We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy’s side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace.
— Walter Lippmann
Probably every conflict is fought on at least two grounds: the battlefield and the minds of the people via propaganda. The “good guys” and the “bad guys” can often both be guilty of misleading their people with distortions, exaggerations, subjectivity, inaccuracy and even fabrications, in order to receive support and a sense of legitimacy.
Elements of Propaganda
Propaganda can serve to rally people behind a cause, but often at the cost of exaggerating, misrepresenting, or even lying about the issues in order to gain that support.
While the issue of propaganda often is discussed in the context of militarism, war and war-mongering, it is around us in all aspects of life.
As the various examples below will show, common tactics in propaganda often used by either side include:
- Using selective stories that come over as wide-covering and objective.
- Partial facts, or historical context
- Reinforcing reasons and motivations to act due to threats on the security of the individual.
- Narrow sources of “experts” to provide insights in to the situation. (For example, the mainstream media typically interview retired military personnel for many conflict-related issues, or treat official government sources as fact, rather than just one perspective that needs to be verified and researched).
- Demonizing the “enemy” who does not fit the picture of what is “right”.
- Using a narrow range of discourse, whereby judgments are often made while the boundary of discourse itself, or the framework within which the opinions are formed, are often not discussed. The narrow focus then helps to serve the interests of the propagandists.
Some of the following sections look into how propaganda is used in various ways, expanding on the above list of tactics and devices.
Back to top
Propaganda and War
At times of war, or build up for war, messages of extremities and hate, combined with emotions of honor and righteousness interplay to provide powerful propaganda for a cause.
The first casualty when war comes is Truth
— U.S. Senator Hiram Johnson, 1917
Many say that it is inevitable in war that people will die. Yet, in many cases, war itself is not inevitable, and propaganda is often employed to go closer to war, if that is the preferred foreign policy option. Indeed, once war starts, civilian casualties are unfortunately almost a guaranteed certainty.
In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.
— Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during World War II
Those who promote the negative image of the “enemy” may often reinforce it with rhetoric about the righteousness of themselves; the attempt is to muster up support and nurture the belief that what is to be done is in the positive and beneficial interest of everyone. Often, the principles used to demonize the other, is not used to judge the self, leading to accusations of double standards and hypocrisy.
Next the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them; and thus he will by and by convince himself that the war is just, and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.
— Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger, 1916, Ch.9
The list of tactics used in propaganda listed further above is also expressed in a similar way by Johann Galtung, a professor of Peace Studies and summarized here by Danny Schechter:
[Professor] Galtung laid out 12 points of concern where journalism often goes wrong when dealing with violence. Each implicitly suggests more explicit remedies.
- Decontextualizing violence: focusing on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarization.
- Dualism: reducing the number of parties in a conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside or “external” forces as foreign governments and transnational companies.
- Manicheanism: portraying one side as good and demonizing the other as “evil.”
- Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable, omitting alternatives.
- Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government neglect and military or police repression.
- Confusion: focusing only on the conflict arena (i.e., the battlefield or location of violent incidents) but not on the forces and factors that influence the violence.
- Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of violence.
- Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the impact of media coverage itself.
- Failure to explore the goals of outside interventionists, especially big powers.
- Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of peaceful outcomes.
- Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual peace.
- Omitting reconciliation: conflicts tend to reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even more violence, when people have no images or information about possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing.
— Danny Schechter, Covering Violence: How Should Media Handle Conflict?, July 18, 2001 (Emphasis Added)
Arthur Siegel, a social science professor at York University in Toronto, describes four levels of varieties of propaganda:
No matter how it is spread, propaganda comes in four basic varieties, said Arthur Siegel, social science professor at York University in Toronto, whose 1996 book Radio Canada International examines World War II and Cold War propaganda.
“The first level is the Big Lie, adapted by Hitler and Stalin. The state-controlled Egyptian press has been spreading a Big Lie, saying the World Trade Center was attacked by Israel to embarrass Arabs,” said Siegel.
“The second layer says, ‘It doesn’t have to be the truth, so long as it’s plausible.’
“The third strategy is to tell the truth but withhold the other side’s point of view.
“The fourth and most productive is to tell the truth, the good and the bad, the losses and the gains.
“Governments in Western society take the last three steps. They avoid the Big Lie, which nobody here will swallow,” Siegel said.
— Beth Gillin, U.S. intensifies the war of words, The Philadelphia Inequirer, October 21, 2001
With the last point above, Siegel is pointing out that as well as “enemies” having propaganda mechanisms, we also have our own propaganda mechanisms.
Propaganda when Preparing or Justifying War
In preparing for or justifying war, additional techniques are often employed, knowingly or unknowingly:
Ottosen identifies several key stages of a military campaign to “soften up” public opinion through the media in preparation for an armed intervention. These are:
The Preliminary Stage—during which the country concerned comes to the news, portrayed as a cause for “mounting concern” because of poverty/dictatorship/anarchy;
The Justification Stage—during which big news is produced to lend urgency to the case for armed intervention to bring about a rapid restitution of “normality”;
The Implementation Stage—when pooling and censorship provide control of coverage;
The Aftermath—during which normality is portrayed as returning to the region, before it once again drops down the news agenda.
O’Kane notes “there is always a dead baby story” and it comes at the key point of the Justification Stage—in the form of a story whose apparent urgency brooks no delay—specifically, no time for cool deliberation or negotiating on peace proposals. Human interest stories … are ideal for engendering this atmosphere.
— The Peace Journalist Option, Poiesis.org, August 1997
(O’Kane’s reference to the dead baby story is about the 1991 Gulf War where a U.S. public relations firm got a Kuwaiti Ambassador’s daughter to pose as a nurse claiming she saw Iraqi troops killing babies in hospitals. The purpose of this was to create arousal and demonize Iraq so war was more acceptable. More information about this is on this site’s Iraq section.)
