“A Means of State Control”

The Origins of Propaganda (Part One)

 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held an exhibition titled “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda” in Washington, D.C., from 2009 and 2011.  This dramatic collection of German National Socialist state artifacts included photos, posters, newspapers, radio broadcasts, film productions, even children’s games and toys.  It was a frightening, lurid, and claustrophobic display of the most puerile, racist, warmongering politics witnessed during the 20th century.

Germany’s propaganda program was deep and vast.  It left virtually no aspect of life uncontrolled by the regime.  Over the course of its 14 years, the National Socialist regime exerted control over not just the entire government but the churches, universities, schools, radio, press, publishing, cinema, civic organizations, artist guilds, medicine, and sports.  No other regime besides the Soviet Union wielded such totality over the daily lives of its citizens.

If there were a single, accepted definition of propaganda, then, it would be found in this definitive collection of propaganda’s greatest horrors.  Helpfully, the Memorial published a guidebook to the exhibition using the same title.  Propaganda, it explains,

as used in this book refers to the dissemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior.  Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.  In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strength his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.  Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.  It is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.  Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

That is a comprehensive definition of a complex but dangerous phenomenon of contemporary political life and one whose effects we live with every day.  It represents the general consensus of experts in the field.  Its examples are easy to identify in the exhibition and the book.  I do not doubt, in any way, that the examples on display and catalogued in the hardbound guidebook are examples of Nazi propaganda.

Unfortunately the definition falls apart almost immediately on any close or critical inspection.  This definition, in whole and in part, can precisely describe not just propaganda but all political expression—the latter of which I’m sure the authors and experts would agree encompass much more than propaganda itself.  This is dangerous ground.  If we could hypothesize banning propaganda by fiat based on this definition, we would find ourselves banning all political expressing or legitimizing all propaganda.  This definition, then, is a logical cul-de-sac from which political speech—the most important and therefore most protected of type of expression—cannot escape.  If propaganda is political speech, and political speech is propaganda, then everything we say or think has the same taint.  Common sense tells us this cannot be true.  Propaganda and political speech are different things.  If they were the same we would have one word to describe them both.

It is important to start with a definition because, unfortunately, the word propaganda needs one.  In popular use, it has been abused so much that it has lost practically all intrinsic meaning:  A satirical talk-show is propaganda.  News is propaganda.  An advertising campaign is propaganda.  A public health announcement is propaganda.  Scientific studies are propaganda.  A newspaper editorial is propaganda.  A child’s television program is propaganda.  A radio call-in show is propaganda.  A social media meme is propaganda.  The President’s speech is propaganda.  An art exhibition is propaganda.  A music concert is propaganda.

Propaganda, in this context, is not a positive connotation (and certainly begs the question of whether the accusers read and applied the sophisticated definition quoted above).  It concerns leave us to distill this already utterly denatured word into something far simpler and clearer than the official understanding recorded above: propaganda is political speech I do not like.

Let us examine the Memorial definition line by line to demonstrate convincingly that propaganda, as defined here, can easily be applied to virtually any other sort of political expression.

1)   [D]issemination of information, whether truthful, partially truthful, or blatantly false, that aims to shape public opinion and behavior

The sole purpose of political speech is to shape public opinion and behavior.  If I nail a poster to a wall that reads only VOTE FOR SMITH, I am disseminating information about a political candidate.  Let us presume that Smith actually exists, so it is truthful.  I aim to shape public opinion – to support Smith – and behavior: I want people to VOTE FOR SMITH.  Under this definition, then, the most elemental political speech – advocating a candidate for political office – is propaganda.

Let us suppose that instead of a poster reading VOTE FOR SMITH I post a sign that reads VOTE FOR FIDO.  Presuming I am not running a dog for office, this is blatantly false.  And yet it, too, is political speech: it suggests that voting for a dog would be better than voting for somebody else.  I am still disseminating information.  I am still aiming to shape public opinion – questioning their faith in the electoral system or the candidates themselves – and their behavior: who knows whether they will vote at all?

This is not hypothetical at all, as this antique Yippie poster from the Chicago Convention of 1968 demonstrates:

yippie

2)   Propaganda simplifies complicated issues or ideology for mass consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end.

