Originally published as a chapter of “Conflict reporting in the smartphone era – from budget constraints to information warfare”.
Propaganda and how it is framed
When it comes to information warfare countries like the United States, China and Russia are world leaders. In 2008 the American government launched a three-year 300 Million US Dollars mass propaganda programme to produce undercover news stories, entertainment programmes and public service advertisements for Iraqi media in an effort to ‘engage and inspire’ the local population to support United States policy.
In the war of ideas, the United States has over the years deployed regiments of communications specialists and private public relations contractors to supports its objectives around the world. In Iraq, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the propaganda market to challenge groups like Al-Qaeda, whose own media operations include sophisticated web sites and professionally produced videos.
The US information campaign includes public service broadcasts and advertising that praises improvements in government services, supports the Iraqi military and encourages Iraqis to report criminal activity.
After the invasion of Iraq, American private communications companies produced video pieces and passed them off as Iraqi productions on local television. ‘They don’t know that the originator of the content is the United States government. If they did, they would never run anything’, one spokesman candidly told the Washington Post.8 ‘In the Middle East, they are so afraid they’re going to be westernised […] that you have to be careful when you’re trying to provide information to the population.’
Similarly, Russia Today – now rebranded as RT – receives around 300 Million US Dollars from the Government of Vladimir Putin to spin the story of Crimea, the Ukraine conflict and Russian foreign interventions in Syria as well as to challenge what it claims is western media bias.
The propaganda and influence of the network has made other countries on the fringes of the former Soviet Union, such as in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, ever more nervous about Russian policy and it has also encouraged the United States to increase the budgets allocated for their own propaganda services. But the overt bias of the station has led some of its own journalists to open rebellion.9
In China, where a propaganda department is a central pillar of Communist Party apparatus, the government has invested millions in developing its flagship international media – China Daily and CCTV – with foreign language capacity to tell the story of conflicts over territorial disputes in East Asia from a distinctly Beijing perspective.
In the internet era, the power of the world-wide web has been exploited to strengthen the reach of states with a message of propaganda. China has mobilised thousands of bloggers and social media activists, and are particularly adept in using the new communications culture to drown out dissident voices and to promote state propaganda.
But all combatants, whether state or non-state actors, and particularly terrorist groups, such as IS or Daesh, have become skilful in the dark arts of using sophisticated communications technologies to inspire their supporters and intimidate their enemies.
In this new context, journalists covering conflicts face a tougher task to avoid rumour, misinformation and speculation than a few years ago, when the main obstacle to clarity was often the bias and distortion in the press statements of military and political spin doctors.
In the digital age when there is infinite time to fill, a lack of reliable information and a public appetite for information there is an ever-present threat of a ‘rush to publish’ and instant push-button recirculation of information.
Facts need to be checked, images need to be verified and that takes time. Journalists should not follow the online herd; only publish what we know to be true. In today’s digital environment, rumour and speculation circulate freely and knowing what is real and how to verify information is essential. This is particularly important in emergency coverage where rumour and falsehood can add to tension and uncertainty.
But help is at hand. Craig Silverman, Editor of Regret the Error at the Poynter Institute, has collaborated with the European Journalism Centre to produce a useful ‘Verification Handbook’.10
On all sides, then, reporting conflict is inevitably carried out in the shadow of vested interests, bias and prejudice. These influence how journalists tell the story and how media present the message.
Journalists have to build trust and credibility and that means they need to ensure that their work is not stained by undue attachment to reporting only on one side in times of conflict.
They need to understand that the frame in which media present the story – them and us – is often shaped by a cultural bias from one group against another which has been developed over years and decades.
Often this bias is reinforced by myth-making and may include images or beliefs which glorify physical violence as part of a noble national tradition. This framework can undermine and destroy the capacity for quality journalism. It leads to:
- Hate speech and xenophobia in which groups from different national, ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural backgrounds openly encourage intense hatred about others. This leads to a scapegoat mentality – looking for others to blame for your own problems and crises – which can deteriorate into forms of incitement to violence to eliminate the blamed group.
- Institutional forms of discrimination in the state apparatus – particularly the police and security forces – which may be underpinned by laws and traditional behaviour. Harm may be permitted or ignored leading to unequal treatment based on race, gender or religion. People living in poverty may be forced to live in separate, ghettoised communities. This in turn increases resentment.
All of this leads to corruption in public affairs and a fearful environment in which violence can erupt. It is a feeding ground for opportunistic and unscrupulous politics. Journalists have to be sensitive and careful in their reporting to avoid making matters worse.
8. Washington Post, 3 October 2008.
9. O’Sullivan, John (2014) ‘Russia Today is Putin’s weapon of mass deception. Will it work in Britain?’, The Spectator, December 6,
10. Silverman, Craig (2013) Verification Handbook, European Journalism Centre, see http://ejc.net/.
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