Propaganda and “Information War”: Theirs and Ours
In the last few days there have been a couple of articles published purporting to expose the official Russian propaganda campaign (and the “information war” more generally) around the secession or annexation (take your pick) of Crimea. The first that I’m aware of appeared in The Guardian yesterday (17 March, Monday) by Alan Yuhas entitled “Russian propaganda over Crimea and the Ukraine: how does it work?“. Then this morning the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) published another by Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber, “‘Just like the West.’ Russia defends its propaganda war over Ukraine“. It appears to owe a good deal to Yuhas’ Guardian article.
As exposés they aren’t very insightful, really. But neither are they particularly flawed as far as they go. The issue I have with these articles is the way that “information war” (or “disinformation war”) is framed — a frame constructed by limited and limiting assumptions of what constitutes “propaganda”.
Let me state from the outset that I don’t think “propaganda” is such a useful term. In all my years of studying propaganda I’ve never found a useful or precise definition of it. There are so many attempted definitions of the term that, for all practical purposes, one can say that there is no conclusive definition. Or, equally, one can say that every definition contains a partial truth about propaganda.
A far more useful term is “perception management” (or what is referred to euphemistically as “managing the optics”) for everything that is called “propaganda”, “spin”, “public relations”, “public diplomacy”, “positioning”, “presentation”, or “informational war” (or “disinformation”), and so on. All these we can appreciate as various attempts at perception management. So, wherever I employ the term “propaganda” it is with the understanding that it is one aspect of mass perception management. In fact, this term “perception management”, now used as something synonymous with and as a substitute for “propaganda”, demonstrates the increasing sophistication and refinement of propaganda itself, since the First World War, as a technology of social, psychological, and political manipulation, regulation, and control.
Think of The Matrix. Although The Matrix appears as an improbable science-fictiony dystopia, the basic concept and feasibility of such a “psychocivilised society” was seriously proposed as far back as 1970. It’s just a very short step now from perception management to such psychological engineering and “physical control of the mind”. And it is, moreover, the implicit end project of the universal surveillance state, as disclosed by the Snowden files. The intent is to ultimately shift these programmes from mere monitoring and surveillance to active and direct psychological engineering. That is implied in the documents.
This is the dimension of this dangerous issue that, unfortunately, many commentators and critics in the press have not taken seriously enough.
Instead of speaking of “propaganda”, we should perhaps speak rather of propagandas in the plural, understanding by “propagandas” the various approaches to perception management. They are like different flavours of ice-cream, as it were. There is a style of propaganda which is uniquely Russian, as there is a style of propaganda that was uniquely German fascist, and a style of propaganda that is distinctly Anglo-Saxon (that is, which is characteristic of the Anglosphere or the so-called “Five Eyes” linguistic or cultural group of the US, the UK, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia).
Russian-style propaganda sticks out like a sore thumb for that reason, which is why everyone notices it, even as they remain somewhat oblivious to their own propaganda environment (we call it, vaguely, “information”). Our own propaganda environment — our own constructed groupthink — remains largely invisible to the extent that our consciousness and perception of reality has been thoroughly co-opted by social engineers and the “information environment” to the extent that it has come to be considered even “the common sense” or “the natural order of things”.
The two articles referred to above thus provide us a useful opportunity to demonstrate why Russian propaganda and its own style of “perception management” stick out like a sore thumb, while ours remains largely invisible, and for that reason has become far more effective, penetrating, ubiquitous, and successful in achieving its purposes.
At the risk of already boring you to death (although for the sake of our own “mental hygiene” it seems necessary), we should explore the context for the development of propaganda as a technology of “social engineering” (as it’s called today). You might find it surprising that these “secular” terms and practices — “propaganda” and “technology” (like so much else that is called “secular”, including ideology and utilitarianism) — have their origins and roots in theology. “Propaganda”, of course, derives from the act of propagation — of broadcasting or planting seeds; the act of insemination. But contemporary or secular usage derives from the Papal Congregatio de Propaganda Fide — the Committee for the Propagation of the Faith — founded in 1622 with a dual mission: to spread the Catholic faith and to counter the Protestant Reformation.
More surprisingly perhaps is that the word “technology” also has theological origins. “Propaganda” and “technology” grew up together. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the origins of the word “technology” to around the same period as the Congregatio. As “reasoning about the means” (the logos of the techne) it was the study of rhetoric, logic, and grammar for the purposes of persuasion — that is, the best means or medium by which to represent eternal truth within the secular order of time, or how to communicate eternal truth in such a way that it would open people’s ears (and eyes) to a perception of the sacred.
(Or, just as likely, to the supreme authority of the Pope and the claims to universality of the Catholic Church. The charge of “jesuitical casuistry” dates from around this time).
