Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Propaganda’s Progression

Over the years, misinformation campaigns have changed. Here’s why the latest are so difficult to stamp out.

A souvenir kiosk offering among others a drawing depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a baby with the face of U.S. President Donald Trump, in Moscow on July 5, 2017.
A souvenir kiosk offers a drawing depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin holding a baby with the face of U.S. President Donald Trump in Moscow on July 5, 2017. Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

In the last few years, propaganda has taken on a new character, and the effects will reverberate far into the future. To understand how, it is worth looking at influences over time.

In World Wars I and II, propaganda was used to shape public opinion through print. Especially during the first war, books, newspapers, cartoons, slogans, theatre, and even postage stamps were common vehicles on both sides to promulgate favorable information. The propaganda kept publics on-side and boosted the ranks and morale of the armies. By the second World War, propaganda had changed, though, and movies in particular were used to incite fear. There were still the usual posters to mobilize soldiers, but they were negative rather than positive. “Stop this Monster that Stops at Nothing,” read one.

In the last few years, propaganda has taken on a new character, and the effects will reverberate far into the future. To understand how, it is worth looking at influences over time.

In World Wars I and II, propaganda was used to shape public opinion through print. Especially during the first war, books, newspapers, cartoons, slogans, theatre, and even postage stamps were common vehicles on both sides to promulgate favorable information. The propaganda kept publics on-side and boosted the ranks and morale of the armies. By the second World War, propaganda had changed, though, and movies in particular were used to incite fear. There were still the usual posters to mobilize soldiers, but they were negative rather than positive. “Stop this Monster that Stops at Nothing,” read one.

In 1947, a publisher in St. Paul, Minnesota released a red-scare comic book titled: “Is This Tomorrow; America Under Communism!” The animated cover displays the American flag engulfed in red flames as a backdrop of Black and white U.S. soldiers being brutally attacked by Communist soldiers. In this case, propaganda crossed racial lines to ensure that all Americans, regardless of color, could identify with the need to support and join soldiers in the fight against communism at all cost. It galvanized the public through symbolism and general personalities, like the soldier, in which all citizens respected and could relate to.

By the Cold War, propaganda mixed both methods: the promotion of ideologies and the demonization of personalities. In Cuba in 1956, the social revolution and propaganda strategy turned the collective consciousness of the Cuban people towards the personality of Fidel Castro. Castro was born to wealth but hated the elite, a welcome sentiment among those struggling for a decent living. Castro personally represented the struggle. Like other revolutionary leaders in history, i.e. Lenin and Trotsky, Mao, Haiti’s Louverture, Algeria’s Fanon, and the Mexican Emiliano Zapata, the U.S. propaganda used images and caricatures of Castro to demonize all that he stood for. However, the propaganda backfired, as Castro’s ideologies struck a chord with Black America in terms of injustice and socioeconomic inequality. Moreover, his appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1959 added an unexpected appeal as a victorious rebel with an attractive guerilla sidekick in Che Guevara. Ideological propaganda and the demonization of personalities as tools were losing ground. Citizens were beginning to use their own intelligence to determine what and who was to be avoided in foreign affairs.

The Arab Spring rebellions from 2010 to 2015 mark the boom in the use of the internet for propaganda. However, instead of strategic positioning by a war office, images and videos were posted by average citizens. Different than previous propaganda, the focus was on the populist struggle. People were tired of being oppressed by poverty and inequality, as exemplified by Mohamed Bouazizi, aged 26, who set himself on fire publicly in Tunisia as the ultimate protest against poverty. Following his act, which spurred the rebellions, citizens took the promotion of propaganda into their own hands through social media. As such, the propaganda of the Arab Spring movement intended to communicate inequities and the rise of populism.

On the heels of the Arab Spring came the rise of the Islamic State, and with it another iteration of propaganda, this one with a clear vision to stamp out Western values with Islam. A major shift in vehicles for promotion differentiates this propaganda from all past years. The dawn of social media with worldwide access became the primary propaganda tool for the Islamic State. Platforms like Facebook and YouTube were used to send highly effective videos, both taped and real-time, that infiltrate the psyche visually, auditorily, and intellectually. This level of propaganda serves as a cognitive manipulation, often not recognized until one is faced with dire consequences from nefarious actions, or until there is a change in one’s own identity. More effective than posters, stamps, and movies with hired actors, cyber-propaganda is today’s most dangerous form of guerilla warfare.

Russia’s cyber-propaganda in the United States over the past four years has helped to divide the country ideologically to the point of an insurrection by radical Trump supporters. Indeed, its misinformation, promoted easily through social media in the form of advertisements, YouTube videos, and Twitter chats has stoked hate and conspiracy theories. This reaches millions of Americans.

As it relates to revolutionary movements, the author Jeff Goodwin offers a fundamental reason as to why small numbers of rebels can be successful in their missions: “One possible explanation is that insurgencies that are ‘racial’ or ethnic in nature as well as rooted in class or socioeconomic grievances are likely to be particularly intractable, whereas rebellions that are merely class-based will be easily defeated or co-opted.” Russian propaganda in the United States included messages that preyed upon multiple ideological differences within the fabric of the nation. They promoted messages of fear about losing jobs to immigrants, and Second Amendment rights being stripped. They pushed misinformation about federal overreach, and the need for more policing to stop crime.

Given real problems that underlie those messages—the economic decline of white people in states that in the past profited from the free labor of Black slaves, coupled with a new industrial revolution that left their industries behind—and you’ve got a high likelihood that Trump supporters will continue to mobilize. Russia use of the age-old power of propaganda might have set the scene for the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, but quelling the intra-state discord is up to America.

Angela R. Pashayan is a Ph.D. student in political science at Howard University.

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