I could write a letter to the editor of my local newspapers arguing that climate change requires immediate policy changes to avoid hurting people.  This would summarize an immensely complex issue in about 200 words.  It is for mass consumption, since I have written the newspaper and not my friend across town.  It is prima facie biased: I am not going to make the argument of my detractors for them.  And it is geared, perhaps naively, to a particular end: the change in policy to avoid the consequences of climate change.  And yet under this definition, the staple of popular political speech – the humble letter to the editor, used by newspapers for a century to reflect and reach their democratic readership – is propaganda.

(3)   In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct.  The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case and consciously omits contrary information.

These two sentences taken together define the trial lawyer, defending an innocent person against a charge that may end their life.  The trial lawyer does not want to foster independent judgment and thinking: they want an acquittal.  They do not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it to the audience to determine which is correct: those are the jury instructions.  The defense attorney ignores or attacks the variety of viewpoints in order to make the most convincing case to the jury.  Under this definition, then, the defense attorney engages in propaganda.

(4)   Propaganda generally uses symbols, whether in written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms, and aims to channel complex human emotions toward a desired goal.

When we take this into account, we probably think of something like this famous poster produced during World War II to encourage women in the workforce.  It remains fresh and the symbols are not hard to parse: a woman in coveralls rolling up her sleeves to take on what had been exclusively a man’s job in wartime production.  It is designed to focus attention and distract from any complex concerns about a woman’s place in the workplace.  It is easy to see this as propaganda since encouraging weapons production during wartime war is generally seen as an overriding concern of the state.  It is regularly described as such.

rosie

But, importantly, its bold and unmistakable iconography has been recycled many times over during the many iterations of the feminist movement.  It can still speak in new ways, challenging our understanding of propaganda as presented by the Memorial.  The appropriation this American icon to support the work of the Pakistani children’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, below, demonstrates the enduring power of visual imagery and symbols, no matter the cultural context.  Its goal, as seen in the text written next to the mural, couldn’t be clearer.  And yet under the definition outlined above, this image of a young girl shot in the head for trying to go to school would be defined as propaganda.

malala

As a practical matter, particularly in developing democracies, the use of symbols is important because illiteracy or a lack of a common language makes the printing of ballots particularly fraught.  In this example, Nigerian political parties have been distilled to their logo and party initials.  This is hardly propaganda but it is clear to see how bold, simple symbols and compelling graphics would help a candidate or party.

ballot

(5)   it is often employed by government and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents and is linked to both advertising and public relations.

This is a strange paragraph for its peculiar qualifications, vague definitions, and tenuous connection to related disciplines.  By tying together private institutions and governments it breaks down an important legal divide between people and those they elect to lead them.  If the First Amendment gives the people the right freely to assemble, to petition their government for redress of grievances, to publish and to speak, then this paragraph erases the moral distinction defining a group of people protesting on behalf of themselves.  “Cause” is a mushy synonym for what is properly called a political agenda.

And what do advertising and public relations have to do with this?  The weak language used here to tie them to propaganda suggests the authors recognize they are not the same thing but they are unclear about the nature of the relationship.  They are related because they use the same technical tools: various media (text, radio, television, etc.), language, images, audience surveys, targeted marketing, and so on.  But so, too, do news organizations.  Is propaganda “linked to the news media”?

This definition could have drawn a bright and important line if it had simply asserted that propaganda is the exclusive domain of the state.  But that would have legitimized the vile collection of Nazi paraphernalia collected for the purpose of defining propaganda: the National Socialist party, prior to taking government control, used the same tactics as the National Socialist government.  This Hobson’s Choice demonstrates that without the benefit of hindsight there is simply no bright line to be drawn dividing propaganda from political expression under this definition.

(6)   Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.

What other weapons are there?  The Memorial’s definition does not define the actual means or media – the specific vehicles for delivering the propaganda product. Here we find the Memorial’s definition both overbroad and stunningly limited.  The definition refers to the “dissemination” and “transmit” of “information” and only later broadly identifies “written, musical, cinematic, or other visual forms” to deliver desired emotional responses in an audience.  Presumably these must be delivered in some medium, which is left unidentified.  But there is no “dissemination” without a platform, whether that is a live performance, a publication, radio or television broadcast, web site, e-mail, or even a telephone call.  If we leave aside coercion – the threat of violence and the total control over all aspects of civic life – then there are no other means of mass persuasion.  But this definition does not consider the idea of total control of society.

