Propaganda is as old as human society. However, it developed considerably during the age of mass society, and now follows strict rules. Thierry Meyssan looks at the history and the principles of the science of lying.
- The word «propaganda» refers to the Roman organisation whose job was to propagate Catholicism over Protestantism, the «Congregatio de Propaganda Fide».
Propaganda is a military technique which should be distinguished from strategic subterfuge. The former seeks to trick one’s own side, generally in order to garner support. The latter, whose antique archetype is the Trojan horse, aims to damage the adversary. As is often the case, this military technique has known many civil applications, in the commercial as well as the political sector.
While at first, the monarchic and oligarchic régimes were satisfied with making a display of their power, particularly through ceremonials and public architecture, the democratic régimes, as soon as they appeared, incited propaganda. Thus, the Athenian democracy favoured Sophism, in other words, a school of thought which attempted to present any presupposition as logical.
In the 16th century, a commercial family, the Medicis, imagined a way of re-writing its history and inventing a patrician origin for itself. To do so, it used «artistic patronage», soliciting the greatest artists of their country to materialise these lies through their works.
Later on, while religious wars were becoming generalised in Europe, Pope Gregory XV, facing the breakthrough of Protestantism, created a Ministry («dicastery») to defend and extend the Catholic faith. This was the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith («Congregatio de Propaganda Fide»), which is the origin of the word « propaganda ».
- In January 2015, following the assassination of the cartoonists from Charlie-Hebdo, an administrator of Reporters Sans Frontières, Joachim Roncin, launched the slogan «Je suis Charlie». It was immediately adopted as a means for the individual to melt into the crowd, and then used at the occasion of every terrorist attack (for example, «Je suis Bruxelles» after the attacks of March 2016). Individuals who refused to adopt the slogan were accused of deviance and «conspiracism».
Propaganda in the industrial era
The industrial era provoked a massive rural exodus, the creation of vast urban groupings and the pooling of the working class. While the «masses» entered politics, the French sociologist Gustave Le Bon studied the psychology of «crowds», in other words, the infantilisation of the individual as part of a large group. By doing so, he identified the basic principle of modern propaganda – in order to be manipulable, the individual must first be submerged in the crowd.
At the beginning of the First World War, in September 1914, the British secretly created the Bureau of War Propaganda («Wellington House») as a branch of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Re-adopting the model of the Medicis, they recruited the great writers of the time – such as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells or Rudyard Kipling – to publish texts attributing imaginary crimes to the German enemy, and also painters,who would render them in the form of images. They then also recruited the heads of the main daily newspapers - The Times, Daily Mail, Daily Express, Daily Chronicle – to ensure that these dailies would publicise their falsifications.
This model was then used by President Woodrow Wilson, who created, in April 1917, the Committee on Public Information. This organisation is famous for having employed thousands of local leaders to spread the government gospel (the «Four Minute Men»). It developed visual propaganda by forming a departement dedicated to the creation of posters, which produced in particular the famous «I want you !» image. Another group also attempted to produce films. Above all, instead of recruiting famous writers, it gathered a group of psychologists and journalists around Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) and Walter Lippmann – the group was charged with inventing extraordinary, terrible and edifying stories on a daily basis, which they would then publish with the collaboration of the Press moguls. In this way, the orientation given by Power to artists was replaced by «storytelling», fabricated systematically according to scientific rules.
- Having directed US propaganda during the First World War, Walter Lippmann had convinced himself that people are largely manipulable. For him, democracy was thus impossible unless it was considered to be a deception aimed at fabricating public consent.
While the Anglo-Saxons aimed only at striking the imagination and making adhesion to the war a popular trend, the Germans were experimenting with the means of forcing people to participate in the imaginary stories they were being told. They made a wide-spread use of uniforms, which enabled the individual to play a role, and organised grandiose spectacles - political and sporting events – which presented the opinion of the majority. This was without doubt the moment when «modern propaganda» was invented - in other words, the dissemination of beliefs which could not be criticised, and which could not be doubted. The individual who had participated in a black uniform marching in torch-light parades could no longer question his Nazi beliefs without questioning himself and having to rethink his past and his vision of the future. Joseph Goebbels instituted a daily briefing at the Ministry of Information during which he defined the «elements of language» that the journalists were ordered to use. It was not simply a question of convincing people, but modifying the crowds’ references. In addition, the Germans were the first to master the new means of communication, radio and the cinema. Thus they invited themselves into peoples’ homes by installing television.
Goebbels considered the art of propaganda as a combat against individuality. He underlined the importance of repetition and «brainwashing» to overcome intellectual resistance. This was even more important in that the use of television brought the crowd to the individual.
