The History of Propaganda: An Information War
State efforts to promote propaganda messages to their populations are certainly not new in history. Most are probably familiar with WWII propaganda posters vilifying the enemy, or promoting support for the war effort. There is a whole wealth of literature dedicated to Hitler’s use of propaganda to control the minds of his people in his rise to power.
Perhaps the easiest and most historically well-known weapon to control the masses has been religion. Contrary to whatever message Jesus, Mohammed, or Buddha meant to empower common people, elites have historically abused religious institutions and dogmas to justify social inequality and their right to rule. One of the most telling examples of this method in use was described by Titus Livy’s The History of Rome. The Roman Republic (509-27BC) was an oligarchy ruled by an elite political class known as the Patricians, or nobles. By limiting participation in government to only themselves, they ensured preservation of their power. For a while, only Patrician families had representatives in the Republic until the commoners, or Plebeians, created the office outside of the Senate called the Tribune. Plebeians would push for even greater voice in their government by adding consular power as a direct challenge to the Patrician nobles. To counter this threat, the elite used the religious dogma of the time, as Livy writes in The History of Rome, Book 4, “There occurred in that year pestilences and famine. Availing themselves of this opportunity in the next election of tribunes, the nobles said that the gods were angry with Rome for having abused the majesty of her authority, and the only way to placate them was to restore the election of tribunes to its ‘proper’ position.” The result was that the Plebs, terrified of this appeal to the gods, appointed only nobles as tribunes.
To further make the point, many of the privileged families of Rome claimed ancestry from gods as part of their prestige. Julius Caesar was of the Julii family, who claimed ancestry from the god, Venus. Elsewhere in the world, the Emperors of Japan were direct descendants of the sun god, Western royalty held the Divine Right of Kings, and Emperors of China affirmed a Mandate of Heaven. In India, the religious model for reincarnation has justified the staunch social inequalities of the Caste system. In this example, it was culturally assumed that elite families were rewarded for their deeds in their past lives, and the poor committed very terrible sins in theirs; hence warranting their life of slavery. These patterns of religious appeal to the masses to justify social inequality and authority are predictable throughout world history.
The Foundations of Propaganda
Art, sculptures, and architecture have always served to project propaganda through images; however, with the birth of mass literacy and prolific publications, consent to authority would call for a more persuasive approach within the available literature to the public. The greatest challenge to ruling European elites in 19th century was the revolutionary zeal following the French Revolution. Across the board, rulers were forced to grant more and more concessions to the masses as old power began to decline. Like the Plebeians over two thousand years before, people demanded more direct representation in government. As newspapers became more prolific, the power of ideas and words became apparent; hence the beginning of the information war. Throughout the Industrialized world, news coverage benefiting the needs of the ruling elite and imperialism were promoted, and words challenging ruling authority were considered seditious. As early as the 18th century, in the doctrine of seditious libel, truth was no defense. Thanks to cultural indoctrination and war propaganda, America was able to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny” that harbored many religious and nationalist overtones, which the press helped to promote. In publications throughout the period, the United States was not an aggressive invading force, but rather defending itself from the evil Indian savages, Mexicans, and Spanish to justify greater land expansion. In the Early 20th Century, erudite intellectuals would later praise themselves and Woodrow Wilson for having imposed their will upon a reluctant public majority to participate in WW1 with the aid of propaganda, fabrications about German atrocities, and other such devices. Fifteen years after WWI, Harold Lasswell explained in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences that “we should not succumb to democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judges of their own interests.” In other words, they are not. Within the sociological literature of the time, it was more or less assumed that the best judges are the elites, who must, therefore, impose their will for the common good. Using classic historical tactics, Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare demolished unions and other dissident elements. A prominent feature of the time was the suppression of independent politics and free speech. Wilson’s Creel Commission, dedicated to creating war fever among the pacifist public, had demonstrated the efficiency of organized propaganda with the cooperation of loyal media and intellectuals. The commission judged, “one of the best means of controlling news was flooding news channels with ‘facts’ or what amounted to official information.” After WWII, historian Thomas Bailey observed that because the will of the masses cannot be trusted to guide the common good, “our statesmen are forced to deceive them into an awareness of their own long-run interests. Deception of the people may in fact become increasingly necessary.”
