Accra, June 25, GNA - In recent times the word PROPAGANDA has come up more frequently than usual in the news media. As the campaign terrain heats up in the run-up to the December polls, it has become a common occurrence for one political party to accuse another of dabbling in propaganda to score points. It brings to mind my early years when I often heard one of my late uncles, a World War veteran, mention “paripariganda” in his conversations occasionally. It was not until I got to Secondary School that I realized he actually meant 'propaganda', a term derived from the Latin word 'propagare,' (to propagate, to transmit or to spread from person to person). But just how does the concept fit into political agenda and what are its implications for the larger society?
Experts say that in every body politic, propaganda is not a malignant growth but an essential part of the entire political process. David Welch in 'The Third Reich' (1993) argues that in all political systems policy must be explained in one form or the other. The public must be convinced as to the effectiveness of government's decisions, but rational discussion is not always the most effective method towards achieving this end. Therefore, wherever and whenever public opinion is deemed important there will be an attempt to influence it, albeit with varying methods.
In George Orwell's satire '1984', for instance, the Ministry of Agriculture was referred to as “Ministry of Plenty”, while the Ministry of Information was called “Ministry of Truth.” The former's projections on food production were often astronomical. Year-in year-out, the Ministry would churn out mind boggling statistics aimed at assuring the citizenry that everything was fantastic as far as food self-sufficiency was concerned. Meanwhile, according to the author, the story conveyed by the emaciated appearance of the average citizen of the land was the direct opposite of the official narrative. The Ministry of Truth had the singular task of rationalizing the rulers' actions and convincing the public about the effectiveness of government's policies/programmes. And every citizen was kept in line under the omnipresent glare of 'Big Brother'.
A modern definition of the concept (propaganda) is the systematic, widespread dissemination or promotion of particular ideas, doctrines, or practices, meant to further a particular cause or agenda and to weaken that of another. It is a systematic effort to manipulate the attitudes, beliefs, or actions of others, mostly through deceptive or distorted accounts. Some scholars refer to propaganda as the enemy of independent thought that suggests the triumph of emotion over reason. Over the decades, the concept has not only acquired a pejorative meaning due to excesses, but has also operated under numerous pseudonyms in the modern era. Hence, public affairs specialists, media relations specialists, lobbyists, publicity/advertising specialists, spin doctors, image brokers, marketing executives, and so on – all employ some element of propaganda, in as much as the ultimate objective is to influence opinions and attitudes.
Consider, for example, the brilliant marketing campaign carried out by Edward Bernays that sought to influence American women to patronize cigarettes. The drive of his message was to convince the women that to emancipate themselves, they should smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes – the "torches of freedom". A pioneer in commercial propaganda/public relations in America, and widely reputed as the father of spin, Bernays was PR Counselor for the American tobacco firm United Fruit Company, later known as United Brands, among many other corporate entities in his time.
Interestingly, Propaganda is believed to have religious origins, and is traced to the time of Pope Gregory XV who established in l622, the 'Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide' (or Sacred Congregation for the Implanting and Cultivation of the Faith), a committee of Roman Catholic cardinals established to combat the growing spread of Protestantism in the Counter-Reformation. [Savich, 2000; Taylor, 1992]. Thereafter, it began to be used increasingly in a context of political ideology until it assumed its pejorative meaning during the First World War due to excesses. It was common for British, French, and US propaganda to accuse German soldiers of atrocities such as bayoneting Belgian infants, raping Belgian girls, and executing hostages.
Like it or not, propaganda has become one of the most powerful instrumentalities in the quest to win the hearts and minds of people the world over – sometimes subtle, and sometimes very aggressive. It cuts across many spheres including politics, religion, war, the labour front, entertainment, just name it. Even in the workplace environment propaganda is seen in play every now and then when a particular individual or group arrogate to themselves the status of power brokers or king-makers. Through propaganda and manipulation they become veritable puppet masters, playing one section of the workforce against another or pitching the workforce against established authority. Call it 'Pull him Down' syndrome or 'Communist Inferior Tactics', but such is the power of propaganda.
When employed in the service of violence, propaganda is capable of starting wars and, in the opinion of many, it is even worse than war itself. The subjective presentation of information, the manipulation of statistics, the claims and counter-claims of victory by warring factions – all become part of the war effort. In times of war the use of propaganda becomes just as important as guns and bombs. In his comments on the Vietnam War, General William Westmoreland of the United States army, said: “In view of the impact of public opinion on the prosecution of the war, the accuracy and balance of news coverage has attained an importance almost equal to the actual combat operations.” And Winston Churchill, Britain's war-time leader, is also said to have remarked that in times of war truth is so precious that she must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies – which, to a large extent, lends credence to the assertion that very often the first casualty of war is truth.
