Culture & Society

Government Propaganda Threatens Democratic Self-Governance

Even in a democracy, propaganda is always dangerous; but it’s especially dangerous during wartime

The First World War ushered in large-scale propaganda campaigns. In this 1915 recruiting poster, British men are encouraged to unite and enlist. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Propaganda and war go together like guns and ammunition. Throughout history, governments have employed propaganda to rally people around war efforts. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, propaganda is again at the forefront of discussion. In a recent statement, Emily Horne, spokesperson for the National Security Council, emphasized that “The United States firmly believes that the best way to … [to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms] is to hold accountable the propaganda media and disinformation proxies that disseminate Putin’s lies.” The Russian government’s propaganda campaign is taking place through both traditional media and social media.

With events unfolding in real time and with a multitude of media outlets and platforms, information is disseminated rapidly. It is hard to know what is accurate and what is not. Given this, appreciating the realities and dangers of propaganda is of utmost importance. But it isn’t just propaganda by the Russian government that we should discuss, although that is certainly relevant and concerning. American citizens should also be aware of the propaganda put forth by their own government.

It is easy to dismiss concerns over propaganda by democratic governments as misguided or unpatriotic, but this would be a mistake. In his 1970 book, “The Pentagon Propaganda Machine,” Senator William Fulbright argued that “there have been too many instances of lack of candor and of outright misleading statements in treating with the [American] public. Too often we have been misled by the very apparatus that is supposed to keep us factually informed or, in the very strictest sense, honestly guided.” The concerns raised by Fulbright remain relevant in the decades since he published his book. Propaganda remains a powerful tool in America’s military arsenal. The reality is that all governments—whether autocratic or democratic—employ propaganda in matters of war. The context and use of propaganda varies, but its role in war does not.

The best way to combat propaganda is to be aware of it and the dangers it poses. This begins with understanding the meaning of government propaganda and why it matters, and appreciating propaganda techniques. Government propaganda will always be with us, but citizens have the power to weaken its perverse effects.

What Is Propaganda and Why Does It Matter?

The term “propaganda” can be traced back to the 1620s with the establishment of the “Congregatio de propaganda fide” (“Congregation for the Propagation of Faith”) by the Roman Catholic Church. Among its activities, the congregation trained missionaries and ran a printing press to produce literature for distribution with the aim of conversion. Indeed, the term did not take on its contemporary negative connotation until World War I when the governments involved undertook the first organized, large-scale campaigns to control information to achieve their ends.

There are numerous definitions of propaganda. Across these definitions, however, three characteristics stand out. First, propaganda is purposefully biased, misleading or false to deter recipients from having access to accurate information. Second, propaganda is employed to promote a political cause. Third, propaganda is harmful to its recipients because it limits their ability to make informed judgements.

Propaganda is relevant because it influences the behaviors of both the general populace and the political elite. As we are witnessing right now, Russian propaganda is playing an important role in the government’s invasion of Ukraine, by—among other things—calling their attack on their neighbor a “special military operation” and providing disinformation about the specifics of the conflict. Government propaganda is often associated with authoritarian regimes, and rightfully so. These governments actively use propaganda as a tool of control and influence. Given the nature of authoritarian governments, this is not surprising.

But democratic governments also employ propaganda, especially in matters of national security, despite their stated commitment to transparency, accountability and the rule of law. As journalist John Basil Utley noted, “Official Washington and those associated with it have misrepresented the facts numerous times in the service of military actions that might not otherwise have taken place. In the Middle East, these interventions have killed hundreds of thousands of innocent Arab civilians, brought chaos to Iraq and Libya, and led to the expulsion of a million Christians from communities where they have lived since biblical times.” As this makes clear, propaganda can produce policies in democratic countries that have devastating consequences on people around the world. But these effects aren’t limited to those abroad.

A major concern with the use of propaganda in democratic societies is that it changes the nature of the relationship between citizens and the state. A defining feature of liberal democracies is that citizens are the source of power, with those in government being subservient to the citizenry. The adoption of government propaganda flips this relationship. Citizens are viewed as an inconvenient barrier to the political elite achieving their desired goals. The elite use their political power to control the citizenry in the name of the “common good.”