While the Memorial has condensed the expert consensus defining propaganda, it does not parry other arguments that define propaganda.  One of the major modes of thought emerging in the last 100 years posits that propaganda is a product of both the technological era and the emergence of mass culture in the 20th century.  Mass literacy, improved living standards, and consumerism created a market for popular periodicals, radio, television, and movies that were the result of technological innovation.  World War I not only saw the wireless radio, mass newspaper distribution, basic literacy, and the strong central state converge on information “dissemination,” it also inaugurated mass organization as the belligerents mobilized tens of millions of young men for military service and their home fronts to support them.  Many observers believed that this was the only era in which propaganda could exist in pure form.

This argument is in one sense obvious but in another completely fallacious.  Political communication has always used all means available to it.  Those making political arguments did not simply ignore one medium in favor of another. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany emerged, their regimes took advantage of all these methods to reach a wide audience.  Many of them were very new, including motion pictures with soundtracks, and propaganda experts in the West conflated the emergence of these new media and technology with propaganda itself.

As I will argue later, the nature of propaganda is such that the state uses all means available to them.  It is control of the means of production – and not the produced means or messages by themselves – that define propaganda.  Any state that can control communication with the public engages in propaganda.  The means change, evolve, expand or become obsolete, but the aspect of control does not.

I do not mean to attack the Memorial and what remains an important exhibit at a critical moment in our political history.  We both have the same goal, in fact, which is to point out both the fundamental evil of Nazi ideology and the danger of unchecked and weaponized political speech.  My main concern is that the Memorial did not go far enough.  In addition to the racist bile and agitation, race-baiting and war-mongering, hate and lies and distortion, the root of Nazi propaganda was the control of all those things which meant that decent people could not reach the same audience and a subject population had no alternative means to learn the truth.  Additionally, as we’ll see later, Germany’s coercive state apparatus served as the stick to propaganda’s carrot to enforce political conformity and mobilization.

Moreover, propaganda distracts.  Calling something propaganda allows us to dismiss it.  It keeps us from understanding what is really being done.  Calling a Nazi poster propaganda doesn’t help us identify why it bothers us, why it challenges our conscience.  Other words work better because they are clear and precise: incitement, racist, subversive, disloyal, hysterical, divisive, hateful, false, incomplete, distorting, twisted.  That way we can really and honestly attack and respond to political expression that calls out our devils.

We have many ways and means of political expression: polemic, opinion, argument editorial; satire, parody, caricature; exaggeration, hyperbole, overstatement, embellishment; mockery, scorn, disdain, ridicule; judgment, verdict, condemnation; endorsement, praise, celebration.  All of these would be, and have been, swallowed by the single pejorative propaganda.  And if everything is propaganda, then there is no open and legitimate means of political expression.

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Russia and the Information Purification Directives

What we are witnessing in Russia and parts of Ukraine has been unprecedented since the consolidation of control after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 , (I hesitate with this historical analogy) the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II: the systematic centralization of the means of communication and the destruction of independent news media and civil society.

This has been long in coming as the Kremlin and its allies have steadily co-opted the press, attacked independent journalists, consolidated control of the Internetunified all organized “political” parties, brought petty prosecution against non-governmental organizations, harassed independent political actors, and persecuted those few remaining who dare raise their voice against the now-raging retrograde, unilithic nationalism sweeping over the country.

Taking all these actions together is a kind of inverted information warfare — a war on information, a purging of all wrongthink, of anything that doesn’t resolutely advance the official ideology of the Center. It’s important to remember the point to this war on information, which is to reinforce political control in the Kremlin. While the state has the means to do this, it is not an expression or exercise of genuine political power — it is a substitute, in the form of brute control, for it.

Observing these actions and watching their culmination, it was impossible, strangely, not to remember the brilliant advertisement for Macintosh broadcast in 1984 (see above). It’s worth quoting the ad’s copy in full (which can be found here, penned by Steve Hayden) which is chilling both in its pitch-perfect mimicry of totalitarian language and for its weird anticipation of the course of current events. We can almost imagine some crude translation of a transcript from a bug on Kremlin walls recording a recent conversation taking place therein:

“My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”

Of course, for the advertisement this was meant as an allegorical assault on the great IBM/Microsoft monopoly, but the “Information Purification Directive” could easily be a real mandate from the Duma — the assault on any source of information that does not conform to the Center’s dictation of Truth. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion.” This sounds like the pablum that authoritarian and totalitarian governments feed their people: don’t think, we’ll do that for you; the people of so-called free countries are enslaved and overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder of “freedom”. Forfeit the freedom of thought and moral action to us, the state, and in exchange we will take care of you.

