Monday, July 28, 2014

The Great War and the rise of propaganda

The Great War started one hundred years ago, on July 28, 1914. It was later known as the first world war, but the term "Great War" better conveys the enormity of something that had never happened before in human history. Here I propose an interpretation of the war based on the emergent properties of complex systems: the triumph of propaganda.

One hundred years after the start of the Great War, we are still struggling to understand what caused Europeans to decide that it was a good idea to kill each other by the millions while staying in humid and lice infested trenches. Political and economic factors are often mentioned, but are hardly sufficient. Wars have been around from the beginning of human history, but had never reached the size and the level of ferocity of the Great War.

What made the Great War so destructive was the power of what was later called "propaganda" (and which today we tend to call "consensus building"). In turn, propaganda was a classic case of an emergent phenomenon of complex systems. It was an unexpected result of the diffusion of literacy in industrialized countries. As an example, by the end of the 19th century, France had achieved a nearly 100% degree of literacy in its population  (image below from Wikipedia). Several European countries, including Germany, Britain, and others, had reached similar rates.
People were taught to read and write because literacy was a useful ability in a rapidly industrializing society. But, for literacy, just as for many other things, there holds the law of unexpected consequences. Once most people were able to read and write, the rules of the game of communication changed completely. Before the age of literacy, governments had to rely on town criers screaming "hear ye, hear ye!" in order to tell their subjects that a war had been declared and that they had to enlist in the army. With literacy, people would read newspapers and were told not only that they had to enlist, but how good and beautiful it was to enlist to fight against the evil monsters that the enemies were.

In a classic case of reinforcing feedback, propaganda fed on itself. As people became more and more convinced to be on the side of good against evil, the war became harsher and more out of control, generating more hate and more propaganda. In part, this disastrous spiral was a spontaneous phenomenon, but soon governments learned how to exploit it. It took some time to develop the right techniques, but we can pinpoint the beginning of modern war propaganda methods with the sinking of the British ship "Lusitania" by a German submarine in 1915. Allied propaganda exploited the sinking in ways which we can easily recognize as a standard part of "false flag" operations: the extensive use of the media to demonize the enemy. These technologies are still commonly used today and are perhaps more effective than ever.

Today, images and movies are used to complement and replace the written world of a century ago, but the basic mechanism of propaganda remains the same: governments can reach their subjects with a tremendous barrage of false or distorted information. People are not normally equipped to defend themselves from this onrush of disinformation and tend to react either believing in it or taking refuge in bizarre conspiracy theories - often manufactured as part of more false flag propaganda operations.

The emergent phenomenon of propaganda during the Great War took most people by surprise and, after the war was over, there were several attempts to understand it and - if possible - control it. Edward Bernays was a pioneer in this field with his 1928 book "Propaganda". He was an optimist and thought that propaganda could be used for good purposes. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to control a self-reinforcing phenomenon and today we are as sensitive as a hundred years ago to the waves of hate which periodically engulf the public opinion. The case of the non-existing "Weapons of Mass Destruction" which led to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the most recent full size manifestation of this phenomenon. Others may be in the making right now.

So, a hundred years later, the story of the Great War is a lesson on how difficult it is for us to manage complex systems. Our society, one of the most complex systems that ever existed in human history, is subjected to destructive transitions created by emergent control phenomena which appear out of nowhere: unpredictable and uncontrollable. Propaganda feeds on itself and creates waves of hate which generate destructive wars. The illusory perception of abundance of oil and gas created by fracking leads to the diversion of immense amounts of resources to a task which is leading us nowhere. Waves of self-reinforcing optimism in the media lead to financial bubbles and then to destructive crashes, as it happened in 2008 and may happen again.

The war propaganda of one century ago looks to us hopelessly naive. But the core ideas developed at the time of the Great War are still with us, although often in subtler and more effective forms. The diffusion of the Internet is adding layers and layers of complexity to the once simple mechanisms of propaganda and the fragmentation of the infosphere makes it even more difficult to control it. Never in history, we have faced such an incredibly complex system which is shaping our perception of the world. The infosphere is quickly becoming a game of mirrors where multiple images of the same thing scream at each other "I am the real one".

