Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

What Is Propaganda?

A friend sent me a link today, to Is Foreign Propaganda Even Effective?, in The American Conservative, by Leon Hadar, published on 25 September 2017. Mr. Hadar has a Ph.D. from American University.

My friend attached the following comment. “Not sure the author understands the various ways propaganda works.”

This friend is an expert in information warfare and propaganda and has several published papers on the mathematical construction of narratives used in influence. He holds a Ph.D. in a non-related field.  I’ve known him over ten years and find his insight in the top 1% of my considerably esteemed colleagues.

I realized I was stuck in a bit of a quandary. I had to review this article and take a stance.  First, however, I have to address the basic issue of propaganda.

My approach to this problem, however, is a bit more multi-faceted than most.  As soon as I read the word propaganda, my mind returns to the Nazi Propaganda exhibit originally held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is now a traveling show. The curator, Dr. Steven Luckert, shared his home-grown definition of propaganda. ‘A kernel of truth wrapped in a web of lies’, is simple, elegant and broadly applicable.  He gently walked the audience through the elements of truth, of deceit, of stereotyping, coloration, and phraseology used in Nazi propaganda.

Propaganda is a kernel of truth, wrapped in lies, distortions, deceptions and fabrications, for the purpose of establishing or reinforcing “a” truth which support the assertions of a government for the purpose of guiding mass perception of “a” truth as “the” truth, thus influencing resultant mass or targeted behavior.

For the purpose of this paper, I will only briefly touch on the original “propaganda office” of World War I and the Committee on Public Information, with Misters Creel, Bernays, and Lippman. Supposedly Hitler was so struck by the effectiveness of Allied propaganda that he emphasized its use by the Nazis, leading to Goebbels.  At roughly the same time, Bernays published a book titled “Propaganda”, which introduced the principles of propaganda to what became commercial marketing and advertising techniques.

But what is today’s propaganda? I tried to pick a ‘best definition’ here, Propaganda Definitions.

I thought Dr. Emma Briant’s definition best at that time:

the deliberate manipulation of representations (including text, pictures, video, speech etc.) with the intention of producing any effect in the audience (e.g. action or inaction; reinforcement or transformation of feelings, ideas, attitude or behaviours) that is desired by the propagandist.

Her definition, however, is all about purpose and intent and not composition.

Without an agreed upon definition of propaganda, the US government has been ‘outlawing’ something it cannot define, making such efforts meaningless.  Now it is October 24th, 2017, and the US Congress is moving to stop propaganda, specifically, Russian propaganda which is designed to sow chaos and confusion and undermine Western democracy will promoting Russian national interests.

I submit to you that propaganda is:

Lies, deceit, distortions and fabrications using an element of truth as a foundation in order to establish, reinforce, or prevent an action or desired actions or mindset.

Almost all propaganda is used to reinforce other propaganda and establish long-term large-scale attitude change.  Other propaganda is used to inject quick, undeniably effective and poisonous, deleterious effects on a person or group. Other propaganda is only a part of a much larger propaganda effort designed to overwhelm and suppress opposition. I’ll let the discussions of if propaganda is a government action or not for other places.

How Propaganda Works“, a book by Jason Stanley, is written by a philosopher. Propaganda and counter-terrorism: Strategies for global change is written by Emma Briant, a “sociologist/political scientist and [her] main research interests are in US and UK propaganda, political communication and media representation”.  In her excellent book, however, she does not describe how or why propaganda or influence operations work.

We, the human animal, do not know, do not understand, and cannot comprehend exactly how propaganda works, where, why, or even when.  We know it scares us most especially because we do not understand it. This is why Congress sought to keep US produced propaganda from poisoning the minds of Americans when establishing the US Information Agency.

Now we are seeking to protect ourselves from propaganda produced and focused on us by Russia. They found dividing lines in the West and exploiting them in order to “divide and conquer”.  Our mission in the West is, therefore, to be waged on multiple levels. First, we must educate the government and the population as to how to distinguish real news from fake news, real sources from propaganda sources, and teach how to be a discriminating reader. Second, we must know where to turn to find fair and unbiased information, as best established, on a timely basis. Part of this is to establish these fountains of truth.  Third, we must legislate and control concerted efforts to mislead, distort, and lie to the public in the name of journalism.  We must encourage free speech, free thinking, and spirited discussions but find ways to discern and weed out evil intent.

The road ahead is fraught with danger and probable missteps, we will make mistakes.



One thought on “What Is Propaganda?

  1. For the lay person,
    Liz Wahl (formerly of RT) did an interview with Spy Talk back in July that covers her first person experience with being part of the Russian propaganda machine. She saw RT initially has a great source of alternative news in its early days, but watched how the network was continuously manipulated by Moscow execs to become anti-American. She became so outraged that she resigned on-air.
    I feel her account of her time with RT humanizes the subject, and highlights the fact that the Kremlin spends millions to alter the thoughts of Western minds. The process starts with truth and a fresh source. It morphs into a pack of lies that spins it viewers against their government.
    Also, if propaganda didn’t work, or exist, then why would ISIS go through so much to “Hollywoodize” their execution and recruitment videos?

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