Posts Tagged ‘Propaganda’

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First World War Propaganda: Thoughts and Lessons

January 8, 2017

In writing about the emergence of public diplomacies as part of the practice of statecraft I’ve recently run up against the First World War and the importance that was given to propaganda. My main concern has been with the way that First World War affected the development of public diplomacies after the conflict but in doing this work I’ve been forced to think about two other issues;  how was the term ‘propaganda’ used in the period used and how should we analyse the effects of ‘propaganda’ during the First World War?  This is important as not only is ‘propaganda’ part of 21st century political discourse but also of academic discourse.  I’ve commented before that I’m not a big fan of the idea as an analytical term.  So three sets of thoughts on the meaning, effects, and relevance of First World War propaganda.

The concept: In looking at the First World War one struck by 1) the frequency with which the term ‘propaganda’ is used and 2) compared with later periods, certainly by the 1940s, the lack of nuance.  Essentially ‘propaganda’ is ‘the internet’ of the era: something new is happening but the conceptual frameworks for thinking about it are not well developed.  This is consistent with a general pattern I see in the history of public diplomacies that practices are improvised first and rationalized afterwards. Obviously the people who are doing ‘it’ have some idea what they are doing but the differentiations of the 1940s – publicity, political warfare, propaganda, information; white/grey/black; source, message, channel receiver aren’t there so ‘propaganda’ gets thrown over everything.  This doesn’t immediately change after 1918   many people (Hitler, Ludendorff, Northcliffe) believe  it to have produced such big effects (collapse of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany)  it is also approached as this huge thing that can has to be explained in sweeping concepts ie Lasswell’s ‘control of public opinion through the manipulation of symbols’.

Why was ‘propaganda’ given such importance?  It was a way of talking about the importance of public support (and lack of support) for the war.  Where support was lacking authorities were quick to attribute it to enemy propaganda.  The comparison with the Second World War is also helpful here.  First World War states had to improvise organizations to mobilize people and resources to fight the war, often relying on civil society organizations, ‘propaganda’ was used to cover this process.  This also means that there was a close relationship between propaganda and organization.  Propaganda was a tool to build organization but organization created the capability to mobilize the population.  As we move to the present there has been an increasing tendency to treat ‘propaganda’ as communication and to lose sight of this organizational dimensions.  In the later war, drawing on the experience of 1914-18, states construct bureaucracies to carry out these mobilizational tasks.  Further, states have much systematic programmes for monitoring morale and repressing dissent.  There is still lots of ‘propaganda’ but it is broken down into specific tasks and harnessed to state organizations so for instance that ‘publicity’ to encourage growing vegetables by the Ministry of Food is differentiated from political warfare carried out by the Political Warfare Executive.  In the First World War this organizational and conceptual differentiation it much more embryonic.

The Issue of Effect:  Recent historical writing (for instance Mark Cornwell’s The Undermining of Austria-Hungary) has made the point that in the post 1918 period there were lots of people on both sides who had an interest in emphasizing the role of ‘propaganda’ in causing the collapse of the Central Powers rather than really analysing what happened.  On one side were the Allied propagandists who could write about what they did (activity and outputs) and could see the collapse of Germany and Austria-Hungary (outcome).  On the other side were those who could see the outcome plus some of the outputs and were quick to connect the two.  Neither group were keen to think about the question of context (activity+implementation+context =outcome).  The impact of propaganda activity cannot be separated from the context in which it occurs.  Effects have multiple dimension.  Some people may be directly affected by an activity but if you cannot produce strategically significant effects leaders are not going to be proclaiming the value of the effort.  Leaving aside the case of the United States, First World War combatants had never waged conflicts with such a level of protracted mobilization and where all, to greater or lesser degrees had significant unresolved social tensions that were exacerbated by the war.  Any discussion of the effects of propaganda needs to locate the activity in the context.

Some pointers to current issues and questions for future research, that I’ve taken away from this work on the First World War.