Where is it all leading us? We don't know, we cannot know. The future, as usual, is a dim reflection of the past. So, the Great War is part of our past, but also of our future. With its more than 10 million deaths and with its incredible mix of love and hate, it is still part of the way we are, part of the way we see the world, part of the way we react to the unknown, to the mysterious essence of the universe.


These words by Olaf Stapledon (last and first men) may give us a hint of what we are facing.

Great are the stars, and man is of no account to them. But man is a fair spirit, whom a star conceived and a star kills. He is greater than those bright blind companies. For though in them there is incalculable potentiality, in him there is achievement, small, but actual. Too soon, seemingly, he comes to his end. But when he is done he will not be nothing, not as though he had never been; for he is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things.

Man was winged hopefully. He had in him to go further than this short flight, now ending. He proposed even that he should become the Flower of All Things, and that he should learn to be the All–Knowing, the All–Admiring. Instead, he is to be destroyed. He is only a fledgling caught in a bush-fire. He is very small, very simple, very little capable of insight. His knowledge of the great orb of things is but a fledgling’s knowledge. His admiration is a nestling’s admiration for the things kindly to his own small nature. He delights only in food and the food-announcing call. The music of the spheres passes over him, through him, and is not heard.

Yet it has used him. And now it uses his destruction. Great, and terrible, and very beautiful is the Whole; and for man the best is that the Whole should use him.

But does it really use him? Is the beauty of the Whole really enhanced by our agony? And is the Whole really beautiful? And what is beauty? Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness.


  1. Very good piece, thank you. And below, my own two cents.

    The complexity of human society and of all its interactions definitely has increased dramatically and is increasing further and so is the quantity and the complexity of information and also that of propaganda - which is also multilayered and interactive-

    We have come a long way since World War I and also since World War II and Goebbels, and there's probably yet further to go. Human literacy has facilitated it and higher levels of education I think also tend to increase the possibility for doing propaganda since it is done not only through various media but also through education and academia and culture. In my opinion, some of the politically most brainwashed people are found in the intelligentsia and not necessarily among average people.

    And the Internet and the info-sphere as you say have become a game of mirrors (smoke and mirrors in fact) with various sources of "somewhat valid" or "mostly valid", or perhaps "mostly not valid information" and pure propaganda all competing with each other, with other actors then picking up the messages and amplifying them and passing them on or distorting or confusing or qualifying them further, and all of this at higher and higher speeds.

    And it also has become more and more difficult for anyone in the ecosystem to say "let's stop for a moment here and think for a minute about what is true and real and what is not in this particular situation as it exists and evolves in its temporal and spatial context, and what is really going on and why" . If someone tried to do that someone else might start spreading something tantamount to a propaganda of epistemology or metaphysics in addition to the more typical kind based on vested interests and politics.

    And in fact the rise of relativism and the notion of the equivalence of opinions I think also has made it more difficult to distinguish between perceptions and understandings or interpretations with more "validity" from those with less. (and that is in itself probably a form of academic propaganda with a wider and more general effect and coverage) And naturally there can be quite some risk and danger in all of this since the whole understanding and knowledge base needed for making good decisions of all kinds by a broad range of actors becomes questionable, uncertain and more difficult and complex. And this can lead to poor and dangerous decisions in different places where good ones would have been far preferable. (e.g. to World War I)

    What can be done about all this? In my opinion not that much other than to try -at least individually- to stick to the basics of rationality and logic, rules of evidence and fact and etc. and suggest to other actors who one can hope to influence that they do the same. But will that help? Probably not.