While no doubt not all Russians are falling for this line again — let us remember, as even those who live and work in these countries have forgotten, that part of information monopoly is the absence of opposition and alternative narratives — it is amazing (though according to Czeslaw Milosz it should hardly be surprising) how many are signing up for it. See this video posted by Radio Free Europe where a Russian “journalist” — in fact, a paid stooge of the Kremlin, given that virtually all communications in the country are now controlled by state — equates all journalism to propaganda. It is an appalling prostitution of the human mind.

Many observers continue to insist that Vladmir Putin is concerned with international opinion, the position of Russia as a global actor, and the greater glory of his country. This is exactly inverted. His only concern is with Russian domestic opinion, which is the tiger he must ride lest it devour him. Consequently, the only way to change the course of events in Russia and Ukraine is to alter domestic Russian public opinion. (It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian separatists attacked TV stations to broadcast Russian state channels.) This is the challenge facing both the local opposition and anyone trying to help them — the ability to develop alternative narratives, communicate and organize — because all the available means to do so have been coopted and corrupted.

I’m not so naive to suggest this quarter-century-old advertisement provides a realistic model for political development in repressive states. But in its own strange way it goes some of the way to understand the challenge.

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Thinking Through Ukraine

(via The DailyKos)

I was at NATO when Russia invaded its neighbor, Georgia, in August 2008. The action caught anyone not paying attention by surprise. The experts knew it was long in coming. I’m sure the same is for the unfurling crisis in Ukraine, which nonetheless doesn’t help us steer a course away from general war on the Black Sea, the doorstep of the European Union.

At the time of that short, brutal war I remember there were many calls for NATO to intervene and a tremendous amount of frustration that the Allies did not. But a French colleague pointed out to those of us assembled in my division — we were short-staffed during the August holidays — that NATO’s contribution at that point was not to inflame the situation but to defuse it. The European Union, led by French President Nicholas Sarkozy, led the political charge to end the war within a week.

I remember a little-noted post scriptum to that war — NATO’s inadvertent (I think) contribution — that may be useful to keep in mind in this crisis. That was the introduction of the NATO Standing Maritime Group 1 into the Black Sea after fighting had ended. SMG1 entered the Black Sea on a planned and routine patrol — either it was deliberately allowed into this highly primed theater or nobody thought to turn it back — and the Russian reaction was hysterical. After the Russians sank the small Georgian fleet and basically did what they wanted across the country, SMG1 fundamentally altered the force dynamic in the theater. SMG1 really got the Russians’ attention, and it suggests to me that Moscow will never pick a fight with an equal or superior adversary if it can avoid it.

It’s probably obvious, but an excellent commentary by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty noted that the territorial grab in Crimea is not an isolated action but opens a second political front for Moscow. The revolution in Kiev was a green light to similarly minded activists in Moscow that thuggish regimes have their weaknesses, especially if the military can be sidelined. By mobilizing the armed forces against Ukraine, Russia both moved to crush the nascent west-leaning government in Kiev and communicated clearly to the domestic Russian opposition what consequences would follow for attempting to duplicate what happened there in Moscow.

This action also plays into the Kremlin’s interests by forcing our eyes off of other crises where it has waning influence, like Syria and Iran. Moscow can continue to back its client state and Damascus can destroy its internal opposition and rebellion (and weaken its neighbors with refugees) while we are diverted by Ukraine and Crimea. But we are powerful enough not to be distracted and must continue to pressure Syria and Iran while also resolving the crisis in Ukraine.

While Russia may look strong at the moment, it’s important to recognize that the country is acting from a position of weakness — and that the country’s action in Crimea is a fundamental and tremendous risk. If the Kremlin fails in Crimea or Ukraine, the weakness of the regime will be virtually impossible to ignore. No amount of propaganda about fighting fascists and the intransigent enemies of Russia will be able to cover for a failure of this kind. And with this failure, the domestic Russian opposition to the Kremlin will feel emboldened to move against the regime just as the opposition did in Kiev. So instead of being in a position of strength, in reality the Kremlin is extremely exposed. When Vladimir Putin fails, he will lose everything. So he can’t afford to fail, which is what makes this crisis so particularly dangerous.

