Monday, 30 September 2013

The Seductive Power of Propaganda

by Catriona Troth

One chilling image marked the entrance to the exhibition, Propaganda, Power and Persuasion, this summer at the British Library.

Arriving at the exhibition through a comparatively narrow corridor, you were met by two lines of mannequins covered in black fabric. On their chests were quotations about propaganda, and on their arms, the author of those quotations. Each was set up so that you read the quotation first and then had to take another step before you could see who had said it.

If you stood for a while in that entrance space, you would see one person after another stop and smile at one particular quotation:

It may be a good thing to possess power that rests in arms. But it is better and more lasting to win the hearts of people and to keep it.

Then they would take another step, read the name on the mannequin’s arm, and their faces would freeze.
The author was Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of propaganda.

For an author interested in writing fiction that confronts serious issues, the fear of turning a story into a polemic is never far away. So, for me, the opportunity to take a long hard, literary look at what constitutes propaganda was irresistible.

The word itself goes back to Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith – an office of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. In Latin, it essentially means ‘to spread the word’. But propaganda has been around as long as there have been those in power or authority wishing to deliver a message. What has changed is the speed and scale of dissemination that became possible – from the invention of the printing press, to newspapers, radio, and finally in the latter half of the 20th Century, to the ubiquity of television.

We probably associate propaganda most with times of war, and there were extensive examples of this – from Norman Rockwell posters to Japanese cartoons to a set of the infamous Iraq War playing cards of 2003.

One exhibit brought back a sudden flash of memory: Ian McDonald, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence during the Falklands War, delivering the night’s portion of statistics in a voice devoid of emotion. It struck me that this was probably one of the last times that a democratic government had the ability to control information about the progress of a war in this way.  By the time the Gulf Wars came along, we had 24 hour news and journalists embedded with troops. And in the last few years there has been another quantum change – with news from within conflict zones being provided minute by minute, from civilians on the ground via video phones and Twitter. I am not sure if this means that we get any closer to the truth of a situation, but it has robbed governments of the ability to control what we are told and when.

Just why it is so important that the power to control information should not rest in any one set of hands, is amply illustrated in the most disturbing section of all – the creation of The Enemy.

Unsurprisingly, this section had plenty of examples of the long campaign of scapegoating and playing to pre-existing prejudices that allowed the Nazis ultimately to turn the entire Jewish population of Europe into non-humans in the minds of ordinary people.  But it also showed how the earlier, discredited campaign to vilify Germans during the First World War led people to dismiss rumours about concentration camps during the Second. 

And lest we think that attempts at such crude propaganda are a thing of the past, you only had to turn a corner to find a video of George W Bush’s Axis of Evil speech at the UN.

If this section included the most disturbing images of the exhibition, it also provided one of its more amusing moments. A Soviet poster from the Cold War showed a cartoon of the Statue of Liberty, with the eyes transformed into spy holes through which New York City policemen spied on their fellow citizens. The irony was that the Soviet Secret Police were surely the more guilty of ruthlessly spying on their own citizens. And yet, and yet... with the recent revelation by Edward Snowdon about the spying activities of the American government, you have to wonder how far off the mark the original poster was.  I wonder if the BL curators were aware of this new patina of irony when they assembled the exhibition?

The exhibition also reminded us that propaganda can also be used to carry relatively benign messages.  Public Health, for instance (examples here included both the heavy-handed posters and videos from the early AIDS Awareness campaigns (‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’) to the more subtle Change4Life cartoons, currently being used to promote healthy eating. Or positive messages that create a sense of nationhood – like Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics, which was extensively analysed.

Here again, the impact of social media was examined – in this case the ‘ripple effect’ of Twitter on the way people responded to the Olympic Ceremony.  A big screen showed how the tone of tweets changed over time, from primarily cynical at the start to overwhelmingly positive by the end of the ceremony, so that Twitter itself became an opinion maker.

But just as the old forms of propaganda had their invidious sides, so does social media. It allows ordinary people to tell the world what is happening in places like Burma or Tahrir Square, unmediated by monolithic dictatorships.  But it also allows anonymous voices to defame or make threats without redress.  And it contains within itself the possibility of mob rule. It’s a beast that, as the 21st Century progresses, we will have to learn how to harness, use and guard against.

So at the end of all that, what had I learnt about avoiding turning fiction that addresses an issue into propaganda? Well, it was mostly common sense:
  • Don’t let the message get in the way of telling a good story
  • Give both sides of the argument a human face
  • Let your readers make up their own minds.

Catriona Troth’s forthcoming novel, Ghost Town, is set in 1981, against the background of violent clashes between skinhead and Asian youths in Coventry.