The lost art of propaganda

By Thomas Colley
Soldier Silhouetted in Afghanistan
Much has been made of the recently revealed MOD report on how to ‘sell’ war to the British public.

Critics have lambasted the MOD for attempting to manipulate the public to support war, evoking memories of Iraq in 2003. Anger was particularly generated by the suggestion that the profile of repatriation ceremonies should be reduced in order to reduce the casualty aversion of the British public. Unfortunately, by focusing on this, the media have missed the point of an astute report on how Britain should conduct future wars. Nonetheless, the report’s release under the Freedom of Information Act reveals a number of insights on how British strategic communication could be improved, and the continuing importance of its bedfellow, propaganda.

Much has been made in the literature on political communication of the difference between propaganda and strategic communications. The definitions of these terms are as most experts admit almost identical, being based essentially on the variety of methods used to influence people to think and/or act in a desired way for political purposes. Yet many experts insist that they are distinctly different. Strategic communications is supposedly based on transparency, openness and truth, and is favoured model for political communication in the information age. Propaganda on the other hand is seen by many experts as nefarious, based on selectivity, manipulation and deceit, a relic of the time of Goebbels and inapt for the modern media environment. However, as the controversy surrounding the MOD report demonstrates, the principles of propaganda should not be forgotten.

Firstly, presenting to the public an article explaining how war is to be sold to them would make Goebbels turn in his grave. As any good propagandist or strategic communicator knows, as soon as a message is revealed as propagandistic, it will be immediately rejected. People tend not to welcome evidence that their thoughts and behaviour are being influenced by their political overseers. Strategic communicators may preach openness and transparency, but surely the information operations of the MOD would be better served by never letting such an article see the light of day? Either that or employ propaganda’s old ally, censorship, and remove content sure to provoke public outrage. This could have prevented a sensible report explaining how future war should be conducted being framed as a scandalous attempt to prevent the public from honouring their dead in order to maintain support for war.

Critics may argue that it is wrong on principle to advocate government secrecy, propaganda and censorship. Others may claim that since it is highly likely that information will be revealed in an age where it is so freely available, being ‘first with the truth’ is preferable to secrecy. However, the point is that if the government is to conduct a communication campaign, openly telling the public how you intend to influence or manipulate them is neither sensible nor strategic.

As it is, whilst the report is insightful regarding public antipathy towards war, the profile of repatriation ceremonies is a peripheral point at best.   Casualty aversion in liberal democratic states is not primarily determined by the sight of the dead. Liberal democracies have had no problem accepting mass casualties when the cause has been seen as sufficiently important, be it the defeat of fascism, communism or the explicit threat of terrorism. Casualty aversion originates before a conflict even begins, based on whether the reasons for military action are sufficiently strong. Minimising casualties during a conflict will sustain public opinion, but that is nothing new. By far the greatest problem the MOD faces is convincing people that military action is worthwhile in the first place.

The almost sole focus on reducing casualty aversion also represents incomplete analysis of the public reluctance to go to war. Mercenaries, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Special Forces are intelligent ways to depersonalise future warfare, reducing the body count and thereby mollifying public opinion. However, casualty aversion is not the sole source of public opposition to war. Having studied the online commentary on both the Libya intervention and the debates surrounding intervention in Syria, much of the British public’s concern is actually economic. In Libya, public opinion was more concerned that the government should solve the domestic economic crisis rather than expending funds on ‘yet another war’.

So where should Britain’s strategic communication go from here? As the MOD suggests, a ‘clear and constant information campaign’ is needed to persuade a cynical public to support future wars. The primary focus should be in constructing a convincing strategic narrative to explain why Britain’s forces should be employed, whether in Syria or wherever the next conflict will be. This strategic narrative should explain the political and economic reasons for intervention in ways that relate to the lives of the British public. However, the government needs to be prepared to adopt the principles of propaganda in order to preserve the efficacy of these operations. One thing is certain; telling people how you intend to sell war to them is not a good start.

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