Award-winning investigative journalist, Phillip Knightley, in an article for the British paper, The Guardian also points out four stages in preparing a nation for war:
- 1. The crisis
- The reporting of a crisis which negotiations appear unable to resolve. Politicians, while calling for diplomacy, warn of military retaliation. The media reports this as “We’re on the brink of war”, or “War is inevitable”, etc.
- 2. The demonisation of the enemy’s leader
- Comparing the leader with Hitler is a good start because of the instant images that Hitler’s name provokes.
- 3. The demonisation of the enemy as individuals
- For example, to suggest the enemy is insane.
- 4. Atrocities
- Even making up stories to whip up and strengthen emotional reactions.
Knightley also points to the dilemma that while some stories are known to have been fabrications and outright lies, others may be true. The trouble is, he asks, “how can we tell?” His answer is unfortunately not too reassuring: “The media demands that we trust it but too often that trust has been betrayed.” The difficulty that honest journalists face is also hinted to in another article by Knightley:
One difficulty is that the media have little or no memory. War correspondents have short working lives and there is no tradition or means for passing on their knowledge and experience. The military, on the other hand, is an institution and goes on forever. The military learned a lot from Vietnam and these days plans its media strategy with as much attention as its military strategy.
— Phillip Knightley, Fighting dirty, The Guardian, March 20, 2000
Miren Guiterrez, editor-in-chief of Inter Press Service notes a number of elements of propaganda taking the more recent wars into account, the “War on terror” and the Iraq crisis. Summing up his short but detailed report, he includes the following as propaganda strategies:
- Driving the agenda
- Milking the story (maximizing media coverage of a particular issue by the careful use of briefings, leaking pieces of a jigsaw to different outlets, allowing journalists to piece the story together and drive the story up the news agenda, etc.)
- Exploiting that we want to believe the best of ourselves
- Perception Management (in particular by using PR firms)
- Reinforcing existing attitudes
- Simple, repetitious and emotional phrases (e.g. war on terror, axis of evil, weapons of mass destruction, shock and awe, war of liberation, etc)
Military Control of Information
Military control of information during war time is also a major contributing factor to propaganda, especially when the media go along with it without question. The military recognizes the values of media and information control very well.
The military often manipulates the mainstream media, by restricting or managing what information is presented and hence what the public are told. For them it is paramount to control the media. This can involve all manner of activities, from organizing media sessions and daily press briefings, or through providing managed access to war zones, to even planting stories. This has happened throughout the 20th century. Over time then, the way that the media covers conflicts degrades in quality, critique and objectiveness.
“Information is the currency of victory” an August 1996 U.S. Army field manual. From a military’s perspective, information warfare is another front on which a battle must be fought. However, as well as needing to deceive adversaries, in order to maintain public support, information to their own public must no doubt be managed as well. That makes sense from a military perspective. Sometimes the public can be willing to sacrifice detailed knowledge. But that can also lead to unaccountability and when information that is presented has been managed such, propaganda is often the result. Beelman also describes how this Information Operations is used to manage information:
For reporters covering this war [on terrorism], the challenge is not just in getting unfettered and uncensored access to U.S. troops and the battlefield—a long and mostly losing struggle in the past—but in discerning between information and disinformation. That is made all the more difficult by a 24-hour news cycle, advanced technology, and the military’s growing fondness for a discipline it calls “Information Operations.” IO, as it is known, groups together information functions ranging from public affairs (PA, the military spokespersons corps) to military deception and psychological operations, or PSYOP. What this means is that people whose job traditionally has been to talk to the media and divulge truthfully what they are able to tell now work hand-in-glove with those whose job it is to support battlefield operations with information, not all of which may be truthful.
— Maud S. Beelman, The Dangers of Disinformation in the War on Terrorism, Coverage of Terrorism Women and Journalism: International Perspectives, from Nieman Reports Magazine, Winter 2001, Vol. 55, No.4, p.16. (from The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University)
Danny Schechter, also referring to the article above by Beelman, describes Information Operations more bluntly as being “a way of obscuring and sanitizing that negative-sounding term ‘propaganda’ so that our ‘information warriors’ can do their thing with a minimum of public attention as they seek to engineer friendly write ups and cumulative impact.” This, he points out, can be accomplished via several strategies:
Overloading the Media
- This can be done by providing too much information!
- Schechter gives an example of the Kosovo War, where “briefers at NATO’s headquarters in Belgium boasted that this was the key to information control. ‘They would gorge the media with information,’ Beelman writes, quoting one as saying, ‘When you make the media happy, the media will not look for the rest of the story.’”
- A common way to do this is to appeal to patriotism and safeguarding the often unarticulated “national interest”
- Schechter describes, how Condaleezza Rice and other Bush administration officials persuaded the networks to kill bin Laden videos and other Al-Jazeera work during the initial months after the September 11 2001 tragedy. This is nothing new, however, as he points out; “All administrations try to seduce and co-opt the media.” (and of course, this happens all around the world.)
- Schechter describes the ramifications: “It is this ideological conformity and world view that makes it relatively easy for a well-oiled and sophisticated IO propaganda machine to keep the U.S. media in line, with the avid cooperation of the corporate sector, which owns and controls most media outlets. Some of those companies, such as NBC parent General Electric, have long been a core component of that nexus of shared interests that President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. As Noam Chomsky and others have argued, that complex has expanded into a military, industrial and MEDIA complex, in which IO is but one refinement.”
- Press briefings by military institutions such as NATO, Pentagon etc, where journalist’s questions are answered and information is presented is of course a form of spin. It is the spin that the military will put on it.