At the end of the Second World War, the UN General Assembly, under the insistence of the USSR and France, adopted a series of resolutions (n° 110 , 381  and 819 ) which forbade propaganda, and guaranteed the access to contradictory information. Each member state wrote these principles into their own national law. But in general, legal proceedings against propaganda can only be initiated by the public Ministry, in other words, the state, while propaganda is first of all practiced by the state. So nothing changed.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviets were rivals in matters of propaganda. Contrary to a widely-accepted idea, the USSR made few innovations, except in matters of the re-writing of History. By retouching official photographs, they wiped out one current of thought or another and «disappeared» the leaders who represented them. As for the United States, they developed radio broadcasts aimed at the Soviets (Radio Free Europe), and others aimed at the Allies (Hollywood). At the same time, they innovated by creating pemanent organisations and «think-tanks» – allegedly private and scientific - charged with the a posteriori justification of public policy. As their name indicates, the purpose of these groups is not to study and offer propositions, as university teachers do, but to test the arguments in the Sophist sense of the term.
More interestingly, when faced with nationalist insurrections in the Third World, the US Army employed propaganda techniques to intimidate the Communist rebels and maintain the neo-colonial régimes. Until then, psychological warfare had worked to make the enemy believe that they could not trust their leaders, and should accept defeat as inevitable. For example, in the Philippines, General Edward Lansdale invented and staged a mythological monster which haunted the forest and devoured human beings. In this way, he discouraged the population from going to the help of resistants who were hiding in the forest.
Propaganda in the satellite and digital age
Three phenomena have been combined over the last twenty-five years - the entertainment industry, satellites, and the arrival of digital technology.
1- The entertainment industry
Since television is a spectacle, propaganda first of all supposes the organisation of spectacular events.
For example, in order to present the reunification of Kuwait and Iraq as a war of aggression (1990), the US Department of Defense employed a public-relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who produced the interview of an alleged nurse. She claimed that she had seen Iraqi soldiers steal the incubators from a Kuwaiti maternity hospital, leaving 312 babies to die.
In 1999, propaganda was pushed even further - NATO organised a gigantic event for the Press agencies to film and immediately impose their scripted interpretation. In three days, 290,000 Albanophones migrated to Macedonia. The resulting images made it possible to present the repression of UÇK terrorism as a plan for the extermination of Muslims («Operation Horshoe»), an invention by the German Minister for Defence, Rudolf Scharping, and thus to justify the war in Kosovo.
Even bigger - in 2001, two planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, which then collapsed. Other inexplicable events surround these events – a fire ravaged the offices of the Vice-President, two explosions occurred at the Pentagon, and a third building collapsed in New York. The incoherencies in the narration of these events was used to disarm all questioning, while the authorities hid behind the contradictions, which were attributable to live coverage. For several days, television channels broadcast over and over again the images of two planes hitting the two towers, and nothing else, until the critical capacities of their audience were exhausted. In shock, Congress voted the permanent state of emergency (Patriot Act) and a series of wars was then launched.
Manipulation achieves perfection when it hammers home its message, invites spectators to accept it, then reveals that they are being tricked and forces them to follow what they now know to be a lie.
So, in 2003, the world watched Iraqis destroy a statue of Saddam Hussein. President George W. Bush commented live that the sight of a demonstrator hitting the feet of the statue with a sledge-hammer reminded him of similar images during the fall of the Berlin Wall. The message was that the fall of President Saddam Hussein was a liberation. We then discovered a wider shot of the square, which was barricaded by the US Army, and saw that the demonstrators were in reality just a small group of actors. Then the commentators continued as if nothing had changed .
In 1989, using new communication satellites, the US Army transformed a local TV channel in Atlanta into the first international «24-hour news network». The point was to use live coverage to guarantee the veracity of the images, since there there was no time to fake them. In reality, live coverage does not allow such images to be studied or checked .
CNN passed off the attempted coup d’état by ex-Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang in China as a popular revolt which was murderously repressed on Tienanmen Square . It glorified the «Velvet Revolution» in the Czech Republic by pretending that the police had killed a demonstrator. It validated the discovery of the mass grave at Timisoara, in reality corpses which had been taken from a mortuary and presented as having been killed by the police during demonstrations, or else as victims of torture, in order to justify the coup d’état by Ion Iliescu against the Caucescus. Etc.
On the same principle, in 2005, the Emirate of Qatar took over the Arabo-Israeli dialogue channel Al-Jazeera and transformed it into a loud-speaker for the Muslim Brotherhood . In 2011, it played a central rôle in the «Arab Spring» operations. But its audience followed the same curve as the audience of CNN – after having enjoyed a resounding success with its imaginary scoops, it lost most of its audience when its lies were discovered.
