The Scope of Propaganda

Note: This discussion was originally developed as an essay, where the scope of propaganda was intended to broadly cover the historic development of propaganda and its current role in the modern world. However, in starting to consider the use of propaganda by modern-day governments, e.g. China, the discussion got subsumed into some of the wider issues surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic, which was eventually formatted into a new section called ‘Topics of Interest’. In this context, this discussion included a subsection called Propaganda and the Covid-19 Pandemic, which extended the discussion into issues specific to the pandemic, such that the original discussions was removed from the essay section. Therefore, this discussion simply restores the original propaganda discussion to the essay section.

This discussion wants to consider the scope of propaganda, both in terms of its nature and use to influence what people may come to believe about ‘their world’. The phrase ‘their world’ is used to highlight that propaganda has often been used to  fundamentally change how many people come to view the world, i.e. it can propagate a new worldview. While there may be some semantic similarities in the words ‘propaganda’ and ‘propagate’, the etymological history of the word ‘propaganda’ is often linked to a Latin phrase ‘Congregātiō dē Propagandā Fide’, which makes reference to a committee of Roman Catholic cardinals, established in 1622, by Pope Gregory XV to promote the spread of Catholicism to non-Catholic countries.

Note: We might put the reason behind the formation of this committee into some further historic context by highlighting that an expanding worldview, beyond the control of a Catholic Pope, was increasingly being influenced by the Dutch and English. However, these were Protestant nations, such that there was a recognition of the threat of Protestantism being spread through the growth of commercial trade, which the Catholic Church wanted to counter.

Today, the word ‘propaganda’ might generally be interpreted as propagating information, which may be partially based on facts and arguments, but can also include rumours, half-truths and lies with the intent to both influence and deceive public opinion. However, this description does not really provide any indication of its effectiveness to change society, which may depend on the acceptance or rejection of the ‘information’ being propagated. In this context, acceptance might be seen as education, while rejection will be interpreted as indoctrination.

So, what is the scope of propaganda?

In practice, the use of propaganda in a more mundane sense does not have to involve some grand Machiavellian plot to control the world, as we might perceive its used in everyday commercial advertising, public relations, political campaigns, diplomatic negotiations, legal arguments and collective bargaining – see Prevention versus Cure for wider examples. For the scope of these examples can also reflect the use of partial facts and arguments along with half-truths and lies to achieve a given objective, i.e. influencing people. However, it has to be recognised that depending on your current worldview, any other alternative view might appear to fit the definition of propaganda being the deliberate propagation of misinformation or falsehood.

How might we make judgement in such cases?

Two suggestions might be made at this point based on the criteria of consensus and freedom of speech. For it will be argued that propaganda first seeks to create a growing consensus that supports its position, while also attempting to suppress any questioning of this consensus by limiting the freedom of speech. So, as outlined in the previous examples associated with the pharmaceutical and food industries, a consensus of opinion is created in support of its position, which is then protected by attempts to restrict any publications that might contradict this consensus. Based on these criteria, many aspects of the climate change debate might be seen as the propaganda of misinformation, where a 97% consensus was claimed, but not proved, and publication of alternative causal models suppressed – see Consensus and Climate Change for more details.

Note: In many instances, powerful interests can simply create a consensus by directly employing people. In such cases, people come to have financial dependence, and therefore incentive, to support the consensus that pays them or, at least, voice no public opposition. Likewise, as a consensus grows, opposition can be increasingly side-lined by weight of numbers and the inability to get its perspective aired on mainstream media.

While the previous form of propaganda of misinformation can be detrimental to any society, the scope of propaganda of more interest to this discussion will be focused on the systemic efforts to manipulate beliefs, attitudes or actions of an entire population into accepting the ideology being propagated by some smaller minority. In this context, the means of propaganda not only includes words, but also symbolism, such as banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia and even stamps, which can manufacture an expanding consensus that may eventually form a new collective identity.

Note: It is recognised that aspects of the description above might be apply to the worldview associated with any national identity and therefore convey a similar negative connotation. While this inference is not the direct intention, as nationalism is not in itself a bad thing, it is probably true that most, if not all, national identities can be traced back along a historic path of half-truths and lies, which were propagated in support of some earlier group, which sought to control both the ‘hearts and minds’ of an emerging national identity.

Clearly, as described, propaganda usually spreads with some set of goals in mind, especially if supported by powerful institutions. Historically these institutions were often associated with religions and monarchies, although today it might be recognised as a preferred ‘weapon of control’ used by corporations and governments. Of course, we might recognise that most governments, both democratic and authoritarian, often need to persuade its population to accept unpopular policies for the ‘good of all’, although the last premise might be questioned if freedom of speech is not allowed. For once propaganda is scaled to this level, governments may seek to control all other major institutions of a nation-state, such that the ability to question propaganda can be lost, or at least suppressed, and education is replaced by indoctrination. Therefore, it is important to recognise the loss of the ‘freedom of speech’ as one of the first casualties of a repressive government. It might also be recognised that if the narrative of propaganda goes effectively unchallenged, those who are born into this indoctrinated worldview may only perceive the need to defend it at all costs, especially if this cost is primarily borne by others.