Another reality I learned from the war with Georgia was the entangling nature of Russia’s relationship with the West. I think we were far more worried about this state of affairs than the Kremlin, but it was important and interesting (if not a little infuriating) to stop and deliberate on all the ways that NATO (and more broadly, the United States and the European Union) cooperated with Russia on issues and initiatives of mutual interest. We on the NATO staff literally cataloged all the ways we were working together with Russia, which still has a diplomatic mission on the same compound at NATO Headquarters. At that time, we were working together on overflight rights for resupply to to Afghanistan, nuclear disarmament (both START and the more concrete aspects of securing fissile material), ballistic missile defense, anti-piracy, anti-terrorism, energy security, and the High North. We’re still working with Russia on all those things, more or less — not least or more recent of which was the successful execution of a safe and secure Winter Olympics. All of these issues of mutual interest (and undoubtedly more) are on the table if we escalate this crisis.

It’s important to consider that the political situation in Ukraine may not be as polarized or volatile as it appears. Consider the map at the top of this post. Much as been made about how the country is split between western Ukrainian speakers and eastern Russian speakers. But a view of a linguistic map (and the CIA World Factbook) demonstrates the picture is far more complex than that. First, Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers blend fairly evenly throughout most of the country, especially in Kiev. The exceptions are the extreme west and extreme east. Second, Ukrainian-speakers are the outright majority in the entire country. Only in the south and the far east do Russian-speakers hold something close to an absolute majority, which explains in part why the Kremlin seized Crimea (which includes Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet), first.

So the larger lesson is: don’t take the linguistic or ethnic divide as concrete or immutable. Nobody has polled the Ukrainians about this situation. Nobody knows how much Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers have intermingled and inter-married. Nobody has even bothered to ask them much about what’s going on in their country. Only the most radical elements are speaking out. Do we want to make decisions about war and peace and secession and rebellion based on what we see on television or have read on the Internet just in the last few days?

What can we do? Other observers, not least of which include individual Allies, have been maddened by the endless emergency sessions of the UN, OSCE, EU and NATO, which have issued a stream of statements but taken no tangible action. Here is what we could do, almost immediately, for Ukraine in its time of need that doesn’t involve military provocation:

  • Deliver $15 billion in loan guarantees to secure the country financially.
  • Grant Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plan (MAP) status, fast-tracking the countries for NATO membership.
  • Finalize the Eastern Partnership with the European Union.
  • Prepare to ship LNG to Ukraine (and Romania and Bulgaria).
  • Prepare to airlift humanitarian, medical and food supplies to Ukraine.
  • Impose sanctions on Russia’s leadership.
  • Prepare to close off European trade with Russia.

It’s important to know that the force differential favors Ukraine in the East-West face-off. While Ukraine may be at a disadvantage right now facing Russia, Ukrainians are fighting on their own territory and with the support of the West. A variety of military options are available to NATO and Ukraine’s European backers. I hesitate to offer them here because I am not an operational or regional expert. But suffice to say NATO controls access to the Black Sea and the North Atlantic, and could control at will the airspace over the Black Sea. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is made up mostly of anti-submarine ships, which are vulnerable to surface combatants and aircraft, and as one observer noted, “The Italian navy alone could easily destroy it.” Any action taken by NATO or even by any individual Ally would fundamentally alter the military balance in this nascent conflict to Russia’s detriment.

But getting to a point I made earlier, that’s what makes this conflict so potentially dangerous. Putin can’t afford to lose. And the escalation ladder goes right up to the nuclear trigger. While I think cooler heads will prevail, and I think it’s possible for everyone to fight without drawing in that option, those are the stakes involved. Indeed, that has to be in the back of everyone’s mind, if for no other reason than that was how one proxy war was brought to a close. The 1973 Yom Kippur War ended when the United States put its nuclear weapons on worldwide alert following a Soviet resupply to the embattled Arab armies. The alert got Moscow’s attention, and, not willing to escalate the crisis, both superpowers forced their proxies to the negotiation table. But in this situation, can we be sure the bluff won’t be called?

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The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.

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“We have met the enemy and he is us”

(Walt Kelly, via Language Log, University of Pennsylvania)

Attending a conference of public diplomacy professionals and academics last week at the U.S. State Department, a particular comment made by a participant during one of the main sessions struck me. He described the positive outcome of a recent YES Program exchange from Indonesia (if memory serves) with the students describing to him their delight in learning that Americans are not as violent, profane and promiscuous as they have been led to believe from U.S. television and movie exports to their country. Given the small scale of the YES Program (hundreds of secondary students each year) competing with the Hollywood juggernaut, he came to the unavoidable, pessimistic conclusion cribbed from Walt Kelly: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

The most depressing aspect of this observation was not that he was necessarily right but that it passed without comment or rebuttal from the audience made up of diplomats, academics, policy-makers and students of public diplomacy. That is, his opinion — that American culture is a political weakness and strategic liability — has become the fixed, conventional wisdom of the governing class.

