Propaganda: Power and Persuasion at the British Library: Reading between the lines

Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, systems of information control are still being perpetuated. How can we continue to read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

The essential tenor of the British Library’s provocative exhibition Propaganda: Power and Persuasion is that the age of propaganda persists in our age of globalisation. Although we might be confidently distant from the Orwellian imagination, the systems of information control are being perpetuated. How then, can we read this age-old manipulation, as it appears in ever more insidious forms?

Quietly hidden away behind more familiar exhibits such as Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book and the infamous Iraq War playing cards issued by the US Military, the curators have found space for an Occupy Wall Street poster. Emblazoned with the bold Occupy aphorisms, “Fight Back Worldwide: capitalism is the crisis” and “the 99 per cent have no borders; decolonize globally”, the poster’s protagonists emerge from radiant sunlight. At first glance, the Occupy Wall Street poster phenomenon seems to be illustrative of the particular fusion of bold graphic design and protest rhetoric in the age of social media activism. The curators are not giving away much either, merely observing the ways in which Occupy imagery subverts the iconography traditionally associated with the state. In doing so, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion misses out on telling the critical narrative of propaganda as it exists in the 21st century. Of this, more anon.

In many ways the most compelling argument of the exhibition is how it searches for a more neutral portrait of propaganda, scraping away the extreme negativity surrounding it. The origins of the term in papal text are documented here, in the literature produced by the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), a committee founded in the 17th century by Pope Gregory XV to counter the Reformation. Within this singular argument lay the seeds of our wholly oppositional understanding of propaganda, and through both world wars the emotional charge of the word was reduced to pure deception. And yet the global history of propaganda has been far more complex. In China, ‘propaganda’ (xuanchuan) cannot be distinguished from the more innocuous ‘publicity’. Instead it is a legitimate mechanism for the Party’s construction of society. The question the exhibition poses is essentially: can you engage in rational dialogue with a mass audience? Is propaganda more than just persuasion dialogue, but rather a mechanism aiming to elicit action, in which the ‘truth’ is no longer the logical endpoint? In getting to grips with the very essence of propaganda, the Aldous Huxley quotation resonates through the exhibition chamber: “The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water he digs in vain.”

The sources upon which the curators draw on, from Josef Goebbels’ ‘Volksempfänger’ radios designed for Nazi broadcasts through to the iconic imagery of Mao kindling the flames of revolution in Anyuan in the autumn of 1921, are breathtaking in scope. At the exhibition’s heart are the Norman Rockwell posters The Four Freedoms, aimed at Americans buying war bonds in World War II by appealing to core familial and religious values. Above all, this exhibition excels in showcasing state propaganda, whether in the form of Boer War board games, Cold War imagery or even public health campaigns. Exploring themes of ‘nation, enemy and war’, the wash of propaganda reaches for increasing sophistication.  But nuance is looked for in the explorations of a ‘national branding’ project that was implicit in the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a side perhaps missed out when compared to the unambiguously aggressive glorification of the state that so thoroughly informed the previous 2008 Beijing Games, in which regulated spectacle celebrated ‘shengshi’, an age of prosperity.

While the exhibition may be aesthetically impressive, from the opening floor of projected viral imagery through to the close in which a wall forms a cascading screen of twitter streams reacting to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony and Obama’s re-inauguration, by the end we are no closer to really grappling with propaganda today. In the age of social media, “everyone is a potential propagandist”, we are told. But what is constantly alluded to but never properly addressed is perhaps the untold story: the elision of systems of state propaganda, modes of dissent and the framework of advertising. In the wake of the Tiananmen protests, the Chinese Communist Party looked to the West for new sources of inspiration, and found it in Coca-Cola. By 1996, a Party textbook proclaimed that the soft drink brand was the example par excellence to be followed: “if you have a good image, any problem can be solved.”

The iconic Occupy Wall Street pamphleting, in its stylistic borrowings from the romantic well of Russian Revolutionary and Soviet propaganda, is the perfect evocation of how 21st century activism embodies all the trademark hallmarks of marketing. The French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote of this process in his 1981 Simulacra and Simulation: “The whole script of advertising and propaganda comes from the October Revolution and the market crash of 1929”. Baudrillard went on to observe that “both languages of the masses, issuing from the mass production of ideas, or commodities, their registers, separate at first, progressively converge. Propaganda becomes the marketing and merchandising of idea-forces, of political men and parties with their ‘trademark image’.” The Occupy poster is the epitome of this convergence of the worlds of advertising and activism.

In one of the many video portraits scattered across the exhibition space, the journalist John Pilger recalls a Czech dissident telling him during the Cold War: “You believe everything you see on the TV or read on the papers, but we’ve learnt to read between the lines.” Deploying everything from money to stamps and charting the shift from print to social media, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion offers a powerful insight into state influence and the flows of information that fashioned the 20th century political landscape. With Nazi propaganda nestled next to Britain’s own war campaign imagery, the exhibition never shys away from foregrounding the monsterization techniques behind audience appeal. Its co-curator David Welch argues that the danger only lies in a monopoly of propaganda, as seen in totalitarian states. But the sorry truth is that we can no longer afford to make political and commercial distinctions in propaganda today, when faced with a real loss of meaning, reading between the lines becomes all too urgent.

The White-Haired Girl. A Chinese film poster from 1950. Image: British Library.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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