Propaganda and Elite Power

Guest post by
Piers Robinson
  a Professor of Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield. Originally Published by ElitePowerInvestigations which has disappeared from the World Wide Web

Propaganda Architect & Prominent Member of the US Establishment, Edward Bernays

by Piers Robinson
This op-ed was first published on EPIC

Propaganda and manipulative forms of Organised Persuasive Communication (OPC) are central to the exercise of political and economic power and yet, over time, our awareness of these activities has been significantly blunted.
This has not always been the case and, historically, early theorists of propaganda such as Harold Lasswell[1] and Walter Lippman[2] openly advocated the intelligent manipulation of public opinion and, indeed, saw this as essential to democracy. However, as Edward Bernays revealingly noted, ‘propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans … using it [during WW1].[3] So what I did was to … find some other words. So we found the words Counsel on Public Relations.’ Since then, a plethora of terms have come to be used to denote activities which, although not always, involve systematic and coordinated strategies to manipulate opinions and behaviours. In addition to public relations, terms such as strategic communication, perception management, political communication, political marketing, advertising, public diplomacy have all helped to obfuscate the manipulative and frequently deceptive communication strategies that powerful actors employ. As Carey wryly notes, ‘the success of business propaganda in persuading us … that we are free from propaganda is one of the most significant achievements of the twentieth century’.[4] For some, such as the late British historian Professor Phil Taylor, these deceptions and self deceptions were profoundly unproductive: he observed that ‘an entire euphemism industry has developed to deflect attention away from the realities of’ propaganda, and that ‘despite the euphemism game, democracies have grown ever more sophisticated at conducting propaganda, however labeled, which only they deny to be propaganda in the first place.’[5]
The consequences of our failure to fully recognise these realities are deleterious for democracy, accountability and, arguably, good decision making. For example, the recent Chilcot Inquiry has, whilst offering a damning indictment of the Blair government and how it took Britain to war in Iraq,  also provided surprisingly revealing information regarding the origins of the Iraq War and the centrality of propaganda to the West’s ‘war on terror’. Indeed, perhaps the most damning information emerging from the 7 year long Chilcot Inquiry relates to the origins of UK involvement in this ill-fated enterprise. As the early parts of the report makes clear, the genesis of British involvement in the Iraq War lay in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 when elements within the US administration sought to take advantage of the event in order to pursue a long standing objective of toppling Saddam Hussein. The report quotes a British embassy report dated 15 September 2001 which states that ‘The “regime-change hawks” in Washington were arguing that a coalition put together for one purpose (against international terrorism) could be used to clear up other problems in the region.’ (Section 3.1, p.324). The report then cites Blair’s considerations with respect to the emerging ‘war on terror’ strategy:
“… in order to give ourselves space [it is important] that we say: “Phase 1 is the military action focused on Afghanistan because it’s there that the perpetrators of 11 September hide.
            “Phase 2 is the medium and longer term campaign against terrorism in all its forms. Of course we will discuss that … This kicks it away for the moment but leaves all options open. We just don’t need it debated freely in public until we know what exactly we want to do; and how we can do it.”
Mr Blair concluded that a “dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit” was required, and suggested that he and President Bush should “talk soon”. In this context, Chilcot also makes clear Blair’s preferred tactic with respect to how to promote the war, and presumably a central output of his suggested ‘tightly knit propaganda unit’, was to effectively exaggerate and mislead with respect to the alleged WMD threat posed by Iraq: ‘The tactics chosen by Mr Blair were to emphasise the threat which Iraq might pose, rather than a more balanced consideration of both Iraq’s capabilities and intent … That remained Mr Blair’s approach in the months that followed”. In a nutshell, this appears to be support from an official source for the thesis that the ‘war on terror’ has been exploited in order to pursue wars to ‘clear up other problems’ and that, as a part of this, Western publics have been manipulated and deceived via propaganda, ‘clever’ strategies and threat exaggeration. Needless to say these findings decidedly open up the need for a full investigation by mainstream academics with regard to the strategic backdrop to the ‘war on terror’ and the Iraq war and its connection with neoconservative aspirations regarding power and influence in the Middle east and the question of resources and oil.
