Monday, 21 March 2011

Propaganda 2.0

In James Cameron’s 3D epic Avatar, the US government uses remotely operated clones to infiltrate and attempt to colonise an alien race. Despite great critical acclaim and estimating takings of over $2.7bn worldwide, it was famously overlooked in the 2009 Oscars, with the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director instead going to The Hurt Locker, a gritty and realistic take on the trails and tribulations of a bomb disposal unit in the Iraq war. If, as many commentators speculated at the time, Avatar was snubbed because its allegorical science fiction take on American activities in the Middle East was deemed too far-fetched and outlandish when compared with the understated authenticity of The Hurt Locker, then perhaps now is a good time for the Academy to consider reviewing their decision.

News that the Pentagon is developing an “online persona management service” or, in plain English, the capability for a single person to operate a number of fake social media accounts in order to counteract anti-American sentiment online, brings Cameron’s film back to mind. Quite why it requires a multi-million dollar contract to create what is essentially a number of phony Facebook accounts is unclear, however the US’s desire to “counter enemy propaganda” (Bill Speaks US Central Command), is nothing new.  

Scarcely a conflict goes by where the battle for hearts and minds clichĂ© isn’t trotted out. The only difference now being, that this battleground is increasingly found online. According to the plans tabled, military controlled social networking accounts, or “sock puppets” as they have disparagingly come to be known, will not be permitted to be used on English language websites, instead focusing on Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto speaking audiences. Not only does this demonstrate an uncomfortable double-standard in the implementation of this programme, it is also reveals the complexity involved in modern 21st century propaganda.

Government agents may wistfully look back to days gone by, when the spreading of a particular political agenda, was an altogether much simpler task. Taking Hollywood again as an inspiration, Jean Jacques Annaud’s 2001 film, Enemy At The Gates, tells the real life story of a duel fought between a German and Russian sniper at the battle of Stalingrad. As shown in the film however, the story of this duel soon becomes more important than the actual exploits of the snipers. As a young political officer played by Joseph Fiennes puts it:  “We must tell magnificent stories, stories that extol sacrifice, bravery, courage. We must give them hope, pride, a desire to fight. We must make them believe in the victory. Yes, we need make examples, yes, but examples to follow. What we need, are heroes”

Despite being taken to task by a number of historians on questions of its accuracy, (ironically there is a school of thought who argue the German sniper was fabricated by Soviet intelligence at the time, to boost the legend of their own man); Enemy At The Gates reveals the relative ease with which certain tactical embellishments became the accepted version of the truth. Indeed, it begs the question why back then they didn’t just make it all up, after all, its not as if people had access to the internet to verify the information they were being told. Not like now. It certainly seems paradoxical that whilst technological advances have encouraged the creation of ever-more sophisticated propaganda, they have simultaneously made it easier for the more investigative-minded to expose misinformation. 

All that was needed to conscript people into the army for the First World War was a picture of a man with a big moustache pointing at them. Ninety years later however, the government had to produce a widely criticised 19 page document, much of it cut and paste, to attempt to engender public support for the Iraq war, and that hardly worked did it? Gone are the days when you could simply give your enemy a wooden horse large enough to fit an army inside and be thanked for your generosity. For better or worse people are naturally much more sceptical these days and technology has played a major role in aiding that scepticism. The slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”, was used to keep peoples’ spirits up throughout the dark days of the Second World War, I’d imagine that its impact would have been somewhat lessened had it been encountered trending on Twitter. What’s more an unforeseen impact in the ascendency of the internet has been to give the lesser power in any dispute the opportunity to gain an equal share of voice. Although it may be embarrassing for the United States to have so far been unable to capture Osama Bin Laden, this embarrassment is compounded by the fact that Bin Laden is able to publicise his avoidance of capture by periodically uploading Youtube videos. With this in mind you can’t help but feeling a sense of futility about this latest propaganda venture and I doubt it will take long for the first “sock puppet” to be outed as the fictional construct of some IT graduate from the Midwest, probably not too long after he ends his first status update with the word “lol”.

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