    On the other hand it may still be possible for people to judge things such as whether Israel is mostly only legitimately defending itself or is committing war crimes in Gaza or whether it was the anti-Kiev-government forces who launched that missile or whether it was the Ukrainian military or who exactly was responsible. (So that perhaps new “Sarajevos” could be avoided)

    I also agree that the universe is mysterious but I believe we should keep trying to make it a bit less mysterious to the limited extent we can, including also in the broad area of human affairs.

    If starting perhaps with Democritus we later can come up with the Standard Model of Physics perhaps we also can figure out how to cut through reams and reams of multi-layered and inter-nestled propaganda of all types from countless sources to arrive at that elusive and difficult to define thing called the truth.

  2. Yes, I agree a very good piece.
    The Hall of Mirrors is an effective analogy - where an enquiring mind gets lost.
    I frequently feel lost.

    But I can remember in Britain feeling the psychic shock of certain events - when the country rang like a bell. Princess Diana's death was one; and perhaps to a lesser extent the Enniskillen atrocity by the IRA another (but interestingly this was a 'turning point' in the 'troubles'); and there was the moment early in the Falklands when Argentinian troops took the surrender of the token British Marine unit. I did not much share the universal sentiments and conclusions (actually hate was not a component for the vast majority of people), but knew that these had happened and that irrevocable events would follow.

    So it goes - emergent phenomena indeed!


    1. Hi Phil, I agree with you that one can sometimes feel lost. But I think it is in fact a good thing if it means (as I think it does) that one is doubting or is questioning the information and analyses and conclusions that one is being imperceptibly led towards, either directly or most often indirectly and tacitly, by various sources and actors, visible or invisible and operating in the present or reaching forward from the past. It is only a bad thing if one starts to despair. And it is an even worse one if -in the desire to not be or feel lost - one concludes too hastily the wrong things. (either factually or morally) . So one just has to realize that one is always swimming in a sea of propaganda and “keep one’s cool” and one's wits so to speak.

      In fact living in a sea of multi-layered propaganda of all types offers a great opportunity to try to understand human society better and how it actually is configured and divided up (into social classes, nations, groups, and etc.) and why and how such various classes and nations and groups and individuals etc. pursue their own interests (or what they have deluded themselves into believing are their "interests" - since they are often extremely short sighted and this also based on other types of propaganda) by trying to have various others in various places come to believe certain things and not other ones and by necessity having to try to deceive these various "others" including also the general public in their own country or further afield when real evidence and facts instead the falsified kind (if they were even known and often they are not) would point them in other directions.

      Naturally the existence of propaganda and its constant creation and interaction with ongoing new realities of various types (including "false flag" operations) is not only an opportunity and a great learning laboratory for increasing one's own understanding. It is also a great opportunity to be misled and fall victim to very wrong conclusions which are not in one's interest or in the interest of the things and people one cares about.
      And although one can struggle to seize the good opportunities it also is important to realize that at least sometimes one WILL in fact be deceived and come to wrong conclusions which one then stores away in one's memory space. So it is important to go back and revisit various fundamental assumptions and conclusions one had come to in the past and "double check" their validity.

      One way people can protect themselves from some of the more modern types of propaganda (I would agree that it is a continually further emerging human emergent phenomenon but I think it has existed in other forms from well before the beginning of the 20th century; if that were not the case it would have been impossible for various kings, emperors, popes and even village headmen or tribal leaders or witch-doctors to maintain their hold and influence over their "subjects" and peoples) is by stepping back and studying the phenomenon as a whole and trying to understand it better.

      In this respect one can read countless good specific descriptions and analyses and instances of the phenomenon and how it operates. But one could start by reading some of the "more generic" classics e.g. Edward Bernays 1928 book which Ugo refers to, or Manufacturing of Consent by Noam Chomsky or one can examine and diagnose particular examples of a certain type of propaganda which show up in unusually reliable works such as Inside the Company by Philip Agee.

      You also mention the Falklands conflict thirty years ago. How much of the following article made it into the mainstream media then? Were these realities perhaps not known to British and U.S. intelligence at the time? Was the conflict about "the rights of the English-speaking people of the islands"?

