April 25, 2006

Of Propaganda and Disinformation in Politics

by Rodrigue Tremblay


"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country."

Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 1928


Propaganda is defined as a specific type of message presentation, directly aimed at influencing the opinions of people, rather than impartially providing information. It is a branch of the public relations industry. Political propaganda, on the other hand, is the art of conscious and intelligent manipulation of the attitudes and behavior of the electorate in order to control the democratic process.


Why is political propaganda so dangerously effective? Essentially, it is because most people pay scant attention to public affairs, being totally absorbed in their own daily struggles. Not having the time and the motivation to get informed on their own, they are easy prey to those who have a direct interest in propagating particular ideologies, points of views and particular interpretations of reality. More specifically, those controlling propaganda machines—politicians and their backers in the main media—are in a position to impose their agendas and advance policies that serve their special interests. In the age of electronic media, those who control the levers of information or disinformation control the political process. And, in this day and age, those are the ones with the most money.


In totalitarian states where the levers of power are in the hands of a state bureaucracy, politicians and bureaucrats control and impose censorship over the media. In countries where private wealth and incomes are highly concentrated, those who own the media set the tone and are in a position to dominate the public discourse, impose their political agenda and influence the population at election time.


One who knew something about political propaganda, Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany, summed up its enormous power, when he said: “Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise. In other words, clever propaganda, when unchecked by critical analysis and unconfronted with reality, can persuade a people of practically anything, whether what is advanced is true or not. In fact, for devious-minded politicians (and this applies to their co-conspirators in the media), truth and facts are no obstacles to their methods for gaining power and to their ways of advancing their interests.


In the United States, in particular, political propaganda took a turn for the worse about 20 years ago, when rich far right groups took over the control of most of the main media, thanks to self-serving so-called deregulations that served their special interests well. One of the leaders in the concerted move to monopolize the media for conservative political purposes is Richard A.Viguerie, who wrote a whole book explaining how this was done. Viguerie is the 1960's and 1970's propagandist pioneer of ideological and political direct mail. He and his co-author David Franke show how American conservative political groups capitalized upon alternative media (direct mail, talk radio, cable news TV, and the Internet) to spread their message, win elections and gain political power.


A classic reference on political propaganda is Serge Chakotin's Rape of the Masses, on the techniques of mass political propaganda and the theory of conditioned reflexes. According to Chakotin, those who intend to impose a political ideology need not speak to people's minds, but rather tap upon the primary collective subconscious of the masses, which invests the history and the founding myths of a country. In that way, "people can be forced to act in ways predetermined without their knowledge," unaware that they are the victim of a systematic manipulation. —There lies the strength of political propaganda; people are conditioned through propaganda to think and act according to the preset agenda of the manipulators. It is a fact that, even in well established democracies, many prefer to be lied to and made comfortable in their own mind, than to be told the truth and made uncomfortable. In reality, some people literally enjoy being lied to, if the lies fit their predetermined ideas and interests.


Recent history illustrates brillantly the force behind political propaganda, as reported in James  Bovard's recent book "Attention Deficit Democracy". Polls indicated that after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, only 3 percent of Americans thought that Iraq or Saddam Hussein had anything to do with the attacks. This is understandable since Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network took responsability for the attacks and the terrorists came from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, none from Iraq. However, after the Bush-Cheney administration started making a direct link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11, and the media echoed their message, the percentage of Americans who believed Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks jumped to 72 percent by February 2003. The fact that this was an outright lie did not matter: the propaganda results were real and Bush Jr. could proceed with his war of aggression against Iraq while claiming public support.


It has been established, indeed, and reported in the Los Angeles Times, that ten days after 9/11, "President Bush was told in a highly classified briefing [President's C.I.A. Daily Brief] that the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence linking the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein to the attacks and that there was scant credible evidence that Iraq had any significant collaborative ties with Al Qaeda." On the contrary, the government of Saddam Hussein actually attempted to monitor and infiltrate the Islamic terrorist groups, which it regarded as adversaries of its secular regime.


This information had been delivered not only to the president, but also to the vice president and other top Bush administration officials. Nonetheless President George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney repeatedly made implicit (and at times specific) links between Saddam and Al Qaeda until many Americans started to believe that the 9/11 attacks had been carried out by Iraqis.


This type of propaganda actually began as early as 1998, when a group of influent Neocons sent a letter to President Bill Clinton, on January 26, 1998, enumerating the reasons for launching a war against Iraq. They said that the American "strategy should aim, above all, at the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime from power."...and that his removal was absolutely necessary for "the safety of American troops in the region, of our friends and allies like Israel and the moderate Arab states, and a significant portion of the world's supply of oil." There you have the real reasons for the war against Iraq: oil, Israel and American military bases in the Middle East region, seasoned with crass domestic electoral considerations. The 'weapons of mass destruction' pretext was only a cover for this concealed agenda for an unprovoked aggression. —People who pretend that they still do not know why the Bush administration attacked Iraq have just not done their homework.


For those who are interested, author James Bamford has documented extensively the propaganda techniques that the Bush-Cheney administration used to 'sell' its war against Iraq to the American public, how it presented false information, employed fake journalists and manipulated the media.


In a democracy, political propaganda and the practice of official obfuscation and disinformation are not without consequences. When a country has a citizenry which has been deceived and cannot do its own thinking, people cannot vote intelligently or make their views known efficiently; this opens the door to the tyranny and oppression of the majority by a minority. 


In the past, great leaders have spoken against the ravage of propaganda. For example, General Douglas MacArthur, issued this warning in his famous 'Old Soldiers Never Die' speech on May 15, 1951: "It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificually induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear." Maybe people of this stature should speak out more often, whenever the propaganda of fear is being used again for narrow political purposes.



Posted by Rodrigue Tremblay, April 25, 2006, at 9:00 am


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