- Journalists no doubt expect this, but true to many media propaganda models, seldom are such “official” statements verified and followed up on, especially if from one’s own nation, with whom there is often a lot of trust. A result of this is propaganda and spin becoming the official version.
- Of course, the military can often hide behind this one!
- Sometimes from a military operational perspective it can be understood why they don’t want to give much (or any) real details. Looked in isolation from other issues, this seems like an understandable and acceptable military strategy.
- Yet, when combined with the other propaganda strategies, it is another way to withhold information.
Co-Option And Collusion
- As Danny Schechter asks on this issue, “why do we in the media go along with this approach time and again? We are not stupid. We are not robots. Too many of us have DIED trying to get this story (and other stories). Ask any journalists and they will tell you that no one tells them what to write or what to do. Yet there is a homogenized flavor and Pentagon echo to much coverage of this war that shames our profession. Why? Is it because reporters buy into the ideology of the mission? Because there are few visible war critics to provide dissenting takes? Or is it because information management has been so effective as to disallow any other legitimate approach? An uncritical stance is part of the problem. Disseminating misinformation often adds up to an inaccurate picture of where we are in this war.”
- Stratfor, a global intelligence consultant comments on the war on terrorism saying that the media have become cheerleaders as “Coverage of the ‘war on terrorism’ has reversed the traditional role between the press and the military.” The problem with this, as they continue, is that “The reversal of roles between media and military creates public expectations that can affect the prosecution of the war.” Or, more bluntly put, the media becomes an effective mouthpiece for propaganda.
Embedded Journalists: An Advantage for the Military
During the short invasion of Iraq in 2003, journalists were “embedded” with various Coalition forces. This was an idea born from the public relations industry, and provided media outlets a detailed and fascinating view for their audiences.
For the military, however, it provided a means to control what large audiences would see, to some extent. Independent journalists would be looked upon more suspiciously. In a way, embedded journalists were unwittingly (sometimes knowingly) making a decision to be biased in their reporting, in favor of the Coalition troops. If an embedded journalist was to report unfavorably on coalition forces they were accompanying they would not get any cooperation.
So, in a sense allowing journalists to get closer meant the military had more chance to try and manage the message.
In U.K., the History Channel broadcasted a documentary on August 21, 2004, titled War Spin: Correspondent. This documentary looked at Coalition media management for the Iraq war and noted numerous things including the following:
- Embedded journalists allowed the military to maximize imagery while providing minimal insight into the real issues;
- Central Command (where all those military press briefings were held) was the main center from which to:
- Filter, manage and drip-feed journalists with what they wanted to provide;
- Gloss over set-backs, while dwelling on successes;
- Limit the facts and context;
- Even feed lies to journalists;
- Use spin in various ways, such as making it seems as though reports are coming from troops on the ground, which Central Command can then confirm, so as to appear real;
- Carefully plan the range of topics that could be discussed with reporters, and what to avoid.
In summary then, the documentary concluded and implied that the media had successfully been designated a mostly controllable role by the military, which would no doubt improve in the future.
For more about the issues of embedded journalism during the Iraq invasion, various propaganda techniques employed, and more, see this web site’s Iraq media section.
Dilemma of Journalists and Wartime Coverage
With military conflicts then, reporting raises an interesting dilemma for some; one the one hand, the military wish to present various aspects that would support a campaign, while on the other hand, a journalist is supposed to be critical and not necessarily fall in line. The is captured well by Jane Kirtley, a professor of Media Ethics and Law:
Shortly after the end of the American Civil War, journalist F. Colburn Adams wrote, “The future historian of the late war will have [a] very difficult task to perform … sifting the truth from falsehood as it appears in official records.”
Similar to the oft-repeated axiom that truth is the first casualty of war, Adams’ observation succinctly summarizes the nub of the conflict between the military and the news media. The military’s mission is to fight, and to win, whatever conflict may present itself-preferably on the battlefield but certainly in public opinion and the history books. The journalist, on the other hand, is a skeptic if not a cynic and aims to seek, find and report the truth — a mission both parties often view as incompatible with successful warfare, which depends on secrecy and deception as much as superior strategy, tactics, weaponry and manpower.
— Jane Kirtley, Enough is Enough, Media Studies Journal, October 15, 2001
Often, especially when covering conflicts, the media organizations are subject to various constraints by governments, military, corporate pressure, economic interests, etc. Sometimes, however, the media are more than willing to go along with what could be described as self-censorship, as highlighted vividly in the following:
We live in a dirty and dangerous world. There are some things the general public does not need to know about and shouldn’t. I believe democracy flourishes when the government can take legitimate steps to keep its secrets and when the press can decide whether to print what it knows.
— Katharine Graham, Washington Post owner speaking at CIA’s Langley, Virginia headquarters in 1988, Reported in Regardie’s Magazine, January, 1990, Quoted from David McGowan, Derailing Democracy, (Common Courage Press, 2000), p.109.
Other times, the sources of information are limited. For example, “Information warfare” of a military or government might be targeted at “enemy” nations and groups, but often affects their own populations:
In [many cases], the U.S. and other western news media depend on the military for information…. And when the information that military officers provide to the public is part of a process that generates propaganda and places a high value on deceit, deception and denial, then truth is indeed likely to be high on the casualty list.
— William M. Arkin, Media principles: Killed by friendly fire in US infowar, Index on Censorship, 13 November 2002
Journalist Harold Evans addresses the issue of war correspondents duties, as being the challenge of patriotism versus professionalism:
The history of warfare suggests this is not a false antithesis. Governments, understandably, put a priority on nurturing the morale of the armed forces and the people, intimidating an enemy with the force of the national will They have few scruples about whether they are being fair and just as their propaganda demonizes an alien leader or even a whole population. The enemy is doing the same to them. That is the emotion wars generate, inviting a competitive ecstasy of hate. There is a duel in vicious stereotypes in propaganda posters, illustrations and headlines; populations would be astounded if they could see how they and their leaders are portrayed by the other side. Authority resents it when a newspaper or broadcast shades the black and white.
