Bloomberg View recently ran a powerful article titled, “Islamic State Is Just an Umbrella Brand for Hate.” Leonid Bershidsky’s compelling piece reaffirms to me that a large part of ISIS’ success has sprung from its deft combination of the age-old rules of propaganda with the novel accessibility of social media. ISIS’ twisted (yet carefully calibrated) message can be broadcast both faster and more directly than ever to horrific effect.
The message that propagandists cultivate tends to grow through three stages of attack. First, propaganda demeans the target group, then degrades them, and ultimately dehumanizes them entirely. This subtle escalation of rhetoric is the slippery slope that allows propagandists to infect the minds and hearts of those who hear their message.
Propaganda & Powerful Public Figures
Propaganda is built on two components: a series of ever escalating lies about the target group in combination with broad, sweeping stereotyping of the target group.
It is most effective when delivered by a powerful figure, as psychologist Susan Fiske has persuasively argued. In “Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping,” she writes, “Stereotyping and power are mutually reinforcing because stereotyping itself exerts control, maintaining and justifying the status quo.” When those who have the power to reach and motivate large swaths of the public use their influence to spread misinformation or to stereotype certain groups of people, the impact is often catastrophic.
For example, Bloomberg reports that the Islamic State, crediting itself with the Paris attacks of November 2015, noted that “The targets included the Bataclan theatre for exhibitions, where hundreds of pagans gathered for a concert of prostitution and vice.“ In retrospect, this kind of blatant misinformation and mischaracterization has the power to make violent acts seem justified (at least to their target audience). When it is deployed aggressively in advance, it has the power to motivate the target audience to commit those violent acts.
Propaganda’s Destabilizing Impact
William Shirer, a Chicago Tribune Correspondent and CBS Radio reporter, lived in Berlin during the 1930s and wrote extensively on the rise of the Nazi regime. In a startling passage from The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, he describes the overwhelming and destabilizing impact of the Nazi’s facility for falsification:
“Despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda.”
It may seem as though the danger of deliberate misinformation has been mitigated. However, the barrage of information that we encounter on social media and elsewhere can still have the effect that Shirer describes. If we are constantly exposed to propaganda or stereotyping from one news source or public figure, we risk the same impressions and distortions being formed in our minds.
Propaganda’s Dire Consequences
The most gruesome example of propaganda that I know comes from the Rwandan Genocide, in a true-to-life story depicted in the 2004 movie Hotel Rwanda.
After months of rising tensions between Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups and the surreptitious stockpiling of machetes by violent Hutu factions, the signal to begin the massacre of Tutsis came from a Hutu radio announcer. In only 88 words, he incites horrific violence:
“When people ask me, good listeners, why do I hate all the Tutsi, I say, ‘Read our history.’ The Tutsi were collaborators for the Belgian colonists, they stole our Hutu land, they whipped us. Now they have come back, these Tutsi rebels. They are cockroaches. They are murderers. Rwanda is our Hutu land. We are the majority. They are a minority of traitors and invaders. We will squash the infestation. We will wipe out the RPF rebels.
This is RTLM, Hutu power radio.
Watch your neighbors.”
Rather than watching our neighbors, maybe we should be watching political figures and commentators worldwide. In this case, we should be watching and listening for sweeping stereotypes and intentional distortions of fact.