How might we judge systemic propaganda?

 Before addressing this question, there can clearly be an issue of bias in the process by which a narrative is labelled as propaganda. Equally, we have to recognise that various degrees of propaganda exist on all levels of most modern societies, such that it is simply seen as a legitimate ‘tool of persuasion’ . However, we need to question ‘persuasion’ when based on falsehood as we might readily perceive the dangers if our governments and institutions come to depend on propaganda and falsehood to simply maintain their authority over us. Again, in answer to the question above, it is argued that we might judge systemic propaganda, when restrictions are put on the freedom of speech, such that people are not allowed to be critical of the narrative being propagated – see Degrees of Freedom for wider discussion. While this basic yardstick may not be fool-proof, it is not an unreasonable assumption by which to initially judge when propaganda and indoctrination is starting to replace public debate and education.

What might history tell us about propaganda?

Clearly in terms of any conflict, we might understand that both sides might resort to spreading mis-information and falsehood in the form of propaganda to undermine the ‘other side’. This conflict might be most obvious in a time of war, but clearly exists in almost any form of conflict, e.g. religious and political ideologies, but also corporations in terms of their advertising campaigns.

Note: If propaganda is defined by the spread of information based not only on facts, but also half-truths and falsehood, not only to influence, but deceive, then historically most religions might be charged with using propaganda. In this historical context, we might understand how the freedom of speech was restricted, especially if branded as blasphemy or heresy punishable by death.

However, as indicated, political ideology has also long used propaganda as a means to spread its ideas, while also suppressing the freedom of speech to question its narrative. For example, propaganda in the Lenin and Stalin era of the Soviet Union started to propagate a Marxist ideology in order to create a consensus in support of communism as a political system. Based on Marxism, all religions and the institutions of its churches were considered as ‘organs of bourgeois reaction’ used for ‘the exploitation and the stupefaction of the working class’. However, in the Stalin era, this ideology expanded political control to encompass all other aspects of society. By way of just one example, Stalin’s ideology would eventually come to corrupt the development of science in the form of Lysenkoism.

Note: The effects of Lysenkoism is but one example of the disastrous intrusion of politics and ideology into science. Beyond a rejection of empirical evidence in genetics, it led to successive crop failure and famine along with repression and persecution of over 3000 scientists who dared oppose Lysenko's pseudoscientific doctrines, which lasted until the death of Stalin in 1953.

However, in the context of 20th century history, special mention has to be made of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in Nazi Germany as an extreme example of where unchecked propaganda can lead, especially when used to indoctrinate younger generations.

Note: This ministry was setup in 1933 after Adolf Hitler came to power and started to propagate his idea of national socialism, more commonly known as Nazism. This ministry was headed by Joseph Goebbels with the role of centralising Nazi control of all aspects of German cultural and intellectual life. However, a wider goal of this propaganda was to propagate the idea that the Nazi Party represented the consensus of the entire population. In this respect, censorship in the form of suppression of the freedom to speech was essential to retaining political control.

So, as outlined, history appears to support the suggestion that when propaganda is scaled to encompass the institutions of a nation-state, it invariably seeks to suppress the freedom of speech in order that its narrative cannot be questioned or contradicted. If so, we need to understand that unchecked propaganda is both powerful and dangerous, such that it should be seen as a warning to the future from the past. However, whether this warning is being heeded might now be questioned at every level of present-day society ranging across social media, business and politics.

How might the use of propaganda be developed in the modern world?

As described, propaganda is the propagation of information, which is manipulated to both influence and deceive public opinion, such that a consensus is created for whatever reason, e.g. social, economic or political. It is then followed by an argument that this consensus has to be protected and maintained by restricting the freedom of others to question the narrative being propagated. However, today, technology is already providing the ability of both governments and corporations to utilise far more sophisticated and subliminal means to propagate misinformation than was ever envisaged by Stalin or Hitler.

Note: This discussion can only briefly outline the scope of some of the developments, which allow information, both true and false, to be propagated and manipulated over the Internet using a myriad of applications. This technology now allows data to be collected on an entire population, then aggregated and sorted by behavioural analysis to identify both groups and individuals. While many developments were initially for commercial use, e.g. advertising, many have the potential for other usages of interests to governments. For example, the development of search engines initially used to support commercial advertising can also be used to rank, order and suppress information. Increasingly advance AI machine learning algorithms are being used to send specific information to certain demographic groups in order to develop a consensus of some description. Integrating all these developments within the framework of social media applications has now allowed the proliferation of ‘fake news’ that can now manipulate text, images and video.

