What Propaganda Means and Why It Matters

U.S. Air Force EC-130E Commando Solo aircraft, designed for psychological and information operations. (Federation of American Scientists, original source unknown)

Let’s suppose that a large American newspaper ran an editorial deflecting accusations that its political opinions were too partisan. It deflected those who argued against the newspaper’s position and advanced the position that the newspaper’s opinion were correct and fair. Would any reasonable person accuse the newspaper of engaging in propaganda? Of course not.

Yet that’s essentially what Tom Vanden Brook engaged in through his column in USA Today this week. If you don’t believe me, just read the two definitions of propaganda he cites in his article arguing that the U.S. military engages in propaganda.

I’m not arguing that Vanden Brook or USA Today engage in propaganda. I am arguing that Vanden Brook is engaging in typically sloppy thinking about what constitutes propaganda, a word so broad and thick that it obscures, contrary to what he argues, far more than it illuminates. Vanden Brook quotes Webster’s Dictionary, which provides the fairly standard definition of propaganda, and compares it to the Government Accountability Office’s definition of Military Information Support Operations.

It’s a neat trick, except that Vanden Brook should know better: Military Information Support Operations (MISO, also known as psychological operations) is a subset of Information Operations (Infoops), about which Vanden Brook has written before.  So he knows that he’s not giving the whole story by citing these two definitions. But then if you parse the dictionary’s sloppy and vague language, you could easily apply it to Vanden Brook’s article: propaganda is a “systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of a particular idea…to further one’s own cause or to damage and opposing one”. He’s making a concerted argument, in the third-largest newspaper in the country, supporting his contention and undermining opposing viewpoints. Is that propaganda? Of course not. It just demonstrates what unsound ground he’s writing on.

Vanden Brook would like propaganda to cover a lot of common ground.  He wants it to describe all  of what the military communicates in theater operations to be described as propaganda. But here the differences are important. Like too many policymakers, practitioners and journalists before him, Vanden Brook confuses MISO and Information Operations. MISO is primarily concerned with “foreign audiences” – that is, the civilian population. Infoops, when not also including all the other tools of information warfare (including network warfare, electronic jamming, military deception and the like), is specifically targeted against enemy forces. So: is a MISO campaign to warn civilians of unexploded ordinance propaganda? Is an infoops leaflet urging enemy insurgents to join the government militia propaganda? Is a public affairs radio broadcast encouraging voter turnout propaganda?

It should be noted that beyond the doctrinal confusion – the Joint Manual insists that MISO must work with Public Affairs, whose entire credibility relies on truth, but can also engage in military deception, like Infoops – this gets hopelessly tangled in the complex environment of modern operations, particularly in counterinsurgency. In peacekeeping, stability operations, and counterinsurgency, there is simply no neat division between civilian and combatant, so there is no functional difference between MISO and Infoops. The unfortunate fact that MISO and Infoops sound so much alike in name just adds to the confusion.

But throwing it all into a box and slapping on the propaganda label doesn’t help. I am sympathetic to the journalist and editor who need a simple, demotic vocabulary to describe these confusing, even subtle, distinctions to the public in readily accessible prose. But in this case, propaganda is more inflaming and obscuring than clarifying. It doesn’t explain what the military is doing in these difficult, often treacherous, environments. “Propaganda” doesn’t describe anything. It characterizes.

The solution is better reporting and better writing. By showing what soldiers, Marines and Airmen do on these operations, and their intended effect, good journalism could even help clarify the confusion about the fundamental difference between Infoops and MISO. I’ve read about some activities that look like public diplomacy, and I’m not entirely clear on how public affairs fits into complex counterinsurgency or stability operations environments, either. None of this fits neatly under the rubric “propaganda,” nor should it. And to try to do so entirely misses the point.

Because if Vanden Brook had read his theory, he’d know that the stakes couldn’t be higher: David Petraeus wrote in his seminal counterinsurgency manual that the information operations “[logical line of operations] LLO may often be the decisive LLO.” Theorists from Clausewitz to David Galula wrote about the importance of the strategic struggle for information, public opinion and perception. Wars have been fought and lost over this ground for centuries. Many have argued it is at least as important as the combat itself.

I have written extensively and in depth about the doctrinal, operational and theoretical problems of propaganda and the operational communications community in my forthcoming book on public diplomacy. I hope this short article and my book provide the opportunity to untangle and redevelop the tools necessary to communicate in the complex and dangerous tactical environments we will no doubt face in the years ahead.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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