The Problem with Propaganda

This article was originally published here on March 8, 2015.

It was included in Johnson's Russia List's 'Best of 2015' list.

 


What is propaganda?

 

Is it the deliberate exclusion of crucial information in an attempt to mislead? Is it the deliberate inclusion of information in an attempt to confuse? Is it a deliberate attempt not necessarily to mislead, but to put forth a perspective which differs from the mainstream? Is it simply outright lying?

 

Or is it all of the above?

 

I sit here trying to identify one mainstream newspaper or broadcaster that I could legitimately and confidently argue does not engage in this elusive phenomenon we call ‘propaganda’ — by any of the above definitions.

 

I call it ‘elusive’ because no one seems to have settled the debate on its meaning — or at least, if they have, it’s not the meaning they are using in practice.

 

In this so-called ‘information war’ between ‘the West’ and Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, a simple, but dangerous definition seems to have developed: Propaganda is the dissemination of information that provides any legitimacy to the arguments of the enemy.

 

That appears to be the accepted meaning of the word in today’s geopolitical climate. The interesting thing about this definition is that the trueness or falseness of the information in question is irrelevant. If it legitimizes the other side in any way, it is propaganda.

 

Neither side will admit that this is the definition they are using, of course. That would undoubtedly damage their credibility. Instead, both sides will stick to the mantra that propaganda simply means the deliberate distribution of ‘lies’ and will claim that they are fighting against those liars with their incontrovertible ‘truth’.

 

That makes both sides feel better, and more justified. People want to believe they can ‘know’ things in their entirety. To not be able to grasp the complexities of the world makes us feel out of control.

 

But in using this definition of propaganda as ‘anything the enemy says’ we are left in somewhat of a conundrum when it comes to unraveling the ‘truth’.

 

When Russia puts forward its arguments and they are echoed by journalists or analysts who are sympathetic to those arguments, for whatever reason, those writers are immediately branded as ‘Kremlin trolls’ or propagandists for Vladimir Putin.

 

Similarly, when the West puts forth its arguments, they are dismissed by Russian press as ‘anti-Russian propaganda’.

 

So, who is right? Which information is ‘propaganda’ and which isn’t? Is it simply all propaganda? Do both sides have legitimate arguments? Is one side more ‘right’ than the other? And how can we know, if every piece of information that conflicts from the mainstream gets labeled as propaganda, regardless if its origin or its factual accuracy?

 

To answer any of those questions, we would need an accepted definition for the word, with which we could evaluate every scrap of information presented by both sides and come up with an objective ‘truth’.

 

What are our options?

 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines propaganda as: “information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view”.

 

Cate Haste, in The Machinery of Propaganda, defines it as “the task of creating and directing public opinion”.

 

The Random House dictionary defines it as “information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.”

 

In their book, Age of Propaganda, Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson write that propaganda was “originally defined as the dissemination of biased ideas and opinions, often through the use of lies and deception” …but continue to say that the word has since evolved to mean mass “suggestion” or “influence” through the manipulation of symbols and the psychology of the individual.

 

None of that is particularly helpful, is it?

 

Those definitions don’t answer any of the above questions. All they reveal is that both sides engage in serious, no-holds-barred propaganda efforts, which we already knew.

 

At this point, if we have no accepted definition — and if definitions are useless anyway — it comes down to deciding what our goal is in using the term.

 

If our goal is to discredit the other side in a debate, we will happily use any of the above definitions, failing to recognize when they can be applied to ourselves.

 

If the goal however, is to come to a nuanced understanding of what is happening in Ukraine, we would be less inclined to use the word at all, at least not so flippantly.

 

We would recognize that defining everything that goes against our own perceived best interests as ‘propaganda’ is itself a form of propaganda — one that won’t result in any progress whatsoever.

 

It will simply leave both sides in stalemate.

 

In other words, propaganda works, but accusing someone of using it to mask your own bias is generally useless, if your intention is to make any real progress. It’s our staggering propensity to do just that which has been one of, if not the biggest hindrance to diplomatic progress on Ukraine.

 

At this point, I can’t conceal the fact that I believe the Western side has been the worse offender in this.

 

When the US State Department flings the ‘propaganda’ grenade at the Kremlin every time it hears a counter-argument, they are effectively relieving themselves of the responsibility to think. They are demonstrating how entrenched they have become in their positions and showing us that they have no intention of budging.

 

They are entirely unreceptive to the legitimate concerns of those with a different perspective. They have demonstrated that they will do nothing to alleviate the fears of a nation that feels under threat — and have engaged in a massive information campaign to discredit those fears as nonsense.

 

Given the history of the last fifteen years and the numerous US foreign policy mistakes legitimized through groupthink, that entrenchment should be worrying.

 

Battling cognitive dissonance

 

If we, as consumers of news and as journalists, fail to properly scrutinize that, we run the risk of similarly barricading ourselves behind our in-built biases because it makes us feel stronger — and look, so many people agree, we must be right.

 

Humans tend to believe that the arguments they have chosen — based on their own self-interest, as they best understand it — are also the best thing for the world at large. To believe anything else, for most people, would seem illogical.

 

As humans, we also generally don’t enjoy the unpleasantness of cognitive dissonance, so we try to avoid it. We don’t want to have to deal with too much conflicting information. We’ve picked a side in an argument and that’s the end of it.

 

This leads to what psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning’, whereby we will cherry-pick information and subconsciously eliminate anything that challenges our argument too deeply.

 

So, what can we do about it?

 

First of all, this no doubt, is the point at which you will accuse me of being a hypocrite. But rest assured, I agree with you. We all use motivated reasoning, and to tell ourselves we don’t is simply self-delusion. The problem is, some of us can better recognize when we’re doing it and some of us can’t.

