Propaganda is critical to understanding the ways in which power is exercised in the contemporary world and has been central to the global “War on Terror.” Propaganda is often understood to be a phenomenon that is alien to contemporary liberal democracies. On the contrary, although replaced today by a range of euphemisms including public relations (PR), strategic communication, political marketing, advertising, psychological operations and political marketing, approaches to manipulating beliefs and organizing conduct are ubiquitous in contemporary democracies.
Propaganda involves more than attempts to persuade and influence by messaging through linguistic and visual communication, such as advertising campaigns, and can include the exploitation of fears and desires through coercion, incentivization and action in the “real world” whereby events are created and/or shaped in order to manipulate the beliefs, behaviours and conduct of people. Understood in this way, we see how propaganda can be found in almost every aspect of the 9/11 global “War on Terror” including, for example, the deceptive “disinformation campaigns” regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) witnessed during the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the exploitation of public fears regarding terrorism in order to transform civil liberties and initiate armed conflict, the allocation of human and financial resources in order to mobilise publics in support of military action, the role of terror acts designed to shape political outcomes and the manipulation of civil liberties in order to organize conduct and shape public beliefs.
Propaganda, in short, is a central part of understanding the many issues and aspects that we wish to explore regarding the 9/11 global “War on Terror.” For more information on propaganda see, for example, the Organisation for Propaganda Studies.
Beyond 9/11, more recent events have highlighted government and mainstream media use of propaganda to shape public opinion. The 2018 chemical attacks in Douma, Syria, attributed to Bashar al-Assad, have been rendered suspect as new evidence suggests the event may have been staged while controversy surrounds the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and elements of mainstream media, particularly the BBC, with respect to their investigation and reporting of this event. Separately, false video footage of a purported Syrian massacre was aired in October 2019 on ABC News.
2018 Douma Chemical Attacks:
On April 7, 2018, Douma, Syria, was reported to have been chemically attacked by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, resulting in the deaths of between 40 and 50 people. The U.S. and U.K. retaliated against the purported attacks by bombing Syrian state infrastructure. Recent revelations call the veracity of the original attack claims into question. Some of the most compelling contradictory evidence includes a newly revealed OPCW report contradicting the original OPCW findings, and testimony from a BBC Syria employee who claims some of the attack footage was staged.
Learn more about the potentially fraudulent claims of Syrian government chemical attacks by visiting The Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media:
ABC News’ Inaccurate Portrayal of Kurdish Massacre:
Just days after President Trump announced he was removing U.S. troops from the northern Syrian border, ABC News’ World News Tonight aired footage of intense machine-gun fire that the network claimed to be part of a Turkish massacre of Syrian Kurds. The video in question turned out to be, not a Kurdish massacre, but rather a recreational machine-gun shoot at Knob Creek Shooting Range located in Bullitt County, Kentucky, USA. ABC’s report is a clear example of the sort of mainstream media false-information-promulgation that has prompted growing concerns about how major media outlets self-regulate to ensure information accuracy. When the false depiction was discovered, ABC News claimed the Knob Creek video was mistakenly identified as the Syrian firefight.
Learn More about how ABC News used footage from a Kentucky gun range to depict a Turkish massacre of Kurds after President Trump removed American troops from northern Syria:
Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 and the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act of 2017:
The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is series of federal laws that annually authorize the budget and expenditures of the U.S. Department of Defense. Despite its noble facade, the NDAA, in recent years, has quietly included provisions that undermine American citizens’ civil liberties. Most egregious of these provisions, are perhaps, the authorizations of warrantless wiretapping and the indefinite imprisonment of Americans without charge.
Other quietly-included NDAA provisions have received less attention, however, their significance with regard to American civil liberties is incredibly important. In 2013, President Barack Obama signed into law the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012; a NDAA provision that totally removed the 65-year-old ban on the domestic promulgation of government-produced propaganda. Although the U.S. government has been disseminating propaganda in foreign countries for decades via its massive broadcasting apparatus, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 prohibited the domestic distribution of government-produced propaganda.
Lawmakers’ rationale for lifting the ban is partly based on the argument that diaspora communities in the U.S. have access to foreign propaganda programs disseminated by states such as Russia and violent organizations such as al-Qaeda, but don’t have access to U.S. propaganda programming produced by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG). BBG programs, such as the Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Radio Free Europe, and Voice of America are only available in foreign countries. Proponents of the new law also argue that exposing the American public to its own foreign propaganda provides increased government transparency that will help journalists and scholars derive a more holistic understanding of the U.S. government’s public affairs and information operations. Given that the new law appears to blur lines between public affairs and information operations, claims of increased transparancy by the law’s proponents seem highly suspect.
