Be careful; ‘Propaganda’ doesn’t necessarily = lies and untruths

  “Sinai plane crash: IS claims ‘propaganda’, says Egypt president” was the headline that an anonymous BBC News website subeditor chose for an article, on the Russian plane crash earlier in the week. How the plane was taken down and, more importantly, who took it down is very much still an open question. The fact

 

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“Sinai plane crash: IS claims ‘propaganda’, says Egypt president” was the headline that an anonymous BBC News website subeditor chose for an article, on the Russian plane crash earlier in the week. How the plane was taken down and, more importantly, who took it down is very much still an open question. The fact that the UK Government has decided to suspend all flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh would suggest that they have some form of evidence to suggest that it was an explosive device of some kind.

However, the wording of the BBC’s headline and the President’s choice of words is troubling to say the least. It appears to imply that by suggesting that IS claims are ‘propaganda’, they therefore must be fake and wrong. This is a dangerous assumption to make, even if proved to be true. Fundamentally, propaganda is not about right and wrong. It is about the art of persuasion. For centuries, propaganda was understood as simply the means by which the converted sought to persuade the unconverted. But, experiences and usage in the 20th Century changed this dramatically.

A generally accepted academic definition of propaganda is as follows;

“The deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”.

– Jowett & O’Donnell

Nowhere in the definition does it refer to deceit, lies and untruths. Nor, does it imply, as many generally assume, that such a practice is only undertaken by totalitarian regimes and dictators. In reality, democracies can be equally as successful at creating propaganda as the ‘bad guys’. Edward Bernays, arguably the father of the modern ‘public relations’ industry is a classic example of this. Similarly, British Army recruiting posters from the First World War are instantly recognisable to many.

Unfortunately, the prominent use of propaganda by authoritarian regimes in the mid-20th Century has tarnished the reputation of the word. Perhaps most prominent of all was Josef Goebbels. While undoubtedly a pretty evil and all round terrible human being, Goebbels was an incredibly skilful propagandist. He clearly understood his brief, no doubt aided by his doctorate in 19th Century romantic literature, and could create or manipulate a narrative to suit the need of the party. If you were to ask somebody to name a propagandist, there is a strong possibility that they would name Goebbels. Such a reputation for the practice is perhaps one of the greatest contributing factors to the negative connotations surrounding propaganda.

In today’s political world, practitioners of propaganda or ‘spin doctors’ are common place. They aren’t, necessarily, bad people and the information they are spreading isn’t necessarily false. In fact, it’s almost always some shade of truth. It just happens to be presented in a way that will benefit them and/or discredit opponents. It really is that simple.

As Jacques Ellul pointed out; “The most generally held concept of propaganda is that it is a series of tall stories, a tissue of lies and that lies are necessary for effective propaganda. Anyone holding that conviction is extremely susceptible to propaganda, because when propaganda does tell the ‘truth’, he is then convinced it is no longer propaganda”.

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