As outline, technology now has the ability to both manufacture and propagate misinformation, e.g. fake news, on a scale that was unimaginable even 20 years ago - see Information Control for wider discussion of how governments are using and developing this technology. While China is only one of many governments around the world that might argue it is only seeking to ‘maintain’ political, economic and social control for the benefit of its population, it would appear that its centralisation of all political power within a one-party state has allowed it to pursue many of these developments with minimal discussion within its population.

Note: In the case of China, political authority exists in the form of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China that comprises of about 200 full members, who are elected every five years or so by the National Congress of the Communist Party of China. However, the executive power of these structures appears to be held by the Politburo Standing Committee that only has 7 members, where Xi Jinping is not only the General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, but also President of the People's Republic of China. In 2018, the Chinese legislature unanimously re-appointed Xi Jinping as president with no limit on the number of terms he can serve. In essence, the lives of 1.4 billion Chinese appear to be under the control of just one-man without any time limit.

Of course, any argument concerning the freedom of speech in an open-society must allow for any counter-argument to be made and therefore reference will be made to a 2013 TED talk by Eric Li, who is both a Chinese venture capitalist and social scientist. However, while this talk might initially be considered in the limited context of the pros and cons of a centralised political system, we who still retain a freedom of speech might also question the authority of the Chinese Communist Party to ‘speak for the people’ as well as its track record as a government for ‘the people, by the people’.

Note: It is estimated that less than 6% of China‘s 1.4 billion people are members of China’s Communist Party, yet it has almost total authoritarian control over almost every aspect of life in China. The effects of this authoritarian control might be considered in terms of its various human rights abuses, the scope of which covers both its legal system and civil liberties, inclusive of the freedom of speech, the media, religious beliefs and political choice. There are also issues associated with its one-child policy, the execution and torture of dissents and ethnic minorities plus wholesale surveillance of its people in terms of the development of its social credit system.

While the extent of Eric Li’s connections to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are not known, it might not be unreasonable to assume that he is only allowed to speak on behalf of China, if he supports the CCP narrative. However, we might use the following quote by Eric Li to possibly highlight both the irony of him using the freedom of speech outside China to refute its use inside China as well as the use of Nazism as a negative example associated with the freedom of speech. 

One fallacy in the modern Western political ideology is the so-called freedom of speech. It makes a presumption that speech, unlike acts, is harmless and therefore can and must be allowed absolute freedom, the freedom for everyone to say what they want. But, of course, nothing can be further from the truth grounded in thousands of years of human experience. Speech is act; and speech has been harmful to human society since time immemorial. In the West, one does not need to go further than 1933 to find an example of the power of speech by just one man, due to the unique circumstances of that particular time and place, causing death and destruction to millions. The prevailing cultural conditions are unique to different societies at different times. It is up to that society to determine the boundaries of speech and alter them as conditions change. Germany, for instance, due to its unique recent history, seems to believe the publication of Mein Kampf must not be allowed. Contemporary China is experiencing social transformations of which the speed and scale are unprecedented in human history. Under such conditions the fragility of social stability can be easily disrupted by amplified speech. A responsible person, one would think, would consider the consequences of advocating everyone being free to say whatever he wants. An intelligent observer of human society and student of history ought to be more thoughtful than simply asking, why is that a problem?

Whether you consider this as an adequate argument for suppressing the freedom of speech to 1.4 billion people may be a personal and therefore subjective judgement. However, it is highlighted that the rise of Nazism in 1933 was a consequence of the suppression of free speech to both question and reject its ideology. Therefore, the subsequent banning of Mein Kampf is possibly understandable, not only in the context of history, but by the fact that this book incited hatred. In this respect, the ‘absolute’ freedom of speech has always been subject to caveats related to hate-speech or what might otherwise be considered to be ‘offensive’ speech. Of course, in a free-society, people may still argue against any bans in any specific case and question any organisation that appears to assume itself to be the sole authority allowed to determine what is acceptable. Obviously, in the case of China, the sole authority of what is acceptable is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which does not ask or allow its own people to publicly express their opinion, especially if it might challenge or undermine the authority of the CCP itself.

But why focus on China, if the use of propaganda is so widespread?

Basically, because Eric Li has forwarded two rational arguments that need to be discussed. First, that the meritocracy of the Chinese central system is superior to that in any democracy and, second, this system needs to suppress the freedom of speech. While it has to be acknowledged that Xi Jinping, and others in the central committee, rose to their positions of authority by a track record of proven ability, the idea that a similar form of meritocracy does not exist in democratic systems appears naïve. For while certain presidential positions do not necessarily have to have any track-record of leadership in terms of political governance, this type of executive is invariably surrounded by people with proven ability at all other levels of governments, i.e. executive, legislative and judicial.

