P
ropaganda was originally about propagating faith, a task given in the 17th century to a committee of Catholic cardinals, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Gradually, propaganda became synonymous with biased information promoting a political agenda.

Over the 20th century, propaganda was charged with a new meaning, serving as a soft weapon for psy-ops. Today, armed conflicts have no start nor end. We live in some sort of permanent war where world powers fight for their place in a yet-to-be multipolar world. Consequently, all statements are considered as propaganda and have led to a Trust Crisis, directly impacting on elections world-wide.

More than words

The ‘raison d’être’ of any given language is to convey information. To do so, some languages do not used words. For instance, bees communicate the exact location of a flowers’ field by performing a figure eight movement. So far, we have no records of bees purposely transmitting wrong information to keep all the pollen for themselves or simply to crack a good joke on their fellow bees. A very different situation with human communication.

If words were a translation of reality, accounts of events would be the same. Unfortunately, for any given story, there are many different narratives. A story can be true or false. In 1938, historian Allan Nevis wrote that "a widespread and sleepless conspiracy exists against history", as human beings tend to shape the past to benefit their own reputations. Many other historians and politicians corroborated his opinion: history tends to be written by the victorious power; or one’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. Conclusion: It is all about a question of perspective!

The Power of Symbols

All leaders understand the power of words and narrative creation. Some do not hesitate to resort to dubious etymology to support their views, as epitomized by Muammar Gadhafi, who tracked the origin of Shakespeare to an Arab named Sheikh Zubeyr.

Propaganda relies on the power of symbols. It uses strong images and violent contrast to enforce ideas. Where best might a Soviet anti-religious propaganda museum be opened but in the Cave Monastery of Kiev, the cradle of Orthodox monasticism? How ironic is it that the word propaganda was first referring to propagating faith, when Soviet propaganda targeted faith!

Scientia Vincere Tenebras

In ‘Particles Fever’, a documentary on the Higgs boson, Savas Dimopoulos discloses the reason that prompted his decision to become a physicist. As a young adult, he says, he was confused listening to extreme-right and extreme-left politicians holding contradicting opinions, yet both claiming to be true. To solve this conundrum, he “decided to focus on a field where the truth did not depend on the eloquence of the speaker, but where the truth was absolute”. For scientists, nothing is taken for granted. A scientific theory is first tested and remains valid until demonstrated otherwise. Unfortunately, such a rationale approach cannot be applied to other aspects of social and political life where opinions and decisions largely depend on personal choices and beliefs. Information falls beyond the realms of science, or does not pass Karl Popper test of falsifiability.

Propaganda and Indoctrination

In January 2017, Brunhilde Pomsel passed at the age of 106. For three years, she had been a secretary of Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda. Pomsel’s job was to doctor statistics and to her grave she went protesting her innocence, claiming she knew nothing about the extermination of Jewish people. Like many others, she believed in the rhetoric of the system and her views were truncated by propaganda blinkers that she contributed to shape. Ignoring or denying reality creates a comfortable environment of self-delusion and blind peace of mind. “Repeat a lie enough time and it becomes the truth”, as Goebbels used to hammer.

To be efficient propaganda needs to be in tune with its audience, to resonate in the minds of the gullible public and to keep feeding its mental map with logical – yet biased - viewpoints. The sad news is that we are all vulnerable to propaganda as we do not have the means to validate all pieces of information. Our brain accumulates information, gradually laying out a psychological print – ‘our’ truth. We might not recall the exact details of a story but we keep a residual broad understanding of a situation or a person.

Information Noise

The information Big Bang triggered by the internet has created a gigantic infosphere that keeps expanding. The positive outcome is that our access to information has never been so easy and free. The negative aspect is that the infosphere generates noise. Huge quantities of obstreperous information are being channelled in all directions on information highways. The infosphere resembles an open canvas on which everybody is free to paint. The resulting picture is a rather chaotic impressionist piece, made of millions of info-dots or pieces of information. When looking at this infosphere, we see little harmony and many contradictions. And if we want to be heard, it is not good enough to be right; one needs to be louder than others.