Additionally, just before leaving office, President Obama signed the 2017 NDAA, which again included a controversial provision not widely discussed by mainstream media and explained to the American public. Buried within the 2017 NDAA is the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act; a provision that officially establishes a national anti-propaganda organization; the Global Engagement Center. A component of the U.S. State Department, the Global Engagement Center’s mission is “to direct, lead, synchronize, integrate, and coordinate efforts of the Federal Government to recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and foreign non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining or influencing the policies, security, or stability of the United States and its allies and partner nations.” To this end, the law sanctions grants to non-government organizations to “collect and store examples in print, online, and social media, disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda” aimed at the United States and its allies.
In effect, NDAA provisions-turned-law during the Obama administration both authorize the dissemination of U.S. government propaganda to the American public and also establish a government organization that officially defines what communications qualify as propagandistic. These laws not only cede a massive amount of interpretive power to government organizations, but also blur lines between what information is credible and what information is not. In a day and age when “fake news” accusations are levied by many important political figures and institutions, the Obama-era NDAA laws only seem to exacerbate public distrust in government.
Further, these laws, and the manner with which they were authorized raise serious questions about government power and institutional oversight. For instance, why weren’t these NDAA provisions that arrogate massive amounts of interpretative power to government organizations widely debated among mainstream media and the American public? Moreover, now that the provisions are law, who holds the State Department accountable? Where is the oversight? What definition(s) and regulations circumscribe “appropriate propaganda?” Does it matter that Smith-Mundt Modernization Act sponsor, Mac Thornberry (R-TX), is a major beneficiary of weapon manufacturers’ campaign contributions? How does the Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act of 2017 affect First Amendment rights? Are these new propagandizing powers instruments that can be used to deceptively sell wars, as was done by both Bush administrations (without the aid of NDAA laws)? Because we know that U.S. government agencies have actively deceived the American public through propaganda operations, such as the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird, why should the public now trust the government with an ostensible “perfect storm” of propaganda laws and organizations?
Examine NDAA Laws:
Academics and Independent Researchers Speak Out
Because propaganda is often viewed as a practice that happens ‘elsewhere’ in non-Western states, there exists a dearth of scholarly work analyzing the use of propaganda in liberal-democratic societies. The following scholars have bucked this conventional trend by examining how propaganda operates within Western, liberal-democracies:
Mark Crispin-Miller, NYU Professor of Media, Culture and Communication:
Mark Crispin-Miller has been a long-time advocate for transparency in media and government. From identifying deceptions and omissions within the 9/11 Commission Report to offering general critiques of state and media propaganda, Mark Crispin-Miller is an important voice in the struggle to hold power accountable.
More about Mark Crispin-Miller:
Piers Robinson, Co-Director of The Organisation for Propaganda Studies:
Piers Robinson is a political scientist focused on the analysis of propaganda in government and media communications. Robinson has a been a vocal skeptic of official explanations related to the 9/11 attacks, the Douma chemical attacks in Syria, and the Integrity Initiative.
More about Piers Robinson:
Lars Jorgensen, Sociologist:
Lars Jorgensen, a sociologist and author, has openly questioned the mainstream Western media’s portrayal of recent events in Syria and elsewhere.
More about Lars Jorgensen:
The “Conspiracy” Label
Now a mainstay of the Western lexicon, the term “conspiracy theory” is often employed as a pejorative to delegitimize an opponent’s argument without actually engaging that person’s points of debate. The accusation implies that the person labeled as “conspiracy theorist” is prone to credulous, prima facie acceptance of all theories that run counter to mainstream or official positions, regardless of how far-afield the other implied theories happen to be from the actual debate at hand.
In what might come as a surprise to many, the widespread use of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ is partly a product of the U.S. government’s intentional perception-manipulation in the socially and politically tumultuous 1960’s. Further, given the long history of undisputed government subterfuge in the U.S. and other Western states, and in light of voluminous extant evidence that conflicts with government explanations, it is perfectly rational to question official positions. In actuality, true credulity seems to rest with those who, prima facie, accept official positions without considering the full spectrum of logical and evidence-based possibilities.