Even if propaganda is initially deployed with some noble end in mind, the purposeful use of deception by government can normalize the behavior with harmful effects. As University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer writes in his 2013 book, “Why Leaders Lie,” “[o]nce a country’s leaders conclude that its citizens do not understand important foreign policy issues and thus need to be manipulated, it is not much of a leap to apply the same sort of thinking to national issues.” The risk is that as government deception bleeds into more areas of life, individual liberty and democratic norms are quickly lost. When this happens, democratic governments become more like the authoritarian governments they purport to combat, while the rhetoric and rituals of democracy remain.

What Are the Techniques and Purposes of Propaganda?

There are four techniques employed in the production and dissemination of government propaganda. Appreciating these methods is important for being able to recognize propaganda and its intended functions.

The first propaganda technique is an “appeal to authority” which entails attempts to establish credibility while framing government as the solution to any problem at hand. The inclusion of official government seals, names of agencies and the names of high-ranking officials are all efforts to appeal to the authority of government agents as the ultimate experts. This is intended to create a sense among the populace of the need to defer to government authority.

Appeal to authority. “Long Live Chairman Mao.” Chinese propaganda from 1971. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The second technique is an “appeal to patriotism” which employs patriotic symbolism and language to garner public support for government activities. Broad and collectivist language—e.g., “the common good,” “the national interest,” “the good of the country”—are hallmarks of this method. In addition to creating support for government activities, this technique aims to silence dissent; after all, who would want to be against “the good of the nation.” As one example, consider that in 2015 it was revealed that the Pentagon paid American professional sports teams $6.8 million to present patriotic military displays at sporting events in order to drum up public support for the military and U.S. government policies.

The third is an “appeal to ‘us’ versus ‘them,’” which aims to create clear and simple distinctions of “in groups”—the “good”—and “out groups”—the “bad.” This technique downplays the nuance and complexities of the world, making matters of foreign policy grossly simplistic. This method is often used to reinforce notions of collective patriotism, with the “in group” consisting of a propagating nation and its allies, and the “out group” consisting of a broad collection of people deemed to be the enemy. To provide an example, following the September 11, 2001 attacks, President George W. Bush stated that “[e]very nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This implied that questioning or disagreeing with the U.S. government’s strategies and actions automatically meant that one was “with the terrorists.”

Us verses them. An American World War II propaganda poster from 1942. Image Credit: National Archives

The fourth method is an “appeal to simple slogans and images.” This technique is intended to resonate with the emotions of the target audience while abstracting from the intricacies of the situation. In doing so, it is often used to reinforce notions of patriotism and the “us” versus “them” distinction. One example of this is the Bush administration’s “Mission Accomplished” motif regarding the invasion of Iraq, which left no space for a discussion of the challenges that lay ahead since the government declared that victory had already been achieved.

Together, these four techniques are used by governments for three basic purposes. The first is to transmit and frame information to persuade the recipient to support a certain point of view. As political scientist William Jacoby notes, “[t]he ability to frame issues—that is, define the way that policy controversies will be presented to the public—is undoubtedly one of the most important ‘tools’ that political elites have at their disposal.” Government propaganda is a key tool in these framing efforts.

The second purpose of propaganda is to create common knowledge among the populace around the state’s national security activities. The key aspect of common knowledge is that it is public, meaning that those exposed to the information know that others are exposed to the same knowledge. In the context of war, this allows for the emergence of a shared set of expectations regarding not only what government will do, but what it means to be a “good citizen” in support of “the country.”

The final purpose of propaganda is to foster collective fear among the populace. When propaganda is effective in fear creation, it creates space for politicians to expand the scale and scope of their power over the lives of people both at home and abroad. Where propaganda is successful it unifies people around the government while priming them to tolerate otherwise intolerable state behaviors. These new behaviors often become integrated into regular life, resulting in permanent expansions in the overall size of government and the concomitant loss of personal freedom.

Some may argue that propaganda can serve positive functions or may be necessary in some cases, or that officials may lie or “bend the truth” to benefit of their citizens. But this argument effectively requires officials to be good people who do good things and it is unclear why we should believe that politics will select only these types of people to control the levers of disinformation. Moreover, even where propaganda contributes to some good, we should never forget the associated costs which were starkly highlighted by Hannah Arendt, when she wrote:

A lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie … but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

What Is the Relevance of Propaganda Today?