 

For instance, I can tell you that I’m doing it right now. I’m asking you to reconsider your opinion and adopt something similar to my own. That’s totally hypocritical, isn’t it? It is, but it doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t consider it. And I should do the same.

 

Dr David Robert Grimes, a science writer and physicist at Oxford University wrote in a piece for the Irish Times last year, that rather than viewing conflicting concepts with apprehension and contempt, we should regard them with the “exhilaration of discovery”.

 

Admittedly, it’s highly doubtful that anyone reading this is going to be “exhilarated” at the prospect of changing their mind on Ukraine — a conflict which elicits such strong emotion from so many. I have already once changed my mind on it — from an entrenched Western perspective to developing a deeper understanding and sympathy to the Russian perspective. I’m sure others have gone in the opposite direction.

 

It was not an exhilarating process.

 

Grimes also wrote in his piece:

 

“There is nothing wrong with being wrong, provided we are willing to adapt our views in the light of evidence and constantly revise them. Black-and-white thinking can be challenged by noticing that there are more than just binary positions on issues or people, and a spectrum lies between those extrema.

 

The blade of correction should cut both ways; we should aim to spot reasoning flaws not only in the arguments of others but also in our own logic, even when this jars us.”

 

The inability of our leaders — and more disappointingly, our journalists, to do this, is exactly why not much progress has been made in Ukraine.

 

Journalists, by their very nature, strive to understand the world. It’s what they do. They are interested and curious. They live by asking questions in the hope that they’ll find answers. Individual journalists are very rarely trying to be ‘propagandists’ or liars for anyone.

 

Unfortunately, they are also human — and that’s where it gets complicated. The world is too complex to understand in its entirety, so they have to focus on little nuggets here and there.  And if the ‘other side’ is lying outright —  as both sometimes do —  we shout ‘Look, the other side is lying!’ because it makes us feel good.

 

It validates us and allows us to feel justified in not admitting that maybe we have done it, too. That maybe we have not always been as right and noble as we desperately want to believe we have. That maybe if we can focus on the ‘lies’ of the other side, we can stay more dedicated to the ‘truth’ and that too makes us feel good.

 

We are routinely bombarded with stories about Ukraine and Russia that don’t give us the full picture. Each author will omit information they feel is not relevant or crucial. But what is crucial to one side may seem inconsequential to the other. It’s all journalism, and by the definitions used earlier, yes, it’s all ‘propaganda’.

 

But there has to be a right and wrong, doesn’t there?

 

Right and wrong often exist only in so far as people’s perceptions of a situation allow them to understand it — and like it or not, this is a lot about perception.

 

Both sides must be challenged relentlessly — with evidence, incontrovertible fact and perhaps most importantly, a decent, honest attempt to understand other human perspectives.

 

Both sides have failed at this, but I believe the Western side has failed worse, as they say.

 

It doesn’t help to label Russians as blind dogs, the entire Russian media as propagandists and Vladimir Putin as an evil dictator that would give Adolf Hitler a run for his money. That’s a cop-out and quite frankly, it’s lazy.

 

The mainstream view is frequently the view that needs most rigorous challenging, because it has often achieved that prevalence through groupthink and a form of Western propaganda that is more insidious simply because it is often not recognized as such.

 

The prevailing mainstream view is that Russia is wrong, is a provocateur and has ‘invaded’ Ukraine under the leadership of an ‘expansionist’ and dangerous president. The minority view — and the one I share —  is that in fact NATO has been the provocateur and that the US is leading Europe towards instability to suit its own purposes.

 

There is a misconception that the prevailing view is the correct view, simply because so many people hold it. The second misconception is that one side is entirely right and one side is entirely wrong — and within that, the the ‘enemy’s’ side has only bad intentions.

 

Our leaders would do well to rid themselves of both misconceptions if any progress is to be made for the people of Eastern Ukraine.

 

Fairy tale or reality?

 

In a fascinating piece about the border city of Narva, Estonia — a place which I just recently passed through myself — journalist Mark MacKinnon introduces us to Elvira Nyman.

 

The 77-year-old gazes across the Narva River, which separates the Estonian city from Russia, the “strong country”.

 

Elvira lives in a world that has been “created for her” by Kremlin-controlled television, MacKinnon writes. In her mind, the West holds the blame for the crisis in Ukraine, Crimea was always Russia and Putin is a leader to be respected.

 

Except that this is not just in her mind — it’s a view held by plenty who aren’t ‘under the influence’ of Russian TV — and it’s an insult to put the entire life experience of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Republics down to some fairy tale which has been manufactured for them in Moscow.

                                 Crossing the Russian border into Narva, Estonia - March 2015
Crossing the Russian border into Narva, Estonia - March 2015

 

The Russian world exists. It is not a creation of Putin’s Russia as a prelude to an expansionist adventure. Their narrative has been created for them by history — and Tallinn-controlled TV could do no more to change that than Kremlin-controlled TV could to create it.

 

In a round-about way, MacKinnon admits this later in the piece. He quotes a representative of Narva’s municipal government, who says it’s “too simple” to blame Russian TV for why so many in the city feel alienated by the Estonian state.

 

“They wonder why the street signs in their city are only in Estonian when just 4 per cent of residents call it their first language,” he says. “And they hate the sanctions that are destroying business ties with the Russian Federation across the river.”

 

The solution is not to approach these people with blind self-righteousness and batter them over the head with the “right” world view until they see sense.

 

Western propaganda is not the antidote to Russian propaganda.

 

Grimes, the Oxford physicist, ended his piece with this line:

 

“We should feel zero shame in revising our positions in the light of new evidence or understanding. This is how progress is made.”

 

I can’t help but think we all might be better off if we tried it more often.