A recent announcement of an escalating information war on the internet reveals that the public is continuosly exposed to constructed truths.
Propaganda is something one probably associates with historical events where certain governments or dictators spread persuading messages to their citizens. One would perhaps believe that this only went on during the World Wars or in authoritarian regimes. Such an impression would also be strengthened by news about Russia, China or North Korea using propaganda both externally and onto their own population. Then what about the West?
Due to new forms of media and the original simple definition of propaganda, the term has gotten a foggy meaning. Many sources define all forms of public information and affection on other’s opinions as propaganda, even when the intentions are good or the information is objective. Hence, one ought to focus on the concerning type, so-called grey or black propaganda, where anonymous disinformation is central.
Modern propaganda can be described as the manipulation of the public, through media, in order to get democratic acceptance for political or military agendas.
Media is described as the fourth estate because it has an influence on society outside the three other branches: the legislative, executive and judicial. Collective illusions have been covered in an earlier article, and governments or corporations can have motifs for applying this onto the public in the form of filtered information and established truths. The historical role of the press has been to be an independent and monitoring party by giving the public information from various sources as well as the option for expression.
When news channels are controlled by governments, owned by national leaders or by mega-corporations alarm bells should start to chime. Then the media no longer works as a monitoring counterbalance, but rather as extended arms of the same power that rules in the first place. Even though social media don’t have the same function as the traditional press, a major part of the population receives a lot of information about the world through these platforms.
The Guardian wrote about 1500 British soldiers that were hired to participate in information war in social media. It is also stated that the military of both Isreal and the US already are heavily engaged in “psychological operations”.
When governments – in this case, the US, Israel and Great Britain – have engaged their own camouflaged representatives for spreading polarized information social media becomes a platform for propaganda. Attempting to give objective coverage is not mentioned as the purpose. In other words, the information should have the opposite polarity of the opposing party; independent of its validity. As it is official that this has been going on in earlier conflicts, it gives a pointer to what kind of information one has been exposed to.
Psychological operations is supposedly only happening within the enemy, but one ought to ask oneselves, aren’t the same tactics being targeted towards both sides of the warfare. In 2011 it was exposed that the US military attempted to infiltrate social media with false identities for the purpose of spreading pro-US opinions. In 2013 USA Today had a case where the Israeli government paid students to spread pro-Israeli messages in social media networks, as indirect representatives for the government. Here, the intentions are claimed to be good, but here is a case of spreading one-sided information from hidden identities: per definition, propaganda.
Social media may get the problem as the saying goes: “A liar will not be believed even when speaking the truth”. Governments do risk the same.
Social media is also a platform where information is being distributed outside the established channels. Information can come from real and unfiltered sources, such as from the population within a war zone. The government’s infiltration could cause nearly all political information from social media being labeled as false. The possibility for public dispersion of news is being reduced since real information drowns in the noise of misleading information. Therefore, skepticism towards content and reliable sources becomes even more important.
The famous punchline from The X-Files: “Trust No One” can be an even more relevant attitude towards political information and discussion in social media.
According to the research paper “The Political Power of Social Media” governments experience The Dictator’s Dilemma when split awareness within the population. If information and opinions float freely within the public sphere then the opinions of the governments are often challenged by the ones of the people. If this opportunity is being suppressed the public may become radicalized. The dilemma can be approached by promoting arguments through propaganda and mute criticism through censorship. The report mentions that access to information is far less important than access to conversations.
For states that aren’t ruled by dictators (in the traditional sense), manipulation of attitude and control of information has been increasingly important for governments to fulfill their agendas. Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, introduced his book “Propaganda” in 1928 as follows:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
As it is evident that governments are taking part in information war within social media, and for a long time have been executing psychological operations, then Bernays’ words are confirmed. Governments are mixing cards when it comes to their role in social media. There is a difference between representing oneself or one’s organization on the one hand, and employ disguised representatives to take part in an information war on the other. The aforementioned is a genuine engagement with the population and is about providing expected services. The other is related to propaganda and psychological operations. This is not only aimed at “the enemy”, but manipulation of attitude must necessarily be as important within one’s own nation. This means that Western societies, to some extent, are exposed to constructed and established truths.