Propaganda and Disinformation between East and West: A Long-Term Perspective
As evidenced by Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016, success in US politics in the social media era often depends on a candidate’s ability to dominate the centre of every conversation. Not only in the US, facts today often appear superfluous; it is no longer so much content that matters as the capacity to monopolise the public information space.
The earth is flat. Not metaphorically as in Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book about globalisation, but literally so, according to rapper B.o.B and other “flat earthers”. They are a tiny minority. But they are out there, millions of them.
One might, indeed, think that in the 2020s anything goes. Facts seem to matter little and can always be countered with simple “whataboutism”. You can find a distraction to virtually any issue, from the need to combat climate change (what about jobs and economic growth) to the necessity of alleviating the hardship of refugees (what about “our” values). Forever gone is a simpler age when the world was divided into two ideologically opposite camps that stood for clearly identifiable notions about governance and modernity. Sure, the Cold War propagandists oversold their versions by manipulating facts. But at least there was some regard for facts. In today’s “post-truth era” it seems that disinformation is the only game in town.
But has everything really changed in the last three decades?
Facts have become relative and beliefs have become absolute Cold War propaganda essentially amounted to “campaigns of truth” or battles for the hearts and minds of people based on a simple binary choice. On one side, Americans heralded the virtues of democracy and free markets while painting a dark picture of communist oppression, a system of total state control that stifled freedom at all levels. On the other side, the Soviets championed social justice while emphasising the devastating consequences of inequality resulting from capitalism.
The effectiveness of both American and Soviet propaganda, however, was based upon relative truth: there was no denying, for example, that individual freedom was poorly valued in the Soviet bloc. Equally, poverty and homelessness were visible reminders of the downsides of the capitalist system. Effective Soviet and American propaganda did not require its propagators to invent facts, merely to highlight the convenient ones.
Of course, this simple binary framework did not apply neatly to all parts of the globe. Even in Europe, where the East-West division most obviously reflected Washington and Moscow’s propaganda, ideological absolutes were constantly . Across Western Europe, social democratic parties promoted a strong welfare state to address the economic inequalities caused by free-market capitalism, advocating a “middle” or “third way” between socialism and capitalism. Across the Soviet bloc – from Hungary to Czechoslovakia and Poland – the oppressive one-party control was constantly questioned by dissident movements that could only be contained, not crushed.
In the so-called Global South doubts about the legitimacy of the Cold War division became patently obvious in the context of decolonisation. The binary choice between capitalism and socialism made little sense in Africa, the Middle East or East. The main reason why the North and South Vietnamese, for example, accepted either Soviet or American military and economic support lay not in a desire to perfect an ideal society. Effective Soviet and American propaganda did not require its propagators to invent facts, merely to highlight the convenient ones The reasons were often far more basic: the need to survive, win and hold on to power. Making soothing noises about the virtues of socialism or capitalism was a small price to be paid for winning a civil war. Ultimately it mattered relatively little to the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola that their external support came from Cuba and the Soviet Union. That they managed to defeat their competition and gain control of the newly independent state was the real point.
The superpowers also adapted by toning down their own rhetoric. In the 1970s, the relaxation of East-West tensions, or détente, implied that the binary framework was no absolute; by the 1980s, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the likes of Ronald Reagan, the legitimacy of Cold War bipolarity as the foundation of the international system evaporated. Winning over hearts and minds became increasingly difficult.
The end of the Cold War destroyed what was left of the ideological East-West binary. But rather than reflecting an end of history and the dawn of a liberal consensus, the last three decades have seen an increasing number of new divisions that are not connected to a dominant ideology or grand narrative. Terms like “the free world” (or pretensions to its leadership) have lost their resonance.
When combined with the rapid development of easily available digital resources and social media, the end of an ideological binary has created a world in which recognisable soundbites are all that counts. As attention spans have diminished, complexity has disappeared.The end of an ideological binary has created a world in which recognisable soundbites are all that counts. As attention spans have diminished, complexity has disappeared. More actors, more outlets, and more freedom of expression translate into a situation where taking control of as much of the public space as possible is the only thing that matters. Donald Trump’s success in American politics was, after all, largely based upon his ability to occupy the centre of every conversation. But aside from banal slogans, a dominant personality and hurtful nicknames for his opponents, did Trump have a core message? Doubtful. If anything, his strategy relied on obscuring facts by promoting misinformation and spreading conspiracy theories.
But what is really new here?
NATO and Ukraine: a case study
The difference is not that binaries as such are gone. There is a natural tendency among people towards division on almost any issue. Take NATO, one of the enduring institutional bedrocks of both the Cold War and post–Cold War international system. NATO has been riven with internal tensions and disagreement throughout its long history. The alliance was declared obsolete many times before Donald Trump used it as an example of how European “free riders” had benefited from America’s benevolence. But NATO survived Trump’s rhetoric, gained an extra member state (North Macedonia) and is considered, today, as indispensable as ever.
The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (that very “special military operation”) on NATO is obvious. But the invasion has also highlighted the disturbing realities of the post-truth era we live in. All kinds of narratives have emerged or been floated to justify or complicate the simple fact that one country invaded another. None has been more popular and influential than justifying Russian invasion with NATO enlargement: Russia simply acted in pre-emptive fashion to prevent NATO countries from their aggressive enlargement.
All kinds of narratives have emerged or been floated to justify or complicate the simple fact that one country invaded another. Such a narrative represents an example of the post–Cold War media strategy by a state actor (Russia) that is simultaneously traditional and novel. It effectively resuscitates a Cold War mindset by elevating Russia – much like the Soviet Union – into a position of counterweight to “the West”. Its success, however, relies not on pointing out social inequities as was the case of Soviet propaganda but on the hypothetical and conspiratorial notion that the United States is out to conquer and dominate. In our post-truth era there is no need to provide facts. The accusation itself, constantly repeated, will suffice. It will certainly divert attention away from what may, for Russia, be uncomfortable facts.
Relative Facts and Absolute Beliefs
It seems that the simple act of questioning and disagreeing has become the modus operandi in the age of social media and the internet. It is difficult to imagine that there are any facts that will remain uncontested, or any beliefs that can be contested without repercussions. Facts have become relative and beliefs have become absolute. Which raises the stakes for anyone who still suspects that the world may not, after all, be flat. Happily, they remain the majority.
DEFINITIONS | Some terms in the world of disinformation
An unfair practice of propaganda and manipulation used in the media and particularly on the internet, consisting of giving the impression of a mass phenomenon that emerges spontaneously when in reality it has been created from scratch to influence public opinion. (Source: Wiktionnaire, s.v. “astroturfing”.)
Computational propaganda involves the “use of algorithms, automation, and human curation to purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks” (Woolley & Howard 2018). While propaganda has existed throughout human history, the rise of digital technologies and social media platforms have brought new dimensions to this practice (Source: Programme on Democracy & Technology of the Oxford Internet Institute, “What Is Computational Propaganda?”.)
A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that asserts the existence of a conspiracy by powerful and sinister groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable. The term generally has a negative connotation, implying that the appeal of a conspiracy theory is based in prejudice, emotional conviction, or insufficient evidence. A conspiracy theory is distinct from a conspiracy; it refers to a hypothesised conspiracy with specific characteristics, including, but not limited to, opposition to the mainstream consensus among those who are qualified to evaluate its accuracy, such as scientists or historians. (Source: Wikipedia, “Conspiracy Theory”.)