      ATB, Max

    2. Yes, Max. I am glad you quote interesting source books. You are correct to reference historical parallels and contexts where propaganda was a key tool. I think of London which was a disproportionately large city in early modern times (London grew from an already huge 70K to 700,000 from 1550 to 1750). In those days we were already in the world of secret police and 'agent provocateur', and 'rent-a-mobs' ('Church & King' mobs used as policy tools).

      Regarding the British examples that I quoted - the shock reaching just about everybody in the pond almost simultaneously - a friend remarked when I later discussed them with him, that there are organised people who spend very big money trying to create moments like that.

      In the case of the Falklands, Thatcher did not have to create Galtieri and his precarious regime, nor the ongoing downgrading of British military capacity as it became too expensive to maintain a facade dated from the days of Empire. At the time I was against going to war with Argentina after their sudden military occupation of the islands and a small British village and a few farms 8000 miles away (and their recovery of Malvinas after 150 years?). I also shared British military appraisal that the risks for expeditionary failure were too great. For Thatcher though this was a 'Churchill moment'! The bell had rung throughout the Nation and every pub in the country was glued to its TV screen.

      Well we sold the aircraft carrier a few years later, but put in a large military airfield. Oil exploration continues, so it might even pay for itself. And instead of being thrown out of office the next year for gross economic incompetence, Thatcher went on to greater things like following her friend Pinochet and introducing (is it neo-liberal or is it neo-con ?), what we now experience as global economic orthodoxy (Chicago School - Ayn Rand stuff). Kind of modern Shock Doctrine' I think.

      Thatcher's success was based on a genuine 'natural' propaganda coup - and of course her very smart Foreign Secretary who had not quite seen it coming must resign. She had not engineered the event and was not in control of the outcome, but who cares? Rejoice! as she said later.


    3. Thank you Phil for your elaboration of "the British examples" and in particular that of the Falklands. I suppose that that conflict suited both Mr. Galtieri AND Mrs. Thatcher very well. And it is difficult to say which of the two was worse, though Galtieri ended up having a far lesser influence on modern world history, which very regrettably was not the case for "Maggie and her sidekick Ronnie" and their TINA and their "non- existence of society but only of a collection of separate individuals", to name just a couple of their "best" influences.

      And since you liked that I quoted some interesting source books - and I can particularly recommend "Inside the Company" which I read thirty years ago and which provided me an indispensable basic understanding of "intelligence" operations ever since; (which in fact include some of the dumbest and most morally bankrupt things in this world) - let me now mention another very good book which I have just started reading called "935 Lies" by a Mr. Charles Lewis who is the founder of The Center for Public Integrity and a reasonably well known figure in the field of investigative reporting.

      Obviously the 935 Lies are a just a few too many for me to mention or even try summarize here. But based on the first seventy pages I definitely can recommend the book. And by the way guess where I first learned about it? On Russian TV in English which interviewed the author. And definitely not on the BBC or Fox News or CNN; so maybe some of the counter-propaganda can be useful sometimes?

      I will quote just one short paragraph from the inside cover (1) of the book and also two short introductory quotes to its Prologue (2 i) and (2 ii) which I thought were full of meaning and significance.

      1) "Today the quest for truth is more difficult and confusing than ever. (and I would add, and therefore it is that much more important to pursue that quest relentlessly) . The cacophony of the Internet, the flood of axe-grinding commentary on cable TV, and the growing legions of paid lobbyists and advocates eager to twist the truth all help to erode the sense of authority once granted to responsible journalists. (and replace it with the House of Mirrors described by Ugo) History is sculpted by its absence. Charles Lewis is a veteran of the battle for public integrity. "935 Lies" explores the many ways truth is manipulated by governments and corporations. Through examples from the countless lies, administrations (he is referring here to U.S. administrations but he could just as easily have been referring to the British or any other government) of both parties have used to justify needless wars to the successful decades-long suppression of the truth about tobacco and other dangerous products. Lewis shows how the value of truth is diminished by delay. (and this observation I think is quite important) He explains the political, social and business changes that have increasingly weakened the ability of journalists to play their traditional truth-telling role".