In the academic discipline of political communication, no discussion on the subject of propaganda can be complete without the mention of the Nazi regime in Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. The Nazis could certainly not be said to be the originators of propaganda but, admittedly, they present an exceptional case study in the use of propaganda as a means of enforcing compliance /control , and in particular the use of the technique for the achievement of political goals.
The establishment of the Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment in March 1933 could be referred to as the epoch of Nazi propaganda. Joseph Goebbels, a long time disciple of Edward Bernays, was put in charge of the new Ministry whose key task was to keep everyone in line. One of its tasks was to're-educate' the German people on the Reich Government's policies of national reconstruction and about the Fatherland. Goebbels asserted that Propaganda has only one object – to conquer the masses and create a single will. "The people must begin to think as one unit, react as such, and put themselves at the disposal of the government wholeheartedly..." And to give practical expression to that principle, Adolf Hitler, upon assuming office as Chancellor, promulgated an emergency decree placing restrictions on individual liberties including freedom of opinion and freedom of the press in February 1933.
Wars and conflicts come and go, but propaganda and its techniques remain unchanged. At the national, community, political party, and workplace levels, propaganda continues to be used as a weapon to 'conquer the masses', malign or pull down those who may be perceived as rivals, threats or political opponents. Unfortunately (or fortunately) propaganda, no matter how potent, has limitations but those can be examined in detail some other time. Nonetheless, a brief run-over won't be a bad idea. Experts explain that propaganda ceases to have effect when the credibility of the propagandist or that of the message becomes doubtful. Also, the technique is disabled when it is confronted with a counter-propaganda effort or comes face-to-face with truth. Generally, ignorance serves as fuel for deliberate misinformation, so a society or workplace environment where majority of the people are predominantly illiterate or have low educational background, provides a good breeding ground for propaganda. Meaning that under normal circumstances, propaganda would most likely be ineffective in a well-informed, enlightened and discerning society.
The connection between propaganda and adversarial politics, just as in the case of propaganda and war, can be found in the struggle for power. The over-riding rationale being that of portraying one's political opponents as incompetent, inconsiderate and unpopular, while extolling/promoting the virtue and popularity of one's own side. That is why Ghanaians have to brace themselves between now and December for large doses of're-education' as the nation enters the full campaign season. Every political party enters the race to win power and will therefore go to lengths to convince or persuade the electorate into believing that it is the best among the lot – even if in the course of achieving that aim the party has to vilify and discredit its opponents or feed the public with untruths. As it has often been said, in politics the end justifies the means.
It is up to the Ghanaian electorate to, as it were, “shine their eye” when the politicians come to them and promise them the moon. The people have to listen to campaign messages with a discerning mind and sift between reality and vote-talk. Most importantly, it is high time the people took on politicians by questioning them on the content of the messages they deliver on campaign platforms, rather than allow them to get away with deception. In their determination to win the hearts and minds of the electorate, politicians would come with lofty pledges. What the people should do always is to confront them with the HOW question. By interrogating the sweeping statements, allegations and pledges of politicians on the campaign trail for specifics to see whether their responses will make sense at all, the electorate can help to inject some decency into the conduct of politics in this country.
Politics, invariably, is a contest and the news media are the central arena where that competition is played out. By virtue of their ability to reach wider sections of the population, cutting across language and literacy barriers, the mass media constitute a useful vehicle for propaganda. The agenda-setting theory asserts that when the mass media pick on a particular issue and give emphasis to the coverage of that issue, the public will certainly view it as important.
Such is the magnitude of the power journalists or media practitioners generally wield in society, compelling governments both democratic and authoritarian to desire to control/influence them. Using their skills, media professionals can help sieve and breakdown the campaign messages delivered by political activists and make it easier not only for the people to understand but also enable them to rationalise those messages. Rather than serve as mere conduits, the media would be playing their cardinal role of edifying the society if they went the extra mile to provide in-depth analysis of campaign messages grounded on the cardinal principles of truth, accuracy, objectivity and balance.
By their actions or inaction, the media can either help to promote peace and national cohesion or stoke the flames of conflict in the run-up to the December 7 polls. In a country with diverse ethnicities like Ghana, the continued willingness of the mass media to be used for propaganda purposes, and the systematic use of media propaganda and stereotyping by various interest groups, is capable of reinforcing existing differences and thus heighten xenophobic feelings that could give voice to hate among the population. A classic case in reference is the role of “Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines”, a local independent radio station, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 which claimed nearly one million human lives.
The expression of the will of the people through the ballot box, as required by every democratic dispensation (including Ghana's), is a process that encourages competition and confrontation as it entails the open expression of views that are divergent and often conflicting. In such situations a media system that is free but does not also exercise responsibility/circumspection can polarize the populace into potentially hostile communities and ultimately work against the goal of establishing the unified, peaceful and stable democratic nation Ghanaians envisage.
(A GNA feature by Mohammed Nurudeen Issahaq)