While propaganda recurs throughout history, both scope and efficacy of manipulative political communication witnessed today are unparalleled. In the so-called ‘post-fact era’, societies the world over face the challenge of addressing distortion and demagogy. What lessons does the past hold to keep propaganda in check? And how can we ensure that public debate remains open and democratic? Propaganda historian Jo Fox of the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research shared her insight into the topic and gave her advice on dealing with ‘fake news’ and manipulation in the 21st century.
The Nazi propaganda apparatus is widely recognised as the epitome of highly effective political communication. What made Nazi propaganda so appealing and effective?
It is important not to overestimate the success of Nazi propaganda – it was only successful in so far as its central claims corresponded to its intended targets’ pre-existing beliefs and in so far as it remained credible. Nazi propaganda was multi-layered: it could be loud and insistent, striking and dynamic, but it could also be subtle, cleverly and quietly playing on deeper, embedded belief systems. Goebbels knew that the most successful propaganda worked by manipulating pre-existing opinions, views and prejudices, twisting or tweaking them to suit the National Socialist ideological position. Goebbels prided himself on his ability to ‘pluck the string in the harp of man’s soul to make it sound’. In my view, this accounted for much of its success.
Which elements of such “historical” propaganda recur today?
In its basic form, propaganda technique is remarkably static – largely since it plays on human psychology. But it is applied to rapidly changing circumstances and environments, and this may give it the appearance of being constantly in-flux. It remains true that the most successful propaganda is that which corresponds to pre-existing opinion and principles. Here, what matters is not what is true but what we are prepared to believe. For example, the most committed Brexiteer will remain unmoved by facts that show the benefits of remaining within the European Union. We are all still vulnerable to propaganda that confirms our own viewpoints – scientifically described by the notion of ‘confirmation bias’. This is just as true now as it was in the past.
Has modern media and its ubiquity in everyday life changed how propaganda works, and how effectively it is able to influence the public? From a historian’s point of view: Has something fundamentally changed?
How propaganda functions has not changed significantly, but the environment in which it is currently operating presents new challenges. We are now confronted by a perfect storm: the speed, scope and scale of modern communications, complicated by the uncertain status of social media as neither platform nor publisher and the hidden algorithms used to control the information we see; the building frustration of those who feel disempowered by elites; the desire of some to destabilise the entire social and political system through psychological warfare campaigns and by creating a situation where all views are of equal value regardless of the evidential base; where psychological warriors can operate under the radar in the largely unregulated ‘wild west’ of the internet. This is an agitational propagandists dream – where nothing is certain, where all may be plausible, and where communications networks are fast and global. I would argue that this is unprecedented.
The proclamation of a “post-truth era” has called to attention how scientific objectivity is not only replaced by subjective opinion and “alternative facts”, but systematically undermined as a concept and point of orientation. If scientific, or at least pseudo-scientific justification of ideological claims was a central tenet of past propaganda, are we currently witnessing a new approach?
We have experienced the twisting or rejection of science in pursuit of ideological or financial aims in the past, but perhaps not from so many angles, and with such scope and range. It is incumbent on us all to reassert the value and validity of scientific fact – or at least the facts as they are currently known to us now, underpinned by legitimate evidence. There are not ‘alternative facts’, but rather alternative opinions, which need to be clearly identified and labelled as such. There is, in some quarters, a concerted attempt to deliberately sow confusion and persuade us that we should mistrust all information. Here is the real danger. One only has to think of climate change to imagine the catastrophic consequences of ‘alternative facts’. In this environment, where all facts are contested or where even mainstream politicians are in the business of dismissing uncomfortable truths as ‘fake news’, we will increasingly succumb to illogical emotional impulses, hastened by a loss of the media environment, where the place of expert opinion in society is contested, and where the sheer volume of information ensures that objective facts are buried or lost.
With regard to propaganda, it seems that trust and deception are interdependent. Does history offer a lesson on who and how we can trust?
I do not think that history offers ‘lessons’. Historical events come with their own specificities. History does, however, provide insight into contingencies – what choices and options faced us in the past when in similar, if not identical situations, and what decisions were made and why? Humans have always needed to make choices as to who to trust. Again, this is largely determined by the information we possess and the individual or collective meaning we attach to that information. The danger that faces us now is that legitimate providers of trustworthy information are being denounced by some with a political agenda as pedlars of fake news. Although publics in modern liberal democracies over the past century had a healthy scepticism of news sources, there was still a reasonable degree of trust in established, legitimate publications or broadcasters. This is now under attack, partly for political gain and partly because the nature of news media has changed significantly.
You wrote that “control of information was a primary concern of dictatorships”. Can governments today curb misinformation without themselves controlling public discourse? Where can a line be drawn between state control of information and state guardianship of free speech?
This is the million-dollar question – or rather the 142.7 billion-dollar question – the estimated combined net worth of Facebook and Twitter). Modern liberal democracies have always struggled to balance the right to free speech and the need to censor. This challenge has been exacerbated by the advent of social media. Social media not only allows for unregulated(and potentially dangerous communications to circulate largely unchecked and for computational propaganda to run amok; it creates the environment where we only seek out or are presented with information from those that already share our views, where we are trapped in a global echo-chamber that simply legitimizes rather than challenges our existing patterns of thinking, and where we silence those views we do not endorse.
Arguably, this has already damaged the very notion of liberal democratic free speech, normally characterised by a plurality of and regard for alternative opinion. The answer to this problem does not lie in heavy-handed censorship. Controlling the info-sphere can result in unintended consequences. Historical evidence suggests that the more information is censored, the more suspicious of official channels the public become, and the more likely they will be to seek out alternative information, perhaps from suspect sources. There is undoubtedly a case for making social media more accountable and for limiting or eliminating damaging misinformation or inciteful material. However, this must be coupled with a civic education programme that – from our early years – teaches us critical thought, about the value of knowledge and expertise, and about the information environment in which we operate. On that basis, we are able to make informed decisions about our own data and that which we consume.
“The power of manipulation. On dealing with propaganda and ‘fake news’ in the past and present” will be one of the panels of this year’s Körber History Forum on 13 and 14 May 2019.
Find more information, follow the live web-broadcast, or watch the video of the debate here.