Category: Propaganda

Shifting realities: The art of propaganda

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.”
– Noam Chomsky

Edward Bernays, who some call the ‘father of propaganda’, had an approach to PR that was ground-breaking in his time. He didn’t just try to push the features of a product or an idea, as so many ad-men were doing in those days. Instead, Bernays created campaigns that attempted to shift society’s configuration of reality, to create fertile conditions and a perceived ‘need’ for the product or idea he’d been tasked to peddle.

For example, when Bernays was marketing bacon to the American public, via the ad vehicle of a ‘hearty breakfast’, he assembled a panel of doctors and persuaded them to give bacon their seal of approval. With expert approval of the product, a shift could now begin in the population’s perceptions of reality, eventually reaching the point where it would see bacon as the perfect breakfast item.

The foundations had been laid; now the selling could happen with ease. Bacon started to fly off the shelves, and perceptions of it soon became embedded in the American psyche as the perfect, filling breakfast. It’s still considered as such today, despite much evidence to the contrary. Bernays’ aim was long-term; not to persuade the buyer that they needed the product right now, but to ‘transform the buyer’s very world’ so that the product appeared to be utterly desirable.

From products to politics

Bernays also applied this technique, far more dangerously, to political campaigning. In 1953 he used it on behalf of the United Fruit Company, to orchestrate a campaign that brought down the government of Guatemala and turned it into a fascist dictatorship – all to create more suitable conditions for United Fruit to make more profits. The campaign began by creating and spreading the myth that Guatemala was at risk of communist subversion.

Once this myth became widely believed, the United Fruit Company was able to persuade the Eisenhower administration, via the CIA, to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala. What was in it for United Fruit? An uninterrupted source of bananas and pineapples, picked cheaply by local labour and sold for big profits in the United States.

Reconfiguring reality

If propagation of such a myth could cause regime change in the 50s, a pre-digital age, what could similar campaigns achieve today, with so many more tools at the disposal of propagandists? Bernay’s calculating antics with United Fruit offer parallels with today’s alarming rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ movement – white supremacists and extremists.

This extremist movement seemed to emerge from nowhere, but fast became influential enough to propel Donald Trump into the White House on a swell of populist fear, hatred, and bigotry.

Trump voters responded to a constant tide of media messages detailing horror stories of terrorist attacks and ISIS atrocities. The link between those stories and Muslims, refugees (mainly Muslims) and foreigners in general was cleverly and cynically drawn.

Once the seeds of hysteria took root, it became easy to stoke it high enough to shift the public’s perceptions of reality. In short, to create fertile conditions for the ‘alt-right’ to go mainstream and elect their presidential candidate. Or, on the other side of the Atlantic, for the public to vote against their interests and decide on Brexit.

Both outcomes were so extreme that many didn’t expect them. But, just as Bernays did all those years ago, with products as mundane as bacon and pianos, so these campaigns were once more executed to a tee. The conditions were created, and the ‘product’ quickly sold itself.

Emotion over reason

Critics of Bernays contend that the public is not one big mass that can be easily manipulated, with opinions drip-fed into their passively waiting brains. This critique is especially relevant in these days of independent media, where alternative opinions can be sought at the expense of a simple Google search.

It’s valid, to an extent, but on the other hand the power of emotion, especially fear, is such that it can override the logical parts of the human brain. When this happens, the resulting fight or flight response can make even the most logical human being abandon reason for emotion.

The pervasive power of media messages is hastened along even further by the enormous reach of social media, distilled into a concentrated force by people’s own digital echo chambers, until it finally seeps out to unveil a grand result – a fearful population that no longer knows what’s true and what’s not. In this milieu, fear of the ‘other’ seems to make perfect sense.

And who better to save us than a self-styled strong leader, an apparent straight-talker who refuses to be bound by political correctness, who makes lofty promises for change that would seem to quell our nastiest fears?

Perhaps it’s really just a big propaganda campaign and populations on both sides of the Atlantic have fallen for it. The question remains now – who stands to benefit? And who is really running the show?

Fearful milieux: Perceptions of Islam in an age of Trump

Muslims living and working in the United States are being forced to reconsider their futures in light of Donald Trump’s Muslim ban, announced this week.

Citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Sudan, Libya and Somalia will be denied entry for 90 days while the new Trump administration “tightens” already draconian visa laws. The move has been widely lambasted, with critics comparing it to the atmosphere of 1930s Germany that led to the Holocaust. In a sick irony, Trump announced the refugee ban on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

There are many implications arising from this ban, all of them worrying. But rather than causing us too much speculation on an uncertain future, the US Muslim ban offers a pressing opportunity to explore the social and political attitudes that have created a zeitgeist where this ruling could emerge. What kind of narratives has the public absorbed to lead large swathes of it in a direction where a Holocaust-esque move could become socially acceptable? Fear is somewhere at the heart of the matter. But how did it get there, take root and flourish?

