Published on Wednesday, October 3, 2001 in the Toronto Star
The Art of Persuasion
Propaganda Machines Go Into Overdrive During Times of Strife
by Vinay Menon
Propaganda - most simply,
information used to persuade a group - is as old as civilization. The
Aztecs used it to rationalize human sacrifice. Alexander the Great
understood its symbolic power and had his image etched on coins.
But propaganda has always been most crucial during periods of
conflict and war.
So today, with advertising and other forms of modern persuasion
ubiquitous, how do leaders slice through the muddled cacophony and target
citizens with messages?
"The whole notion of propaganda now is up for grabs," says Robert
Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University. "In this age of 24-hour news
and spin, where there is constant coverage, propaganda has come out of the
closet and it really lives among us every day."
If Thompson is right, what does this mean to the "War Against
Terrorism," which seems to be moving toward a more active phase in
Afghanistan this week?
Unlike past military efforts, the White House has warned the new
war will unfold with "unprecedented secrecy." Though it's now a cliché, it
is important to remember truth is often the first casualty of war.
Ironically, says Thomas DeLuca, a political science professor at
Fordham University in New York, the sheer magnitude of the Sept. 11
terrorist attacks created a temporary "propaganda-free zone" because
people were simply horrified by the visceral images.
For days there were no television commercials. Almost all news
coverage was devoted to the story. The entire world seemed to collapse
into the deepening tragedy.
"This is an unprecedented event in U.S. history," DeLuca says.
"There has never been an attack like this. Concentration on this event is
highly focused. People want the president to have a plan, to reassure
them, to be straightforward.
"So George Bush will have an enormous benefit as his words cut
through the propaganda that is usually around us."
Anthony Pratkanis, professor of psychology at the University of
California in Santa Cruz, and author of Age Of Propaganda: The Everyday
Use And Abuse Of Persuasion, agrees. But he says in the weeks ahead,
as collective shock begins to ebb, Bush will be faced with a number of
daunting challenges. "If Bush wants to maintain and sustain the effort,
the emotional propaganda will be okay for a short war, but in the long
term he needs to deliver persuasion. He needs to form consensus and argue
with substance, not slogan."
That seemed to be the case recently, as Bush addressed U.S.
Congress. As cameras rolled and politicians and lawmakers frequently
wobbled to their feet, and to thundering applause, Bush delivered a
rousing, evocative speech.
But the raw emotion and patriotism that has since bloomed atop the
rubble in New York and Washington is not necessarily beneficial to anybody
in the long run, says Nancy Snow, assistant director with the Center for
Communications and Community at UCLA. "A `war mentality' needs to be
decontextualized. It needs to be very clear, black and white, good guys
versus bad guys," says Snow, author of Propaganda Inc.: Selling
America's Culture To The World.
"So you end up with a single enemy, with slogans like `Wanted: Dead
or Alive,' ones that simplify the issues. Bush is using an `everyman'
approach to what is actually a very complex problem, burdensome in a
historical and economic context."
And this simplification, whether deliberate or not, can cloud
fundamental issues. In times of conflict, things are not always as they
Before the Persian Gulf War, for example, the world gasped with
reports that Iraqi troops were yanking sick babies from hospital
incubators and leaving them to die on the floor during the invasion of
Kuwait. The "dead babies" account was repeated hundreds of times, in the
media and in speeches by U.S. leaders, who were now clearly on a war
footing. Other reports - that Iraq had amassed thousands of troops along
the Saudi Arabia border - were also used to convince the public that
military action was necessary.
Both of those reports proved incorrect, but not until the war was
Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of
Minnesota, says the Persian Gulf War took traditional propaganda to a new
level as U.S. authorities controlled the flow of information in the media
and expanded the lexicon of military euphemisms. Cruise missiles. Smart
bombs. Collateral damage. Safe bunkers. Hard targets. Hit ratios. Surgical
strikes. To western television viewers, the war must have appeared
John R. MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine and author
of Second Front: Censorship And Propaganda In The Gulf War, says he
believes the war on terrorism will unfold with even more secrecy and
censorship. "Already we have a kind of `ahistoricality' setting in," he
explains. "Nobody here is talking about some very important issues. You're
simply not allowed to discuss the history of American foreign policy."
Such discussions are seen as unseemly, morally ambiguous, and
steeped in preposterous and offensive anti-Americanism. The issue, to
many, is simple good versus evil.
Says Jacobs: "The whole notion of propaganda raises a larger
question: How do you control and manage press reports and the information
that is reaching the general public?"
During the uprising in Germany, as the Nazis gained power, Josef
Goebbels was able to impart nationalist rhetoric and manufacture consent
through selective advertising, state-produced films, and elaborate,
orchestrated public events. (Adolf Hitler also asked Leni Reifenstahl to
film the Nazi Party's annual rally in Nuremburg. Her film, Triumph Of
The Will, is now considered a seminal exercise in fascist propaganda.)
