3 May 2021

Selling Propaganda During the Culture Wars

“Initially it was just the Turks,” says Bradley, the creator and administrator of Propagandopolis—a propaganda history Instagram page with upwards of 125k followers that also sells propaganda posters online.  “Anything that was Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, even Syrian sometimes, would just get bullied to shit or reported and sometimes taken down,” says the twenty-five year old Brit who doesn’t reveal his last name to maintain his online anonymity.

Although Bradley acknowledges that most of the tension between his Turkish nationalist followers and the content that he posts has died down (tensions rose again this year on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, when Bradley posted a piece of Armenian political artwork), he says, “It’s just the odd mad Communist or mad Nazi every now and then in my comments.  Sometimes I get really angry Spanish Nationalists as well because I had been posting a lot of Catalan stuff.  I get some hilariously bad, poorly written messages from people who are obviously fuming.  Like smoke coming out of their ears.”  

Such is the life and inbox of an online propaganda salesman.

Primitive forms of propaganda have existed since some of the earliest civilizations were established.  Public speeches and writings have always been used to sway mass opinion through emotion as opposed to logic.  The ways in which propaganda was historically disseminated changed with the advent of the printing press.  This invention directly affected the ideas spread during the Reformation, in which the Catholic Church split to become the Protestant Church and the Roman Catholic Church.  Later, alongside industrialization, new forms of art and technology were created and with them, propaganda changed drastically.  From posters and pamphlets to paintings and pictures to film and radio, propaganda seeped into the fabric of art and culture around the world almost seamlessly.  For example, Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia—both pieces of Nazi propaganda—are still commonly watched in American arts undergrad programs.  Now, propaganda history pages like Bradley’s are popping up all over Instagram, the image based social media site.

After finishing university with a literature degree in 2017, Bradley, who grew up in London, found work as an intern at The Times and later The Times Literary Supplement, a weekly literary review magazine.  Feeling as though neither job led anywhere meaningful for him, he began work conducting video interviews for the British charity, Age UK.  

“When I was doing that, I just started these little projects because I was so bored all the time.  I didn't want to be doing that for the rest of my life,” Bradley says.  “So I started Propagandopolis up, which was February 2018.”

During the early days of Propagandopolis, Bradley started a Twitter blog about Vladamir Nabokov, the Russian-American author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Invitation to a Beheading.  “I saw it as an avenue to becoming a book reviewer or something. The blog did okay on Twitter and ended up getting 4000 followers. But Propagandopolis had just taken off by then and had like, 15k followers.  So the Nabokov blog kind of got sidelined and forgotten about,” he says.  

Bradley had only been operating Propagandopolis for about four months by the time he had accumulated 15,000 followers.  The territory of Instagram that he had carved out for himself was ripe for the picking.   His page has grown by around 10,000 followers per quarter over the past three years.  In an era of ideology and identity, liberalism and conservatism, individualism and collectivism, propaganda flourishes.  Politically controversial images are a goldmine for online followers when assisted by an algorithm built to keep eyes on screens. 

Although Bradley had to sideline the Nabokov project, asking what books his followers are reading remains a way that he consistently engages with them and tries to create a community around his page.

The Propagandopolis page is simple yet attractive.  The bio read: “Bits of propaganda from around the world.⁣ All posts are non-political. Prints available on the website.”  Under the bio sits a long row of story highlights categorizing propaganda posts by the country they came from.  The countries covered are: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia, Britain, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and so on.  

With over 1,500 posts on the account, the majority include extensive notes in the caption about the historic importance of each piece of propaganda posted to the feed.  Many pieces of propaganda on Propagandopolis provide viewers with a window into the obscure and often forgotten events that have shaped the modern world.  A post from March of this year shows a piece of Turkish propaganda condemning the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s.  A portion of the caption reads:  “‘Hey, open the door, I brought you twentieth century civilisation!’ — Front cover of the Turkish Akbaba magazine showing Mussolini beckoning to Haile Selassie while carrying all sorts of armaments, including gas bombs. The issue was published during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-37), when Fascist Italy invaded and eventually annexed Ethiopia as part of Mussolini’s expansionist policy.”