Researchers have traditionally used focus groups, polls and interviews to analyse social attitudes. Pew polls and YouGov surveys give a useful indication of generalised attitudes to certain topics. But people are less likely to offer their true opinions in a formal research situation. Instead, they may sanitise or edit their responses to appear more acceptable to the researcher. One of the more objective ways to capture true social attitudes is by analysing what people say and do when they think no-one is watching.

Shaping the online narrative

Rhys Crilley and Raquel da Silva take this exact approach in their recently published research, ‘Talk about Terror in Our Back Gardens’,  which examines attitudes among the British public displayed online, in relation to British foreign fighters joining ISIS in Syria. They argue that the views of ordinary members of the public, as well as media and elites, play a key role in shaping and generating the discursive environment, through which people filter their opinions on foreign fighters and terrorism, and form views on Muslims and Islam as a whole.

Crilley and da Silva analyse a range of online comments from social media, forums and newspaper comment sections. What they discover is problematic and disturbing, but unsurprising in light of recent developments. This research is important because it indicates how the stage has been set for the ramping up of racism, intolerance and division that has now become part of official government narrative, embodied in the figure of Trump and his administration, delivered to the masses through harsh policies that would have once been inconceivable. Although this particular research focuses on a UK sample, I strongly believe that US results of a similar study would reflect a related range of troubling views. The process seems to unfold something like this:

  1. Filtering down of certain narratives from elites/media to the masses
  2. People reproduce and reinforce (and sometimes challenge) those narratives through means of online discussion (‘echo chambers’)
  3. Narratives then become part of the social ‘milieu’; as a result society becomes fearful, divided and more likely to back repressive policies such as Trump’s Muslim ban. This sense of victimisation could also feed into the variety of factors that push certain vulnerable individuals into violent extremism

Religion seen as key driving force

In analysing the online comments, Crilley and da Silva focus on, a) the motivations people attribute to foreign fighters, as well as, b) their views on suitable government responses. The most striking feature of a) is that the most commonly-held view (51% of the sample chose it), that foreign fighters ‘are pursuing their own religious beliefs’, is one that has been consistently disproved by counterterrorism experts and behavioural psychologists alike. In contrast, just 2% of respondents chose the option that foreign fighters ‘seek adventure or excitement’, although that is probably a more common driver than religion.

So far, the conclusion is clear: British public opinion still believes religion is a key driving factor for foreign fighters, despite expert research showing the contrary. This fixation on blaming religion (specifically Islam) carries disturbing implications about the nature of British social attitudes towards the country’s Muslim community, and towards Islam in general.

Cruel and exceptional

Things get worse in the second part of the research, which focuses on the public’s views of suitable ways to deal with foreign fighters returning to the UK. The majority of comments (38%) want to ‘forbid them [foreign fighters] from returning’, while 32% of comments suggest foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Only 5% of comments suggest a view to ‘allow them to return to the UK’.

Let’s unpack the possible sentiments behind the first two responses. Forbidding foreign fighters (who are British citizens) from returning to the UK would mean rendering them stateless. For starters, this is illegal under international law. But more than that, the fact that such a large proportion of the British online public suggests stripping away the citizenship of foreign fighters, points to an innate belief that British Muslims are less than ‘British’.

This raises questions such as: Would forbidding return still be as often suggested if the people in question were non-Muslims, specifically white Britons? Does being Muslim make them ‘less British’ in people’s minds? I suspect the answers to these questions would be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ respectively.

The second most popular response was that foreign fighters should be ‘criminally punished’. Types of punishment discussed usually fell into the ‘hard’ category, such as deportation (without trial), life imprisonment and even death. The latter suggestion is particularly disturbing as some see it as the ‘only thing that will stop British Muslims fighting in Syria’ and the ‘only way’ to silence their ‘vile inhuman ideologies’. This, mentioned in conjunction with the singling out of British Muslims, suggests a high level of contempt for their human rights.

In fact, many of the comments recommend cruel and exceptional punishments, implying a ‘state of exception’ that puts British Muslims outside of the law. It dehumanises them, reducing them to a status better suited to ‘savage and wild animals’. Attitudes of this kind emerge in the mainstream media and filter downwards into the general population largely by means of online commenting.