The Public Relations Industry
According to public relations pioneer Edward Bernays (1891-1995), “the very essence of the democratic process” is “the freedom to persuade and suggest,” what he calls “the engineering of consent.” “A leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even a general understanding. Democratic leaders must play their part in engineering consent,” applying “scientific principles and tried practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs.” Throughout the 20th century and today, the public relations industry spends vast resources “educating the American people” to ensure a favorable climate for business. “The public mind” is “the only serious danger confronting a company,” an early AT&T executive observed. In its study of business propaganda, the La Follette Committee of the Senate observed that “strong arm methods and propaganda campaigns were used to subdue the labor movement,” particularly in the 1937 Johnstown steel strike. These campaigns spent millions telling the public that nothing was wrong and that “grave dangers lurked” in the proposed remedies of the unions. Today, many Americans are probably aware that they are flooded with business propaganda in commercials and, at times, in films themselves. However, the words and image associations of propaganda do not simply end when the news broadcast (which is supposed to inform the public of the world around them) begins. In fact, it never ends—as will be shown later.
The Agenda Of Propaganda
Although hidden from the national dialogue, the agenda is bluntly documented in primary sources following the 60s social movements. In 1975 the Trilateral Commission conducted a study on the “governability” of democracies and concluded that the television media had become a “notable new source of power that contributes to “reduction of governmental authority at home and decline in influence abroad.” In the report’s own words, they called for a “moderation in democracy.” In other words, their view was that the general public must be more apathetic and driven away from political debate and action if democracy is to survive. A Freedom House study on media coverage of the Vietnam War concluded that because of “biased” coverage of the sixties, the media lost the war in Vietnam, thus harming the cause of democracy and freedom the US fought for in vain. In a study of mobilization of popular opinion to promote state power, Benjamin Ginsberg asserts that “western governments have used market mechanisms to regulate popular perspectives.” According to Noam Chomsky’s research on propaganda, since those segments of the media that can reach a substantial audience are major corporate conglomerates, Chomsky concludes the “ideological worldviews of upper class elites will dominate the marketplace of ideas through sponsored advertisement. The influence of corporate advertisers upon news journalism is astonishing. Journalist projects unsuitable for corporate sponsorship tend to die out.” One such example he cites is how the public TV station WNET lost its corporate support as a result of a documentary about multinationals buying up huge tracts of land in the third world.
Lies and Bias Reporting: Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model
In a review of media coverage of the United States from 1950 until the late 80s, Herman & Chomsky (1989) show that mainstream news fits well within a propaganda model and conformity to the needs of business elites. Their hypothesis was that stories favorable to American business and foreign policy would be reported and unfavorable stories to this interest would be ignored, or have negative editorial coverage. The accuracy of their propaganda model is quite shocking. Although the Soviet violations of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements after WWII are the topic of much literature, Chomsky notes, “little attention has been given to U.S. violations of these agreements and their consequences, though qualitatively not different from the Soviets.” In the Vietnam War, the assumption was that the United States was defending democracy in South Vietnam. However, the “US established the murderous Diem dictatorship to block promised elections when it looked like the wrong side would win. Meanwhile, the press looked the other way and instead reported on how the Chinese were funding the Communist Vietminh to “threaten ‘free Vietnam’” as the New York Times reported,” cited by Chomsky.
In order to make his analysis more concrete Chomsky & Herman analyzed global atrocities. Chomsky considers three categories of massacres: called “constructive,” “benign,” and “nefarious” bloodbaths. One example was his analysis of media coverage of the mass killings in Cambodia under Pol Pot (a “constructive” bloodbath) and the US backed Indonesian killings in East Timor in the 1970s (A “benign” bloodbath). Since both were state massacres against their own populations and took place at almost exactly the same time, it made a side-by-side comparison more valid. As expected from the propaganda model, reporting of Timor killings against the impoverished leftists were barely covered by western journalists. However, many stories of refugees fleeing South East Asia to escape the “horrors of Communism” were reported and made headlines throughout the decade. The thousands fleeing US backed terror states in Latin America and East Timor did not fit into this narrative and therefore were not reported. Also in the 1970s, El Salvador had a proliferation of social movements aimed at organizing the El Salvadorian economy to benefit the people. Since this was a threat to the established system already in place that benefited the multinational corporations, the reaction was a violent outburst of state terror organized by the United States. Independent press in El Salvador was destroyed by the US backed regime. There was not one word or editorial comment in the New York Times nor from other news outlets in the years since. Instead, outcry lied with Nicaragua and their alleged atrocities. In the 1980s, the Nicaraguan government was resisting efforts by the CIA to instigate a coup. All violence on behalf of the Sandinistas consumed American press as proof of the aggressiveness of Communist totalitarians. By 1986, US support for the Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas was opposed by 80% of Americans. As Congress debated the issue, Chomsky observed “the New York Times and the Washington Post ran no fewer than 85 opinion columns on the matter. Although some were divided on Contra aid, all 85 were critical of the Sandinistas. Opinion pieces from Latin American scholars and others with sympathetic views for the Sandinistas were rejected.” “The vast majority of ordinary Central Americans were also left out of the debate. They only accounted for 9% of attributed news sources.” In the editorials reviewed in the six years of conflict, “the Times never mentioned such matters as the assassination of Archbishop Romero or the raid by US backed security forces to destroy evidence of his assassination.” On June 27, 1986, the World Court condemned the US for its support for the Contras and illegal economic warfare. As consistent with the propaganda model, the American press portrayed the World Court as criminals and the rule of law was held inapplicable to the United States.