… Atrocity stories have been debased currency in the war of words. The other side’s are propaganda and should be ignored or discredited by patriotic correspondents; ours are an integral part of the cause, and should be propagated with conviction, uniting people in vengefulness for a cause higher than pedantry. Only after the conflict, the zealots’ argument runs, is there time enough to sift the ashes for truth. History knows now that the Germans did not, as charged in World War I, toss Belgian babies in the air and catch them on bayonets, nor boil down German corpses for glycerin for munitions—a story invented by a British correspondent being pressed by his office for news of atrocities. The French did not, as the German press reported, routinely gouge out the eyes of captured German soldiers, or chop off their fingers for the rings on them. Iraqi soldiers invading Kuwait did not toss premature babies out of incubators, as The Sunday Telegraph in London, and then the Los Angeles Times, reported, quoting Reuters. The story was an invention of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait lobby in Washington and the teen-age “witness” who testified to Congress was coached by the lobby’s public relations company. It was only two years later that the whole thing was exposed for the fraud it was. But the myth galvanized public opinion at a critical moment on the need to go to war, as it was intended to.
… History is a mausoleum of errant emotions: Who is the more patriotic—the government that conceals the blunders its soldiers endure, the cruelties they may inflict, or the correspondent who exposes them so that they might be rectified?
… [In the dilemmas journalists often have between reporting and intervening], Alan Dower, who reported the Korean War for the Melbourne Herald … reporter Rene Cutforth and cameraman Cyril Page saw a column of women in Seoul being marched off to jail; many were carrying babies. The journalists were told the families were all to be shot because someone in the street had identified them as communists. Dower, who was a commando before he was a reporter, was carrying a carbine. He used it to bully his way into the jail, where the trio of journalists found that the women had been made to kneel with their babies in front of an open pit, two machine guns at their backs. Dower threatened to shoot the guard unless he took the trio to the prison governor’s office. There Dower aimed his carbine at the governor and threatened: “If those machine guns fire, I’ll shoot you between the eyes.” Dower, making another threat, that of publicity, secured a promise from the United Nations command in Seoul that it would stamp out such practices.
Did Dower break the normal limits of journalism? Yes, and he was right to do so. One’s first duty is to humanity, and there are exceptional occasions when that duty overrides the canons of any profession.
— Harold Evans, Propaganda vs. Professionalism, War Stories, Newseum (undated)
Phillip Knightley, in his award-winning book The First Casualty traces a history of media reporting of wars and conflicts and towards the end says:
The sad truth is that in the new millennium, government propaganda prepares its citizens for war so skillfully that it is quite likely that they do not want the truthful, objective and balanced reporting that good war correspondents once did their best to provide.
— Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty, (Prion Books, 1975, 2000 revised edition) p.525
Back to top
a principle familiar to propagandists is that the doctrine to be instilled in the target audience should not be articulated: that would only expose them to reflection, inquiry, and, very likely, ridicule. The proper procedure is to drill them home by constantly presupposing them, so that they become the very condition for discourse.
— Noam Chomsky
It is easier to dominate someone if they are unaware of being dominated. Colonised and colonisers both know that domination is not just based on physical supremacy. Control of hearts and minds follows military conquest. Which is why any empire that wants to last must capture the souls of its subjects.
— Ignacio Ramonet, The control of pleasure, Le Monde diplomatique, May 2000
But the issue of propaganda can go beyond just war, to many other areas of life such as the political, commercial and social aspects:
When there is little or no elite dissent from a government policy, there may still be some slippage in the mass media, and the facts can tend to undermine the government line. … We have long argued that the “naturalness” of [the] processes [of indirectly pressing the media to keep even more tenaciously to the propaganda assumptions of state policy], with inconvenient facts allowed sparingly and within the proper framework of assumptions, and fundamental dissent virtually excluded from the mass media (but permitted in a marginalized press), makes for a propaganda system that is far more credible and effective in putting over a patriotic agenda than one with official censorship.
It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attach and expose corporate and government malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality of the command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance. (Emphasis Added)
— Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (Pantheon Books, New York, 1988), pp. xiv, 1—2.
The use of words is integral to propaganda techniques. Dr. Aaron Delwiche, at the School of Communications at the University of Washington, provides a web site discussing propaganda. Delwiche recounts how in 1937, in the United States, the Institute for Propaganda Analysis was created to educate the American public about the widespread nature of political propaganda. Made up of journalists and social scientists, the institute published numerous works. One of the main themes behind their work was defining seven basic propaganda devices. While there was appropriate criticism of the simplification in such classifications, these are commonly described in many university lectures on propaganda analysis, as Delwiche also points out. Delwische further classifies these (and adds a couple of additional classifications) into the following:
- Word Games
- Labeling people, groups, institutions, etc in a negative manner
- Glittering generality
- Labeling people, groups, institutions, etc in a positive manner
- Words that pacify the audience with blander meanings and connotations
- False Connections
- Using symbols and imagery of positive institutions etc to strengthen acceptance
- Citing individuals not qualified to make the claims made
- Special Appeal
- Plain Folks
- Leaders appealing to ordinary citizens by doing “ordinary” things
- Band Wagon
- The “everyone else is doing it” argument
- Heightening, exploiting or arousing people’s fears to get supportive opinions and actions
(See the previous link for descriptions of these devices.) A vivid example of such use of words is also seen in the following quote:
Since war is particularly unpleasant, military discourse is full of euphemisms. In the 1940’s, America changed the name of the War Department to the Department of Defense. Under the Reagan Administration, the MX-Missile was renamed “The Peacekeeper.” During war-time, civilian casualties are referred to as “collateral damage,” and the word “liquidation” is used as a synonym for “murder.”