“Trust me, I’m lying”

Media strategist, Ryan Holiday unveiled the dark side of content manipulation and news creation. In his book “Trust me, I’m lying”, he reveals ways to create and spread information. To survive, blogs and news outlets need to generate traffic and accumulate more page views than their competitors. Ryan Holiday explains that news makers exploit poor bloggers by paying them to post information that will increase their visibility. When an information has gained large coverage in blogs and secondary media, it attracts bigger media. Then, the information piece moves to a higher stage. Validated by major media, the piece of information enjoys stronger credibility and touches a larger audience. In this layer of the infosphere, volume of data and fast information exchange act as an echo chamber for any propaganda campaign. Once an information is out there, it gets amplifies and cannot be contained. It’s viral!

The dialectic of ‘Fake news’

Such volatile environment has increased reputational risks for companies and politicians. Smearing campaign, documents leaks, trolling can cause serious damages and major profit losses. Campaigns to besmirch individuals and politicians are daily, especially during election times. So, when an information attack (true or false) is launched, PR departments embark on swift counter-attack operations to limit damages. There is no time for evidence-based explanations or law suits, too lengthy and too complicated to offer a serious defence mechanism in information wars, where the principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is completely disregarded. To mitigate the risk, the only approach is to divert the negative force onto a particular aspect of the scandal. For instance, PR specialists will distract the audience from the scandalous revelations by focusing on the origin of a leaked a document. ‘Much Ado About Nothing” simply created a smoke screen to empty any topic of its true substance.

Alternatively, the old adage remains valid: If you can’t convince them, confuse them! The expression “Fake News” is associated with President Donald Trump’s assessment of many media outlets. But “Fake News” is also a project of anti-Trump counter-propaganda launched by David Brock. The former right wing commentator turned to an influential operative in the Democratic Party, masters Hegelian dialectic. Under the lemma ‘Fake News’, we have now to understand a thesis and an anti-thesis, two statements affirming opposite content. To make sure that everybody is confused, the glamorous leader of MediaWatch has launched a ‘Fake News’ campaign to fight President Trump’s fake news!

And the giant Facebook has stepped in with its ‘disputable hashtag’ to flag Fake news and encourage fact-based information. But this attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff is not tackling the core issue. People will dispute the validity of this hashtag as a mean to frame opinions. Facebook is a commercial organization after all.

StratCom: EU vs Disinformation

Individuals, companies, States are all vulnerable to information-related risks. In November 2016, the European parliament adopted a resolution on EU strategic communication to counteract propaganda against Europe by third parties, namely ISIL/Daesh and Russia. The resolution states that hostile propaganda is a threat for the EU and strategic communication constitutes a defence mechanism in this information warfare. For instance, the EU East StratCom task force publishes a weekly Review on Disinformation.

The approach has long been known in Aikido teaching: revert the energy of the slam onto the face of the assailant. Thus, it is of no surprise that the EU team working on counter-propaganda is called the samurais!

The resolution was voted but as the minority opinion points out, there is a paradox in calling for independent medias supported by the EU.

The truth is out there

At the end of the day, civilians are the prime targets and the victims in this information battlefield. Permanent mesmerising resulted in a Trust Crisis, as the 2017 Elderman Trust Barometer showed. Propaganda and counter-propaganda are equally detrimental to the truth and furthermore, they polarize the population drawn in conspiracy theories. Today, ‘Fake News’ means one thing and its opposite. How confusing! And where is the ‘Real News’ then? Hopefully, the last Hegelian stage of synthesis is yet to come. To move away from the current ‘post-truth era’, we need to bring to light the intention of the speaker. The drivers of the speakers and the motivational forces behind the narratives constitute an analytical grid to decipher the content of any given account.

Human, All Too Human!

Bruno Husquinet

Bruno Husquinet has been working in conflict zones since 2003. Leveraging on his professional experience and his background in Slavic Studies, he provides strategic support to profit and non-profit institutions.

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