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Propaganda: An operative weapon for exploitation

Ashiq Iqbal Jishad || risingbd.com

Published: 12:19, 2 May 2021  
Propaganda: An operative weapon for exploitation

Around 2500 years ago, Sun-Tzu, an ancient Chinese strategist, wrote his famous masterpiece ‘Art of War’ where he remarked, “If you understand your enemy’s mind, you will win the battle”.

As a strategist, he always spoke in favour of winning the battle without participating in the war. So he attached importance to know about the tricks of the opponent. He used to tell about defeating the rival by deception. He said, “All warfare is based on deception”.

There was a time when the enemy could be swindled by military and weaponry tactics. But the 21st century is the era of modern information warfare. To defeat enemies in war, it’s no longer weapons, it has to be thwarted with information. Sun-Tzu also emphasised the importance of fabricating false information and lies through the art of illusion.

In this way, propaganda has become an illusionary trick to amaze rivals. It’s also an operative tool to propagate misinformation and biased news against opponents and increase their anxiety without any arms.

Now this propaganda overwhelms international politics. The situation is such that propaganda is enough to bring a huge shift in world politics.

However, etymologically the word ‘Propaganda’ comes from the Latin word ‘Propagare’ that means ‘to spread’ or ‘to propagate’.

In the Medieval Ages, the Catholic Church used the term to spread the Catholic faith in non-Catholic communities. In the mid-nineteenth century, propaganda inaugurated to be glimpsed as a negative form.

But its use in politics began in the 20th century, which resulted in two major genocides. One is in Nazi Germany and the other is in Rwanda.

In these two cases, propaganda was adopted systematically to manipulate other people’s beliefs, thoughts and attitudes.

However, it was Nazi Germany that gave a new shape to propaganda in the 1930s. Hitler even emerged to prominence in anti-Jewish, liberal and anti-democratic propaganda. His Nazi Party propagated that Jews were the main responsible for Germany’s downfall in WWI. German media used to minimize Jews by labelling them as traitors, anti-German etc.

Hitler even set a propaganda ministry and Goebbels was made its minister. This ministry used to order German media to demonize Jews through films, newspapers, comics, cartoon, books, music etc. In this way, German media sowed the seeds of anti-Jews in the Germans’ minds. That’s why the Germans strengthened the persecutions level against the Jews. As a result, 6 million Jews were slaughtered brutally during WWII.

Nevertheless, in 1994, we observed another horrific form of propaganda in Rwanda. That year, a massive genocide was conducted in Rwanda where around 1 million Tutsis were assassinated by Hutus. Before this incident, Hutu-dominated media like Kangura Magazine, Radio RTLM, Radio Rwanda played a vicious role by spreading propaganda against Tutsi.

These media designed a crisis circumstance in Rwanda by indicating Tutsis as anti-nations, defectors and threats for Rwanda. Even Rwandan media provoked Hutus to take saw against Tutsis. Thus, Hutus carried out a massive genocide against Tutsis where around 1 million Tutsis were massacred.

So these two genocides prove when propaganda is operated in politics, it turns into genocide and massive bloodshed sometimes.

The USA also used propaganda against Soviet Union during the Cold War. Through movies, cartoons, posters, dramas, comics, the fear of socialism was installed in the Americans' minds.

Regardless, in the aftermath of 9/11, propaganda was used in a new strategy. When the Afghan expedition was almost confirmed after 9/11 attack, Western media broadcasted misinformation on Laden’s whereabouts. They even deployed propaganda saying that Afghans were harboring Talibans, joining with Talibans and destroying Afghanistan.

Even before the 2003 Iraq War, Western media designed a ‘battleground’. American channels like CNN, ABC reported Saddam has good relations with Al-Qaeda, he’s going to operate a missile attack on the USA, he’s nuclearizing Iraq etc.

These propagandas were enough to prompt Western people and the military against Iraq. Public opinion and justification were obtained through it. In consequence, US-led alliance occupied Iraq in 2003. In this case, the theory that CNN used to get a public opinion from American people is called the ‘Knowledge-gap’ theory.

According to American experts, 90% of Americans aren’t aware of International affairs. They believe what the media telecasts. They don’t even verify the reality behind an incident. So in this way, the US media succeeded in spreading propaganda against Iraq.

By using the ‘Knowledge-gap’ hypothesis, American media wanted to demonstrate that how crucial ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ was to Iraqis.

Yet, Al-Jazeera countered against CNN’s ‘Knowledge-gap approach’ by exploiting ‘Hypodermic' theory. Al-Jazeera always holds a tendency to demonstrate the reverse side of the coin. By countering CNN's discourse, Al-Jazeera broadcasted the reality of the Iraq War. Although Western media like CNN defended the US expedition, Al-Jazeera telecasted the horror actions of US forces.

Besides, Al-Jazeera took advantage of embedded journalism where they exposed America’s destructiveness in Iraq.  Through the embedded journalism, Al-Jazeera proved the US operation was not for the ‘freedom’ of ‘Iraqis’. Even Al-Jazeera's ground reports frightened American society so much that Americans launched a vigorous campaign against American expedition in Iraq. This is how Al-Jazeera utilized the ‘Hypodermic’ hypothesis to disprove American media’s propaganda.

Nowadays, propaganda isn’t just spread on news channels or newspapers. More recently, propaganda is now being disseminated digitally. Bots and algorithms are currently being used to formulate computational propaganda.

We can mention here the 2016 US election. At that time, massive use of propaganda affected the entire US politics. Before the election, Trump’s election campaign committee appointed a British political consulting firm named Cambridge Analytica.

This firm digitally deployed propaganda against Hilary & Democratic Party through bots and algorithms for ruining their political image. Cambridge Analytica targeted those social media users who were right-wing supporters, anti-immigrants and anti-Muslims. Even Russia was also involved here to tarnish Hilary's image on social media. As a result, Hilary, who's a veteran politician, defeated by Trump.

In the same year, just before the Brexit election in Britain, digital propaganda was deployed on social media to campaign for Brexit. Cambridge Analytica once again manipulated the circumstances by propagating propaganda largely.

Propaganda was spread in a way that terrified people to vote for Brexit. Besides, this firm often targeted specific users' accounts who’ve xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiments etc. For example, 76 million Turkish were provided visa-free entry by EU, EU is imposing the burden of Syrian refugees over Britain, EU is snatching 350 million pounds per week from Britain etc. British people were also astonished at losing jobs due to the massive wave of migrants in the UK.

In this path, Conservative Party and Cambridge Analytica overwhelmed people by spreading propaganda on xenophobia, anti-immigration and refugee crisis in Europe. As a result, 52% of British voted in favour of Brexit.

This is how digital propaganda was exploited in the 2016 US election and Brexit election which brought about a great alteration in the Trans-Atlantic politics.

However, the misuse of propaganda isn’t only increasing in the West, but also the East. We can mention here India, China and Turkey. All three countries are running state-funded propaganda to suppress minorities and dissent. Even in these three countries, lies are being spread against the protesting people on social media. Even IT cells have also been set up to spread propaganda.

This is how we see the widespread use of propaganda in the national and international arena. Sometimes propaganda is used to suppress minority and dissent, sometimes for political gain as an operative tool. Such versatile use of propaganda demonstrates that propaganda is going to be one of the political weapons in future.
Ashiq Iqbal Jishad studies International Relations at the University of Dhaka.