Decades later, Slobodan Milosevic created "demo networks" - ragtag
groups of unemployed youth that would optically boost the size at rallies
held for Serbian nationalism.
More recently, Osama bin Laden, the Saudi exile U.S. Authorities
are calling the prime suspect in the recent attacks, has filmed several
training videos. As tools of propaganda, the grainy, disjointed footage is
used to mollify moderates and recruit new soldiers for the Holy War.
(During its bloody war with Russia, Afghan rebels were given camcorders to
record their triumphs.)
In totalitarian states, persuasion is straightforward. Citizens are
simply told what to believe and how to behave. But in democratic nations,
governance has nuance, inextricably tethered to divergent principles of
individual freedom and mass control.
As scholar Noam Chomsky says: "Propaganda is to democracy what
violence is to totalitarianism."
In this context, says Pratkanis, where propaganda is concerned,
governments realize the importance of the media. "The mass media is now
the primary place where we have political discussions. So one of the keys
to effective political leadership is being able to control the news
media's agenda. That agenda is not necessarily how you are talking
about something, but what you are talking about."
In the war against terrorism, he says, there have been a number of
examples where U.S. Authorities announced, "they were planning to release"
certain information in the future. This allows the media to run a story
about the "future release" of information, rather than the information
"This war will be a challenge for democracy itself," Pratkanis
predicts. "Because democracy thrives when everything is in the light of
day. Now democracy in the United States will require a high degree of
And trust is a commodity in rapid decline. The Internet, decades of
independent research, and the rapid evolution of alternative media has
created a population that is much more sophisticated in its ability to
recognize and decipher propaganda - irrespective of the source.
"Audiences throughout the world are constantly becoming more
exposed to the latest in international mass media entertainment, they are
better trained, more aware, often more cynical," notes Oliver Thomson,
author of Easily Led: A History of Propaganda.
Randall Bytwerk, a professor of communication at Calvin College in
Michigan, author and a foremost expert in propaganda, says: "Propaganda,
and the control of public opinion, becomes harder when you lack control
over the images."
This proved to be the case in Vietnam, where public support
suddenly dipped as the horrifying images of war were broadcast back home.
"Vietnam was a turning point because there were reporters all over the
place," Bytwerk says.
In the stormy, post-Vietnam years, the U.S. has taken a cautious
approach to war. (In fact, the number of firefighters and police offices
who died during rescue efforts at the World Trade Center is more than the
total military personnel who have fallen in combat since the 1983 invasion
Given the global scope of the new war, and the potential
repercussions, Garth Jowett, a communication professor at University of
Houston, says Bush has to be very careful in the propaganda he uses. "I
fully expected a propaganda onslaught that was going to be totally
irrational. But as I understand it, there was an internal conflict within
the Bush administration in terms of what kind of message to give the
Jowett says many people have compared the attacks with Pearl
Harbor. But the analogy is problematic. In that case, there was a clear
nation-state enemy. And it's important to remember, he adds, that most
Americans did not see footage of the Japanese attack for almost a year.
"In terms of propaganda, those visual images (of planes striking
the World Trade Center) could not be matched by any other imaginable
images," says John Lampe, chair of the Department of History at the
University of Maryland. "In fact, if there is any propaganda campaign at
play at all, it is to prevent the violent, stereotypical response we have
seen domestically in the past."
Lampe is referring to the threats and attacks that have been
leveled at Arab-Americans and Muslims throughout North America. The
violence, including suspected murder, has raised the specter of the
Japanese internment camps during World War II.
As Jowett notes: "Bush has to maintain the public's confidence that
the government will actually do something. But he also doesn't want to get
the public so riled up so that they are running out murdering their own
And as Bush said during his speech to Congress: "I also want to
speak tonight directly to Muslims throughout the world. We respect your
faith. It's practiced freely by many millions of Americans and by millions
more in countries that America counts as friends."
First Lady Laura Bush went on 60 Minutes recently to discuss
the importance of solidarity and urge Americans to not attack their fellow
citizens. And during the recent celebrity telethon, America: A Tribute
To Heroes, a number of stars, including Will Smith and Muhammad Ali,
Similarly, this week, U.S. Authorities have scrambled with messages
about the safety of air travel - even though Ronald Reagan Washington
National Airport has remained closed (it will open partially tomorrow).
And a number of experts have also started appearing on television telling
Americans their country is prepared for any biological attack, even though
other non-government sources warn the opposite is true.
"We are an action oriented culture," Snow says. "We are not an
``And that's where the sloganeering and jingoism comes into play.
``We are almost given a script and walking papers in terms of how
we are supposed to respond."
Copyright 1996-2001. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited