My Take

In defence of propaganda

US political writer Walter Lippmann is right – ‘manufactured consent’ is far more insidious

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 10:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 December, 2016, 10:49pm

One has to read with amusement that the United States has just signed a bill against foreign propaganda into law. It’s a bit like a serial rapist campaigning for women’s rights around the world.

A bipartisan law, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act has an annual budget of US$800 million. It will finance journalists, non-governmental organisations, think tanks and private firms to decipher disinformation propagated by foreign states. Call it the war on propaganda. Does it aim to protect American citizens from the propaganda of foreign states or to protect citizens of foreign countries from their own government propaganda? Will it be used to discredit unfriendly or hostile states? Whatever the answer, the law itself is an exercise in propaganda.

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There is no greater practitioner of state propaganda than the US government. This is despite, or rather because, most mainstream US politicians think – or they tell people to think – that only other governments engage in propaganda.

At this point, everyone would howl: what about China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and all the usual suspects?

The more unsophisticated a state, the more it relies on socialist or populist heroic images and absurd and totally unrealistic claims of national glory, propagated with a sledgehammer. The one-party state lays down the party line for everyone to adhere to. These efforts are crude, and ultimately rely on brute force when all else fails.

They don’t borrow from public relations, advertising, psychology, random sampling surveys, and other methods of social science. American state propaganda should not even be labelled as such because it’s too sophisticated. It’s more properly what the US political writer Walter Lippmann has called “the manufacture of consent”.

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His evocative phrase brings to mind an advanced political system of production of concepts, premises, ideas, arguments, debates and emotional frameworks – and language itself – that compels public opinion – or if you like, the collective mind – to arrive at conclusions and convictions preordained by the state and corporate media. Those who argue outside the mainstream are not imprisoned, but marginalised, ridiculed and ignored. That’s because free speech is respected.

How do you justify conducting overt and covert wars and assassinations in the four corners of the world, and carrying out pervasive surveillance and reducing civil liberties at home – all in the name of freedom and democracy?

Propaganda is obvious. “Manufactured consent” is far more insidious.