  1. Influence activities work best on divided targets. For instance, in attacking the Central Powers the Allies could work with nationalist and socialist networks. Divisions allow the attackers to play on existing lines of cleavage but they also inhibit repression and control.  The authorities in Berlin and Vienna were playing a difficult balancing act and were not in a position to clamp down on their opponents,  these divisions also inhibited their own counter propaganda.
  2. This leads to a corollary to arguments about indexing (elite consensus limits the sphere of permissible dissent in the media) and CNN effect (lack of policy certainly leads to media influence on policy).   Elite consensus/policy certainty also enables repression of dissent further reinforcing elite + media consensus (and spiral of silence?).
  3. What’s the relative importance of counter-narrative versus repression or counter-organizational work in dealing with foreign influence operations?  During the 1920s the country that was most sensitive about propaganda was the UK, not least because the Comintern was constantly using agent networks to mobilize against imperial rule.  However, as far as I can see the British response was not counter-narrative but surveillance, arrests and deportations.   In discussions of foreign influence operations and how to counter them breaking up organizations where feasible is an important part of a response.
  4. This leads to a question about changing media environments.  The academic literature on propaganda tends to treat it as a media/communications phenomenon while political writings (eg Communists, Nazis, US/UK political warfare) always connect it to organization.  How does social media effect this communication/organization balance?  Can you get the effect of organization without the costs/risks of building one.

That’s question for another day.

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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.

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Do We Still Need the Concept of “Propaganda”?

March 29, 2013

In the past week or so Joel Harding and Gary Rawnsley have both posted thoughts about propaganda.    I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the term.  I think that it’s a concept that carries too much cultural weight relative to its ability to clarify things.  I think that it’s best treated as a historical term rather than one that is useful for analysing contemporary practices of influence.

I think that the problem is that when people talk about  propaganda they are talking about three things.

Firstly, the rise of organized communications campaigns as a feature of urbanized industrial societies in both peace and war in the early part of the 20th century. Historically,  some of these efforts were labelled by their orchestrators as propaganda. Secondly,  emerging from the appearance of these practices were discussions about propaganda. In the 1920s through to the 1940s there was a tendency for this discussion to treat propaganda as being enormously powerful and to use it as an explanation for various political and social developments (eg the rise of Hitler, the collapse of Germany in 1918, the defeat of France in 1940).  Thirdly,  associated with this discussion was a more philosophical line of argument that sought to define propaganda as an illegitimate mode of communications.

The result of is an image of propaganda as something that is widespread, powerful and illegitimate. I have reservations about all three of these claims.

Clearly, we live in a world with lots of  strategic communication aiming to influence us.  But we now have all kinds of concepts to apply to these efforts; political campaigning, advertising, public diplomacy, marketing, public relations, branding, lobbying, IO,  etc.  What these distinctions do is relate influential communication to their context and to particular types of actors and situations.  Does lumping all this together as a single thing really help us to make sense of it?

Secondly,  many of the claims made in the early 20th century literature about the power of propaganda are based on arguments of the form: there was propaganda, something happened therefore propaganda caused whatever happened therefore propaganda is powerful.*   The most notorious example of this is in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Of course mass communications was relatively new, social scientific research was limited and the social theories of the time tended to assume that  urbanized individuals were isolated and easily influenced.  The result was a systematic tendency to abstract strategic communications activities from their social contexts and attribute results to that communication activity when in fact the outcomes had emerged from the combination of multiple factors.

Finally, as Gary Sproule shows the argument about the legitimacy of propaganda as a mode of communication depends on idea of undistorted, objective, impartial communication.  In late 19th century America this concept of communication as transfer of information supplanted ideas of rhetoric.  In a rhetorical understanding of communication self-interested, persuasive communication is normal.  The fate of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis provides a wonderful case study. Created by American liberals in 1937 it sought to reveal the use of propaganda in American society.  By the early 1940s its supporters were abandoning it because they felt that focusing on the persuasive methods of British and German propaganda was missing the fundamental ethical and political issues at stake in confronting fascism.  This showed that for many of the critics what was objectionable was not propaganda as a communications technique but the people who were doing the propaganda and the purposes for which it was being used.