Fear, propaganda and the online world

Terrorism inspires such primordial fear that it has become an effective tool for manipulating public opinion. These views drive the zeitgeist and, leveraged in certain ways, can propel societies into situations such as the Holocaust. We haven’t learned from history, despite many illusions of progress. Those illusions have now been shattered by the election of Trump and what has followed.

The power of the online world must not be underestimated. Harnessed effectively, it’s probably the best propaganda tool the world has ever seen. As we’ve now seen, it can shape the outcomes of elections and shift global opinion in startling directions. Critical thinking is the solution; but, as the work of Crilley and da Silva shows, much of society remains quick to jump on the bandwagon, targeting certain groups without pausing to analyse the facts.

Book review: Propaganda and Counter-terrorism

First published in 2015, Emma Briant’s book Propaganda and Counter-terrorism has gained relevance in recent months, as the world comes to terms with the power of propaganda to propel dramatic social and political changes.

At the time of writing, there are just days left before Donald Trump enters the White House, amid a furore of fake news and accusations that have surrounded his presidential race. Propaganda has never been more relevant, especially in our digital age, where technology has the power to obscure identity, location, and source – along with the concept of truth itself.

Set in the context of a post 9/11 media environment, Propaganda and Counter-terrorism explores how the British and US governments adapted their propaganda strategies to address the perceived threat of global terrorism, which became top of the agenda after 9/11. In the Iraq War that followed, both sides collaborated not only to fight Al Qaeda, but also to produce propaganda of all stripes. Their goal: to change hearts and minds, both at home and in the theatre of war.

But, as Propaganda and Counter-terrorism reveals, that was not the only goal. Through extensive interviews with high-profile sources, including journalists, military officials and defence analysts, author Emma Briant explores the unseen story of post-9/11 propaganda. She explains how the UK and US governments aimed to change existing systems of propaganda, which were seen as ‘outdated’ within a fast-evolving global media landscape where messages could travel at lightning speed across disappearing boundaries.

Early on in the book, Briant dives into a detailed unpacking of the terminology used in the book. She defines propaganda as the ‘deliberate manipulation of representations, with the intention of producing a desired effect among the audience.’

Briant points out that propaganda can involve facts as well as untruths, and does not always have to be perceived in a negative light. She lays out the different categories of propaganda, from white (truth), to grey (uncertainty), and black (lies). One could argue that the use of ‘fake news’ in the US election is a perfect example of grey propaganda.

In subsequent chapters the book deconstructs Anglo-American collaboration in propaganda efforts, power-sharing within the relationship, methods used and mistakes made. There is a key focus how the ‘war on terror’ narrative was constructed and delivered, not just by government, but also by many social institutions including the media.

The book includes a case study of the Iraq War, which some sources describe as ‘tragedy and farce’ and a ‘failure of journalism’. The problems arising from this failure have been far-reaching, fuelling anger and resentment within Iraq that has led to unending conflict. The resulting destabilisation has created an opportunity for the rise of ISIS; a brutal terrorist group with the most advanced propaganda ever seen.

In the final chapter, Briant examines how US/UK-led attempts to counter terrorism risk denial of dissent within society, both at home and abroad. She refers to ‘democracy building propaganda’, which shows ‘sustained lack of understanding’ of non-Western cultures, while building a disproportionate fear of terrorist attacks among foreign audiences. This is problematic as it encourages a view of ‘us and them’, which is harmful and hampers efforts to build international cooperation.

My concern is that the view of ‘us and them’ is only becoming more pronounced. We now live in a Trump-led world, which is veering towards increased nationalism. It’s a world where borders are reinforced and societies encouraged to look inwards, glancing outwards only with fear. As Briant highlights in her closing chapter, ‘dominative foreign propaganda cannot create lasting peace and stability, indeed it shuns true intercultural understanding’.

One of the book’s main strengths is its analysis of extensive source material, which draws on the expertise and insider knowledge of numerous defence, intelligence, security and PR professionals, both in the public and private sectors. These are the people at the coalface of propaganda planning and delivery.

Their input gives the book distinct authority and instils the reader with confidence in the ideas expressed. I’d have liked Propaganda and Counter-terrorism to also examine the role of social media, fake news, and post-truth in shaping approaches to propaganda, but realise this was probably outside the scope of this book at the time of writing. Hopefully these topics will be addressed if there’s a follow-up.

Propaganda and Counter-terrorism is an important read, if not always an easy one due to the sheer breadth of source material and depth of analysis contained within. This is valuable and makes the book a heavyweight in its field. Readers who persevere to the end will gain a host of new insights and intersections relating to the role of propaganda both now and in the future; essential understanding in the current climate.