These were the original meanings and purposes of “propaganda” and “technology”. They began in theology and rhetoric, and their ostensible purpose was to serve the revelation or manifestation of “eternal truth”. Of interest to note about this is — truth and fact were not treated as being synonymous. “Fact” was the man-made representation — the artifact — not the truth itself. The relation between truth and fact ran parallel to the relation between soul and body, or the relation between eternity and the secular order of time and impermanence. “Truth” pertained to the timeless of the absolute; “fact” to the temporal and the relative. “Truth” was whole and entire and therefore immutable, while the “fact” was ever only partial, relative, transient, and mutable. The “fact” was only the garb or clothing worn by truth. “The truth that sets free” was revealed; but Man made the “facts of the matter”. The spiritual order and the natural order were not synonymous, but were related symbolically as bridegroom and bride (or Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell“). The best that could be hoped for was that the “natural order of things” would be a faithful echo and reflection of the divine order, as this order was understood to the minds of that time.
Or, at least, so it was until “the death of God”.
It’s for this reason that contemporary propaganda, ideology, and technology, despite their secularisation, still have the odour of a decayed theology about them. And that is true regardless of the “style” of propaganda/perception management.
This brings us to the second historically significant fact about propaganda. Although some have identified the beginnings of contemporary, secular propaganda with Edmund Burke (father of modern conservatism), or with Napoleon Bonaparte, or with the republican revolutionary Tom Paine, it really came into its own as a discipline or “science” with the First World War and the Russian Revolution — as social engineering. That is when the power of “the masses”, mobilised for industrial production, war, or revolution became evident as something more dangerous than dynamite. Between 1914 and 1945, the “revolt of the masses” and the new reality of mass politics — whether communism, fascism, or consumerism — became a frightening reality that needed to be controlled and channeled, and the masses organised for war and peace, production and consumption.
How to organise the masses for war or peace, consumption and production is the issue by which we can distinguish “propagandas”. Russian propaganda is based on the crude behavioural psychology of Ivan Pavolv and operant conditioning. It is clumsy and mechanistic and, for that reason, fools hardly anyone. It did not have to be subtle, refined or sophisticated because of the authoritarian nature of the Soviet and subsequent post-Soviet state. Authoritarianism made up for what was a deficient and faulty understanding of human psychology. It is, for that reason, blatant. For ideological reasons, the insights of Freud and the psychology of the unconscious were rejected by the ideologues and commissars of the Soviet state who saw them as inconsistent with the dogmas of “historical materialism”.
Yet it was precisely these insights from depth psychology and the hidden, invisible dimension of the psyche that became the foundational principles of much Western propaganda and perception management. It is not merely accidental that “the father of public relations” after the First World War, Edward Bernays, was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and whose 1928 book Propaganda laid the foundations, and provided the rationale, for the continuing conduct and practice of deception and propaganda in peace-time. There is much distorted myth and mysticism even in its commercial advertising.
For quite evident reasons (Freud being a Jew), Nazi propaganda relied on other propaganda sources — in the “meta-politics” of Wagnerian myth and magic, for example. Nazi propaganda, for Hitler and Goebbels, was more art and an aesthetics of violence than engineering. Hitler blamed the loss of the First World War on the superiority of Allied propaganda and the inferiority of the German propaganda campaign, and he and Goebbels went about correcting that based on some mystical understanding of the Volksseele or “folk soul”.
In contrast to overt and clumsy style Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda, the “invisible hand” of democratic propaganda has to remain “under the radar” — undisclosed, covert, and hidden, as Bernays taught and as was affirmed by Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. In the absence of an overt authoritarian state, other, more subtle, sly, and cunning means of exerting pressure on consciousness and the public had to be devised. Gaining access through the “back door” of the unconscious was the effective solution. And it is ironic that many of the issues related to artificial intelligence and “malware” (“back doors”, “trojan horses”, “spoofing”, “viruses”, “spam”, “black ops”) exactly parallel those of propaganda, information/disinformation war, and perception management. All this is, of course, reflected in that earlier reference I quoted from the late Samuel Huntington,
“The architects of power in the United States must create a force that can be felt but not seen. Power remains strong when it remains in the dark; exposed to the sunlight it begins to evaporate.”
This formula for the exercise of power and pressure in democratic societies (it exactly resembles the Buddhist demon “Mara”, Lord of Illusions) is based on the psychology of the unconscious and a more or less precise understanding of neurology and psychology compared to the crude authoritarian propaganda of the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet state. Russian propaganda is hardly something that needs discovering and disclosure. It’s completely blatant. There never was anything subtle about Russian propaganda for historical reasons and because of the structure of the Russian state itself.
Propaganda that is entirely evident, noticeable and recognisable as propaganda is failed propaganda. Far more dangerous, pernicious, and insidious is the covert, hidden, and invisible kind that creeps in through the back door of the unconscious, and which I have referred to as “the foreign installation”.