The uses and abuses of propaganda

by Jeff Smith

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Propaganda, Edward Bernays

When one hears the word propaganda there are usually negative or sinister associations with the term. Propaganda is what the enemy uses or the “evil doers” to use a label from our silver-tongue president. However, the contemporary use of the term itself did not have such negative connotations until after WWII.

One dictionary definition of propaganda says it means, “Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.” Thus during WWI, the US used its own form of propaganda to convince a primarily anti-war population to enter the war against Germany. Journalist Walter Lippman and the father of the PR industry Edward Bernays joined George Creel in a major government propaganda effort known as the Committee for Public Information. Within six months they had created such tremendous anti-German hysteria that public opinion shifted in favor of the US entry into WWI. Lippman, Bernays and others were so impressed with the effectiveness of the campaign that it has become the model for all PR campaigns in the US, both corporate and government.

It is important that people in the US understand that we are in the midst of a major propaganda campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of the public when it comes to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Millions of dollars are being spent to propagandize us into either supporting the current US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan or to simply distract us from even thinking about them. Thus we are confronted with both direct and indirect propaganda campaigns. Let’s begin with the indirect campaign.

Indirect propaganda takes on several forms. First, you have the sensationalist celebrity driven propaganda. One way of knowing if this type of distraction works well is to simply ask people what they know about Britney, Paris, Angelina, Tom, Brad and a whole host of other celebrities that the news media hits us upside the head with on a daily basis. Ask people who got in a fight at the annual MTV awards and you are sure to get a fairly accurate response. Personally I don’t buy the media’s response that “they just give us what we want,” and besides who really gives a shit if Tommy Lee and Kid Rock had a millionaire’s scuffle.

A second kind of indirect propaganda is the fear factor. Just keep people afraid about anything – immigrant, terrorists, bird flu, global warming, AIDS, Aliens, illegal aliens, viruses, and any dark-skinned urban youth and people will not be thinking about much of anything else. Local TV news is particularly good at this since they carpet bomb people’s minds with the latest shooting, stabbing, fire, flu, and terrorist alert. Last month, State Representative Agema even suggested that the school district provide guns to teachers in the classroom in order to counter the apparent proliferation of guns in schools. Then you can turn to entertainment shows like 24 on FOX and think that the nation is at the brink of nuclear war every week.

The last kind of indirect propaganda that we all deal with is hyper-commercialism. You know, the 3,000 ads we will all encounter on a daily basis from TV, radio, the Internet, billboards, store fronts, magazines, newspapers, in movie theaters, and in our mail. The latest effort to sell us more useless crap is in the form of video billboards. You read that correctly, billboards that would have video projected on them. Sure, that is what we need, more people looking at moving ads on billboards while driving down the highway. The issue of public safety is bad enough, but the fact that the advertising companies want to assault us even more with useless consumer goods in this fashion continues to reflect that there is no limit to ways that they hope to keep us distracted from thinking about anything remotely meaningful. Now let’s move on to a look at direct propaganda.

There are always multiple direct propaganda campaigns that we are confronted with, but for the purposes of limited space and the fact that we are in the 6th year of a war I will limit my comments to the current US government’s war propaganda campaign.

I say 6th year, because October of 2001 is when the US invasion and bombing of Afghanistan took place. The US military occupation of Afghanistan has all but been forgotten in the public mind, but it is in its 6th year and there is no end in sight. Like the US occupation of Iraq, the Afghan occupation has significant US troop presence and the construction of PERMANENT US military bases. In other words the military has no intention of leaving anytime soon. The current request for an additional $141 billion dollars is for the US occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan, even though Afghanistan is generally left out of the discussion. For current information and analysis of the US occupation of Afghanistan I highly recommend the website of the Revolutionary Women’s Association of Afghanistan (RAWA) But I warn you that visiting this site might get you noticed by certain federal agencies.

