[Reader-list] Propaganda Machines Go Into Overdrive During Times of Strife

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Thu Oct 4 22:09:30 IST 2001

Published on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 in the Toronto Star

The Art of Persuasion
Propaganda Machines Go Into Overdrive During Times of Strife

by Vinay Menon

Propaganda - most simply, information used to persuade a group - is 
as old as civilization. The Aztecs used it to rationalize human 
sacrifice. Alexander the Great understood its symbolic power and had 
his image etched on coins.

But propaganda has always been most crucial during periods of conflict and war.

So today, with advertising and other forms of modern persuasion 
ubiquitous, how do leaders slice through the muddled cacophony and 
target citizens with messages?

"The whole notion of propaganda now is up for grabs," says Robert 
Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University. "In this age of 24-hour 
news and spin, where there is constant coverage, propaganda has come 
out of the closet and it really lives among us every day."

If Thompson is right, what does this mean to the "War Against 
Terrorism," which seems to be moving toward a more active phase in 
Afghanistan this week?

Unlike past military efforts, the White House has warned the new war 
will unfold with "unprecedented secrecy." Though it's now a cliché, 
it is important to remember truth is often the first casualty of war.

Ironically, says Thomas DeLuca, a political science professor at 
Fordham University in New York, the sheer magnitude of the Sept. 11 
terrorist attacks created a temporary "propaganda-free zone" because 
people were simply horrified by the visceral images.

For days there were no television commercials. Almost all news 
coverage was devoted to the story. The entire world seemed to 
collapse into the deepening tragedy.

"This is an unprecedented event in U.S. history," DeLuca says. "There 
has never been an attack like this. Concentration on this event is 
highly focused. People want the president to have a plan, to reassure 
them, to be straightforward.

"So George Bush will have an enormous benefit as his words cut 
through the propaganda that is usually around us."

Anthony Pratkanis, professor of psychology at the University of 
California in Santa Cruz, and author of Age Of Propaganda: The 
Everyday Use And Abuse Of Persuasion, agrees. But he says in the 
weeks ahead, as collective shock begins to ebb, Bush will be faced 
with a number of daunting challenges. "If Bush wants to maintain and 
sustain the effort, the emotional propaganda will be okay for a short 
war, but in the long term he needs to deliver persuasion. He needs to 
form consensus and argue with substance, not slogan."

That seemed to be the case recently, as Bush addressed U.S. Congress. 
As cameras rolled and politicians and lawmakers frequently wobbled to 
their feet, and to thundering applause, Bush delivered a rousing, 
evocative speech.

But the raw emotion and patriotism that has since bloomed atop the 
rubble in New York and Washington is not necessarily beneficial to 
anybody in the long run, says Nancy Snow, assistant director with the 
Center for Communications and Community at UCLA. "A `war mentality' 
needs to be decontextualized. It needs to be very clear, black and 
white, good guys versus bad guys," says Snow, author of Propaganda 
Inc.: Selling America's Culture To The World.

"So you end up with a single enemy, with slogans like `Wanted: Dead 
or Alive,' ones that simplify the issues. Bush is using an `everyman' 
approach to what is actually a very complex problem, burdensome in a 
historical and economic context."

And this simplification, whether deliberate or not, can cloud 
fundamental issues. In times of conflict, things are not always as 
they appear.

Before the Persian Gulf War, for example, the world gasped with 
reports that Iraqi troops were yanking sick babies from hospital 
incubators and leaving them to die on the floor during the invasion 
of Kuwait. The "dead babies" account was repeated hundreds of times, 
in the media and in speeches by U.S. leaders, who were now clearly on 
a war footing. Other reports - that Iraq had amassed thousands of 
troops along the Saudi Arabia border - were also used to convince the 
public that military action was necessary.

Both of those reports proved incorrect, but not until the war was over.

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of 
Minnesota, says the Persian Gulf War took traditional propaganda to a 
new level as U.S. authorities controlled the flow of information in 
the media and expanded the lexicon of military euphemisms. Cruise 
missiles. Smart bombs. Collateral damage. Safe bunkers. Hard targets. 
Hit ratios. Surgical strikes. To western television viewers, the war 
must have appeared essentially bloodless.

John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine and author of 
Second Front: Censorship And Propaganda In The Gulf War, says he 
believes the war on terrorism will unfold with even more secrecy and 
censorship. "Already we have a kind of `ahistoricality' setting in," 
he explains. "Nobody here is talking about some very important 
issues. You're simply not allowed to discuss the history of American 
foreign policy."

Such discussions are seen as unseemly, morally ambiguous, and steeped 
in preposterous and offensive anti-Americanism. The issue, to many, 
is simple good versus evil.

Says Jacobs: "The whole notion of propaganda raises a larger 
question: How do you control and manage press reports and the 
information that is reaching the general public?"