— Dr. Aaron Delwiche, Propaganda Analysis, Propaganda Critic Web site, School of Communications, Washington University, March 12, 1995
Political Scientist and author, Michael Parenti, in an article on media monopoly, also describes a pattern of reporting in the mainstream in the U.S. that leads to partial information. He points out that while the mainstream claim to be free, open and objective, the various techniques, intentional or unintentional result in systematic contradictions to those claims. Such techniques — applicable to other nations’ media, as well as the U.S. — include:
Suppression By Omission
- He describes that worse than sensationalistic hype is the “artful avoidance” of stories that might be truly sensational stories (as opposed to sensationalistic stories).
- Such stories he says are often “downplayed or avoided outright” and that sometimes, “the suppression includes not just vital details but the entire story itself” even important ones.
Attack and Destroy the Target
- Parenti says, “When omission proves to be an insufficient mode of censorship and a story somehow begins to reach larger publics, the press moves from artful avoidance to frontal assault in order to discredit the story”.
- In this technique, the media will resort to discrediting the journalist, saying things like this is “bad journalism”, etc., thus attempting to silence the story or distract away from the main issue.
- Parenti says that the media will seek to prefigure perceptions of a subject using positive or negative labels and that the “label defines the subject without having to deal with actual particulars that might lead us to a different conclusion”. (Emphasis added)
- Examples of labels (positive and negative) that he points to include things like, “stability”, “strong leadership”, “strong defense”, “healthy economy”, “leftist guerrillas”, “Islamic terrorists”, “conspiracy theories”, “inner-city gangs” and “civil disturbances”. Others with double meanings include “reform” and “hardline”.
- Labels are useful, he suggests, because the “efficacy of a label is that it not have a specific content which can be held up to a test of evidence. Better that it be self-referential, propagating an undefined but evocative image.”
- As Parenti says of this, “Frequently the media accept as given the very policy position that needs to be critically examined”
- This is that classic narrow “range of discourse” or “parameters of debate” whereby unacknowledged assumptions frame the debate.
- As an example he gives, often when the White House proposes increasing military spending, the debates and analysis will be on how much, or on what the money should be spent etc, not whether such as large budget that it already is, is actually needed or not, or if there are other options etc. (See this site’s section on the geopoltiics for more on this aspect of arms trade, spending, etc.)
- Here, what officials say is taken as is, without critique or analysis.
- As he charges, “Face-value transmission has characterized the press’s performance in almost every area of domestic and foreign policy”
- Of course, for journalists and news organizations, the claim can be that they are reporting only what is said, or that they must not inject personal views into the report etc. Yet, to analyze and challenge the face-value transmission “is not to [have to] editorialize about the news but to question the assertions made by officialdom, to consider critical data that might give credence to an alternative view.” Doing such things would not, as Parenti further points out, become “an editorial or ideological pursuit but an empirical and investigative one”.
Slighting of Content
- Here, Parenti talks about the lack of context or detail to a story, so readers would find it hard to understand the wider ramifications and/or causes and effects, etc.
- The media can be very good and “can give so much emphasis to surface happenings, to style and process” but “so little to the substantive issues at stake.”
- While the media might claim to give the bigger picture, “they regularly give us the smaller picture, this being a way of slighting content and remaining within politically safe boundaries”. An example of this he gives is how if any protests against the current forms of free trade are at all portrayed, then it is with reference to the confrontation between some protestors and the police, seldom the issues that protestors are making about democratic sovereignty and corporate accountability, third world plunder, social justice, etc. (See this site’s, section on free trade protests around the world for a more detailed discussion of this issue.)
- This is where the notion of objectivity is tested!
- On the one hand, only two sides of the story are shown (because it isn’t just “both sides” that represent the full picture.
- On the other hand, “balance” can be hard to define because it doesn’t automatically mean 50-50. In the sense that, as Parenti gives an example of, “the wars in Guatemala and El Salvador during the 1980s were often treated with that same kind of false balancing. Both those who burned villages and those who were having their villages burned were depicted as equally involved in a contentious bloodletting. While giving the appearance of being objective and neutral, one actually neutralizes the subject matter and thereby drastically warps it.”
- (This aspect of objectivity is seldom discussed in the mainstream. However, for some additional detail on this perspective, see for example, Phillip Knightley in his award-winning book, The First Casualty (Prion Books, 1975, 2000 revised edition).)
- Parenti gives some examples of how when “confronted with an unexpectedly dissident response, media hosts quickly change the subject, or break for a commercial, or inject an identifying announcement: ‘We are talking with [whomever].’ The purpose is to avoid going any further into a politically forbidden topic no matter how much the unexpected response might seem to need a follow-up query.”
- This can be knowingly done, or without realizing the significance of a certain aspect of the response.
- “The most effective propaganda,” Parenti says, “relies on framing rather than on falsehood. By bending the truth rather than breaking it, using emphasis and other auxiliary embellishments, communicators can create a desired impression without resorting to explicit advocacy and without departing too far from the appearance of objectivity. Framing is achieved in the way the news is packaged, the amount of exposure, the placement (front page or buried within, lead story or last), the tone of presentation (sympathetic or slighting), the headlines and photographs, and, in the case of broadcast media, the accompanying visual and auditory effects.”