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many in Washington, D.C. have been beating the war drums, calling on the Biden administration to escalate U.S. military involvement against the Russian government. For instance, some sitting members of Congress and others have repeatedly called for a no fly zone over Ukraine, something the administration has so far refused to do. The rhetoric around these calls is overly simplified, lacking nuance or a clear understanding of the realities on the ground. Missing from the discussion is any serious consideration of the constraints and incentives facing those in the U.S. national security state.

Another concern is the relationship between the U.S. government and media. Historically, there have always been entanglements between government and media during war. It’s easy to understand why. The government benefits by using the media to broadcast its desired message. Members of the media benefit by gaining privileged access to members of government. But having the government and media as bedfellows can mean that general public doesn’t get the whole story—or anything remotely close to it. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this relationship is Operation Mockingbird, a CIA-led initiative beginning in the 1950s to create a network of journalists to actively disseminate government-produced war propaganda.

Times have changed, as has the nature of media. Recently, the White House met with leading TikTok influencers to brief them on the U.S. government strategies in Ukraine. This isn’t to suggest that this meeting is the equivalent of Operation Mockingbird in its scope, scale or intention, but instead to note that awareness of the long relationship between government and media—a relationship based on disseminating biased, pro-government information—remains relevant. As one influencer who attended the meeting noted, “I would consider myself a White House correspondent for Gen Z.”

The ongoing situation in Ukraine also raises broader issues about the American government’s role in the world. While this view may be changing, from a young age, Americans in general are still habituated to view the U.S. government as the source of security and freedom throughout the world. The U.S. government has helped to craft and promote this image through decades of propaganda in film, sports and media intended to establish and broadcast certain myths about the nature and necessity of the American government’s actions in the world. The purpose of this propaganda is to shut off critical discussion about the often dark realities of government while normalizing the security state as a necessary part of life. Consider a few examples.

Foreign military interventions can advance the interests of certain domestic and foreign groups and governments sometimes help people overseas, but they can also cause great harms for many others. The U.S. government, like other governments, has a “sphere of influence” and has repeatedly used military intervention to protect that sphere and enlarge it. The U.S. government is the world’s largest arms dealer, including weapons transfers to some of the most illiberal regimes in the world. To the extent that a liberal “rules-based order” exists, it is undergirded by illiberal behaviors on the part of the U.S. government. Historically, the U.S. government has meddled in the elections of other countries to bring about political outcomes desired by a small group of elite. Foreign military occupations are often characterized by systematic fraud, dysfunction and lying with no one held accountable not only for the waste, but to the harms done to others.

None of this is to excuse the brutal and illiberal behaviors of Vladimir Putin or other despots. Just the opposite. As the actions of these leaders make clear, propaganda can be used to promote and perpetuate extremely brutal actions. This is precisely why government propaganda is so dangerous in all countries. It not only allows governments to behave badly in the present, but also threatens to erode democratic norms. Propaganda corrodes the citizen-state relationship whereby private people are the driving force of politics.

What Is To Be Done?

Governments will not constrain themselves. Instead, they have every incentive to continue to produce and disseminate propaganda to advance their own interests. The solutions to this problem are not easy. One option, legislating against or otherwise banning propaganda is untenable. We cannot reasonably expect the very purveyors of propaganda to tie their own hands. The media, while potentially an important check on misinformation, has often come to rely on government sources, thus limiting their abilities to limit the effects of propaganda. The responsibility, therefore, falls to the citizenry.

The first step is to be aware of propaganda—its prevalence across governments, its forms and functions. It is often difficult to disentangle fact from fiction, especially in real time and especially when government possesses near monopoly control over information as in matters of national security. This suggests that the standard applied by citizens to accepting government claims regarding matters of national security needs to be an especially high bar. Given the incentives facing those in the national security industry, a good default position is that their claims are likely overblown relative to the reality of the situation. The contestability of information is key, as is a questioning attitude among citizens who love their country but realize that the actions of their government can sometimes threaten a country’s core values.

Writing in 1758, Samuel Johnson noted that “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” These words are as true today as when Johnson first wrote them, and those who care about liberty and freedom would be wise to remember them.

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