Even in “normal” times, WhatsApp, Twitter and television are often abuzz with “news” of the most incendiary kind. When India and Pakistan came to the brink of war, it wasn't a surprise that the rhetoric was loud and poisonous. The bulk of the loudness and poison seemed to have emanated not from ordinary people on social media but from television channels in India and Pakistan, and professional propagandists in both countries.
Propaganda is an old tool of leaders and countries everywhere. The history of this dark art is a fascinating one, and goes back in time to the ancient world, predating the invention of the printing press and mass media. It has changed and adapted with technological advances and become increasingly more powerful and sophisticated. During the World Wars, it was elevated to science and art by the warring Western powers. Among those who contributed to its growth was the man known as “the father of spin”, Edward Bernays. His success in transforming propaganda, which came to have negative connotations, into public relations, is itself a fine example of spin.
The meaning of propaganda according to the Merriam Webster dictionary is “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. Naturally, this is useful, and necessary, to politicians, corporations and countries. Democracy and the free market require use of these tools of persuasion.
Until the proliferation of the printing press, and the advent of radio, it was hard to reach large masses of people with propaganda messages. Technological advances and the spread of mass education in the latter half of the 19th Century and early years of the 20th Century changed that. When the World Wars came, governments reached out to psychological manipulators such as Bernays and master storytellers such as Rudyard Kipling to manipulate the masses. Kipling was recruited by his country’s intelligence service during World War I to help with propaganda. George Orwell, the man who gave the world the “thought police” and “newspeak”, described him as a “jingo imperialist”. At the height of World War II, Orwell, who like Kipling was born in India, began to work for the BBC on countering German propaganda – and producing British propaganda.
What we are witnessing and experiencing now is the next level in the development of propaganda, which uses the tools of psychology and psychoanalysis to manipulate masses of people in a professional way. The written word has given way to video and image, and television is the main source of propaganda material, which is then pushed out through social media such as WhatsApp and Twitter. The top propagandists today are not writers; they are television anchors and social media stars.
The material they generate is quick, customised to mould opinions, and not restricted to television. For instance, the news of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announcing the decision of unconditional release of IAF Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was greeted on an English news TV channel with a screen whose headline was “Pak cracks under pressure”, and the subhead was “Pak caves in”. This screenshot was passed around via WhatsApp and Twitter and soon found its way into Pakistani social media.
Efforts to depict the Indian airstrikes as a great success in which 300 or more terrorists have been killed have been strenuously made by nationalist media in India and dismissed by Pakistani media and much of the Western media which suggest that one villager was injured, and no terrorists were killed. Truth is always an early casualty in war and conflict, and it is difficult to judge whether either version is wholly correct. Realtime satellite images and site visits may set doubts to rest eventually.
The propaganda of warmongers has been countered by the propaganda of peaceniks in both countries. Images of people in Pakistan holding placards calling for the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan also circulated in India. The calls for peace from citizens, including journalists in India and Pakistan, also did the rounds. Now, however, there are images, clearly created by the propaganda wing of some organisation, that depict those in India calling for peace with Pakistan as somehow akin to those who called for peace with Nazi Germany.
This conflict between India and Pakistan is occurring in election season, with India heading towards what was already an extremely bitter political battle between the ruling dispensation and the opposition. Fake news and heavily slanted news, which were already major problems before the conflict, are now going international. The battle for “hearts and minds” being waged via media and social media is complicated by a multiplicity of warring parties from both sides of the border. Apart from the usual suspects in India and Pakistan, there are the Kashmiri separatists, and security establishments of both countries.
With such a multiplicity of conflicting interests, it would be safe to assume that the propaganda wars on television, WhatsApp and Twitter will only intensify in coming days. Citizens interested in knowing the facts, rather than in becoming enthusiastic victims of propaganda of one side or another, would do well to check any news they hear, see or read from multiple and diverse sources before arriving at any conclusions.
It is always tempting to believe whatever one finds most comforting. That is exactly the temptation propaganda exploits. The propagandist’s message typically aims for the heart rather than the head. Beware of messaging that puts “josh” above “hosh” in times of trouble.
The writer is an author and journalist and a former editor of newspapers in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Chandigarh
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Updated Date: Mar 01, 2019 17:08:41 IST