Associate professor, PhD at the Department of Diplomatic Service and Communication of the Faculty of International Relation of YSU

While one of the aims of conventional diplomacy is to exert direct influence on foreign governments, the aim of propaganda or public diplomacy, is usually to do this indirectly; that is, by appealing over the heads of those governments to the people with influence upon them. In a tightly controlled authoritarian regime, these might be just ‘the influential few’, to borrow a phrase favoured by the Drogheda Committee; in a broadly based liberal democracy, it is likely to be the great mass of voters.

Propaganda has grown in importance since the start of World War I, albeit fitfully, because, after that time, the motives to reach for it strengthened while the means to employ it multiplied. The spread of democracy and total war both vastly increased the political importance of public opinion; then followed the emergence of ideology, a simplified, quasi-religious mode of political argument peculiarly suited to propaganda; and finally arrived the invention of nuclear weapons, which made too risky anything other than a ‘war of words’ between states incapable of serious diplomacy – as in the Cold War. In such circumstances, the appeal of being able to use propaganda to turn a foreign population against its own government on key issues, or even to the point of overthrowing it, was enormous. And to all this was added a steady improvement in the means of delivery: first, via the printed word (and photograph) to increasingly literate populations; then via short-wave radio broadcasting in indigenous languages, which reached the illiterate and is relatively cheap and virtually impossible to block; and, most recently, by television and the Internet.

In the course of the twentieth century, much was also learned about the ingredients of successful propaganda – notably, that it is best used to reinforce existing attitudes and stimulate action on the part of the already well-disposed, rather than to try to change entrenched opinions. 

There were sometimes doubts about its effectiveness, chiefly because of the methodological problems that have always dogged researched into the subject, but these doubts were always overcome in the end. This was generally a result of a consensus of informed opinion that propaganda had played a key role in certain dramatic developments.

In recent years, these include the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, where broadcasting by Western radio stations is believed to have been critical; and the spread of Islamist thinking – not least, via the Internet, to Muslim communities in the West. Certainly, there is great fear of propaganda, which is why the Chinese government censors the Internet and the Iranian government did likewise during the turbulence in Tehran that began in June 2009.
1568 reads | 26.12.2013

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