The principle of radios destined for foreign parts was improved by Radio Marti, which the CIA broadcast from airborne AWACS off the coast of Cuba. In 2012, a vast project was organised to disconnect Syrian TV channels from their satellite and replace them with fake programmes which were to announce the fall of the régime and the flight of its leaders. This was prepared by the use of synthetic images showing the flight of President Bachar el-Assad . But seeing the reactions of Syria and Russia, the operation was cancelled, although a signal from an NSA base in Australia had already replaced that of Syrian TV on ArabSat.
During the same period, the progress of digital techniques, in particular the wide-spread use of computers and the Internet, caused a resurgence of the role of individuals, but without dispersing the crowd phenomenon.
In 2007, the CIA sent anonymous SMS messages to the areas inhabited by the Luos in Kenya, accusing the Kikuyus of having falsified the Presidential election. The Luos widely distributed the messages, and this led to riots. More than a thousand people were killed, and 300,000 displaced. Finally, the «ONG’s» offered to mediate, and then imposed Raila Odinga in power .
The same year, the CIA tested the credibility of anonymous videos filmed by portable telephones. These narrow angle sequences do not permit the visualisation of their context, and their uncertain origin makes it imossible to know where they were filmed. And yet the videos showing monks setting themselves on fire, or scenes of military repression during the «Saffron Revolution» in Myanmar were held to be authentic. They were broadcast by television channels and were seen around the world.
The coalition of lies
Propaganda techniques have not evolved over the last few years. But they have been reinforced by the creation of a coalition of lies. Until now, each state managed its own campaign, but during the war against Iraq, in 2002, coordination was set up between the Ministries for Defense of the United States, the United Kingdom and Israël, then extended to Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This coalition tried first of all to manipulate the UN inspectors in Iraq into believing in the existence of weapons of mass destruction. Then, since it failed, it set about intoxicating the international media .
In 2011, it was this coalition which filmed, in an open-air studio in Qatar, the images of the arrival of the rebels on Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli. Broadcast at first by the British channel Sky News, they were sufficient to make the Libyans believe that the battle was over, when in fact it was just beginning. As a result, NATO was able to take the city without notable losses (but 40,000 dead Libyans). Saïf al-Islam Kadhafi was obliged to go down to the Square and allow himself to be applauded by his followers in order to contradict the images which had been falsely filmed there the night before by Sky.
This coalition of lies got started during the war against Syria, which was started with the participation of 120 states and 16 international organisations – the greatest coalition in History.
In October 2011, NATO set up a show village, Jabal al-Zouia, in the North of the country. One after another, Western journalists were taken there by the public relations service of the Turkish Prime Minister. There they apparently witnessed the Free Syrian Army supported by the population. However, the operation ended when a Spanish journalist recognised the heads of this Free «Syrian» Army – the leaders of al-Qaïda in Libya, Abdelhakim Belhaj and Mahdi al-Harati . But no matter, the image told the story that there really existed a vast army composed of defectors, ex-soldiers of the Syrian Arab Republic.
In 2012, for the space of a month, the world was shown Baba Amr’s revolutionaries, beseiged and bombarded by the army of the régime . In reality, although the area was indeed beseiged, it had not been bombarded, because 72 Syrian soldiers were themselves surrounded in a supermarket. The jihadists blew up the houses of Christians in order to cause damage that they would blame on the Syrian Arab Republic. Tyres were burned on the rooftops so that witnesse would see the plumes of thick black smoke. France24 and Al-Jazeera paid «citizen journalists», as on-site correspondants, who witnessed a Revolutionary Tribunal. The bodies of 150 martyrs, whom the Tribunal had condemned to have their throats cut in public, were displayed on-screen as the victims of the alleged bombing . On site, a celebrated Franco-Israeli-US writer, Jonathan Littell, declared that the «revolution» was a beautiful thing. At last there were images and a witness testimonial to the «cruelty of the régime».
In 2013, the United Kingdom created InCoStrat, a communications company in the service of the jihadist groups. It designed logos, made video clips by portable telephone, and printed brochures for a hundred of these groups, thus giving the impression of a popular uprising against the Republic. For example, together with the SAS, it made a spectacle of the most important group, Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam). Saudi Arabia supplied the tanks which were delivered from Jordan. Uniforms were made in Spain and distributed to the jihadists for an officer promotion ceremony. All this was choerographed and filmed by professionals in order to give the impression that the army was organised like regular forces and was capable of rivaling with the Syrian Arab Army . The idea was planted that this really was a civil war, and yet the images only showed a few hundred extras, most of whom were foreigners.