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Counter-Propaganda: Do I Detect a Propaganda Panic™?

December 16, 2014

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and ISIS propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and Isis propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be concerned about but it also seems to be me that the current excitement is a bit overblown which in turn suggests some observations about how we think about these things.

The propaganda panic can be seen as a variation on the good old media moral panic

The classic propaganda panic starts with an event that comes as a surprise to a group of political leaders (and to the journalists that commentate on them). Such an unexpected event needs an explanation and ‘propaganda’ provides an answer.   The attraction of ‘propaganda’ is that it appears to stand somewhere outside the normal responsibilities of politics or diplomacy and helps to insulate those in charge from an accusation that they weren’t paying attention or that their policies have failed. The explanation can then be offered that it is the inadequacy of our propaganda/public diplomacy/ information efforts. The additional twist is that the people who have been responsible for the ‘inadequate’ response have been saying all along that their work is totally underfunded and so instead of coming out swinging at their critics gratefully pocket the increased appropriations.

This isn’t entirely cynical on the part of the people involved because underpinning the attribution of effect to ‘propaganda’ is the classic misperception of seeing an opponent as more capable, unified and coherent than they actually are, and to see oneself as more benign that you actually appear to other actors (eg Jervis 1976, part III).  Hence once a group of leaders have undergone a surprise and started to pay attention to a situation they attribute the negative aspects of the situation to the carefully laid plans of the opponent that are generating opposition.

In the contemporary case I would add a tendency of the current security community to abstract threats from their specific situations. I’ve been struck by the number of blog posts about how one the ISIS/Putin situations marks the rise of a new unconventional-hybrid-asymmetric-Mad Max – conflict threat or something like that. Essentially this is converting a situation or a pair of situations with quite specific characteristics into a category. Rather than looking for responses that are tailored to these situations and question becomes how to come up with the optimum weapons and organizations to defeat the category of threat.

The crux of responding effectively is to put the problems back in their real political, historical and media context. The problem with the propaganda panic is that encourages thinking in terms of myths.

Next up I’ll take up some of the specific challenges of counter propaganda in the digital space.

Jervis R (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

2 comments

  1. Excellent, thank you for that! I see the same thing especially with ISIS, which certainly knows how to use the Internet but seems to me to fall far from the absolute devilish mastery of the instrument for nefarious purposes that I see described in some places.

    But as you say, this is about explaining “us” more than explaining “them”. We have young people going to Iraq attracted by the Youtube videos of a band of sanguinary wackos. How can that be? The mal-être of immigrant youths in derelict ghettos? No… Propaganda! We doubt about our policy towards Russia. How can that be? Complicated stuff should be considered in a nuanced way? No… Propaganda! The devil’s instrument!


  2. As to making categories out of specific cases and ironing their specificities in the process, well what to say? You should hang out around more with historians… (late-night pique, sorry…)



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