This is as dangerous and backwards as it is also plainly wrong. The obvious shame and embarrassment many of our diplomats, scholars and others share about our culture — which hundreds of millions of real people consume and enjoy around the world without coercion — demonstrate an elitism that blinds them to what is in fact a strategic asset. And it keeps them from recognizing and harnessing an extraordinary delivery vehicle for American culture, values and democracy, a mechanism feared and repressed by regimes we stand against.

A glance at the Pew Global Attitudes Project demonstrates, at the very least, profound diversity of opinion about the United States, Americans, American culture, and American values. These opinions do not always appear to jibe, but they are not uniformly low. The pleasure that people get from American film and television is remarkably high, and even in those countries that suggest fewer enjoy our movies and shows, they include a solid minority — suggesting a cultural debate is fermenting there.

These numbers are worth examining in detail. Like all public opinion, they are dynamic and subject to the particular socio-political environment in which they are taken. Pakistan, for example, is directly affected by the neighboring war in Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes, and American rapprochement with India. Opinion towards the United States in Turkey has taken a bad hit since the war with Iraq and is only slowly recovering. Israel feels strong cultural affinity for the United States as an ally. And so on.

But the larger frustration I felt, as I kept my arm aloft trying to rebut during the session last week, was the point that Hollywood is a platform and megaphone, arguably the largest and loudest in the world. Holding it at a contemptuous distance ignores the potential of working with the Dream Factory to tell stories we want to share with the world. As I have written in my book, when Hollywood authentically captures or broadcasts a foreign culture to international audiences, that faithfulness redounds to our benefit. Why shouldn’t we try to influence how that is done? The Pentagon does.

During the conference last week, participants of all stripes lauded the Jazz Ambassadors and jazz broadcasts via Voice of America during the Cold War over and over again. Did they think America jazz represented this promiscuous, profane, and violent culture? Of course not. But the countries to which those broadcasts and programs were aimed certainly did. Which is why they claimed then that jazz was as poisonous as chemical weapons. Or, more recently, that Disneyland was as radioactive as Chernobyl.

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Now Available: The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy

SnyderFinalToday my latest book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, is available from Palgrave Macmillan.  It can be ordered from Amazon.com, the publisher, or from any book store in your neighborhood.

The Challenge of Public Diplomacy is based on my years working in the Public Diplomacy Division on NATO’s International Staff and brings the crucial experience of a public affairs practitioner crossing the last three feet every day to the important discussion of policy — a perspective I feel is all too often missing and is the primary reason why I wrote this book.

I relate my personal experience to illuminate the proposals I make in the book, which include deconflicting military public affairs and information operations, expanding our international arts portfolio, liberating U.S. international broadcasting, reforming language education, expanding our understanding of international public opinion, and taking a more aggressive approach with our political detractors.

As I’ve used this site to write about public diplomacy, I’ll continue to expand (and likely correct) my proposals, so please return often for updates. Feel free, too, to contact me by e-mail (in “About,” above) or through the comment forms, below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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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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Twitter in a Teapot?

An article last month in Foreign Policy brought to light a “full-blown Twitter war” between the State Department’s Digital Outreach Team (DOT) and a “prominent” jihadi named Mu’awiya al-Qahtani using the feed service under the handle @Al_Bttaar. Written by Will McCants, who helped set up the DOT operation, the tempest in a teakettle is easy to miss for his transparently self-aggrandizing story about how “there’s one thing [the DOT] is doing successfully: making the right enemies”. That is, McCants asserts, DOT has diminished @al_Bttaar and his confederates so aggressively that the virtual jihadi has had no alternative but to attack the DOT online. What more proof do we need of the State Department’s effectiveness?

Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that McCants has the equation exactly backwards: @Al_Bttaar in fact needs the State Department as an enemy far more than the State Department needs him. And beneath that are hidden the depressingly low stakes involved.  While it is true a single individual or a small group can be inspired to attack the United States or Western targets by online invective, in the case of the battle between the State Department and @Al_Bttaar, the numbers involved are literally the high hundreds.