By the end of 2018, Bradley made a connection that would change the future of Propagandopolis and his career.  He became acquainted with Jake Hanrahan, a former foreign correspondent for VICE news and the founder of the independent conflict journalism entity, Popular Front.

“I was living in Paris for a few months, and he came out to report on the Gilets Jaune. He was like, ‘this is a pretty cool thing you've got going on here. Look at what I’ve got going on, Popular Front.’ And we just sort of grew in tandem. He's overtaken me quite a bit, though. He's got like, 160k, I'm only on 125.  But we sort of exchanged followers, did mutual shoutouts, and he came up with the idea of starting to do prints, which I started doing in 2019,” Bradley says.

Hanrahan was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks in a maximum security prison for two weeks in 2015 after reporting on the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a guerrilla movement and political group that is has been (controversially) designated as a terrorist group by Turkey and other major political powers around the world, including the United States.  “Since then, his stuff has had an obvious sort of anti-Turk tint to it. And since I got a lot of followers coming from him, I also got a lot of his haters,” Bradley says.

Much of the propaganda that Bradley finds for the page and his print shop is available deep in public archives.  He requests usage rights from the archive, researches the print and the subject matter, and posts the image with a caption.  The posters that he finds feature artistic works of propaganda regarding endless political topics from most major countries in the past two centuries.

“Sometimes you have to pay but often you don't. The Library of Congress sometimes charges a nominal processing fee of like $5 and then they send you a scan that they take then and there I think.  But it's a shitty scan so you have to go and restore it yourself,” Bradley says.  “Fortunately I had all the media knowledge from my charity days, so I retouch them.”

For pieces of propaganda that Bradley loves but are not publicly available, he says that he bites the bullet and pays a hefty price for the image rights.  “I do limited runs on posters every now and then and it's basically because I bought the rights and I'm only allowed to do a certain number of runs on it,” he says.  One limited run print that sold out on his website in only a few days is an anti-soviet artwork from Afghanistan showing a mujahideen holding a Kalashnikov while standing on a soviet-bear rug in front of a turquoise background.  Another limited run print that sold out is a piece of PLO propaganda from 1976 supporting the Tel al-Zataar refugee camp that was besieged for multiple months that year by Christian Lebanese militias.

From time to time, the images that Bradley posts to Instagram are so popular that he gets dozens of requests for prints to be made.  Speaking of an anti-German WWI image that he posted, Bradley says, “There was a post I put up with Bismarck and he was in hell and he's surrounded by loads of dead French soldiers. I got like 30 DMs being like ‘when are you going to sell this’ and I'm like, ‘shit, I need to get on that STAT!’ So I tracked down the rights holder to a French museum and they sent it to me today and did it for free.”

“As for the printing, initially, I had a local printer, a guy that I knew from around here,” Bradley says. “But once Propagandopolis started making enough money, I bought my own printer. So I use my own printer now and I have my fiancé doing all of the admin stuff.  I've been printing all my own stuff for about a year and a half now.”

In November, 2020, about a year after Bradley began selling prints on the Propagandopolis website, he and Hanrahan finally collaborated to create a poster advertising Popular Front’s newest video at the time, Plastic Defense: Illegal 3D Printed Guns in Europe.  In the twenty minute video profile and investigation, Hanrahan meets with and interviews JStark1809, the founder of Deterrence Dispensed—a group of anonymous gunsmiths and free speech activists from across the globe who publish blueprints to 3D printable firearms on the internet.  

About halfway through the video, after explaining the motivations and ideology behind his extreme views on gun rights, JStark—with his voice distorted and his words displayed in bright yellow subtitles at the bottom of the frame—says, “I am extremely peaceful,” as he loads an untraceable 3D-printed SMG with a full magazine of homemade nine millimeter cartidges. 

