The mechanisms of propaganda are not very well understood by the average information consumer.
Many studies and research has been done on the subject and mastering the art requires a substantial insight in mass-psychology. Though there are a few rules of thumb that are easy applicable when digging through the murky swamp that is today’s information maze.
One of the biggest misconceptions out there must be the idea that propaganda cannot be the truth.
Yet the most efficient propaganda is the truth, slightly exaggerated and shielded in a bubble of information that is deliberately left out.
Less efficient and slightly more dangerous to backfire are blatant lies that are hard to disprove.
The only thing one then needs to inject is the notion that one is guilty until proven innocent beyond reasonable doubt. When spotting the presumption of guilt applied to any party, you know there is a high chance that you are dealing with propaganda.
A vital element for this type of propaganda is that the issuer of said propaganda knows exactly what really happened, knows the truth and knows exactly in what way he wants to distort the truth ….and to what goal.
If done successfully it will create a new reality for the receiver and if enough people believe it then it does not matter anymore what the truth is as the lie will then be truer than the truth itself.
It is much easier to educate an uneducated person than to re-educate a miseducated one.
As we take the temperature of the current debate concerning the crisis in Ukraine we can see that there are already camps that are totally entrenched, both with their own truths and unwilling to hear any argument that relativates their position or their absolute truth.
When one takes any article on the situation in Ukraine where there is a discussion in the comment fields one will find entrenched individuals on both sides of the equation, believing they are experts on the situation and claiming a position of: “my side is 100% right, your side is 100% wrong”.
These unrelativated positions are usually taken by people susceptible to propaganda and/or actively contributing to propaganda. (in both cases their contributions should be taken with more than just a few grains of salt)
Things get worse when these positions get taken by “official” channels and news agencies that have a certain reputation. Be it in support of their political colours or just the result of bad journalism : the result is exactly the same. Just like someone wearing some kind of uniform with a couple of insignia will automatically be perceived as having more authority to most people, the position a newspaper takes will automatically be perceived as “more true” to most readers….completely independent of the actual truth of what is being stated.
Remember that when your innocence is proven after having been wrongly accused of a crime, you will still be trusted less than before the ordeal, the accusation creates the climate of suspicion.
If a certain position has taken root, you will see that information channels that voice a different opinion or chain of events than the protagonists own view will easily be branded “propaganda newspapers” or low quality journalism.
This will give both sides a reason to not listen to any information that might force them to rethink their position, this intellectual laziness is exactly what propaganda aims to exploit. Once the trenches are drawn and both sides are dug in then the circle is round. Both sides will have their truth and only conflict will determine who’s truth is truer.
Then again we will be remindedto what the cost is to forget history: … it’s very, very expensive.
The list of “most common” examples is substantial and to address even half of them would make this article unnecessary long, a handful of them will be highlighted in a follow-up article.
Let’s just take one black-and-white position here and try to make sense out of it.
The annexation of Crimea by the Russian federation.
Crimea is a part of Russia and the referendum confirmed this as fact.
On one side of the divide you will hear the word annexation often, the word in itself is chosen because it implies that a crime is being committed (Annexation (Latin ad, to, and nexus, joining) is the forcible acquisition of a state’s territory by another state.)
Using the word is propaganda by way of semantics because it implies unilateral action, this was not the case here. Amalgamation or unification are more appropriate though not completely correct either, accession is probably closest.
On the other hand and the other side of the divide it is not as simple as pointing to the referendum because Russia signed the Budapest memorandum.
Now it gets interesting, if the people of Crimea really wanted to go their own way and voiced that in a referendum then the independence of Kosovo is a clear precedent.
So the validity of the referendum was taken into question. (transparent boxes, presence of military, the short time between declaring that a referendum would be held and the actual voting, etc… )
If we look at the voting behaviour of the Crimeans before the conflict we can have an idea of how the results of the referendum would be in ideal circumstances.
Referendum on Crimean sovereignty, 1991 :94.3% voted yes.
Referendum on dual Russian and Ukrainian citizenship ,1994 : 82.8% voted yes
Polling by the United nations development programme on joining Russia, 2009-2011
We can clearly see that the results of the referendum are within scope of what one would expect the results to be. Although controversial, Russia’s role in the process has most likely not influenced the outcome of the referendum (a lower than 50% in favour of joining has never been observed on the peninsula) The lack of bloodshed and violence during the accession is also an indicator to this end.
So back to our original divided positions.
Would a new referendum with international observers that confirms the results of the previous referendum legalize the status of Crimea taking in mind the Kosovo precedent?
Did Russia violate the Budapest memorandum by recognizing the outcome of the referendum?
Did Russia violate the Budapest memorandum by accepting the accession treaty?
And ofcourse the biggest elephant in the room: Do the legal rights of the nation state trump the right to self-determination of people?
Because that is ultimately the question both sides refuse to pose. Do we accept that our artificial borders are more permanent than the more natural borders of language/culture/tribal/sectarian/religious etcetera?
Or do we accept that every artificial border in Africa, the Middle-East and other places that cuts through peoples rather than following the natural divide between them is a conflict waiting to happen that eventually will result in the borders changing?
If you use the word annexation you’ll be in favour of sanctions or force until the Crimea is returned to Ukraine because the rights of the state trump the people’s right to self-determination.
If you use the word (re) unification you’ll be in favour of accepting that Crimea is Russian because the right to self-determination of the people trump the rights of the state and that sanctions are an act of war against Russia.
Stripped of propaganda it will read: Whatever happens now will create a precedent towards determination or towards state souvereignty, both outcomes will complicate the situation of regions where state borders do not follow the demographic.
If this would be a game of poker…… everybody just went “all-in”.
Author: P. Dever is a freelance journalist and political activist he is a regular contributor to the South Front project.