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What exactly is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

All’s not right with the alt-right

The rise of Islamic radicalisation has been mirrored by the rise of extreme right-wing groups, or the so-called “alt-right”. The media focuses heavily on the former, but tends to neglect the latter. They are both part of the same cycle of fear, therefore deserve equal attention and analysis.

What is the alt-right?

The alt-right movement started in the US as a mainly online phenomenon. Its proponents believe that existing Western governments are fatally flawed. They criticise democracy and rule of the people by the people. But this in itself is not the biggest issue. The main facet of alt-right ideology is its obsessive focus on race, specifically on white supremacy and the belief that different races ‘should be kept apart’.

In fact, white supremacy is a more fitting description for alt-right ideology. It manifests clearly in Donald Trump’s claim that the US should build a wall between itself and Mexico. His arguments to ban Muslims from entering the country also fit the narrative. Alt-right proponents in the US support Trump because they believe he represents the ultimate in free speech. He’s the equivalent of sending a wrecking ball crashing into the establishment, tearing down the political correctness that the alt-right despise so much.

According to NPR, the alt-right movement mostly consists of young white men “who see themselves first and foremost as champions of their own demographic. However, apart from their allegiance to their “tribe,” as they call it, their greatest points of unity lie in what they are against: multiculturalism, immigration, feminism and, above all, political correctness.”

Donald Trump is the most prominent figurehead of the alt-right, with his rhetoric of hatred and division. The growth of this movement, which is especially rampant on social media, represents a worrying trend towards fascist viewpoints becoming mainstream.

Those heady, hopeful days when Barack Obama was elected now feel like a distant memory. It is as if the rise of the alt-right is a backlash, driven by simmering outrage built up over eight years of having a black man with a Muslim name in the White House.

Where did it come from?

Although extreme right-wing ideas of various stripes have been around in America (and to a lesser extent the UK and Europe) for many years, they have stayed largely outside the mainstream. But the Trump campaign has given extreme right ideas greater legitimacy, presenting an opportunity for their supporters to bring their views into the public sphere. Indeed, Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, is also the editor of the conservative website Breitbart News, which he referred to as “the platform for the alt-right”.

How is alt-right ideology different to mainstream conservatism?

Alt-right followers tend to see conservatives as weak, believing their support for racist and anti-Semitic ideas is not strong enough. The alt-right coined the term “cuckservative” (‘conservative’ + ‘cuckold’) to disparage mainstream right-wingers. The term refers to white Christian conservatives who support Jews, minorities and non-whites, supposedly ‘prioritising’ their interests over those of whites. A focus on identity is a key feature of the alt-right, specifically about how white identity is seen in relation to (and in opposition to) that of the so-called ‘other’.

What are its key messages, and how does it spread them?

The alt-right is still a loose movement made up of various strands, but its ideology and key messages are clear. They fixate on promoting white identity; this forms the core of the alt-right ideology. Alt-right supporters want to ‘preserve European-American (i.e. white) culture’ and reject any form of multiculturalism, pluralism or globalism. They claim to promote traditional white Christian values. Many in the alt-right support the use of propaganda for subjects such as black and immigrant crime, in their mission to ‘protect’ whites from potential ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Like their fellow extremists in ISIS, many alt-right members are young and internet-savvy. They know how to use the power of the digital world to amplify their messages. Alt-right proponents have a noisy online presence and frequently use trolling as a way to get their message across. In fact, some justify their trolling as a necessary response to perceived ‘bullying’ by liberals, or SJWs (‘social justice warriors’) as they have been dubbed.

What threat does the alt-right pose?

The rising popularity of the alt-right represents a wider trend towards right-wing social attitudes that has been spreading over the Western world in recent years, driving the rise of Trump and the Brexit vote. The risks stem from deepening of social divisions, increasing hate (especially directed against Muslims), and causing racist ideas to become mainstream. This promotes a rise in hate crime and increased victimisation of vulnerable members of society.

At the same time, the increase in aggressive right-wing attitudes promotes the exact same kind of social division that groups like ISIS seek to ignite. Fearful and divided societies turn against one another, producing disillusioned individuals seeking a cause greater than themselves. Extremists are not only brown men joining ISIS, but also white ones joining the alt-right.

How can the alt-right be counteracted?

Liberals often feel they are superior to the ‘barbaric’ alt-right. Both groups could benefit from gaining a better understanding of what drives the other side. These days people tend to live in bubbles, surrounded by those with similar world views. Social media amplifies this effect, excluding all dissenting viewpoints from the user’s immediate social media feed. But we need to understand what drives people to certain views. If they believe white identity is at stake; what has caused them to think so? Are their views rooted in a genuine fear of losing their identity? How can this be mitigated without harming others?