With the Iraq war the propaganda campaign is much more intense. Let’s look at some tactics the administration is using and how that is filtered through the media. First, the administration is desperate because it knows that they are losing public support for the war. Why do you think Dick Cheney was sent to Grand Rapids the day after Bush’s last big Iraq war address to the nation? Even in West Michigan, a traditionally pro-US foreign policy area, the folks in Washington know that there is growing opposition to the war. Sure Grand Rapids is a “friendly place” as the Grand Rapids Press referred to the city when Cheney came, but it’s just the major institutions and the media that are friendly to Cheney, Bush and company. So it is important that we pay attention to who comes to town and when and how that plays into the larger pro-war strategy.

Second, the administration has recently used a front group that is led by former White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer called Freedom Watch. Their political ads feature Iraq war vets and military families who use statements like “now is not the time to cut and run,” and a “US troop withdrawal would tell the terrorists that they can do what they want.” This has been a strategy all along, a strategy that includes buzzwords and phrases that are not based in reality, but if you say them enough people are more likely to believe you. Therefore, anytime the administration uses the word terrorist or terrorism it is meant to elicit a certain response. For example, if Iraqi people who are tired of the US occupation decide to defend themselves or force US troops to leave their community they are labeled terrorists. Sometimes they are called insurgents, but it means the same thing – people who are armed and want the US to leave. For the first 2 weeks in September, Freedom Watch had a contract with WOOD TV8 for $36,000 plus to run ads to support the “surge” mentality. So it is important that we recognize this tactic in the current propaganda strategy, the use of front groups and paid advertising.

A third tactic is crafting messages so that the “debate” can be slanted in the administration’s favor. What has been presented by the White House is that the “surge” is working and that “we need to give it more time.” It has become somewhat of a numbers game, but more importantly any response to the surge debate always ends up using the same language. Therefore, the administration has controlled the terms of the debate so that there is limited or no real dissenting perspective. For instance, General Petraeus and company have said that if the US leaves Iraq it would be catastrophic, which frames the US occupation as one of benevolence, that they are acting with the best interests of the Iraqi people. Framing the debate this way means that there is no discussion of what the invasion and occupation has done to Iraq. When was the last time you saw a debate in the government or in the mainstream news that began with the premise “the US occupation has been the main cause of death, destruction, and the incentive for more and more Iraqis to join in the attacks against them? Controlling the terms of the debate means limiting the scope of discussion and ultimately how people view the intentions of the US occupation.

All three of these tactics together also work in conjunction of the existing US news media filters. US news outlets are not forced to print or broadcast what the government says, but most of the time ends up doing just that. This says a great deal about the effectiveness of the propaganda system. The US news media more often than not acts as a conduit for the administration’s position on the war. First, they report on government statements just like courthouse stenographers, without questioning the statements and rarely verify the claims made by those in power. Second, the media adopts the language and terms of the debate, thus limiting how the public might view what is really going on. For instance, since the administration keeps saying we are in Iraq to bring freedom to the Iraqi people, the news media tends to adopt the same premise, so the intentions of the US military are never seriously questioned. Third, the news media relies primarily on the same sources of information – government and military spokespersons, retired military personnel and right wing think tanks. The only voices that appear to be oppositional are partisan voices, even though the Democratic Party only disagrees with some of the administration’s tactics, not the over all strategy. This means that anti-war voices in the US are rarely heard and when they are it is limited to a particular protest, not their analysis of the war and occupation. Iraqi voices, as far as the US media are concerned, are irrelevant.

Fortunately, despite this amazing propaganda effort, most of America thinks the war is wrong and at least half of the country thinks the US occupation should end. Not surprising, most Iraqis think the US should leave now, but unless you are looking at international news or the independent media you won’t hear that point made. In some sense we should all be encouraged by the fact that most Americans aren’t buying the propaganda. It took most Americans longer to voice opposition to the US war in Vietnam. The other encouraging factor is that there is a growing anti-war movement within the US military. Groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War have formed, more soldiers are refusing to fight and others are refusing orders. There is also a growing counter-military recruitment effort across the country that is not only exposing the lies of the military but is providing alternatives to young men and women who are targets of the military. To get information on or take part in counter-military recruiting efforts in Grand Rapids go to

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media //