Black propaganda is intended to create the impression that it comes from those it is supposed to discredit. Black propaganda contrasts with grey propaganda, which does not identify its source, as well as white propaganda, which does not disguise its origins at all. It is typically used to vilify or embarrass the enemy through misrepresentation. The major characteristic of black propaganda is that the audience are not aware that someone is influencing them, and do not feel that they are being pushed in a certain direction. This type of propaganda is associated with covert psychological operations. Black propaganda is the “big lie”, including all types of creative deceit. Black propaganda relies on the willingness of the receiver to accept the credibility of the source. (Wikipedia, “Black Propaganda”.)
Disinformation is false information deliberately spread to deceive people. It is sometimes confused with misinformation, which is false information but not deliberately so. Disinformation is presented in the form of fake news. Disinformation comes from the application of the Latin prefix dis- to information, to create the meaning “reversal or removal of information”. Disinformation attacks involve the intentional dissemination of false information, with an end goal of misleading, confusing, or manipulating an audience. They may be executed by political, economic or individual actors to influence state or non-state entities and domestic or foreign populations. These attacks are commonly employed to reshape attitudes and beliefs, drive a particular agenda, or elicit certain actions from a target audience. Tactics include the presentation of incorrect or misleading information, the creation of uncertainty, and the undermining of both correct information and the credibility of information sources. (Sources: Wikipedia, “Disinformation” and “Disinformation Attack”.)
Fake news is false or misleading information presented as news. Fake news often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity, or making money through advertising revenue. Although false news has always been spread throughout history, the term fake news was first used in the 1890s when sensational reports in newspapers were common. Nevertheless, the term does not have a fixed definition and has been applied broadly to any type of false information. It has is also been used by high-profile people to apply to any news unfavourable to them. In some definitions, fake news includes satirical articles misinterpreted as genuine, and articles that employ sensationalist or clickbait headlines that are not supported in the text. Because of this diversity of types of false news, researchers are beginning to favour information disorder as a more neutral and informative term. (Source: Wikipedia, “Fake News”.)
IMT is a theory of deceptive discourse production, arguing that, rather than communicators producing “truths” and “lies”, the vast majority of everyday deceptive discourse involves complicated combinations of elements that fall somewhere in between these polar opposites; with the most common form of deception being the editing-out of contextually problematic information (i.e., messages commonly known as “white lies”). More specifically, individuals have available to them four different ways of misleading others: playing with the amount of relevant information that is shared, including false information, presenting irrelevant information, and/or presenting information in an overly vague fashion. (Source: Wikipedia, “Information Manipulation Theory”.)
Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information. It differs from disinformation, which is deliberately deceptive. Misinformation comes from the application of the Latin prefix mis- to information, to create the meaning “wrong of false information”. Rumours, by contrast, are information not attributed to any particular source, and so are unreliable and often unverified, but can turn out to be either true or false. Even if later retracted, misinformation can continue to influence actions and memory. People may be more prone to believe misinformation if they are emotionally connected to what they are listening to or are reading (Source: Wikipedia, “Misinformation”.)
Mute news is a pernicious form of information in which a key issue that often underlies the concerns of the public and the body politic is obscured from media attention. (Source: Lê Nguyên Hoang and Sacha Altay, “Disinformation: Emergency or False Problem?”, Polytechnique Insights, 6 September 2022.)
Propaganda is communication that is primarily used to influence or persuade an audience to further an agenda, which may not be objective and may be selectively presenting facts to encourage a particular synthesis or perception, or using loaded language to produce an emotional rather than a rational response to the information that is being presented. In the 20th century, propaganda was often associated with a manipulative approach, but historically, propaganda has been a neutral descriptive term of any material that promotes certain opinions or ideologies. (Source: Wikipedia, “Propaganda”.)
Typosquatting, also called URL hijacking, a sting site or a fake URL, is a form of cybersquatting, and possibly brandjacking, which relies on mistakes such as typos made by Internet users when inputting a website address into a web browser. Should a user accidentally enter an incorrect website address, they may be led to any URL (including an alternative website owned by a cybersquatter). (Source: Wikipedia, “Typosquatting”.)