McCants assertion that the DOT is “making the right enemies” is a textbook example of a bureaucracy perpetuating a problem it was created to solve, like force protection for a forward-deployed combat unit. Becoming a target is not per se a measure of success. DOT should be drying up support for @al_Bttaar, eliminating it, or diverting its attention. It’s true, McCants writes, that @Al_Bttaar’s attempt to attack DOT’s Twitter account failed (as have similar, follow-on attacks against other Twitter users). Here his failure does not point to the State Department’s success but to @Al_Bttaar’s inherent weakness and to the paltry stakes involved: fewer than 150 people were involved in the attack on DOT’s Twitter account.

In fact, McCants buried near the end of the article the critical fact that @Al_Bttaar registers a little more than 1,500 Twitter followers. That 150 of them were willing to storm the State Department’s virtual Bastille demonstrates what I suspect about them: in terms of pure numbers, they are much less likely “followers” in the traditional sense of the word than those who registered with the account simply to keep tabs on this virtual jihadi. (To give you another sense of scale, the DOT had logged 7,000 “engagements” by 2012, according to the State Department. The DOT has been online since 2006.)

A few simple numbers can put this into perspective. Of 22 countries in the Arab League, assume that at least 10 intelligence and law enforcement agencies and foreign embassies will sign on as “followers” to monitor @Al_Bttaar. That’s a low estimate and we’re already at 220, or nearly 15 percent of followers. Apply the same formula to the roughly 50 Muslim-majority countries, and you have nearly a third at 500. Expand that number in any number of reasonable ways – accounting for headquarters, redundancies, international organizations, academia, contractors – and now you can begin to imagine that the only true followers of @Al_Bttaar are the 150 people who attacked the State Department’s Twitter account.

And for this the State Department coordinates 50 civil servants, spending how much money, through the interagency, to fight?

Despite my incredulous tone I’m not entirely skeptical of the DOT endeavor. McCants simply doesn’t make a very persuasive case. It’s easy, when hunting bad guys, to obsess over what you’re seeing at the end of your scope. But when you’re that narrowly focused, you can miss the larger picture and the bigger questions: In the end, what is DOT and the State Department trying to accomplish? How influential are Twitter jihadis like @Al_Bttaar? Should we shut them down at their source or attack their message in front of much larger audiences (Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya), which we can command?

A 2012 study published by the Middle East Journal suggested that DOT’s endeavors – reaching out in online fora – did very little to change minds. But I’d argue that very little is still a place to start. This survey indicated that 4.8 percent expressed positive views of U.S. foreign policy or the DOT, but the study was a single snapshot (2009) of a very specific place (Egypt). A survey like this is only useful if it is duplicated and controlled. Egypt, for its part, is a very unique political environment. Moreover, those “poor” responses to DOT’s outreach in fact mirror overall public opinion in Egyptian polls about US foreign policy as recorded in 2008. So while seeming discouraging on its face, in reality this article actually tells us that we don’t really know how effective the DOT is – or could be.

That’s because changing public opinion takes concrete, specific actions and its success can only be measured fairly (and accurately) over time. I’m not yet convinced that Twits like @Al_Bttaar are worth all that effort. But that’s because we haven’t figured out a way to measure our effectiveness yet. Social media has given us the illusion of hard data, analytics, and control when what it’s really done is flooded us with more raw, decontextualized numbers. Now it’s up to us to find the meaning in all that madness.

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Politics, Propaganda and Pornography on the Web in China

China Daily front from May 2012

A recent New York Review of Books post by Perry Link is worth reading to learn the lengths and depths to which the Chinese government will go to control content and opinion on the Internet in that country.  China has learned to embrace the Internet in some ways, recognizing that the government in some sense can’t live without it and can’t deprive the people of it. But the central authorities view the Internet in much the same way that the Nazis and Soviets viewed the emerging art and technology of the movies in the 1930s: as a powerful tool to augment propaganda, which is, in the mordant definition of Hitler message man Joseph Goebbels, “a means to state control”.

Link is drawing attention to the work of his colleague Xiao Qing at the University of California, who has received, archived and catalogued thousands of “directives” from China’s propaganda officials to central and regional news and Internet officials to play up, play down, censor, muzzle, close comment, applaud or condemn various bits of information that are vacuumed up in the social space of the Chinese Intranet. It is impossible to read these directives and not think of Winston Smith, alone at his cubicle next to the memory hole, carrying out similar directives in the Ministry of Truth. Indeed, Xiao calls his unofficial repository the Ministry of Truth. He provides an extraordinary glimpse inside perhaps the largest and most sophisticated propaganda machinery in the world.