During the uprising in Germany, as the Nazis gained power, Josef 
Goebbels was able to impart nationalist rhetoric and manufacture 
consent through selective advertising, state-produced films, and 
elaborate, orchestrated public events. (Adolf Hitler also asked Leni 
Reifenstahl to film the Nazi Party's annual rally in Nuremburg. Her 
film, Triumph Of The Will, is now considered a seminal exercise in 
fascist propaganda.)

Decades later, Slobodan Milosevic created "demo networks" - ragtag 
groups of unemployed youth that would optically boost the size at 
rallies held for Serbian nationalism.

More recently, Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile U.S. Authorities are 
calling the prime suspect in the recent attacks, has filmed several 
training videos. As tools of propaganda, the grainy, disjointed 
footage is used to mollify moderates and recruit new soldiers for the 
Holy War. (During its bloody war with Russia, Afghan rebels were 
given camcorders to record their triumphs.)

In totalitarian states, persuasion is straightforward. Citizens are 
simply told what to believe and how to behave. But in democratic 
nations, governance has nuance, inextricably tethered to divergent 
principles of individual freedom and mass control.

As scholar Noam Chomsky says: "Propaganda is to democracy what 
violence is to totalitarianism."

In this context, says Pratkanis, where propaganda is concerned, 
governments realize the importance of the media. "The mass media is 
now the primary place where we have political discussions. So one of 
the keys to effective political leadership is being able to control 
the news media's agenda. That agenda is not necessarily how you are 
talking about something, but what you are talking about."

In the war against terrorism, he says, there have been a number of 
examples where U.S. Authorities announced, "they were planning to 
release" certain information in the future. This allows the media to 
run a story about the "future release" of information, rather than 
the information itself.

"This war will be a challenge for democracy itself," Pratkanis 
predicts. "Because democracy thrives when everything is in the light 
of day. Now democracy in the United States will require a high degree 
of trust."

And trust is a commodity in rapid decline. The Internet, decades of 
independent research, and the rapid evolution of alternative media 
has created a population that is much more sophisticated in its 
ability to recognize and decipher propaganda - irrespective of the 

"Audiences throughout the world are constantly becoming more exposed 
to the latest in international mass media entertainment, they are 
better trained, more aware, often more cynical," notes Oliver 
Thomson, author of Easily Led: A History of Propaganda.

Randall Bytwerk, a professor of communication at Calvin College in 
Michigan, author and a foremost expert in propaganda, says: 
"Propaganda, and the control of public opinion, becomes harder when 
you lack control over the images."

This proved to be the case in Vietnam, where public support suddenly 
dipped as the horrifying images of war were broadcast back home. 
"Vietnam was a turning point because there were reporters all over 
the place," Bytwerk says.

In the stormy, post-Vietnam years, the U.S. has taken a cautious 
approach to war. (In fact, the number of firefighters and police 
offices who died during rescue efforts at the World Trade Center is 
more than the total military personnel who have fallen in combat 
since the 1983 invasion of Grenada.)

Given the global scope of the new war, and the potential 
repercussions, Garth Jowett, a communication professor at University 
of Houston, says Bush has to be very careful in the propaganda he 
uses. "I fully expected a propaganda onslaught that was going to be 
totally irrational. But as I understand it, there was an internal 
conflict within the Bush administration in terms of what kind of 
message to give the American public."

Jowett says many people have compared the attacks with Pearl Harbor. 
But the analogy is problematic. In that case, there was a clear 
nation-state enemy. And it's important to remember, he adds, that 
most Americans did not see footage of the Japanese attack for almost 
a year.

"In terms of propaganda, those visual images (of planes striking the 
World Trade Center) could not be matched by any other imaginable 
images," says John Lampe, chair of the Department of History at the 
University of Maryland. "In fact, if there is any propaganda campaign 
at play at all, it is to prevent the violent, stereotypical response 
we have seen domestically in the past."

Lampe is referring to the threats and attacks that have been leveled 
at Arab-Americans and Muslims throughout North America. The violence, 
including suspected murder, has raised the specter of the Japanese 
internment camps during World War II.

As Jowett notes: "Bush has to maintain the public's confidence that 
the government will actually do something. But he also doesn't want 
to get the public so riled up so that they are running out murdering 
their own citizens."

And as Bush said during his speech to Congress: "I also want to speak 
tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your 
faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by 
millions more in countries that America counts as friends."

First Lady Laura Bush went on 60 Minutes recently to discuss the 
importance of solidarity and urge Americans to not attack their 
fellow citizens. And during the recent celebrity telethon, America: A 
Tribute To Heroes, a number of stars, including Will Smith and 
Muhammad Ali, urged tolerance.

Similarly, this week, U.S. Authorities have scrambled with messages 
about the safety of air travel - even though Ronald Reagan Washington 
National Airport has remained closed (it will open partially 
tomorrow). And a number of experts have also started appearing on 
television telling Americans their country is prepared for any 
biological attack, even though other non-government sources warn the 
opposite is true.

"We are an action oriented culture," Snow says. "We are not an 
introspective culture.

``And that's where the sloganeering and jingoism comes into play.

``We are almost given a script and walking papers in terms of how we 
are supposed to respond."

Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited


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