The events surrounding the ‘war on terror’ and the Iraq invasion, of course, are not unique and need to be understood as indicative of a broader systematic problem in democracies whereby power is exercised via manipulation of information and in ways which are frequently corrosive to good governance, justice and democracy. Further examples abound: for example, public awareness of the plight of the Palestinian peoples in the West Bank and Gaza strip, after a few years of optimism following the 1993 Oslo Accords, would appear to have been clouded by robust propaganda aimed at presenting the conflict as one of Israel’s defence against ideological extremists and terrorists, rather than the occupation and progressive take over of land that is allocated, by international law and the United Nations, to the Palestinians. The possibility of anything approaching a reasonable or just settlement for the Palestinians is rapidly slipping away as the living situation in the Gaza strip worsens and more land is taken from Palestinians in the West Bank.[6] Away from the realm of conflict and war, the role of propaganda and persuasion with respect to the tobacco industry, which worked tirelessly for decades to help obscure the health risks of smoking, and also more recently the fossil fuel industry which has sought to sow seeds of doubt regarding human impact on global warming, highlight the role of propaganda (they call it ‘PR’) in the service of big business.[7] In short, propaganda and the ‘intelligent manipulation of the mind’ play a central role in defining issues of our time, are central to the exercise of power, and have profound implications for how we understand governance and the state of our democracy.
Engagement with manipulative propaganda is essential if we are to tackle the major issues of our time. War, climate change, diminishing resources and acute poverty are matters of profound importance now confronting humanity and, if we are to have any hope of grappling with these issues, then people need to be able to learn how to become better informed and to defend themselves against strategies of manipulation and deception. Part of this process involves becoming more aware of the fact that manipulative communication, propaganda, is a key part of the way in which powerful actors wield power in the world. Starting to recognize and to see through these strategies is an essential first step. But much more is needed. Mainstream academia has been surprisingly reluctant toward full on engagement with theorizing and researching manipulative communication and many researchers tend to fall back on the euphemisms of the powerful such as ‘strategic communication’ and ‘perception management’ or ‘PR’. Academics need to start to study more closely the doctrines, practices and institutions that lie behind these activities as well as produce more empirical evidence and case study material in order to help reveal major examples of manipulation and deception. Also, journalists and their professional autonomy are an essential part of any democratic system and should be a vital part of challenging and counteracting the kinds of manipulations described above. The institution of journalism needs as much strengthening as possible in order to improve levels of journalistic professional autonomy. Finally, given the scale of the problem, and the need for the public, academics and journalists to all be involved in holding power to account, it is perhaps time to give a rebirth to the Institute for Propaganda Analysis which might serve to coordinate the activities and multiple engagements needed across the academy, the public and media professionals.  
These are challenging times and there is urgent work to be done. But the stakes are very high and, in an era of multiple global crises, our future depends upon it. 
Piers Robinson
 is Professor of Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield. Follow him on Twitter.

Further Reading   
Emma Briant (2015) Propaganda and Counterterrorism: Strategies for Global Change, Manchester University Press.
David Miller and Willliam Dinan (2008). A Century of Spin. London: Pluto Press.
Christopher Simpson. (1994). Science of Coercion: communication research and psychological warfare 1945-1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Philip M. Taylor (2002) War and the Media: Propaganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[1] Lasswell, H., Casey, R. and Smith, B. L. (1935). Propaganda and Promotional Activities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Lippman, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

[3] Miller, D. and Dinan, W. (2008). A Century of Spin. London: Pluto Press.

[4] Carey, A. (1997). Taking the Risk out of Democracy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press. pp: 20-21.

[5] Taylor, P.M. (2002), ‘Perception Management and the ‘War’ Against Terrorism’, Journal of Information Warfare, 1(3): 16-29: 20.

[6] Philo, Greg and Mike Berry (2011) More Bad News from Israel (Pluto Books) and The Occupation of the American Mind, (2016) The Media Education Foundation.

[7] Oreskes, Naomi and Eric M. Conway Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, (Bloomsbury).


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  1. Pingback: What is The Council On Foreign Relations? – Roobs Flyers

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