What does a successful propaganda look like? Just look what happened this week with the chemical attack in Syria. This was an extremely successful war campaign that implemented all four rules of propaganda in an impeccable manner. Here are the rules:
- Keep the message simple
- Make sure it is emotional
- Don’t allow nuances or debates
- Keep repeating the message
Rule #1: The message was simple: Assad of Syria used chemical weapons to kill innocent people. The secondary message was we should do something about it. Everyone who watched TV or read the mainstream/social media got this message loud and clear. Nothing complex about; a simple script that even a 5-year-old can understand – bad guy kills innocent people.
Rule #2: Make it emotional. Propaganda is just marketing. (In fact, the phrase Public Relations was coined to replace Propaganda when the latter became a dirty word after World War I). Every good commercial has an emotional aspect to it. Emotions stop you from thinking and analyzing. Thus, while selling Pepsi, marketers use sexy women, you need to evoke fear and/or anger to sell war.
About 120 years ago, when the U.S. wanted to capture Cuba from Spain, it relied upon the exact playbook. “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war,” said the newspaper oligarch William Randolph Hearst to his cartoonist. The pictures portrayed dying children and brutal Spanish authorities. (Although Spain is white, the picture on the right used a monstrous person with African American features, since a warmonger could also be racist in those days.)
In the Syrian war propaganda, it was deja vu: the use of dead children. Children pull the heart strings. Remember during Iraq War 1, when a girl testified before the Congress that Iraqi soldiers were killing newborn babies in incubators? Of course, it turned out to be fake news; and the girl turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador.
This week is also a great study in use of emotional language: “worst chemical attack in Syria in years” (a lie from NY Times that forgot its own article about 52+ chemical attacks by ISIS); “international outrage,” “shocked the world,” “horrific/deadly/ghastly/heinous chemical attack” etc. Also, the Syrian government is always referred to as “regime” and Assad is always a “dictator” who “kills his own people.” Every word and phrase is designed to have an emotional impact.
Rule #3: The media and the pundits left absolutely no doubt who the culprit was. Within minutes after the release of pictures/videos, everyone was blaming Assad. So it didn’t matter if you listened to ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox or read the NY Times, WaPo or HuffPo … everyone was singing the same tune. This kind of consistency is really important in a successful propaganda campaign. No one considered other alternatives – could it be staged, could it be false flag, could it be that Syria dropped conventional bombs on a building that Al Qaeda was using to store chemical weapons?
There was also no discussion of evidence or proofs. We see pictures and videos, and that’s enough. We have a doctor on site who says it’s Sarin gas. End of story. Nobody discusses options such as should we send an international team of doctors and experts to the site; should we get Assad to answer these charges. The US Establishment was the jury, judge and the prosecutor. The witness was Al Qaeda who supplied the pictures and the videos, but the average person doesn’t know that either.
The secondary message was also never debated. Assuming that Assad used chemical weapons, why should the US do something about it? Is it a moral obligation that only falls on the US? Is it a legal obligation? Does the US intervene every time and anytime some country uses chemical weapons? How about non-chemical weapons? No such discussions.
Rule #4: Repetition is key in any successful campaign – selling a product, a politician or a war. Thus the media saturated the airwaves and the Internet with shocking language and pictures and videos. The U.S. really has only one media outlet, but it comes in 100s and 1000s of different names in order to give the illusion of choice and diversity. Thus the same message is repeated so many times, it comes becomes the truth.
( Check out Deconstructing the Syrian War, my new e-book on the Syrian war, the most consequential war of recent times)