For many viewers of Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, their knowledge of “fake news” will only extend to late 2016 or so, when Donald Trump capitalized on a growing awareness of the false or misleading stories that had appeared during the presidential election that year to sway voters to support him. He wasn’t referring to those patently false stories, though; he was seeking to discredit the reporting that exposed them in the first place.
The newest film from the prolific documentarian Larry Weinstein attempts to delve into the convoluted intricacies of fake news and propaganda, the stealthy and sometimes sinister means by which those in positions of power (and occasionally those outside of traditional power structures) attempt to sway the beliefs of the masses. His broad-ranging view of what constitutes propaganda traces all the way back to humanity’s first cave paintings and up to contemporary means of flooding platforms like Facebook and Twitter with right-wing memes. His film is limited by the exhaustive nature of propaganda and the difficulties of portraying its ubiquity, but he nonetheless presents a fascinating — and often chilling — primer on its influence.
Wisely, Weinstein delves into the work of countering propaganda early in the film, which gives viewers the knowledge that propaganda, though insidious, isn’t an unstoppable bogeyman. The beautiful vistas of the American West that US and Canadian painters immortalized is revealed to be a form of propaganda by omission, as these artists erased the native peoples living in those landscapes. Kent Monkman, a Cree artist, is shown in his studio as he reinterprets those scenes, adding in images of native children being forcibly taken from their families by Royal Canadian Mounted Police, part of an effort to dilute and destroy their culture. This early section devoted to Monkman’s work shows how propaganda can be combatted, but it also raises the question of just how effectively those with less power can strike back. After all, the scenes Monkman depicts happened decades, even centuries before, and his correctives can help educate young people, but they can’t stop the slaughter of native tribes or curtail their forced relocation.
The film spends plenty of time on the more obvious instances of 20th century-propaganda, such as the “artwork” and advertisements that helped Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin gain and sustain their power over millions of people. But anyone with an interest in either genocidal figure likely already knows everything Weinstein has to say about them. The movie’s discussion on Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is strictly surface-level with its talk of her innovative camera angles and use of Richard Wagner’s music.
The documentary is more illuminative when it focuses on recent forms of propaganda that fueled incidents like the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, or helped the Islamic State spread its message across the globe on social media. One of the best interviews is with Craig Silverman, the Toronto-based Media Editor for BuzzFeed News who helped uncover the Russian and Russian-affiliated troll farms that pumped out misleading or completely fake news stories to sway voters in the 2016 election. He gives a sense of just how wide-ranging digital propaganda can be; it’s not just fake stories about the Pope endorsing Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton being involved in a pedophile conspiracy, but made-up posts about anti-gay bigots lashing out at rainbows or imaginary rednecks from the American South marrying babies. The film reveals how propaganda not only works to convince but sometimes merely to confirm widely held suspicions. In some ways, it’s even more dangerous when the undergirding already exists in public consciousness.
Though much of the often hateful rhetoric shown exists in depersonalized digital spaces, Weinstein also focuses on the dedicated street artists who convey their opinions in the dead of night. I was startled to see the street artist Sabo, a self-described Republican and a low-budget right-wing contrast with Shepard Fairey, also profiled. In 2016, a group of my journalism grad school classmates and I created a digital website and news story focused on political art leading up to the presidential election. I never met Sabo, but two of my colleagues interviewed and filmed him for our project, which included the artist gleefully showing off the tasteless and often racist and sexist works he stored in his own home. Weinstein has better footage than my group of student journalists got, and his camera crew catches Sabo and his colleagues putting up their provocations in the dead of night.
At the time, I thought our footage was a special coup, something that was hard to get and provided a glimpse into a foreign mind. But now I’m inclined to think we helped him share his creations with (what he hoped was) a wider audience more than we educated anyone. He does the same tour of his home and the souvenirs of his work in the film, and he’s as charismatic as they are infantile or offensive. Weinstein covers plenty of fascinating ground in Propaganda: The Art of Selling Lies, and it’s worthwhile viewing for anyone seeking to understand how we’re constantly manipulated without necessarily even knowing it. Paradoxically, Weinstein’s own manipulation makes one of the best cases for why it’s so important we remain constantly vigilant.