Though academia is very skeptical and probing with regard to its acceptance of certain official positions, it has largely failed to analyze other official claims that are challenged by abundant evidence. For example, scholars rightfully and expeditiously questioned the premise of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of the Iraq War, academics cited evidential inconsistencies in the Bush Administration’s attempt to connect Saddam Hussein with al-Qaeda and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the case of the post-9/11 Afghanistan War, scholars questioned the strategic viability of invading and occupying Afghanistan as an effective means to prevent future terror attacks. Conspicuously, the precursor to both of these U.S.-led wars, namely the U.S. government’s official explanation for the 9/11 attacks, has received relatively little scrutiny by the academic community; this, even despite ever-increasing contradictory physical evidence based on scientific research and shortcomings with respect to official investigations. Despite the existence of this evidence, questioning the accuracy of the official 9/11 explanation is still largely considered a practice of conspiracy theorizing by much of the academic community; if evidenced only by its failure to engage.
The following scholars discuss how the conspiracy label was deployed to manipulate U.S. and Western audiences:
The “Conspiracy” Label and its Origins, Explained by Lance deHaven-Smith, Professor Emeritus at Florida State University:
Lance deHaven-Smith discusses the basis for his book, Conspiracy Theory in America, and the history behind the C.I.A.’s efforts to serve its own agenda by imputing meaning to the conspiracy theory label. In an effort to disempower the conspiracy theory label’s deceptive rhetorical effects, deHaven-Smith has uniquely replaced “conspiracy theory,” pertaining to state crimes, with “State Crimes against Democracy” (SCAD). In addition to eliminating the conflation of theories about matters outside the state with state-crimes, SCAD better-describes the criminal nature of the state-action and helps dispel the myth that state-crimes, and their supporting state-propaganda, only occur outside liberal-democratic states.
More about Lance deHaven-Smith and Conspiracy Theory in America:
Mark Crispin-Miller Discusses the “Conspiracy” Label:
New York University Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, Mark Crispin-Miller, discusses how he was introduced to the conspiracy label through vicious, baseless attacks and how he learned that the term “conspiracy theory” was hijacked as means to silence dissent.
Watch the full interview of Mark Crispin-Miller discussing the conspiracy theory label:
Political Leaders Use the “Conspiracy” Label to Denigrate Challenges to Official Explanations:
Powerful politicians have regularly used the conspiracy label to denigrate dissenting views of official explanations. In the examples below, former U.S. presidents, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, invoke the conspiracy label in efforts to dismiss contrarian views of the JFK assassination and the 9/11 attacks, respectively.
It is also interesting to note the context of both statements. In the first case, George H.W. Bush was delivering a memorial speech at former U.S. president, Gerald Ford’s funeral. After oddly appearing to smirk when referencing the JFK assassination, Bush Sr. stated that the Warren Commission will always have the “definitive say” regarding the assassination’s explanation, despite any arguments from “conspiracy theorists.”
Notably, George H.W. Bush was, himself, party to a proven government cover-up and psychological operation (PSYOP) against the American people when he participated in the promulgation of the Nayirah al-Sabah testimony; a deceptive U.S. government campaign used to gain American public support for the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War. Al-Sabah testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus saying she witnessed Iraqi soldiers throwing babies from incubators onto a hospital floor after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Al-Sabah was later discovered to be the daughter of Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, Saud Al-Sabah, and her entire testimony was exposed as a complete fiction. Nayirah had been coached by American public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton to provide an emotional account of the fictitious event during Congressional testimony. Bush referenced Nayirah’s heart-wrenching lie on multiple occasions while attempting to garner support for the Gulf War.
Similar to George H.W. Bush’s admonishment of people who dare question the Warren Commission’s conclusions, later-U.S. president, George W. Bush, in a speech to the United Nations (UN) just two months after the 9/11 attacks, implored UN members to denounce 9/11 conspiracy theories. Bush stated, “let us never tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories concerning the attacks of September the 11th; malicious lies that attempt to shift the blame away from the terrorists themselves; away from the guilty.” Bush’s denouncement of “conspiracy theories” just two months after the attacks, delivered on the UN stage, seemed odd and out of place. At the time, few people questioned the U.S. government claim that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network were the only perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks.
Learn more about the U.S. government lies that lead to the Persian Gulf War:
Additional Information Resources