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The Age of Propaganda

Written by Piers Robinson.

Although widely recognised, theorised and researched during the first decades of the twentieth century, propaganda has slid from scholarly attention. With the rise of Public Relations (PR) studies in the academy and the dramatic growth of the global PR industry our appreciation of the ways in which our minds can be manipulated has been diminished. Of course, none of this has been an accident. As Edward Bernays, the founding father of contemporary PR, explained ‘propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans … using it [during the First World War]. So what I did was to … find some other words. So we found the words Counsel on Public Relations.’ Today our attention is distracted by the array of euphemisms now in circulation, most of which, as the late British historian of propaganda, Professor Philip M. Taylor, noted, are designed to eclipse the fact that democracies engage in propaganda as a matter of routine. Strategic communication, perception management, psychological operations, information and influence operations – the list goes on – are just some of the labels in use to describe activities that would have once been described as propaganda.

This euphemism game is a real problem because it has worked against serious academic and public engagement with the strategies of manipulation that now play such a major role in the exercise of power, whether in our democracies or in the authoritarian states who are the ‘usual suspects’ when accusations of propaganda are made. The last 15 years of the post 9/11 ‘war on terror’ are testament to the extent to which propaganda is ubiquitous in the contemporary world. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, for example, now stands as a seminal example of an instance where two governments embarked upon an elaborate and concerted propaganda campaign in order to persuade domestic and global opinion that Saddam Hussein posed a serious Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) threat to the world. As has now been extensively documented, this propaganda involved manipulation of intelligence and exaggerated claims of weapons being deployable with 45 minutes of an order to do so. In short, the British and American publics were manipulated into supporting the invasion of a largely defenceless country that possessed no usable WMD. Public awareness of the plight of the Palestinian peoples in the West Bank and Gaza strip, after a few years of optimism following the 1993 Oslo Accords, would appear to have been clouded by robust propaganda aimed at presenting the conflict as one of Israel’s defence against ideological extremists and terrorists rather than the occupation and progressive take-over of land that is allocated, by international law and the United Nations, to the Palestinians. The possibility of anything approaching a reasonable or just settlement for the Palestinians is rapidly slipping away as the living situation in the Gaza strip worsens and more land is taken from Palestinians in the West Bank. Away from the realm of conflict and war, the role of propaganda and persuasion with respect to the tobacco industry, which worked tirelessly for decades to help obscure the health risks of smoking, and also more recently the fossil fuel industry which has sought to sow seeds of doubt regarding human impact on global warming, highlight the role of propaganda (they call it ‘PR’) in the service of big business. In short, propaganda and the ‘intelligent manipulation of the mind’ play a central role in defining issues of our time, are central to the exercise of power, and have profound implications for how we understand governance and the state of our democracy.

It is time, therefore, for more rather than less engagement with propaganda and it is necessary to reinvigorate both intellectual inquiry into this manipulative form of persuasion and influence, as well as raise public awareness about it. Perhaps of greatest importance is persuading the disciplines of political science and sociology to, once again, take propaganda seriously. For too long these disciplines have relegated propaganda to a sub-field of communication studies and failed to appreciate just how central the concept is to understanding power, hegemony, governance and democracy. We also need to theorise more fully the full range of persuasion and influence strategies in play, including methods of deception as well as coercion and incentivisation. With respect to the latter two methods, it is important for contemporary scholars of propaganda to recognise more fully that persuasion and influence can involve actions as well as words: Western ‘counter-insurgency’ operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are testimony to the use of combinations of physical force (military threats) and incentivisation (money and resources) in order to persuade and influence populations. Finally, and looking forward, the field of propaganda studies needs to engage more fully with ethical concerns. This means a more thorough going exploration of the circumstances in which propaganda is justified and, also, the development of forms of persuasion and influence that, rather than manipulate, work to persuade in a consensual and democratic fashion. Finally, engagement with practitioners and the public is essential. The task of scholarship should be to shape and improve the world and, for the field of propaganda studies, this entails working to improve the ways in which professional communicators conduct themselves and providing publics with the knowledge and skills to defend themselves against manipulation. This was tried once back in the 1930s with the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. It is time is time for this to be tried again.

Piers Robinson is Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism in the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield.  Image credit: CC by Tony Fischer/Flickr

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