Link, an academic and translator of Charter 08 into English, provides some additional insights based on a conference that Xiao hosted last month in Berkeley that included several additional scholars who helped analyze his archives. The insights they brought are additionally worth reading, if for no other reason than it is an additional reminder that we do not bring every perspective required to this material. Perhaps the most important insight rendered is this:

“One of the principal aims of the government directives is to prevent unapproved groups from organizing through the Internet (noted as “incitement,” “gatherings,” etc.); some of the scholars argued that this goal is even more fundamental than prevention of negative comment about the Party.”

That is, among the government’s top priorities in Internet control is not censorship for its own sake but to break up any nascent attempts at independent organization, which is the true and ultimate threat to the government’s control. Information, opinion and communication do not undermine the government on their own, but by how they help individuals understand, come together, and take collective action. No wonder, as Link notes, the government has lumped “political speech” in the same web category as pornography as “unhealthful to society”.

Another chilling observation in the age of the NSA revelations relates to the activity of Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency. In a country where all media is state-controlled, Xinhua is effectively an open-source intelligence agency. The Internet has changed that, Link notes. Ten years ago, Xinhua’s mission, in part, was to report to China’s leadership on its own population. In the Internet era, it no longer needs to do that – the people are in effect reporting on themselves through social media, chat rooms, comment boxes and microblogs. The government only needs to read them to understand their subjects.

That’s a Thought Police even Orwell didn’t imagine.

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What The Washington Post gets wrong about The Daily Show in China

The April 9 Washington Post ran this blog post by Max Fisher about the unprecedented  number of video viewings in China of a recent Daily Show segment on North Korea. (You can watch the original clip Daily Show clip here. I’m having trouble embedding.)

The Chinese web portal Sina reposted the segment, importantly with subtitles, racking up more than three million views (and counting) – more than any other Daily Show segment short of a 2008 bit about Sarah Palin.

Unfortunately Fisher draws exactly the wrong conclusion about Chinese public opinion and viewing habits based on this single data point. He suggests that the surge in popularity indicates the average Chinese citizen’s frustration with the country’s belligerent ally, and insinuates a popular divergence from official foreign policy supporting North Korea and its young leader, Kim Jong-Un.

This is far too much to draw from this incident. Fisher is first of all comparing China’s viewership to the Daily Show’s normal audience, which is mostly American and at 300 million its fullest potential is almost a quarter the size of China’s population. Also, a cursory glance at the Sina site shows that the most popular segment on the site has views of nearly twice The Daily Show’s segment at around six million views. (I would nonetheless discount some comments in Fisher’s thread that three million views is a tiny slice of China’s population because that is not a statistically relevant or sound measure of the Chinese population in any event. It can only be measured against other views.)

But most important, Fisher provides no context or public opinion data for his assertion that this viewership represents a particular rancor about a specific policy. In a country where corruption, pollution, economic inequality, poverty, censorship, arbitrary seizures and state surveillance are pervasive, China’s policy toward its small, pugilistic neighbor cannot rank very high in public concern.  It is not even clear from the Sina site that the Chinese people are even particularly well-informed on this issue. (If China’s English propaganda mouthpiece, China Daily, is any measure, the government has not spoken often or very directly about the mounting crisis in North Korea recently.)

So why is The Daily Show segment suddenly so popular? The important context to understand this phenomenon is the Sina site itself, China’s great Firewall, and the government’s total control of all media, including the Internet, inside the country. This segment was not posted freely – that is, it was posted for a reason – but that doesn’t make its existence in China any less interesting or exciting. Another cursory glance at the Sina site makes The Daily Show stand out even more: this is satire – cutting, anti-authoritarian satire – in a country that brooks no political dissent.

Given that context, Jon Stewart practically explodes off the Chinese web. Against the drab greys of state propaganda, The Daily Show contrasts in psychedelic Technicolor. This is the Web-TV equivalent of stumbling across jazz in 1960s Moscow or rock’n’roll in 1970s Prague. The Daily Show perfectly captures what’s missing in a society where the government dominates all creative and political expression.

That is why this segment is so popular: it is so unusual in a country that normally does not tolerate questioning of authority, much less mocking it. Fisher gets this very wrong, and it is important that we don’t draw the wrong conclusions about what the Chinese people think and know and feel.

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