- Furthermore, he points out that “Many things are reported in the news but few are explained.” Ideologically and politically the deeper aspects are often not articulated: “Little is said about how the social order is organized and for what purposes. Instead we are left to see the world as do mainstream pundits, as a scatter of events and personalities propelled by happenstance, circumstance, confused intentions, bungled operations, and individual ambition — rarely by powerful class interests.”
Furthermore, with concentrated ownership increasing (as is discussed in detail in the next section on this site) a narrower range of discourse can arise, sometimes without realizing. The consequences of which are summed up by the following from UK media watchdog, MediaLens:
Focusing on leaders’ thoughts is often a kind of propaganda. It involves repeating the government line without comment, thereby allowing journalists to claim neutrality as simple conduits supplying information. But it is not neutral to repeat the government line while ignoring critics of that line, as often happens. It is also not neutral to include milder criticism simply because it is voiced by a different section of the establishment, while ignoring more radical, but perhaps equally rational, critiques from beyond the state-corporate pale. A big lesson of history is that it is wrong to assume that power, or “respectability”, confers rationality. Media analyst Sharon Beder describes the reality of much mainstream reporting:
“Balance means ensuring that statements by those challenging the establishment are balanced with statements by those whom they are criticising, though not necessarily the other way round.”
Talk of leaders’ “hopes” teaches us to empathise with their wishes by personalising issues: “Blair desperately hopes to build bridges in the Middle East.” This is also a kind of propaganda based on false assumptions. It assumes that the reality of politicians’ “hopes” — their intentions, motivations and goals — is identical to the appearance. Machiavelli was kind enough to explain what every politician knows, and what almost all corporate media journalists feign not to know:
“It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above [mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity, and religion] but it is most essential that he should seem to have them; I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practises them all, they are hurtful.”
— David Edwards, Turning Towards Iraq, Media Lens, November 27, 2001 (Emphasis is original)
As mentioned above just concentrating and reporting on the “official line” without offering a wider set of perspectives can also impact people’s opinions. In another article, MediaLens also highlights this and the impact it has on how global issues are perceived:
One of the secrets of media manipulation is to report the horror and strife of the world as though Western power, interests and machinations did not exist. Vast poverty, injustice and chaos in the Third World are depicted as unconnected to the cool oases of civilisation in Europe and the United States, which look on benignly but helplessly, or pitch in heroically to right wrongs as far as they are able. The idea, for example, that the vast economic and military might of North America might in some way be linked to the vast poverty and suffering of neighbouring Central and South America is unthinkable.
An important feature of the reporting that maintains this audacious deception—not consciously but through an internalised sense of what is “just not done” — is to relay our enemies’ “claims” of benign motives as claims, while reporting our governments’ claims without comment, or as obviously true — the message, tirelessly repeated, gets through to the public and an important propaganda function is thereby fulfilled. This is called “honest, factual reporting”.
— David Edwards, Burying Big Business, Media Lens, May 22, 2002 (Emphasis is original)
Furthermore (and while not a complete study of the mainstream media), media watchdog, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) did a study showing that there can be heavy political biases on even the most popular mainstream media outlets. The outlets they looked at were ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News in the year 2001. They found that “92 percent of all U.S. sources interviewed were white, 85 percent were male and, where party affiliation was identifiable, 75 percent were Republican.”
Back to top
Propaganda in Democracies
Propaganda in totalitarian regimes is easy to recognize for its blatant and crude methods. In democratic societies, propaganda exists, as most of the above attests to. But, it is harder to see.
As a result, it is important to keep such elements of propaganda in mind when we see coverage of conflicts or even other issues in the media, regardless of the media organization and their apparent reputation.
In many democracies, people hold dear the freedom of speech that they are supposed to have. Yet, “propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism,” notes Noam Chomsky. Public accountability of major institutions and of the government must be constantly maintained to avoid propaganda.
In 1921, the famous American journalist Walter Lippmann said that the art of democracy requires what he called the “manufacture of consent.” This phrase is an Orwellian euphemism for thought control. The idea is that in a state such as the U.S. where the government can’t control the people by force, it had better control what they think. The Soviet Union is at the opposite end of the spectrum from us in its domestic freedoms. It’s essentially a country run by the bludgeon. It’s very easy to determine what propaganda is in the USSR: what the state produces is propaganda.
… Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism.
… For those who stubbornly seek freedom around the world, there can be no more urgent task than to come to understand the mechanisms and practices of indoctrination. These are easy to perceive in the totalitarian societies, much less so in the propaganda system to which we are subjected and in which all too often we serve as unwilling or unwitting instruments.
— Noam Chomsky, Propaganda, American-style, Interview conducted by David Barsamian of KGNU-Radio in Boulder, Colorado (Mid 1986)
Power must be held accountable. The mainstream media is a pillar of a functioning democracy, and one of its roles therefore, is to hold power accountable.
Back to top
Why Does So Much Propaganda Work?
Propaganda seems to work because of a number of reasons, including:
- People wish to believe the best about themselves and their country;
- Fear-mongering, especially about the threat to cherished values such as freedom and justice;
- Presenting fears and claims that appear logical and factual.
- Media management and public relations is very professional
- Managing thoughts by narrowing ranges of debate, thus minimizing widely discussed thoughts that deviate from the main agendas;
Wanting to believe the best of ourselves
In democracies, people like to believe that they and their countries are generally good, for if it was any other way then it brings into moral question all they know and hold dear. The histories of some nations may have involved overcoming adversaries for legitimate reasons (e.g. the American war to gain its independence and freedom from the British Empire was one based on strong moral grounds of freedom from imperial rule). Such important history is often recounted and remembered as part of the collective culture of the country and those same values are projected into modern times. Propaganda sometimes works by creating the fear of losing such cherished values.