The frame of the video is simultaneously grandiose, terrifying, and meme-like; A perfect example of 21st century propaganda.  After the video was published, Bradley—in collaboration with Hanrahan—started selling posters of the image on his website.

Though the poster did not change his business in a meaningful way, Bradley quit his day job soon after and currently works full time on his Instagram account and print shop.  With his livelihood reliant on Instagram, however, he feels more reluctant to push the boundaries of what propaganda he is posting and writing about.  

If Bradley posts an image that goes against Instagram’s community guidelines, his post gets taken down.  When Bradley’s posts get taken down, his account gets shadowbanned—meaning his posts will not show up on the explore page and his daily presence is pushed to the bottom of followers’ feeds—and it can have a major impact on his business.  While he tries to follow the rules that are put in place, they make it hard for Bradley to capture the full scope of the history of propaganda on his page.  Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, generally takes down material that can be deemed offensive or that depicts non-newsworthy graphic violence.  Because of the inherently political and oftentimes violent nature of propaganda, it is not uncommon for Bradley to have the images that he uploads taken down.

After uploading an Armenian image to his page on Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day this year, raising tensions with his Turkish Nationalist followers, Bradley had multiple of his older posts reported and subsequently removed by those who were angered by the original piece of propaganda that he shared.  In two days, after having a post removed and his account shadowbanned, he went from having 118,251 views on a post (46% of the views coming from accounts that do not follow him) to 18,545 views on a new post (with less than 1% coming from accounts that do not follow him).

Bradley has run into many different rules that dictate what images he can and cannot publish.  Unsurprisingly, anything with a swastika in the post will be immediately removed from Instagram.  While Bradley does not have any German WWII propaganda with swastikas either in his shop or on his Instagram page, he does have a large selection of anti-Nazi propaganda from the 1940’s that feature swastikas.  He has gotten around the rules by blurring the symbol in his Instagram posts but selling the originals on his website.  Though Bradley feels as though these rules censor history, he acknowledges the logic and reasoning behind Instagram’s banning of all swastikas.

Because of current laws, Bradley cannot sell any anti-Nazi propaganda to Germany if it contains a swastika.  In Norway, he says, “You can sell swastika memorabilia so long as it's not above a certain number of pixels.”  One of Bradley’s most popular posters, titled Mexico for Liberty (1942), shows a golden eagle tearing apart a Nazi flag in front of a green, white, and red sunset.  Although the artwork is clearly of anti-Nazi sentiment—and he writes about its significance and historical context in the caption—Bradley cannot post this image in its original form to Instagram and must alter it.  Additionally, he cannot sell the print to German buyers because of the country’s laws regarding Nazi iconography.

The rules are murky in other areas, too.  Propagandopolis is able to post content regarding terrorism but it depends on which terrorist group and how it is posted.  For example, Propagandopolis can post a propaganda drawing made by the Shining Path, a Marxist-Leninist insurgent group in Peru, but cannot share a photograph made by ETA, the Basque separitist terrorist group.

“I've got a really sanitized account now, but when I shared the post that got deleted, it was really inoffensive. There were no guns. I think it was literally just like a masked guy sitting there with the Basque flag behind him and it just said ETA,” Bradley says.  The Shining Path image that has not been removed depicts a group of militant women pushing boulders off of a cliff onto a caravan of buses.  They are pointing their guns at those escaping the destroyed buses.

Although Propagandopolis includes very little Nazi and terrorist propaganda compared to other topics covered—and if it does appear, it is put into context—the propagation of Nazi related symbols and extremist ideologies—no matter the form—is a problematic grey space in culture and on the internet.  

It is impossible not to ask: Is it best to ban the Swastika outright on social media or is it okay in instances like Propagandopolis, where Bradley puts images into context?  If images such as these are banned on social media, can society lose its collective memory about the gruesome realities of extremism?  Do these images help root out the problem of extremism or do they bolster it?