Meanwhile, Salvadorian and Guatemalan atrocities that claimed the lives of approximately 150,000 people during this period, or the US client Honduras who left hundreds of thousands to starve to death while the country exported food for profit in the agribusiness; all went unreported in the media. Also at the same time, the US client state of Israel was launching illegal aggression against Lebanon that virtually annexed part of its territory. Palestinian refugee camps and Lebanonese towns were bombed. Dozens of civilians were killed or wounded. Unlike Nicaragua, Chomsky detects how “these operations were barely reported and had no outrage.” Israel would launch 26 raids into Lebanon that year, some completely unprovoked. A UN condemnation of the raid voted 14 to 1 with the US vetoing. “The fact that Israel maintained a security zone in Southern Lebanon controlled by terrorist mercenaries passes without notice, as does Israel’s regular hijacking of ships in international waters and other actions that do not get reported.” As Chomsky concludes from his analysis, readers of the newspapers “did not receive a range of perceptions during this time. Only the view that follows the propaganda model for the needs of the state finds a narrative. The fact that the Sandinistas diverted resources to the poor majority, improved health and literacy standards finds no words in the press. Such matters are unhelpful to required doctrine and better ignored.” As for the reasons why such stories fall on deaf hears, Chomsky continues, “The underlying assumption is that there is a stable international order that the United States must defend. They propose to construct a global system that the United States would dominate and within which U.S. business interests would thrive. The Soviet Union of course being the major threat to this planned order generates a media narrative opposing the brutality of Soviet leaders in Afghanistan while cheerfully assisting such contemporary monsters as the Ethiopian Junta or neo-Nazi generals in Argentina.” Countless other examples can be found in Chomsky’s book Necessary illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Societies.
What Should Be Well Known
There is nothing controversial about historic efforts by powerful parties to “engineer consent.” This trend has existed in every society and should be taught in every school as historical fact. The blending of nationalist fervor and religious images and words is a tactic as old as civilization itself. If one were to take a critical observation of society around them, these familiar messages are very common. When considering historic precedent and media coverage throughout the Cold War and beyond, it should be of little surprise that the accuracy of current affairs is compromised in favor of the wealthiest 1%. This has historically always been the case, and there is no society that fairs better to the knowledge of the editor. As Noam Chomsky concludes, “News media today can (and is) subject to convenient inaccuracies and improper reporting of facts. The result has been the dismantling of state programs designed to protect the poor, the transfer of wealth to elites, and the conversion of the state closer to a welfare state for the privileged.” The modern system of propaganda has been scientifically constructed over the years by liberal intellectuals, sociologists, and business elites to create what is now called the “public relations” industry, or PR. It should be remembered that PR stands for propaganda when seen. From the White House to Monsanto, it is a skilled art that every institution must have. It infiltrates news media through the market of advertisement. The majority of television news has a bias towards more wealthy audiences, which improve advertising rates. According to Chomsky, “the major media are corporations ‘selling’ privileged audiences to other businesses. It would hardly come as a surprise if the picture of the world they present were to reflect the perspectives and interests of the buyers of advertisement. The media are vigilant guardians protecting privilege from the threat of public understanding and participation.” The simple fact is that news organizations are institutions and institutions throughout history contain actions and beliefs. Since the time of Woodrow Wilson, exaggeration of the Communist threat has contained actions and beliefs in American history. Critics of U.S. aggression or of that from U.S. client states, such as Israel, are ridiculed as “partisans of Hanoi,” “apologists for Communism,” or in the case of Israel, “anti-Semitic” or “self hating Jews.” Ever since the 1800s, the overriding agenda has been the commitment to block the free flow of ideas. This is sure to continue in the new digital age. All coverage of Iraq, Ukraine, or elsewhere is distorted “by deeper plans to turn the third world into industrial capitalist centers. Its regions must fulfill their functions as sources of raw materials and markets, and must be exploited.“ The fact that all major news networks are biased is well documented in history and deserves to become commonly known in order prevent such disastrous failures in investigative reporting, such as public support for the 2003 Iraq War, from ever happening again.
Chomsky, N. (1993). Manufacturing consent: Media and propaganda. Boulder, CO: David Barsamian.
Chomsky, N. (1989). Necessary Illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Societies. ON, Canada: CBC Massey Lectures.
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