Note: As outlined, this issue is not about the need for a system of meritocracy, but whether this system requires authoritarian central governance. However, in isolation, this issue does not preclude any form of governance, if it is competent and we might also assume that most successful governments need to demonstrate competency in order to maintain their ‘grip on power’. However, we might still question the nature of a meritocracy, where the president can remain in power for life or, at least, any undefined number of consecutive terms.

 We now turn to Eric Li’s argument for suppressing the freedom of speech on the ground that ‘words are not harmless’. Again, there is a truth in this position, which Western societies have long acknowledged in the saying that ‘words are mightier than the sword’. However, again, we have to consider whether the suppression of ‘words’ might be more dangerous to society than the words themselves, if history has repeatedly shown us that the loss of such a freedom allows a government to hide not only ‘inconvenient truths’ but outright lies. Therefore, this discussion will continue to support the basic argument for a freedom of speech, but subject to the understanding that it is not abusive or censored by a single political authority for its own advantage.

But are these issues also ignoring the direction of technology developments?

Today, there appears to be mounting evidence that the Chinese government, like others, is prepared to use propaganda in a way that might be described as information warfare. However, before pursuing this issue, we possibly need some understanding of Chinese history of imperial dynasties, where political power was traditionally centralised and autocratic, which only came to an end in 1912. However, the earlier years of the 20th century were also not kind to China and its people in terms of a period often referred to as the Century of Humiliation. This period, between 1839 and 1949, saw China unfairly subjugated by a series of Western powers, as well as Russia and Japan, which only ended in 1949, when Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China.

Note: While this discussion cannot consider the long and complex history of China in any detail, it might be stated that Mao believed in a form of Marxism, known as Maoism, which would come to determine the development of China in the 20th century. While this was a form of Marxism, it differs in that rural peasants were considered to be the catalyst of Mao’s revolution in China, not the industrial workers as in Marxist-Russia. Whether either of these population groups really signed up to the centralise communist rule might be question, at least, outside China.

So, for all the historic reasons outlined, China entered the 21st century with a one-party centralised political system, which has proved itself very capable of transforming China into one of the most powerful nation-states in the world. As Eric Li rightly highlights, progress within its system of political management was based on ability, i.e. it is a meritocracy, which most democracies may fail to match, especially in terms of its history of economic growth. However, what he fails to highlight is that the success of this system was also predicated on a possibly unparallel use of propaganda and the suppression of almost all human rights, not just the freedom of speech.

Note: So, while few can question the reality of some of this economic growth and its benefits to the Chinese people, many have questioned the methods by which China actually achieved this growth. However, it also needs to be highlighted that many Western economies saw the benefits of the financial gains that could be made by outsourcing manufacture to China. Of course, in retrospect, those that benefitted from this outsourcing were not the ones that lost their jobs and income. In 2020, there is now a potential downside to China’s economic growth fuelled by exports, which a global recession might disrupt, especially in terms of the political fallout in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Therefore, while Eric Li may have had just cause for his confidence in China’s future back in 2013, much is now changing in the world. For, today in 2020, all nation-states around the world are struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, which many are now blaming on China – see videos Source of the Coronavirus and Origin of the CCP virus for more details. Not unsurprisingly, China is mounting its own propaganda war on multiple fronts, which seeks to shift all blame away from China, especially the CCP government, not only for the virus outbreak, but in the nature of the coverup that allowed this virus to spread around the world, which has caused the death of 147,512 people, as of 17-Apr-2020 – see website for latest statistics.

Note: In truth, the scope of China’s use of propaganda is far too complex to be addressed within this overview discussion, although reference might be made to one example called the 50 Cent Army that might be illustrative of this scope. Taiwan has recently accused Chinese internet users of spreading fabricated expressions of remorse for Taiwan’s criticism of the World Health Organization handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is now being widely criticised for its handling of this pandemic with some alleging collusion to promote China’s propaganda concerning the source and spread of the virus.

While some may argue that China has escalated the use of propaganda to the level of information warfare, others will argue that China is simply using the ‘tools of persuasion’ to help protect and maintain its own political, economic and social stability, just like many other governments around the world. While each person must come to their own judgement on this issue, history suggests that excessive use and dependency on propaganda has never worked out well for anybody in the long term. Even so, the idea that the use of propaganda, in its many forms, will simply disappear is possibly overly naïve.

Note: An aspect of this discussion continues under the heading Propaganda and the Covid-19 Pandemic, which relates to the Covid-19 pandemic