Quotable: Legatum Institute Report on Counter Propaganda by Nicholas Cull
Sunday, December 20th 2015
There’s an abundant historical literature on Public Diplomacy, and a July 24, 2015, report published by the Legatum Institute, “Counter Propaganda: Cases from US Public Diplomacy and Beyond,” provides a crisp historical review. The author is Professor Nicholas Cull of the University of Southern California, well known as the author of the magisterial The Cold War and the United States Information Agency 1945-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2008). For Public Diplomacy, propaganda, and counter-propaganda, the report includes principles, case studies, historical lessons learned, and recommendations in only 12 pages of text.
Professor Cull’s review of propaganda through the 1930s is full of cautionary examples, well explains the word’s negative associations, and summarizes the post-World War I debate to define what is licit and illicit. The compact section on World War II and the longer portion on the Cold War are full of instructive examples – too many forgotten – that still echo in America’s approach to Public Diplomacy.
The short report is worth reading in full. Here are just a few of Professor Cull’s insights.
- . . much of what we consider to be propaganda can also be understood as counter-propaganda.
- It would seem that all propaganda at some point characterises itself as counter-propaganda in much the same way as military forces are justified as defensive.
- . . . counter-propaganda has moral implications. Some political cultures which are uncomfortable with state-sponsored propaganda are nevertheless willing to launch counter-propaganda and may even demand it . . .
- Strategic counter-propaganda campaigns frequently react against the memory of a past campaign considered especially damaging. . . . The most significant US example . . . is the massive intellectual mobilisation against propaganda launched by American intellectuals between the wars in response the alleged role of British propaganda and vested domestic US interests in drawing America into the Great War.
- This collective intellectual effort in the field of propaganda studies developed into a full-blown exercise in pre-emptive counter-propaganda: scholars worked to protect the United States from future war propaganda in the same way that an epidemiologist seeks to inoculate a population against a future plague.
- The IPA set about circulating a regular ‘Propaganda Analysis’ bulletin . . . . Its first edition included one of its most famous formulations: seven basic propaganda devices which recur in the literature of propaganda like the seven deadly sins. They were: Name-Calling . . . . Glittering Generality . . . . Transfer . . . . Testimonial . . . . Plain Folks . . . . Card Stacking . . . . Band Wagon . . . .
- A particular area of concern was how best to respond to the circulation of rumours both spontaneous and deliberately engineered as a viral form of propaganda. . . . repeat a rumour even as you deny it and you run the risk of further advancing the rumour. . . . the best place to engage with a rumour was locally, within the community in which it was already endemic.
- . . . a list of six directives for effective rumour control: 1. Assure good faith in the regular media of communication. 2. Develop maximum confidence in leaders. 3. Issue as much news as possible, as quickly as possible. 4. Make information as accessible as possible. 5. Prevent idleness, monotony, and personal disorganization. 6. Campaign deliberately against rumour-mongering. The directives still make a lot of sense.
- At the end of the Second World War, the United States undertook an unusual programme of mass counter-propaganda in the ‘re-education’ of Germany and Japan. Both campaigns began with the standard American Progressive/New Deal assumption that social evils flowed from social flaws and that by fixing the social structures social behaviour could also be shifted.
- The Cold War brought massive ideological mobilisation on the part of the United States in the name of counter-propaganda.
- The need for counter-propaganda was one of the rationales used to bolster the argument that the mainstream international broadcasters operated by the US and UK governments—Voice of America and the BBC—should be allowed to develop credibility through balanced news coverage.
- . . . the fate of McCarthyite propaganda showed the disproportionate power that a single credible voice could have in disrupting public acceptance. CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow exposed McCarthy’s techniques . . .
- . . . most audiences do not appreciate having their errors pointed out and . . . a powerful argument against a political point can actually be counter-productive. Social psychologists have identified what is commonly known as a ‘backfire effect’ . . . .
- One explanation for this is ‘confirmation bias’—the tendency of individuals to prefer information that confirms the first thing they are told on any subject.
- In the middle years of the Cold War the concept of counter-propaganda remained popular. It was part of the annual budget justification of the United States Information Agency, and inspired some notable campaigns.
- USIA’s famous worldwide publicity theme of ‘people’s capitalism’, launched in 1956, was explicitly designed to rebut Soviet claims that the American system befitted only a few. Similarly, the great USIA photo exhibition ‘The Family of Man’ countered the Russian claim to have a monopoly on the ‘brotherhood of humanity’. There was more to come.
- President Kennedy . . . . devoted much energy to challenging the idea that the Soviet Union was the wave of the future and the best model for Third World development. . . . it is possible to see key policies of the 1960s as driven partly by the need to provide counter-propaganda by deed. The space programme, the Peace Corps, the military commitment to Vietnam and aspects of the federal response to the Civil Rights issue were strongly driven by counter-propaganda concerns.
- The US government was soon aware that the best way to counter domestic and foreign scepticism about the [Vietnam] war . . . would have been to empower the South Vietnamese to explain the war themselves. But, despite appeals from American diplomats, the leadership of South Vietnam remained largely silent on the international stage.
- As the Soviet Union moved into economic stagnation in the later 1970s, it became harder to sell its system in terms of positive benefits or virtue, and the Kremlin’s propagandists increasingly turned to the circulation of fabricated rumours or ‘disinformation’.
- When the Soviet campaign ramped up in the early 1980s, the United States Information Agency co-ordinated an inter-agency response which is now considered a classic counter-propaganda campaign.
- Like the entire apparatus of American foreign engagement, the counter-propaganda/counter-disinformation element of US public diplomacy did not prosper in the years following the Cold War.
- . . . the Clinton administration attempted to promulgate a comprehensive reform of strategic information including a counter-propaganda capacity . . . .
- The new International Public Information (IPI) structure was designed to address what the ‘National Security Strategy for a New Century’ called an ‘obligation’ to ‘counter misinformation and incitement, mitigate inter-ethnic conflict, promote independent media organisations and the free flow of information, and support democratic participation’ to ‘advance US interests abroad’. Despite the gravity of this task it became mired in turf wars. Budgets and infrastructure remained in decline.
- The 9/11 terrorist attacks on America found the country essentially unprepared to combat disinformation or any other form of propaganda, foreign or domestic, and at the very moment when the Internet gave rumour-mongers their biggest boost since the invention of the telephone a century before.
- The years following 9/11 have seen the slow process of rebuilding the US government’s international communication capacity. Counter-propaganda has not been a particular strength.
- Counter-radicalisation became a special priority. Instruments included a cross-agency Centre for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, established in 2011 with the State Department as the lead agency.
- The later Obama years have been dominated by the need to respond (or to be seen to be responding) to both the Islamic State and Russia, and by controversy over the shortcomings of that response.
- Are there any policy recommendations which can be extracted from this century of experience? The following points are worth making
1. The systematic study and discussion of media bias and propaganda is an important part of any counter-propaganda strategy and may be seen as equipping a population with an important tool of citizenship.
2. Rumours and fabrications need careful handling to avoid simply perpetuating them. A multi-tiered approach is necessary and explicit counter-messaging should be restricted to communities/networks in which the rumour is already endemic.
3. More can be achieved by communicating good news than by grappling explicitly with the negative and sparking a ‘backfire effect’.
4. Well-chosen deeds can be more eloquent in rebutting propaganda and negative images than well-chosen words.
5. Sustained listening is an essential foundation of all public diplomacy, including counter-propaganda.