Propaganda is a potent weapon used by politicians and rival nations to wage a war of words, especially those abetted by a biased media.
It is used by politicians to deceive, convince and indoctrinate. Terrorist organisations use it to radicalise. Propaganda works like a Covid-19 infection. We catch it and spread it around like carriers. In this manner, we too are active perpetrators of propaganda against those we are taught to believe are our enemies. Much of the present infection is imported from the United States because we are sidling too close to them politically and thus fail to observe the 1.5 meter distance.
The Macquarie Dictionary definition that fits my essay best is the one that says: “dissemination of ideas, information or rumour for the purpose of injuring or helping an institution, a cause or a person.” There are myriads of ways that the propaganda machine can be used to deceive. Some of the more common paradigms are:
- Omitting information when accusing others of miscreant behaviour. There is no historical context. A attacks B. A is wrong! This is said without revealing the intolerable provocation that happened prior to the incident.
- Using disinformation e.g. “False claims that asylum seekers sailing from Indonesia to northern Australia were throwing children into the sea in their attempts to enter Australia … but Mr Howard continued to back the children overboard story in the month leading up to the November 10 polls.”
- Making lies look like facts. Hong Kong police attempting to control riots and vandalism by youths on the rampage are suppressing the human rights of the people.
- Exaggerating and myth making. Several hundred killed in Tiananmen Square was turned into the myth of a massacre. Millions of people killed in wars perpetrated by the US against weaker nations after WWII were not massacres but “collateral damage”. These deaths are the ultimate deprivation of human rights.
- These methods are used with appeal to the insecurities, nostalgia, parochialism and prejudices of the audience to gain support and spread hatred.
- Playing the victim. “Australia began with anti-dumping tariffs in 2017 on Chinese steel and aluminium products that the WTO later found illegal” When China imposed sanctions on Australian products (beef, barley, cotton, lamb lobsters, timber and wine), the LNP government called it economic coercion.
More subtly, words are used that go unnoticed. For instance, the word “disappear” has often been used by the Australian mainstream media to accuse China of human rights abuses. When Australians are suspected or found guilty of an offence, they are properly described as under police detention, in prison, under juvenile detention or deported. When it comes to the Chinese, they just “disappear”. Take for example an article by Annika Burgess in ABC News on Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai’s “disappearance”. She says, “Disappearances can target all types of people, whether it’s corrupt officials, media personalities, booksellers who distribute material critical of the government, or citizen journalists reporting on the country’s pandemic response.” Even though the Chinese government often obligingly produced the “disappeared” person to show that the person is alive and hearty, the damage has been done. The viral word “disappeared” has lodged itself indelibly in the audiences’ psyche.
The word “disappear” conjures up images of the type of disappearances that occured in Argentina when a military junta seized power from President Isabel Peron in 1976. In a historical account titled, “30,000 People Were ‘Disappeared’ in Argentina’s Dirty War. These Women Never Stopped Looking” by Erin Blakemore. He describes mothers still having no closure on their “disappeared” children in the following terms: The government made no effort to identify or document the desaparecidos. By “disappearing” them and disposing their bodies, the junta could in effect pretend they never existed. They knew about the “death flights” in which bodies were flung from aeroplanes into bodies of water. They heard rumours about detention centres where people were raped and tortured. And they searched desperately for traces of their loved ones.
“Assertive” is a favourite Australian media word to describe China and its activities in the South China Sea. The word looks innocuous enough. Used in propaganda, it is a way of establishing hierarchy. When China took a number of disputed islands in the South China Sea, it was said to be increasingly assertive. However, when the US took Diego Garcia from its rightful owners, and expelled them without adequate compensation, to use as a military base see it was not described as assertive. As the world’s biggest power, it was expected to behave in that manner. If it makes the comparison clearer, one often hears an employer complaining that the servant/maid is getting assertive. Never the other way round.
On Anzac Day in April 2022, Australia Defence Minister Peter Dutton said: “The only way you can preserve peace is to prepare for war and be strong as a country, not to cower, not to be on bended knee and be weak.” This reads like belligerence couched in self defence. This was also meant to soften Australians up to the massive spending that the government wanted to commit to defence. It is more logical to say, “If you want war, prepare for war.” A case in point is the bipartisan government commitment to purchase eight nuclear powered submarines for $368 billion.
Thinking in contradictory terms is the main symptom of a propaganda infection. We complain that China, our biggest trading partner, is damaging our trade with sanctions on a few items but we are preparing to fight them to completely destroy our trade with them. We accuse China of violating freedom of navigation when the navigation route they are protecting is our own trade passage to and from China. Richard Marles, our Defence Minister, says that the relationship with China is very complex. It would not be complex if we were not stuck to the US like a postage stamp and about to be delivered to the wrong address.
We are less susceptible to infection if we improve our immune system by thinking logically and rationally.