Since Randal Marlin’s book, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, was first published in 2002 the US war on Iraq has taken place and communication through social media has taken off. Following the publication of a new edition of his book last month the Canadian professor talked to MercatorNet about key developments in the world of propaganda.
MercatorNet: I thought propaganda died when the Cold War ended and social media began. Is it still a part of the government’s toolkit?
Randal Marlin: Propaganda most certainly is part of any modern government’s toolkit. The carefully orchestrated build-up to the 2003 attack on Iraq is a case in point. Social media have made a dent in government propaganda, and there is pushback against the war-mongering regarding Syria and Iran, but it is far from clear that the social media opposition will prevail.
How do you define propaganda? Is it just governments who do it? Do Google and Microsoft do propaganda as well?
I define propaganda (on page 12 of my book) as: “The organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment.” This would encompass a lot of what goes by the name of public relations and advertising today.
Yes, Google and Microsoft do propaganda. I recall advertising overkill when Windows first came out, many newspaper pages bought. It’s hard to be critical when some corporation is paying you so handsomely.
But propaganda is a weasel word, because it has two main definitions, one neutral and the other negative, both accepted usage but in conflict with each other. Since my book was published I have found a reference to Cicero where he uses the term “propaganda” to refer to the duty to propagate the “true” (Roman, pre-Christ) religion as against the superstitions of the entrail-readers and so on. In line with that usage, the word propaganda has a favourable definition, in line with the Roman Catholic usage in creating the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (the Vatican department for what’s now known as evangelisation) in the 17th Century.
The first edition of your book came out in 2002. What are the most significant changes you have had to address since then?
The above-mentioned build-up for the war in Iraq was the most significant omission. It happened just after my book came out. There was also new information about the Corpse Factory story of 1917, which alleged, in the context of reports of German atrocities, that the Germans were boiling their own dead soldiers to extract from their bodies lubricating oil, fats, soap, glue, glycerine for explosives, bonemeal for animal feed, and fertilizer.
Also in the past ten years the whole social media thing took off.
Climate change is an issue that many governments would like to ignore but can’t. What techniques do they have at their disposal for dealing with such contentious issues?
In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has muzzled government scientists. He owes a lot of his support to the oil patch in Alberta. Governments can cut funding for the pure objective science that produces bad news and give support to climate change sceptics.
The classic pretext for propaganda is war. In what ways is this true of the recent Iraq war and now Afghanistan?
I think of the connection between war and propaganda the other way around. Propaganda provides a pretext for war. But of course, once a war is started it becomes easier to justify the propaganda supporting the war, because no one wants to be seen as being indifferent to the fate of one’s own troops, and their morale needs to be sustained.
Can there still be good propaganda?
I believe there can. One of the illustrations in my book is the sculpture of Mother Canada, or “Canada Bereft”, which is part of the National Vimy Memorial in France, dedicated to Canadian soldiers killed during the First World War. Monuments can stir up hatred but they can also fulfill two worthwhile functions. First, they can honour those who gave their lives with the aim of service to God and country through combating tyranny. Secondly, theycan take stock of the suffering caused to all sides in a war and question the premises on which wars have been conducted, motivated sometimes by desire for grandeur.The Canadian Monument at Vimy Ridge is an example of one that accomplishes this through its emphasis on grief, pain, and suffering rather than false pride and triumphalism.
It’s the role of the press to expose propaganda by presenting the facts and a range of opinions. Are the leading Western media collectively, if not individually, doing their job today?
The mainstream media have been thoroughly derelict in this regard regarding Iraq, Afghanistan and much else. The existence of the social media and well-informed commentators such as Robert Parry and Ray McGovern (Consortium News) is forcing the mainstream media to expand its range of coverage, but they have a long way to go before they can claim journalistic independence and respectability.
Edward Snowden, who has revealed massive US spying programmes, is a hero to some and a criminal to others. In your view, has he advanced the cause of truth, democracy and peace?
Absolutely, he has advanced the cause of truth, democracy and peace. He is a hero, in my books, and what’s wrong in modern governments will never become right until there is general recognition and applause for his courage and integrity in taking the path he did. The government of the United States has been so taken up with deceptions and spin, that only a very few are left who actually think in terms of truth and falsity, right and wrong. One of those is Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont. Another is Elizabeth Warren, the Senator for Massachusetts.
For the rest, there is too much capitulation to power. The sense of justice and fairness and empathy for people at the bottom of the economic pyramid of wealth is sorely lacking. Propaganda plays a large role in this.
Do the whistleblower and Wikileaks phenomena exemplified by Snowden, Bradley Manning and Julian Assange signal that the power of influence has passed from governments to others?
What it signals is that power has been misused by those who have been entrusted with it. I have written elsewhere about the justification for Wikileaks. Whether the misusers of power succeed in intimidating those truth-revealers so that like-minded (to Snowden) people will be dissuaded in future remains to be seen. Propaganda can work by distractions and cover-ups, so that public attention on what they have revealed is obscured. As an optimist, I can only hope that the revelations will bring voters to try to find and elect more people of the calibre of Elizabeth Warren. But I doubt that the system will allow this.
The work of these counter-propagandists would not be possible without the internet. Is the internet and everything that goes with it – Google, Facebook, Twitter… — arming ordinary people against propaganda, or exposing them to larger doses of it? What is necessary to really democratise the internet?
The potential is there for greater democratization, but first, it is also a means of distracting people and secondly, there are ways in which the big service providers could choke off (“throttle” is the term of art) and marginalize voices that might threaten corporate interests. There are also lawsuits that the rich can use to intimidate those who might threaten their privileges. To really democratize the internet, you need to awaken the citizenry to look out for and head off threats to the openness of mass communications.
There’s an interesting note in your book about the large French-Canadian family of yesteryear in which political wisdom was transmitted on the basis of trust. Does the isolation of today’s nuclear family – and often its fragmentation – create new opportunities for propagandists? What can protect the isolated individual not only from Big Brother but from Big Media?
It is a theme of Jacques Ellul – one of two major theorists of propaganda that I treat in my book (the other is George Orwell) — that with the French Revolution and the breakdown of the old established order, people tended to become more individualized, lacking community and seeking some sort of new identity which propaganda readily provided.
If propaganda succeeds, it is usually because the propagandee wants what it provides. This includes the provision of simplistic news that fits an image of world affairs that can easily be grasped. Fox News does this. People can get a picture that does not correspond to reality but fits with the image other people have, just because it is easy enough to grasp. So they can have the appearance of being a responsible citizen without the reality.
Ellul explains all this in more detail. Behind him stands Kierkegaard, who knew all about the media-influenced masses and how, in Ibsen’s words, the genuine truth seeker and disseminator becomes an “Enemy of the People”.
Edward Snowden is today’s “Enemy of the People”, and with the media the way they are today, people who see him in that light can bask in the glow of being thought to be “responsible” thinkers, at least among the great majority of mediated minds.
Randal Marlin is Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. The second edition of his book, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, is published by Broadview Press (October, 2013).