shows online, a trend that the television industry has had difficulty coming to grips with. Users are also reading less news, canceling more subscriptions, leaving emails unopened, not answering phone calls, and looking for entertainment in smaller pieces — a three-minute video or a pop song where a half-hour program used to be. The one area where the Internet is seeing strong user growth is podcasts, and this is partly because the format allows for listener control. Given the way podcast playback works, a platform has a harder time sneaking in the more disgusting paid messages that are driving people away from other parts of the Internet.

It is not an entirely conscious process, but users are trying to keep online content in small pieces and at arm’s length to avoid the things they might see if they were to get sucked into an online-content trance.

The habits that people are not aware they have are the hardest ones to change, and so this new reluctance to engage with an increasingly propaganda-filled Internet will not be the easiest trend to reverse.

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