The following perhaps serve as ominous warnings, given the source:
All propaganda must be so popular and on such an intellectual level, that even the most stupid of those towards whom it is directed will understand it…. Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.
— Adolf Hitler
The size of the lie is a definite factor in causing it to be believed, for the vast masses of a nation are in the depths of their hearts more easily deceived than they are consciously bad. The primitive simplicity of their minds renders them a more easy prey to a big lie than to a small lie. For they themselves often tell little lies, but would be ashamed to tell big lies.
— Adolf Hitler
Fear-mongering and distorting facts
Guiterrez, mentioned much further above, also interviews Dr. Nancy Snow, (once a “propagandist” for the U.S. Information Agency as she admits in her 1998 book, Propaganda Inc; Selling America’s Culture to the World). Snow suggests that you don’t need facts, just the best facts:
[Given all the revelations discrediting Bush’s reasons for war with Iraq,] “You may wonder why it is that a majority of Americans still link Saddam to 9/11,” says Snow. “The reason for such a belief is because the American people were repeatedly told by the President and his inner circle that Saddam’s evil alone was enough to be linked to 9/11 and that given time, he would have used his weapons against us. With propaganda, you don’t need facts per se, just the best facts put forward. If these facts make sense to people, then they don’t need proof like one might need in a courtroom.”
According to Snow, the U.S. government succeeded in “driving the agenda” and “milking the story” (maximising media coverage of a particular issue by the careful use of [media management].)
“That’s also very commonly practice,” she says. “When a country goes off to war, so goes its media with it. The news media were caught up in the rally round the flag syndrome. They were forced to choose a side, and given the choices, whose side did they logically choose but the U.S.?”
Furthermore, some propaganda that may be effective to national audiences will not work on foreign audiences:
While the U.S. government campaign [for war on Iraq] had an impact on the U.S. public, the “perception management” was a failure at influencing foreign audiences.
According to [Professor Randall Bytwerk, a specialist in propaganda] “it is far easier to make propaganda at home than abroad. One has more credibility at home, and much more in common with the audience. Although Nazi propaganda was not completely believed by Germans, they believed what their government said far more than the British believed German propaganda, for example. All things being equal, most people want to believe they live in a good country.”
It should be noted that in the U.K., the other major country to support war on Iraq, the population was less easily convinced about the various claims justified for war. One reason, (revealed by an insight into how the U.S. supported an Iraqi exile with a global media management campaign and extensive public relations activities) noted that the climate in the U.S. after September 11, 2001 was one of fear. By using the fear of more terrorist attacks against the U.S., the Bush Administration was targeting its campaign towards its home audience. The British public, while feeling deep sympathy towards the Americans for their suffering, had not suffered such a horrific attack so recently, and, combined with other factors (e.g. a more diverse mainstream media), did not have the same attitude towards government claims as the American public did.
Naturally the common people don’t want war: Neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. … Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.
— General Herman Goering, President of German Reichstag and Nazi Party, Commander of Luftwaffe during World War II, April 18, 1946. (This quote is said to have been made during the Nuremburg Trials, but in fact, while during the time of the trials, was made in private to an Allied intelligence officer, later published in the book, Nuremburg Diary.)
The impacts of public relations cannot be underestimated. In the commercial world, marketing and advertising are typically needed to make people aware of products. There are many issues in that area alone (which is looked at in this site’s section on corporate media.) When it comes to propaganda for purposes of war, for example, professional public relations firms can often be involved to help sell a war. In cases where a war is questionable, the PR firms are indirectly contributing to the eventual and therefore unavoidable casualties. Media management may also be used to promote certain political policies and ideologies. Where this is problematic for the citizenry is when media reports on various issues do not attribute their sources properly.
Some techniques used by governments and parties/people with hidden agendas include:
The Gulf War in Iraq, 1991, highlighted a lot of PR work in action. Founder of the Washington PR firm, The Rendon Group, John Rendon told cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1996:
“I am not a national security strategist or a military tactician,” Rendon said. “I am a politician, and a person who uses communication to meet public policy or corporate policy objectives. In fact, I am an information warrior and a perception manager.” He reminded the Air Force cadets that when victorious troops rolled into Kuwait City at the end of the first war in the Persian Gulf, they were greeted by hundreds of Kuwaitis waving small American flags. The scene, flashed around the world on television screens, sent the message that U.S. Marines were being welcomed in Kuwait as liberating heroes.
“Did you ever stop to wonder,” Rendon asked, “how the people of Kuwait City, after being held hostage for seven long and painful months, were able to get hand-held American, and for that matter, the flags of other coalition countries?” He paused for effect. “Well, you now know the answer. That was one of my jobs then.”
… Public relations firms often do their work behind the scenes….But his description of himself as a “perception manager” echoes the language of Pentagon planners, who define “perception management” as “actions to convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning. … In various ways, perception management combines truth projection, operations security, cover, and deception, and psyops [psychological operations].”
— Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, How To Sell a War, In These Times, 4 August, 2003
Such technical phrases like “truth projection” hide their true meanings and intent: propaganda. One can understand how these have been tactics of war. Churchill used such a technique to fool the Nazis regarding the Normandy landings, for example. Yet, in the Iraq example, PR is turned onto one’s own citizens to convince them to support a war or make it look more glorious and right, than could otherwise have been.
Disseminating prepackaged, even fake news
In March 2005, the New York Times revealed that there has been a large amount of fake and prepackaged news created by US government departments, such as the Pentagon, the State Department and others, and disseminated through the mainstream media. The New York Times noted a number of important issues including:
- The US Bush administration has “aggressively” used public relations to prepackage news. Issues with this have included that:
- A number of these government-made news segments are made to look like local news (either by the government department or by the receiving broadcaster);
- Sometimes these reports have fake reporters such as when a “‘reporter’ covering airport safety was actually a public relations professional working under a false name for the Transportation Security Administration”;
- Other times, there is no mention that a video segment is produced by the government;
- Where there is some attribution, news stations simply rebroadcast them but sometimes without attributing the source.
