How can we tell the difference between Public Information and Propaganda? With the increased use of social media, how are politicians using Facebook and Twitter to influence you in this techno-savvy age? The importance of the answer is all to do with our awareness (or lack thereof) of the manipulations by the state, for instance, to ‘get into’ (that is to say, ‘to influence’, ‘to control’) our minds. Does this not bother you?
A Generic Definition:
This BBC report by Nick Higham describes Propaganda as, “something designed to influence people’s opinions and behaviour,” which is a softened definition. This ‘softening’, however, does tie coherently to where the import of the report is leading, which is rather ominous.
Brief Background to the Pejorative Use of the Term:
The report states the fact that traditionally “Propaganda [had acquired] a bad name” because of its association to “repressive regimes” [Think: totalitarian states, like Communist (Stalin’s USSR) or Fascist ones (Hitler’s Germany) which are obvious examples. Hold that thought…]
The Uses of the ‘Tool’ of Propaganda:
Historically, such repressive states used the ‘tool’ of propaganda:
1) To glorify leaders;
2) To motivate citizens; and
3) To demonise their enemies
But don’t some of these objectives seem familiar to you when you consider, for example, the news reports since the ‘War on Terror’ campaign?
Applying the above checklist to a secular democracy, instead, propaganda can be seen to be used:
1) Not so much to glorify its leaders, but to glorify the idea of ‘secular democracy’;
2) To motivate citizens – in the same way; and
3) To demonise their enemies – yep, in the same way!
The report explains that, “All states use propaganda” in the form of “words, monuments and images to tell stories [or ‘narratives’ in Post-Modern parlance]… and [run] campaigns to keep their people safe.”
This is interesting as the definition of Propaganda, now, is expanded from the Generic Definition, noted earlier (above). This time – and rightly so – it emphasises the mainly political use of propaganda [or better still, its ‘ideological’ uses].
Political Rhetoric. What is it?
Ian Cooke, spokesperson for the British Library where an exhibition on ‘Propaganda: Art or Political Rhetoric‘ was held, states that we ‘can’ consider propaganda as a ‘tool’ which is essentially ‘quite neutral’. We might call it ‘political rhetoric’ instead, which seems to me to be halfway between a euphemism and a spin. Mr Cooke even states that, “in democracies you need propaganda more because you have to govern by consent so you need to bring public opinion with you.”
Shocking? So, there is more propaganda [that is to say, more subtle propaganda] in secular democracies than communist and fascist states… This is pretty stunning stuff – and incredibly important, I feel.
Social Media and What’s Coming
Nick Higham later explains that in the past ‘propaganda was about ‘them’ telling ‘us’ what to think or how to behave’. This is how I recall learning about propaganda at school. What about you?
“In an era of social media… which is about ‘us’ telling ‘each other’ what ‘we’ think,” the reporter asks, “is conventional propaganda still possible?”
“Yes,” the reporter replies.
Now here is the crux:
“Governments and politicians use the informality of social media to deliver a carefully planned message.”
That’s pretty direct. But are you aware that this is going on?
The report ends by indicating that governments will be evermore subtle in their use of propaganda – that is to say – ‘political rhetoric’, in order to steer and influence our decisions.
Putting aside the social media dimension for the moment, what strikes out to me is that the following statement might equally apply:
“Governments and politicians [will] use the … media to deliver … carefully planned message[s].” And straight from the mouth of the BBC!
But this should not now be a surprise. Because even via this report, we are being propagandised! As indicated, above, though the term ‘propaganda’ was historically a pejorative term, this report seems to be freeing the term from that negative association through the admission that ‘everyone does it’. How is the term freed? The way in which the topic is framed: that there was the fact of an exhibition about Propaganda in the British Library that seeks to uncover the truth of this ‘tool’ is at once both an ‘objective’, ‘scientific’ presentation and so ‘true’ and this admission, this ‘coming clean’ will be an endeavour deemed ‘honest’ by the people at large and so be considered ‘truthful’, which is truly cunning. The suggestion of its neutrality in fact blurs the problem of propaganda (its ability to brainwash/ mind-control). The report, knowingly/ unknowingly/ indifferently ends up justifying its use as legitimate and fair-game, which might be perfect if you’re someone in a position of political power (i.e. a politician), but is decidedly sinister to those on the receiving end of that power (i.e. the majority of the population). The message of this report, therefore, creates an ‘illusion‘ [their words! Not even mine!] of trust/affinity/bond with the receivers of the message [that is, ‘us’, the receivers/ the audience].
“The best propaganda… is that which distorts least.” That is to say, that achieves its objectives, invisibly. And this explains a lot. Our age is the Age of MANipulation.
Concluding Remark – Propagation versus Propaganda:
I believe we can propagate all sorts of things (to inform others in persuasive ways) – but this differs from propaganda, which ought to remain a pejorative term. This concept (that propaganda is mind-control) is a more considered and liberating notion in that it flags the problem by its meaning, which the term ‘political rhetoric’ masks. Propagation, however, is simply one person OPENLY trying to convince another about a point of view. Consider the discussions at London’s Speaker’s Corner. It might be sophisticated or crude – but it is dialogue, discussion, open and direct. No mind-tricks or subliminal ‘advertising’. Indeed, propagating need not be politically or ideologically motivated either. It might be simply a matter of taste.
Some Thought-Worthy Quotations:
“The art of propaganda is not telling lies but rather seeing the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear,” Richard Crossman (Labour politician).
“Propaganda that looks like propaganda is third-rate propaganda.” Lord Northcliffe (Newspaper baron and leading British propagandist of World War I).
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” Dick Cheney (Former Vice-President, USA) August 26, 2002
What does the Media want you to be very, very upset about at the moment – and ask yourself:
- In what way is our leader/ our Secular Democracy being glorified?
- What are we being told to be motivated about doing?
- What ‘enemies‘ are being demonised for us to be told to hate?
- What is the government’s real intentions? What are the truths/ half-truths/ lies?
- Am I being played?
For the text version of Nick Higham’s report, please click here.
For this report on the BBC website, please click here, instead.