April 23, 2024

Propaganda: Operations and Proliferation

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By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN

Propaganda: source Internet

“Everything is propaganda.” ~ Jacques Driencourt

Since the inception of human civilization, and for that matter, the origin of the species, we have been fighting—fighting to make sure that our interests are protected, fighting to keep one’s tribe and people safe, and most importantly, fighting for the survival of our existence. From the time of Alexander the Great, where the prime focus was on linear battles between the forces, to today, where the battlefield of the war has transcended into every aspect of the public sphere, warriors and soldiers have used many weapons, but one of the most potent weapons of them would be that of deceit.

Deception and propaganda have been inalienable parts of wars fought throughout history. Thus, it becomes imperative not only to understand the intent of propaganda but also to understand its operations and proliferation in warfare and, in this digital age, in normal public life. This piece aims to examine how propaganda originates, how it proliferates, and, most importantly, how to establish the necessary channels of counter-propaganda in order to diminish its effect.

What is Propaganda?

Initially, the word ‘propaganda’ was not such an inglorious one. It was coined in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV erected the Office for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide) that would supervise the Church’s missionary efforts in the new world. With time, however, the word has gained new and, for obvious reasons, vicious meaning.

French philosopher and sociologist Jacques Ellul, in his work ‘Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes’, citing American political scientist Harold Lasswell, writes, “Propaganda is the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view to influencing the opinions or actions of other individuals or groups for predetermined ends and through psychological manipulations.” Further exploring this definition, he quotes Italian author Antonio Miotto, who said, “Propaganda is a technique of social pressure which tends to create psychological or social groups with a unified structure across the homogeneity of the affective and mental states of the individuals under consideration.”

In simpler terms, propaganda means a certain set of persuasive tactics designed to sway public opinion towards desired ends. Based on those desired outcomes, the tactics of persuasion target a specific audience in the domains of business, education, politics, and most importantly, war.

Propaganda as Public Relations

American writer Edward Bernays, who is also known as the father of Public Relations, in his seminal work Propaganda (originally published in 1928), provides quite an interesting perspective about the functioning of Propaganda. Public relations, he argued, was a civilised version of propaganda where traditional propagandists would be replaced by expert public relations counsels.

Believing the prime function of propaganda is to manufacture consent throughout the public sphere, he provided various political and business case studies in which various political parties and business organisations have used several public relations campaigns to manipulate the popular psyche.

Out of all the available information, which one to use and tweak is sine qua non when designing any propaganda campaign? Bernays argued in this context, “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group… anatomy of society, with its interlocking group formations and loyalties. It sees the individual not only as a cell in the social organism but as a cell organised into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot, and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.”

Let’s take an example of the US’ aid to Ukraine. The prevailing assumption here is that there are two groups, one of which wants to send Ukraine financial aid as much as it requires to defeat Russia, and the other opposes unconditional aid. In the first case, if someone wishes to influence the public sphere, he will argue that the Russia-Ukraine war is a war of democracy vs. autocracy and how the fall of Ukraine can lead to the endangering of democracy across the world, which in turn will also threaten the US’ sphere of influence. By contrast, the opposing side, in an attempt to sway public opinion in its favour, points at the rising unemployment and inflation in the USA in addition to the border security issues and argues that such money should be spent on securing the United States instead of arming Ukraine. Any objective reader of this piece may find both arguments compelling because both of them are not entirely wrong, but they are designed and tweaked in a way to target a particular audience group.

Bernays emphasised the indispensability of appropriate and acceptable emotional content for the success of any propaganda campaign. He argued that emotional content must—(i) coincide in every way with the broad basic plans of the campaign and all its minor details; (ii) be adapted to the many groups of the public at which it is to be aimed; and (iii) conform to the media of the distribution of ideas.

Means to an End

Any research on the topic of propaganda will be incomplete without mentioning Nazi propaganda tactics. “Propaganda is a means and must therefore be judged in relation to the end it is intended to serve,” wrote Adolf Hitler in his autobiographical manifesto ‘Mein Kamph’ in the chapter concerning war propaganda. Hitler argued that propaganda is a weapon—a most terrifying weapon in the hands of those who know how to use it.

Propaganda is supposed to be designed for the broader masses, most importantly those of the lowest mental common denominator, and not for the intellectual classes, for the purpose of propaganda is to appeal to the feelings of the public rather than to their reasoning powers. Further, it is important that well-organised propaganda not investigate the truth objectively; on the contrary, it must present only those aspects of the truth that are favourable to one’s own side. Simply put, propaganda is not entirely a lie but not the objective truth either.

Apart from emotional appeal and repetition, another aspect of Nazi propaganda was heavy censorship and control of information. Including control over education. “It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion,” infamously remarked Joseph Goebbel, chief propagandist for the Nazi Party and later Reich Minister of Propaganda, stressing the importance for governments to have absolute control over the information processed in the public sphere.

Propaganda In the Age of Social Media

In the age of technological advancements, everything becomes easy, from getting groceries to doorsteps to being aware of developments in every part of the world. Likewise, it is also very easy for propaganda to proliferate. It becomes much more dangerous when supplemented by offensive strategic directives.

Countries like China, for example, use modern tools to wage what it calls unrestricted warfare. One of the key components of China’s three warfares strategies is public opinion warfare, the other two being psychological and legal warfare. China’s propaganda machinery works two-fold: on the one hand, it uses all the manipulation and propaganda techniques to boost the CCP’s political agendas domestically; on the other, it also projects China as a muscular power in the international arena.

Another example of well-organised propaganda machine is Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), which acts as the public relations wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces, but one of its aims is to spread disinformation primarily against India. Its YouTube channel is filled with anti-India propaganda videos; it further employs people to organise mass dissent against India on various social media platforms.

In recent times, apart from China & Pakistan, countries like Russia, Iran, and non-state actors like Hamas have been using social media to further their propaganda, flooding the internet with so much information that it has become nearly impossible for the general public to distinguish between a real piece of information and propaganda.

With the widespread use of technologies such as artificial intelligence, new deepfakes can be exploited by any modern propagandist to create unrest and chaos in society.

Countering Propaganda and Way Forward

There is an urgent need to take necessary, legal and governmental, measures to counter the proliferation of propaganda. It is often believed that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The key lies with the people themselves. There is a need for a proper education drive that can make the general population aware of various propaganda tactics used by propagandists.

Instant and timely fact-checking also plays a crucial role in countering propaganda. The process of fact-checking bridges the gap between dubious propaganda and reality. Along with fact-checking, a simultaneous promotion of counter-narratives is equally important, for it is hard to discard old information until we have the updated one to replace it.

In this age of information warfare, the importance of civil-military fusion, especially in developing countermeasures, cannot be overemphasised. Intergovernmental cooperation between like-minded countries can also lead to the development of robust counter-propaganda mechanisms. At the military level, where there do exist proper channels to counter propaganda and information operations, there is an urgent need to develop robust offensive capabilities against the adversaries to win this digital modern war, which was also reaffirmed by recent conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine.


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1 month ago

Usually I do not read article on blogs however I would like to say that this writeup very compelled me to take a look at and do so Your writing taste has been amazed me Thanks quite nice post

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