- These segments have reached millions;
- This benefits both the government and the broadcaster;
- This could amount to propaganda within the United States as well as internationally.
Effectively, American tax payers have paid to be subjected to propaganda disseminated through these massaged messaged.
This issue is covered in more depth on this site’s media manipulation section.
Smear tactics are increasing in sophistication
Smear tactics are often used to discredit, stain or destroy the reputation of someone. It is unfortunately common-place and is an age-old technique. It can either involve outright lies, or a distortion of the truth.
With the increasing popularity of the Internet, and search engines such as Google, smearing is taking on additional forms and techniques. Juan Cole, a professor of history has described what he has coined a “GoogleSmear” as a political tactic to discredit him. His personal experience is quoted here:
It seems to me that David Horowitz and some far rightwing friends of his have hit upon a new way of discrediting a political opponent, which is the GoogleSmear. It is an easy maneuver for someone like Horowitz, who has extremely wealthy backers, to set up a web magazine that has a high profile and is indexed in google news. Then he just commissions persons to write up lies about people like me (leavened with innuendo and out-of-context quotes). Anyone googling me will likely come upon the smear profiles, and they can be passed around to journalists and politicians as though they were actual information.
— Juan Cole, The GoogleSmear as Political Tactic, Informed Comment Blog, March 27, 2005
Narrowing the Range of Debate
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.
— Noam Chomsky, The Common Good, Odonian Press, 1998
In terms of narrowing the range of debate or discourse, this is about discussing issues within a limited range of ideas and opinions. While this gives the appearance of debate and discussion, often deeper and wider issues are not discussed, thus losing important context. This often occurs unknowingly, but is systemic in nature. Noam Chomsky captures this very well:
Since the voice of the people is allowed to speak out [in democratic societies], those in power better control what that voice says — in other words, control what people think. One of the ways to do this is to create political debate that appears to embrace many opinions, but actually stays within very narrow margins. You have to make sure that both sides in the debate accept certain assumptions — and that those assumptions are the basis of the propaganda system. As long as everyone accepts the propaganda system, the debate is permissible.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. propaganda system did its job partially but not entirely. Among educated people it worked very well. Studies show that among the more educated parts of the population, the government’s propaganda about the war is now accepted unquestioningly. One reason that propaganda often works better on the educated than on the uneducated is that educated people read more, so they receive more propaganda. Another is that they have jobs in management, media, and academia and therefore work in some capacity as agents of the propaganda system — and they believe what the system expects them to believe. By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.
— Noam Chomsky, Propaganda, American-style, Interview conducted by David Barsamian of KGNU-Radio in Boulder, Colorado (Mid 1986)
At times, this can be part of a government’s agenda, to deflect or direct a range of discourse. The so-called “permitted parameters of debate” or “prop-agenda” then gives the appearance of consensus and democratic process. Brian Eno captures this aspect in talking about recent American foreign policy actions:
In the West the calculated manipulation of public opinion to serve political and ideological interests is much more covert and therefore much more effective [than a propaganda system imposed in a totalitarian regime]. Its greatest triumph is that we generally don’t notice it — or laugh at the notion it even exists. We watch the democratic process taking place—heated debates in which we feel we could have a voice — and think that, because we have “free” media, it would be hard for the Government to get away with anything very devious without someone calling them on it.
…the new American approach to social control is so much more sophisticated and pervasive that it really deserves a new name. It isn’t just propaganda any more, it’s “prop-agenda.” It’s not so much the control of what we think, but the control of what we think about. When our governments want to sell us a course of action, they do it by making sure it’s the only thing on the agenda, the only thing everyone’s talking about. And they pre-load the ensuing discussion with highly selected images, devious and prejudicial language, dubious linkages, weak or false “intelligence” and selected “leaks”. (What else can the spat between the BBC and Alastair Campbell be but a prime example of this?)
With the ground thus prepared, governments are happy if you then “use the democratic process” to agree or disagree — for, after all, their intention is to mobilise enough headlines and conversation to make the whole thing seem real and urgent. The more emotional the debate, the better. Emotion creates reality, reality demands action.
— Brian Eno, Lessons in how to lie about Iraq, The Observer/Guardian, August 17, 2003
A summary from Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky is also worth citing:
It is much more difficult to see a propaganda system at work where the media are private and formal censorship is absent. This is especially true where the media actively compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and government malfeasance, and aggressively portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech and the general community interest. What is not evident (and remains undiscussed in the media) is the limited nature of such critiques, as well as the huge inequality of the command of resources, and its effect both on access to a private media system and on its behavior and performance. (Emphasis Added)
— Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent; The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (Pantheon Books, New York, 1988), pp. xiv, 1—2.
Back to top
Some Detailed Examples
In the following pages, some examples of propaganda and the media are presented. (In some cases the media is a participant in the propaganda, sometimes knowingly and other times unknowingly, and sometimes even both.) However, while some of the specific pages may seem long, these form very few examples and over time more will be added.
For now though, the examples chosen reflect some of the more notable issues that did turn up in the mainstream, and so to some extent, a lot of people are familiar with these issues, but maybe not some of the deeper issues that were obscured by propaganda of various sorts.
The impacts of such propaganda contributed to the loss of millions of lives for it helped form a sense of legitimacy to what could otherwise have been regarded as controversial. Propaganda therefore comes with a huge cost.
Back to top
This article has the following parts: