Information or Propaganda?
In the age of ‘spin’, can all communications by governments be dismissed as propaganda? A more plausible allegation seems that while some forms of government communications – like public information campaigns – are aimed by and large at simply informing the public, most – government advertising, speeches, pre-election campaigns – are a mix of information and propaganda. One context where propaganda is a key concern is during times of war and conflict. This essay takes the examples of the Gulf War in 1991 and the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 as two cases where the US government used propaganda to achieve its own political objectives. It aims to establish the most common techniques of propaganda used by governments, and highlight how they have been put into practice recently using the US in two different situations as a case study.
In 1937, the Institute of Propaganda Analysis (IPA) – founded by journalists and social thinkers in the US to educate the American public about propaganda and its use – defined propaganda as:
“…The product of intellectual work which is highly organised; it aims at persuading large masses of people about the virtues of some organisation, cause or person. And its success or failure depends on how well it captures, expresses, and then richness specific existing sentiments.”
The IPA identified seven basic propaganda devices, which Aaron Delwiche has classified into three broad groups: Word Games, False Connections and Special Appeals. Using these devices as yardsticks, we can identify the use of propaganda in war-time communications by the US government in 1991 and in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Word Games: Name-calling, Glittering Generalities and Euphemisms
‘Name-calling’ is a classic propaganda device which ‘appeals to our hate and fears…by giving “bad names” to those individuals, groups, nations…that (the propagandist) would have us condemn and reject’. In 1991, the US government condemned Iraqi President Saddam Hussein as ‘the new Hitler’, emphasising similarities between the two leaders, and a ‘deranged psychopath’. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US President George Bush and his administration repeatedly called Saddam ‘an evil dictator’, a ‘tyrant’, and ‘monster’, and Iraq a ‘terrorist’ and ‘rogue’ state.
‘Glittering Generalities’, on the other hand, is a device using words ‘which appeal to the public’s emotions of love, generosity and brotherhood’. While the ‘liberation’ of Kuwait was the supposed aim of the Gulf War in 1991, in the context of the latest Gulf War, the US government promised the Iraqi people ‘human liberty’ and a ‘prosperous’ and ‘free’ Iraq without Saddam. Using bland and euphemistic words is another propaganda trick, where the public is given unpleasant information in a disguised, more palatable form. The US military believes, ‘an uncensored American press ‘lost’ the Vietnam War by demoralising the pubic with unpleasant news.’ So, civilian casualties in the last Gulf War were described as ‘collateral damage’, and Saddam was in ‘material breach’ of UN resolution 1441 and therefore called the war onto himself and his people.
False Connections: Transfers, Testimonials and Card-Stacking
‘Transfer’, ‘Testimonial’ and ‘Card-Stacking’ devices are typical in war-time communications from governments. They have been known to use the first to ‘carry over authority, sanction and prestige of something [the public] respects…to something he would have [it] accept,’ while the second one is used by governments to try to ‘make [the public] believe anything’ through first-hand accounts.
The Card-Stacking device – widely used by the US government in the first Gulf War – is a propaganda tactic whereby the government ’employs all the arts of deception to win [the public’s] support for [the government and it’s] nation, race, policy, practice belief or ideal…he resorts to lies, censorship and distortion.’ The Pentagon’s false claim of Iraqi troops and tanks massing on the Kuwait-Iraq border in September 1990, on the basis of ‘top secret’ satellite images, is a classic example. It served to silence global opposition to military action in the Gulf significantly, and was revealed to be a lie by a US journalist only after the war. Many believe US Secretary of Sate Colin Powel’s speech at the UN where he showed satellite images of Iraqi ‘weapons sites’ and audio clips of conversations between Iraqi ‘officials’ in February 2003 to be a case of Card-Stacking.
The ‘dead babies’ incident is yet another classic example. The US government put on display to the world the false testimonial Nijirah-al-Sabah, daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington in 1991. She ‘tearfully described how, as a volunteer in the Al Adnan hospital in Kuwait City, she had watched Iraqi soldiers looting incubators…pitching the Kuwaiti babies on to “the cold floor to die”‘. The truth, unmasked only after the war ended, was that the incidence was entirely fabricated by the US government, but proved instrumental in swinging the US Congress to vote in favour of a war.
Special Appeals: Plain Folks, Bandwagon and Fear
In this group, the ‘Plain Folks’ device (by which politicians try to make the public relate to them as ‘one of the people’) and the ‘Bandwagon’ device (‘everyone’s doing it’ appeals, including calls to religious and social groups) are more relevant to propaganda during election campaigns.
The most widely used tactic during wartime is using the element of ‘fear’. US government warned the world of Iraq’s WMDs and the danger they presented in1991. More recently, it linked Iraq with international terrorism, claiming that Saddam would not have hesitated to supply or use these weapons against other nations, and ‘disarmament by force’ is was the only solution. The idea here is to ‘scare people and [offer] a specific recommendation for overcoming the fear-arousing threat…[to be] perceived as effective for reducing the threat…’
Information Vs. Propaganda
The propaganda tactics listed by the IPA fit perfectly in the nature of wartime communications by the US government during the Gulf War in 1991 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition in 2003. According to Peter Knightly, award-winning investigative journalist, government communications reek with propaganda as they go through the four stages of preparing a nation for a war – from presenting the crisis as irresolvable through peaceful means and demonising the enemy and its leader, to accusing it of atrocities – often fabricated to evoke emotion response. The devices of propaganda do not apply as extensively to other forms of government communications such as public information campaigns. While pre-election and policy campaigns may use the ‘Plain Folks’ and ‘Bandwagon’ devices of propaganda, wartime government communications remain the most complex mix of information and propaganda.