Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Propaganda And Surveillance Intersect!

For decades a so-called anti-propaganda law prevented the U.S. government's mammoth broadcasting arm from delivering programming to American audiences. But on July 2, 2013, that taboo came silently to an end with the implementation of a new law passed in January. This unleashes thousands of hours per week of government-funded radio and TV programs for domestic U.S. consumption. This "reform" was criticized by many human rights activist as a green light for U.S. domestic propaganda efforts. Prior to that time the massive amount of U.S. programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks could only be viewed and broadcast in foreign countries. The programming varies in tone and quality, but its breadth is vast and it is sent out to more than 100 countries in 61 languages.
Government Propaganda And Surveillance Don't Mix

Unleashing propaganda is a slippery slope and blurs the definition of truth. Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes. The message is often created by spinning, scrubbing, molding, and shaping it until it resembles little in the way of truth before sending it out to the public. It can go as far as to encourage a "call to action" where those listening are asked to push forward the agenda. The saying "power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts" is well rooted in examples of abuse throughout history.

I like the saying concerning pornography that it is hard to define but we all know it when we see it. The problem with propaganda is that often goes undetected or is accepted as truth. With media such a dominate force in shaping our thoughts and opinions we should be very concerned as to who controls it and the agenda it pursues. One of the ugly realities of modern communication is the ability to send out millions of messages directly and unfiltered, this lends itself to be used in unsavory ways or to gain an advantage. This becomes a real problem when one person or a small group controls the message and uses an army of tax paid employees to shape, spin, and send it forth. When government takes an active role in creating these programs both government accountability and the role of the free press and media are directly diminished.

While I'm uncertain as to where my distrust of authority figures stems from this feeling has been reinforced by many incidents that I have witnessed over the years. An ugly example of how propaganda or a government shaped message can do massive harm is how the euphoria over the "victory" in Iraq has now been replaced by increasing doubts about how the Bush administration justified and reported on the war. No weapons of mass destruction were found and the Iraqi people we were to liberate did not greet American troops with open arms. Letters to the editor in major newspapers complain that the Bush administration lied about the war. Many in the press are now suggesting that the pro-war arguments of the administration were deceitful and that the public was duped by propaganda into supporting a phony war. 

Americans' suspicions of propaganda by their own government have a long history. World War I which ended America's isolation from major European conflicts, was modern propaganda's launching pad. Both sides in this global conflict, especially the Allies, employed this method of mass persuasion to defeat their enemy. In April 1917, shortly after declaring war on Germany, the Wilson administration established the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which at its peak employed 150,000 people. Its goal was the creation of a "war will" among an ethnically diverse American population. Abroad, its purpose was to convince the public that a reliable, honest, and invincible America would defeat German militarism making the world safe for democracy.

When countries wrestle each other for dominance on the world stage, government-sponsored propaganda can get pretty intense. Some of the anti-American stuff that came out of North Korea during the Korean War was brutal and make the American soldiers out to be monsters that enjoyed torturing women and children. A major point of this article is to show how disruptive to truth propaganda can be. North Korean propaganda doesn’t simply attack the U.S. for past failings but instead it accuses U.S. servicemen of engaging in some pretty messed up acts that terrify the people of Korea into blind obedience to their “protective” government. The more restrictive a government and the less information that flows, the less aware its people become. 

Once this starts occurring it becomes easier for a government to set the agenda according to its own interests. The sole aim of any form of propaganda is to influence an audience in an emotional rather than rational manner. This week the U.K. government defended its surveillance activities within the country in front of a special tribunal that heard complaints from privacy and human-rights groups. Without confirming that snooping was taking place they said that there were sufficient safeguards including the tribunal itself that made sure the government wasn't abusing its spying power. They added that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, a law enacted in 2000 that lays out the framework for surveillance, was clear in setting out what type of interception could take place.

The proceedings in front of the special court that investigates complaints against intelligence agencies stemmed from disclosures last year by former American NSA contractor Edward Snowden that the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters tapped into cables carrying world-wide communications data. Soon after human-rights groups filed complaints that said the government was circumventing laws designed to protect residents' privacy. Ironically this all plays out the same week that with little debate the U.K. government passed an emergency bill requiring telecom companies to retain information about customers' communications for up to a year. The five-day trial this week was unusual because the arguments were made in public and created challenges because many of the arguments were theoretical.

Lawyers for the government said several times that they could neither confirm nor deny whether any of the surveillance  programs existed. The government said confirming or denying allegations contained in the complaints could expose holes in intelligence systems and make future "no comment" responses seen essentially as a confirmation. All this then becomes a bit of speculation as Tribunal panel members would layout examples of how the law would apply to people who were searching the Internet or communicating with others about making bombs. The human-rights groups, however, paint scenarios in which people's sexual preferences or choices of reading material would unwittingly come under the scope of government surveillance. 

  When governments spy on their people and government propaganda programs intersect it is very dangerous and the potential for abuse is huge. This leads down a road towards less freedom and is paved with the bones of all those who have failed to be outraged by governments slowly removing their liberties This leaves all of us open to both blackmail or abuse by those in power for what they claim is a greater good as they determine just what that might be. Never overestimate the sophistication and ability of our government to clarify exactly what is happening anywhere and at any time. The recent score of scandals plaguing Washington makes it clear that fact-free confusion and speculation which fuel the propaganda-based reporting system are not in short supply.


  1. Well said and I never knew that the line between propaganda and news had been totally erased.

  2. We've got to put this to a stop! We don't want the U.S. to turn into Russia, what with its state sponsored "news". Which radio and TV programs are spreading propaganda? I'd really like to know which ones to avoid.

    Also, what was the law that passed on July 2, 2013 that allowed all this to happen called?


    1. For more on the back ground and debate concerning this law see the two article below;

  3. Thanks for the amount of work to provide an informative article. I will certainly store it as a major point of future reference.
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