Saturday, 23 January 2010

War, Spin, PR and Propaganda

"We must remember that in time of war what is said on the enemy's side of the front is always propaganda, and what is said on our side of the front is truth and righteousness, the cause of humanity and a crusade for peace"— Walter Lippmann

Our first class in this module focused on a discussion around PR and propaganda and we had the opportunity to watch "War Spin: The Media and the Iraq War." The documentary examines the story of US Private Jessica Lynch and tries to reveal some troubling facts about how American news media spins the truth in an effort to increase war-time morale.

British journalist John Kampfner presents his view on what happened to Lynch, and points out discrepancies in the news and stories that were sent out to the public. By bringing forward several aspects of the news industry, the program raises questions about war-time propaganda and the ethics, of lack thereof, of journalists.

Defining Propaganda

The word propaganda comes from the Latin name Congregatio de Propaganda Fide ("Congregation for the Spreading of the Faith), a department founded by Pope Gregory XV and devoted to the spread of Catholicism. The term itself, in that context, did not specifically refer to any negative practice, although propaganda certainly has gathered negative connotations in today’s society.

Propaganda messages can be delivered as part of the mainstream news media, including music, magazines, movies, and television shows. It can also take the form of reports, publications, and leaflets targeted to a particular segment of the population. Techniques used in propaganda can include appeals to fear, statements of prejudice, disinformation, demonizing the enemy, intentional vagueness or oversimplification. Typically, the most effective propaganda campaigns are based upon the truth; however, the facts are presented selectively in order to encourage people to come to a particular conclusion.

Harold Laswell (1971) defined propaganda as "the control of opinion by significant symbols, or, so to speak, more concretely and less accurately by stories, rumours, reports, pictures, and other forms of social communication. There is a need for a word which means the making of a deliberately one-sided statement to a mass audience. Let us choose 'propaganda' as such a word."

Edward Bernays (1928) defined modern propaganda as "a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group. He also defined public relations as "the attempt by information, persuasion and adjustment, to engineer public support for an activity, cause, movement, or institution". It's easy to see how both of Bernays' definitions convey a similar theme.

Both used as effective communication tools - PR and propaganda are supposed to position themselves at opposite ends of the spectrum. However, in the recent and not so recent past, governments have aggressively used PR techniques to reach the same results that propaganda achieved during the First and Second World War. The Iraq War and the Jessica Lynch's story are only two of many such examples.

Propaganda & PR Techniques in times of war

Phillip Knightley, investigative journalist, in an article he wrote for the The Guardian, identified the four stages of preparing a nation for war with the help of propaganda, but also more modern PR techniques:

• The crisis: a crisis which negotiations seem unable to resolve is reported to the public. Politicians, while calling for diplomacy, warn of military retaliation. The media reports this as "We’re on the brink of war", "War is inevitable" or other similar statements.
• The demonization of the enemy’s leader: comparing the leader with Hitler is a good start because of the instant images his name provokes. For example, Saddam Hussein was painted as a second Hitler by the Americans, hated by his own people and despised in the Arab world.
• The demonization of the enemy as individuals: for example, suggesting that the enemy is insane or otherwise incapacitated to make rational decisions.
• Atrocities: this includes making up stories to whip up and strengthen emotional reactions. A well-known example is the Kuwait babies' story, which I referred to in this post.

In March 2005, the New York Times revealed that there have been a large amount of fake news created by US government departments, such as the Pentagon, the State Department, the Census Bureau and others, and disseminated through the mainstream media. According to David Barstow and Robin Stein, the US Bush administration has “aggressively used public relations to pre-package news" and subsequently broadcast them on local stations across the country without any acknowledgement of the government's role in their production. These segments, that have reached millions, could amount to propaganda by the US Government within the United States, as well as internationally.

During the Iraq War, the US implemented several propaganda techniques: for one, they created false radio personalities (for example on Radio Tikrit) that would disseminate pro-American information on stations that were supposed to be run by supporters of Saddam Hussein. (Source: Schleifer, Ron. "Reconstructing Iraq: Winning the Propaganda War in Iraq." Middle East Quarterly, 2005, 15-24). Moreover, according to New York Times, they paid Iraqis to publish articles written by American troops in their local newspapers, under the assumption that they are unbiased, objective and truthful accounts of events. And the examples could go on and on, not only related to the US and Iraq but to the Afghan war, the war in Somalia (2006-2009), to China, North Korea or Yugoslavia.

What happened to ethics?

The problem we are facing today is that propaganda and PR, in a political context, are becoming harder and harder to separate. Tom Rankin says that "if what you're 'spinning' has a solid basis in fact, you're doing PR. If not, it's propaganda." However, it is widely established that effective propaganda techniques are based on the truth, which is sent out to the public in a selective manner. So basically it is spinned. Then where do we draw the line between propaganda and PR?

If a presidential candidate hires a PR agency to represent him, the role of the firm is to propagate a positive image of this person and organisation to the public, with the goal of getting him elected. Similarly, missionaries would propagate doctrines of the Catholic Church with the goal of spreading the religion and encouraging conversation. However, one falls under the heading of propaganda while the other is considered to be PR. How do we make the distinction, where do we draw the line? Is it all a question of ethics and morale values and if so, after watching "War Spin: The Media and the Iraq War" you have to wonder: is there any space left for ethics anymore?

  • Harold Lasswell, Propaganda Technique in World War I, The MIT Press, 1971
  • Edward Bernays, Propaganda, Liveright, Ig Publishing, [1928], 2004

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