It isn’t just Bradley and his page, Propagandopolis, who has run into these issues and questions, of course.  Bradley mentions the Instagram page, Unorthodoxfuture, as a page whose content he enjoys and who he plans to work with on a limited run print.  The page was created and is administered by Joe, an eighteen year old from Northern England who does not reveal his last name or face over Zoom to protect his identity.  “In the Ukraine conflict, I’ve had quite a few posts removed regarding that,” Joe says.  “I strongly disagree with censorship, anyway. I think if there's a bad idea, it should be able to be spoken about so it can be criticized. If you begin to suppress images and words, it becomes sort of culturally fetishized with a romantic sense around them. That's how you get greater extremism. … To avoid that, you need to be able to have these open discussions.  If you can’t even debate with people around the subjects, how can you expect anyone to learn or change their mind?” says the Brit.  

The bio for his page reads: “All posts are non-political.  A documentation of the synthesis of culture and history of man.  Inquire about origins of images.  Free speech zone.”  He also runs two Telegram chats: one about exercise and personal health, the other about the cryptocurrency 100x Coin.

Joe clearly feels that Instagram’s censorship of imagery is both detrimental to his page and to society.  Nevertheless, it is very much possible to run a balanced propaganda history account without having images removed.  Joaquin Solis, a twenty-three year old marine biology student from Lima, Peru, who currently lives and studies in Sydney, Australia, runs the Instagram account Adogmatic.Prints as a passion project.  Bradley says that the page is run by somebody who is a bit more philosophically driven.  The soft-spoken marine biologist and propaganda connoisseur has never had a post removed.  

Focusing his content on the Peruvian years of terror between the government and the Shining Path, Joaquin's images have, at most, been censored by having a graphic image filter placed over the post.  This happens specifically when he posts content regarding massacres that happened during the years of terror.  

“As everything in life, it's complicated.  But the way I see it, propaganda is a tool.  It's simply that,” Joaquin says.  “It's a hammer, for example.  You could use it to build a house or you can use it to crack a skull.  The potential lies in the tool, but it's really in the hands of the wielder to determine whether to use it positively or negatively,” he says, understanding both the danger and beauty in propaganda.  Joaquin says that he uploads content to his page because he feels that it is important to maintain a collective memory about—and bring awareness to—the ongoing conflict in Peru.

Despite the difficulties in posting extremely political artwork, Propagandopolis has, unsurprisingly, grown rapidly.  In the past three years he inspired both Joe and Joaquin to start their accounts, whose content Bradley consistently makes sure to repost.  Bradley has also developed a rival on Instagram over the past year. Propagandarts, a page that started in September of 2020 looks very similar to Propagandopolis and currently has 22k followers—though Bradley is not too worried about being overtaken.  With his newfound success, Bradley plans to launch a Youtube series this year and started a podcast about propaganda history in April, 2021.

The Propaganda history niche has cut a cozy corner of Instagram out for itself during the Culture Wars.  The manner in which Instagram continues to moderate political content in the future will decide how the community displays itself for years to come.  It is unclear how the social media giant and the masses will choose to discern politically-extreme content from content about the history of the politically-extreme in the future.

The universe is completely chaotic.  Governed only by the known and unknown laws of physics, it is an eternal sand box of meaningless matter—colliding and reacting, creating and destroying.  Our world is no different.  Humanity is the product of a millions of years process started by a random mishap in chemistry.  Human life—just like the life of our universe—is utter chaos.  We live in a world where we have no control.  When we have no control, we seek order, power, and meaning.  Ideologies are the convalescence of these three desires.  They soothe the soul in an unpredictable world.  Propaganda—whether it is revolutionary, colonialist, conservative, or liberal—reaffirms our ideologies.  It tricks us into thinking there is order and control even for just a second.

During this current moment in time, the world has become increasingly unpredictable. The Culture Wars are fueled by this unpredictability and they have pushed the world further into its ideologies.  Propagandopolis simply documents them all and makes a living from it.  At least Bradley has the decency to call it what it is—propaganda.

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