In his lecture »From Propaganda to Fake News: Deception, Manipulation and Truth in the Contemporary Media Environment« on September 6, 2017 in the context of the exhibition »After the Fact. Propaganda in the 21st Century« Piers Robinson discussed the questions of how we come to be manipulated by such campaigns and (how/if) we can defend ourselves against them. For us, Robinson summed up his talk in a short article.
Political debate today is frequently dominated by controversy over ‘fake news’ and we are regularly informed that various actors, from the ‘alt right’ to the ‘alt left’ and Russia, are targeting Western publics with this form of manipulated and distorted information. The focus of the fake news debate, however, belies the fact that the manipulation of beliefs through propaganda has been a persistent feature of the political landscape for over a century. In fact, the art of propaganda was widely debated in the first part of the 20th century with key thinkers such as Edward Bernays, Walter Lippman and Harold Lasswell openly advocating its use in order to shape public beliefs, behaviours and to manufacture consent (Lippman). Since then, however, new terms have come into circulation in order to describe propaganda. As Bernays explained, ‘propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans […] using it [during WW1]. So what I did was to […] find some other words. So we found the words Counsel on Public Relations’. Today a euphemism industry abounds and terms such as strategic communication, perception management, public diplomacy, political marketing, advertising, information operations and psychological operations (psy ops) have been added to public relations. In short, propaganda has been successfully rebranded and our awareness of the extent to which we are all subject to it has been blunted.
Propaganda can have huge consequences. A now seminal example of contemporary propaganda was the campaign waged by the US and UK governments in order to persuade everyone that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). It is now well documented that the US and UK governments manipulated intelligence in order to present Iraq as much more threatening than it actually was. Sir John Chilcot, Chair of the recently published 6 year long Iraq War Inquiry, stated to the BBC that prime Minister Tony Blair had not been ‘straight’ with the British public. The war in Iraq has killed hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps more, and the conflict continues to this day. But it now appears likely that a much larger deception has been at work. Chilcot’s Iraq Inquiry report revealed damning indicative evidence that, from the start, a plan to attack multiple countries was put into play immediately following 9/11. Chilcot’s report published Bush-Blair communications from the immediate aftermath of 9/11 which discussed phases one and two of the ‘war on terror’ and indicated debate over when to ‘hit’ countries unconnected with Al Qaeda, such as Iraq, Syria and Iran. Remarkably, Chilcot also reported a British embassy cable issued just days after 9/11 which stated ‘the “regime-change hawks” in Washington are arguing that a coalition put together for one purpose (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region’. By releasing these documents, Chilcot corroborated former Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark’s claim that he was informed immediately after 9/11 that seven countries, including Syria and Iran, were to be taken out in five years. All of this evidence provides powerful initial confirmation that the so-called ‘war on terror’, sold to Western publics as a fight against Al Qaeda-linked terrorism, was actually about pursuing geo-strategic interests via a ‘regime change’ strategy. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that the current wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen are linked, relatively directly, with this same strategy. As such, it appears increasingly likely that the ‘war on terror’ narrative has performed significantly, perhaps mainly, as a propaganda strategy designed to mobilise western publics to support regime change wars that have little to do with the terrorism associated with 9/11. This, potentially, is a major deception and millions have died as a result.
Propaganda, then, is not something from the distant past, or something that is the sole preserve of political extremists or the latest ‘official enemy’. It is alive and well right in the heart of our own democracies. What needs to be done? Within academia, the disciplines of political science, sociology and communication studies need to once again take propaganda seriously, and start to determine the extent to which the very functioning of contemporary liberal democracy has been undermined by it. More generally, we all need to think critically about the information we receive. In practical terms this means that we should not blindly accept what we are told by powerful political actors. Just because we are told by our governments that Russia is threatening our security and interfering in our elections, does not necessarily mean that it is true. We also need to learn to move across different information sources, including mainstream/corporate media and alternative/independent media, and to develop the media literacy skills necessary to help discern the difference between manipulated information and that which can help us understand better a particular issue. Neither mainstream/corporate news media, which is so frequently a conduit for the propaganda campaigns initiated by powerful political actors, nor alternative/independent news media, hold a monopoly on the truth. They are all, to varying degrees, potentially useful sources of information and all should be consulted. Most of all, we need to use our intelligence and develop confidence in our own judgements. But it should not just be down to us, the public, to fight our way through the propaganda. Powerful actors, and in the West this usually means governments and big business, need to be pushed to improve the quality of their communication strategies so that there is far less deception and so-called ‘spin’ than there is today: higher ethical standards need to be campaigned for.
Finally, the fight against propaganda needs to be understood for what it is. It is a struggle against manipulation by powerful actors and a battle for democracy and accountability. Of the major challenges facing us all in the 21st century, from war through to climate change and poverty, accurate information is essential to informed and open democratic debate. To achieve that, we must learn to navigate the highly propagandised information environment that now exists, and start to challenge the institutions and organisations that have become so reliant on propaganda in order to manipulate our beliefs and order our conduct. This is a huge challenge, but it is an essential and urgent one.
Prof. Dr. Piers Robinson is Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism in the Department of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield (UK). Previosuly, he was Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester (2005-2011) as well as Lecturer in Political Communication at the University of Liverpool (1999-2005). His research focus is the nexus of communication, media and world politics with particular attention on areas and strategies of conflict and war.