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How I became an anti-propaganda activist

04/11/2011

It was on Thursday 6 February 2003 that I settled in front of my TV to watch a direct telecast of United States Secretary of State Colin Luther Powell’s appearance before the UN Security Council to “prove” the urgency to wage a war with Iraq. (There was much made of the correct pronunciation of ‘Colin.’ The name rhymes with colon and that’s apt to describe the man’s character.) Anyhow, my obsession with propaganda began to flower with his feeble nonsensical presentation. I recall thinking of Hans Christian Andersen’s  tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that are invisible to those unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” I was that child crying out “He’s lying. There is not a grain of truth to his entire presentation. None at all.”

Powell’s lies to those leaders unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent, included a computer-generated image of an alleged mobile production facility for biological weapons of mass destruction. He showed photos of a poison and explosives training camp in northeast Iraq. When the camp was visited by a British journalist two days later, all that was found were a few dilapidated buildings and no evidence or signs of any terrorist activity, chemical or explosives or otherwise. Yet, Powell succeeded in hardening the overall tone of the United Nations towards Iraq. At this point it’s essential to shake your head in disgust.

It was nine days later, 15 February 2003, when I was one of some two million people who took the anti-war message onto London’s streets. History was made with the largest ever political demonstration. The city came to a standstill – some couldn’t even reach London due to the sheer throng of people. Special trains brought thousands from Manchester, Liverpool, and elsewhere. I became an anti-propaganda activist following these two events.

In the 20th century the word propaganda developed the following meaning:

The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated thus; the vehicle of such propagation.

Propaganda uses information (words, images, sounds, etc.) to manipulate people’s behaviour or beliefs. Regardless of whether the message is true or false, it is always manipulative. The target of a successful propagandist will feel that they will have made a voluntary choice, even though they were never given a real chance to do so. And later, only very effective counter propaganda will be likely to effect a change.

During and after World War II the world witnessed the power of Nazi propaganda, especially their use of film, to promote anti-Semitism and the horrific consequences of that message. It was then that communicators distanced themselves from the concept of propaganda and the word became a pejorative. Therefore our advertisers, marketers, public relations officials and public information officers no longer call their product propaganda. Nevertheless, that is what it remains, and it is, in fact, around us in all aspects of life.

2. If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would be angry.
3. Why then do you feel no shame in handing over your mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who tries to persuade you for his own advantage?
– A.C. Grayling (2011) The good book: a humanist bible (p.23)

My work is to immunise people against propaganda from its many sources: political, military, corporate, and so forth. Unfortunately, it appears to me that most people are not capable of really thinking things through: most buy perfume because of the emotional imagery; most believe the ‘independent expert,’ whether in politics or buying a motorcar; most want to go with the crowd, or follow the leader. To do otherwise requires independent thought and the willingness to be ostracised, which is an unbearable psychological burden for many if not most. My campaign exposes how various propaganda techniques work and how to counter them. I’m now familiar with the helpless shrug of the shoulders and the ‘What can I do about it’ response. A lot actually. The thing about propaganda is that, once it’s exposed for what it is, no one listens anymore. People then have developed the immunity to tune out.

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