So you won’t be finding me using the term ‘propaganda’ other than in a historical context any time soon.

Sproule, J.M. (1997) Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

*Try replacing propaganda with twitter!

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EH Carr and the Realist Theory of Propaganda

November 28, 2011

I ‘accidentally’ bought a pamphlet by EH Carr, Propaganda in International Politics published in 1939 without realizing that this this was actually extracted from the first (1939) edition of The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919-1939.* Generations of International Relations students have read the second (1946) edition as one of the founding texts of realist international relations theory.  I remember being told as an undergraduate the chief difference the two editions was that in 1939 Hitler was still ‘Herr Hitler’ but from a quick comparison between the pamphlet and my copy of the second edition Carr seems to have toned down how he expresses his argument even if the basic direction remains unchanged.

Carr argues for the close association between ‘power over opinion’ and military and economic power.  The impact of ideas is tied to their promotion by states  – which in turn reflects interests.  Carr is dismissive of the power of ideas that are not supported by states.  For him the failure of the League of Nations and its belief in the power of ‘international public opinion’ is the ‘best modern illustration’  of the fact that propaganda ‘is ineffective as a political force until it acquires a national home and becomes linked with military and economic power’.

It is an illusion to suppose that if Great Britain (or Germany or Soviet Russia) were disarmed or militarily weak, British (or German or Soviet) propaganda might still be effective in virtue of the inherent excellence of its content.

The almost universal belief in the merits of democracy which spread over the world in 1918 was due less to the inherent excellence of democracy or of  the propaganda on its behalf than to the victory of the Allied armies and the Allied blockade.  Had the Bolshevik regime collapsed in 1919, far fewer people would today be convinced of the merits of Marxism.  If Germany is defeated in the present war, little more will be heard of the ideological merits of National Socialism.

But this isn’t the whole story

Propaganda to be successful must appeal to some universally or generally recognized values….Every country seeks to place its policy on an ethical basis, even if this can only be done by asserting that it has a historical mission to rule over inferior races for their own good.  Whatever the policy the need to clothe it in some altruistic guise is universally felt.

No national policy is disinterested, and no country can justly identify its own welfare with the welfare of the world as a whole. But some countries in the pursuit of their ends show more consideration than others for the rights and interests of the rest of the world.  In so far as they do so, they are entitled to claim that their policy is more moral: and their international propaganda, resting on this basis is likely to prove  more effective than that of their rivals

Three  thoughts:

What struck me in reading this was the question of the extent to which ‘power over opinion’ can be thought of as being an autonomous source of influence in international politics.  Carr is concerned to attack the idea that public opinion operates independently of other sources of power but at the same time he does recognize that ‘power over opinion’ has some force distinct from military or economic power.

Seventy years later can we argue that power of opinion has become more autonomous?  The standard view is that political change and a new media environment has produced this effect.  On the other hand I think that it would be a mistake to overstate the autonomy of power over opinion from other factors.   We wouldn’t be debating ‘Chinese  soft power’ if the Chinese economy was not as large as it is. The ability of the EU or the US to effectively promote its ideas will not be helped by the reality and perception of decline.

As with most writing from International Relations on propaganda or public diplomacy Carr is actually vague on the mechanisms by which power over opinion operates.

In a later post I’ll raise the question of what public diplomacy studies can learn from realism.

*Fortunately I only paid £3 (but the original price of the pamphlet was 3 pre-decimal pennies , there were 240 old pennies to the pound so ignoring inflation I paid 240 times the original price….)

Carr, E.H. (1939) Propaganda in International Politics. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Carr, E.H. (1946) The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan.