Around 2500 years ago, Sun-Tzu, an ancient Chinese strategist, wrote his famous masterpiece ‘Art of War’ where he remarked, “If you understand your enemy’s mind, you will win the battle”. As a strategist, he always spoke in favour of winning the war even before the war has begun. So he attached importance to know about the strategy of the opponents. He always stressed the importance of deception when it comes to winning a war as seen in “All warfare is based on deception”.
There was a time when the enemy could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers and advanced weaponry. But the 21st century is the era of modern information warfare. To defeat enemies in war, in addition to the use of strategic or conventional weapons, it can also be effectively thwarted with misinformation. Sun-Tzu also emphasized the importance of fabricating false information & lies through the art of illusion. In this way, propaganda has opened Pandora’s box in regards to outwitting and outsmarting the enemies. It’s also an effective tool to create opposition & backlash against opponents.
Whether the current media and information technology is overwhelmed by propaganda can be an interesting discussion or debate. One simply can’t trust a single source of media outlets or information without a solid conscience and evidence. In many ways, propaganda is being systematically used to shape the political opinion of people as seen in India and North Korea. Again propaganda is being repetitively used by Western countries to brand Islam as a “terrorist religion” or “women oppressing religion” to stereotype and defame Muslims living around the world, especially after the infamous 9/11 Terrorist Attacks on the US soil in 2001.
Origin of Propaganda
We all are quite used to hear the word “propaganda” in a pejorative sense. The first thing that comes to our mind is people being brainwashed or systematically manipulated to do the bidding of some evil people who are “pulling the strings”. Ironically, the word ‘Propaganda’ comes from the Latin word Propagare, which means ‘to spread’ or ‘to propagate’. As seen during the Medieval Ages when the Reformation was at its peak during the sixteenth century, the Vatican in Rome used the term to promote and spread the Catholic faith among the “misguided” and “excommunicated” Christians, who proudly called themselves Protestants. In the mid-nineteenth century, propaganda inaugurated to be glimpsed as a negative form. But its effective use in politics began at the dawn of the 20th century, which resulted in two major genocides. One of the orchestrators was based in Europe & the other was in an African country that failed to reconcile with its pre-colonial past. In both these cases, propaganda was adopted systematically to manipulate the general people’s beliefs, thoughts & attitudes.
Two Genocides in the 20th Century
We can take nothing away from Nazi Germany during the peak of the Third Reich, which revolutionized the use of propaganda and gave a new shape to it throughout the 1930s and 1940s till their defeat to the Allied Forces in May 1945. Adolf Hitler fully capitalized on the cult of personality as the base of propaganda and as referenced in his memoir “Mein Kampf”, he could convince and rally most of the Germans under the Flag of “Swastika”, which was used to spearhead the purity and superiority of the Aryan (German) race in relation to inferior, nefarious, vile and vicious Jewish minority of Germany who controlled almost “three fourth of the nation’s wealth”. His Nazi Party propagated that Jews were the main responsible for Germany’s downfall in WWI. German media used to minimize Jews by labelling them as traitors, anti-German etc.
Hitler was not done with Jews, not yet at least. Even after assuming the mantle of leadership by winning the Reichstag Election of 1932 with a two-thirds majority and assuming complete control of Germany in 1933, he quickly set up the Ministry of Propaganda, with Joseph Goebbels as its first and only minister till the downfall of Germany in WW2. This Ministry was effectively used to control German print and mass media to demonize Jews through films, newspapers, comics, cartoon, books, music etc. In this way, the Nazi Party was quite successful in sowing the seeds of the Holocaust even before the original plan was set in motion during the early onset of WW2. That’s why the German common people had no qualms regarding the slaughtering of Jews in concentration camps. It resulted in the horrific slaughtering of six million Jews.
In less than five decades after the conclusion of WW2, in 1994, we observed another horrific form of propaganda in Rwanda. That year, a massive genocide was carried out in Rwanda where around one million Tutsi minority were systematically annihilated by the Hutu majority. Before this incident, Hutu-dominated media like Kangura Magazine, Radio RTLM, Radio Rwanda played a vicious role by demonizing the Tutsis. Even though Tutsi-Hutu animosity dates way back to the colonial past, the Tutsis were treated well by the Belgians whereas Hutus became marginalized during that period. So the Hutu dominated media orchestrated a crisis in Rwanda by indicating Tutsis as treasonous, defectors & threats to Rwanda as a whole. Even when President Juvenile Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash and the results of the investigation were yet to be finalized, the Rwanda media kickstarted the genocide by putting the entire blame on the Tutsi insurgents Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF). Thus, out of anger and being easily manipulated, the Hutus carried out one of the worst genocide in recent history, wiping almost eight hundred thousand people in less than a month.
Post 9/11 and the “CNN Effect”
The USA had to resort to using propaganda against the Soviet Union during the high periods of the Cold War by means of movies, cartoons, posters, dramas, comics, successfully instilling the fear of socialism and loss of “freedom” in the minds of American people. Regardless, in the aftermath of the horrific Twin Tower terrorist attacks on 9/11, propaganda was used in a new strategy. When the Afghan expedition was almost confirmed after the 9/11 attack, Western media broadcasted misinformation on Laden’s whereabouts. They even deployed propaganda saying that Afghans were harbouring the Taliban, joining with the Taliban & destroying Afghanistan.
Even before the 2003 Iraq War, US-based media outlets like CNN, ABC News reported that Iraqi President and leader of the Ba’ath Party, Saddam Hossain has good relations with Osama Bin Laden of Al-Qaeda. There were also accusations against him in developing chemical weapons and selling such WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) to terrorist organizations. These propagandas were enough to shape the opinion of the American people in favour of implementing US President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” against Iraq. Ultimately, the US-led NATO forces invaded Iraq in 2003 in overran it in less than six weeks from March to May. In this case, the methods that CNN used to shape public opinion came to be known as the ‘CNN Effect’, which clearly falls under the rubrics of the “Knowledge-Gap” theory. In reality, more than 90% of US People aren’t even aware of what is going on outside the USA. They tend to believe almost everything that the media telecasts. They don’t even bother to verify the authenticity of the news that is either being fabricated to conceal the truth. In this way, the US media succeeded in spreading propaganda against Iraq.
Al-Jazeera Strikes Back
Al-Jazeera, a media outlet based in Qatar in the Middle East, staged a successful counter-attack against the so-called “CNN Effect”. During the US-Invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al-Jazeera demonstrated the atrocities and destructions caused by the US-led forces in Iraq, which was contradicting the discourse presented by CNN. While CNN was busy show-casing the heroics of the American troops under the tagline of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, Al-Jazeera broadcasted the tagline “War in Iraq”. Although Western media like CNN defended the US expedition while BBC, TV5 Monde and DW gave somewhat biased news in a neutral way, Al-Jazeera completely showed a different reality to people around the world, which gave a huge blow to President Bush’s “War on Terror” policy and his popularity among the Americans.
Al-Jazeera also took advantage of embedded journalism where they exposed that the US operation was not for the ‘freedom’ of ‘Iraqis’ but simply for “oil” and gaining a foothold in the Middle East. Eventually, Al-Jazeera’s reports stirred the general US people so much so that they were completely against the War in Iraq. This is how Al-Jazeera utilized the ‘Hypodermic Needle’ hypothesis to disprove American media’s propaganda.
Trump Administration and “Brexit”
Nowadays, propaganda isn’t just spread on news channels or newspapers. More recently, propaganda is now being disseminated digitally. Bots & algorithms are currently being used to formulate computational propaganda. We can talk about the infamous 2016 US Presidential election. At that time, massive use of propaganda affected the entire US politics. Before the election, Trump’s election campaign committee appointed a British political consulting firm named Cambridge Analytica. This firm digitally deployed propaganda against Hilary & Democratic Party through bots & algorithms for ruining their political image. Cambridge Analytica targeted those social media users who were right-wing supporters, anti-immigrants & anti-Muslims. Even Russia was also involved here to tarnish Hilary’s image on social media. As a result, Hilary, who’s a veteran politician, defeated by Trump.
In the same year, just before the Brexit election in Britain, digital propaganda was deployed on social media to campaign for Brexit. Cambridge Analytica once again manipulated the circumstances by propagating propaganda largely. Propaganda was spread in a way that terrified people to vote for Brexit. Besides, this firm often targeted specific users’ accounts who’ve xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments etc. For example, 76 million Turkish were provided visa-free entry by the EU, the EU is imposing the burden of Syrian refugees over Britain, the EU is snatching 350 million pounds per week from Britain etc. British people were also astonished at losing jobs due to the massive wave of migrants in the UK.
In this path, Conservative Party & Cambridge Analytica overwhelmed people by spreading propaganda on xenophobia, anti-immigration & refugee crisis in Europe. As a result, 52% of British voted in favour of Brexit. This is how digital propaganda was exploited in the 2016 US election & Brexit election which brought about a great alteration in the Trans-Atlantic politics.
However, the misuse of propaganda isn’t only increasing in the West, but also in the East. We can mention here India, China and Turkey. All three countries are running state-funded propaganda to suppress minorities and dissent. Even in these three countries, lies are being spread against the protesting people on social media. Even IT cells have also been set up to spread propaganda.
This is how we see the widespread use of propaganda in the national & international arena. Sometimes propaganda is used to suppress minority & dissent, sometimes for political gain as an operative tool. Such versatile use of propaganda demonstrates that propaganda is going to be one of the political weapons in future.