      And the truth of course was and will remain extremely important.

      2 i ) In fact in 395 A.D. St. Augustine wrote: "When regard for truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful"

      And can there be ANY doubt that "regard for truth" in the recent period of the modern age has been "slightly more" than just "slightly weakened"?

      Society as a whole of course pays the consequences and Anna Arendt explained why and how in "Truth and Politics" in "The Portable Hannah Arendt" in 1967 (follows below)

    4. 2 ii) "The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lies will now be accepted as truth, and truth be defamed as lies, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world - and the category of truth vs. falsehood is among the mental means to this end- is being destroyed"

      Current Israeli leaders would do well to listen to these words of Hannah Arendt if they do not wish the Israeli people to completely lose "their bearings in the real world".

      But in fact this same advice could be given to all other purveyors of lies and misinformation and of exercises in deception and misleading propaganda in all the Western nations and of course many of the "Eastern" ones as well. Which is that there is a price to be paid for propagating misinformation and propaganda.

      It could perhaps be explained like this. If you (the government) end up being believed or believed sufficiently, the people will lose their bearings in the specific areas being lied about but will lose their bearings also in other areas and ways as well. (since something fundamental is being destroyed in their internal reasoning and ethical processes) And this is true both for propaganda relating to current events as well as for longer term propaganda (e.g. the merits of neoliberalism) as well for lies regarding history.

      And if you (the government or other purveyor) are NOT believed or are mistrusted you will end up being completely de-legitimized sooner or later, it's only a matter of when. (the truth is far more recalcitrant than any government or private vested interest) Though a few historical lies have withstood the test of time and lasted for well over a thousand years.

      Alternatively you can simply never give up and just ramp up your propaganda and lies even further (creating further lies or further layers of lies) and end up being even more thoroughly discredited later on.

      (i.e. "the harder they come the harder they fall, one and all" and "what goes around, comes around" just to take the opportunity to mention a couple of my favorite sayings)

      So one could perhaps conclude that in fact it may pay to tell the truth in more ways than one, and that one pays a price in more ways than one when one lies and tries to deceive. The truth is in fact our friend, not our enemy. And if it is our enemy it is almost certain that we are doing something wrong or not quite right. And so perhaps best to try to fix it than to lie about it.

      A word to the wise?

      But where are all the wise folks these days? It is certainly very hard to see any in most positions of leadership in either government, business, finance, banking, politics, media and in fact almost anywhere else too.

      ATB, Max

    5. Hi Max
      Thanks for recommendations.
      You quote Hannah Arendt. To my shame I have not read her work, only extracts, but deep respect. We wander, if we can stay neutral and alert, in strange and sometimes hostile lands.

  3. Yes, mirrors shine in mirrors. On the net ornate deceptions disguise who is really who and what their true positions, intents, and beliefs are. Propaganda on the net destroys trust.

    What can be done? I agree with Max, not that much but to try and to stick to the basics of rationality and logic. I'll add to that never stop asking questions, and know that propaganda exists! It may be hard for Europeans to understand the strong undercurrent in America that worships authority and obediently believes whatever they are told to believe. The thought that they are being served heaping portions of rancid propaganda every day is something Americans don't even think about. Sad but true.

    As I type this the Air Force Blue Angels are practising for their annual SeaFair air show over Seattle Washington. I'm five miles due east of where the center of the show always is.

    Consensus building in action over my head. Not of a literary kind but I'll relate it to the subject of internet propaganda anyway. If you can believe that America with its enormous military budget does not also employ people to propagate preferred points of view and shut down opposing points of view, then I have a bridge between Brooklyn New York and Manhattan Island to sell you.

    Internet Sock Puppets and their ilk are despicable. As Ugo says, "Propaganda feeds on itself and creates waves of hate which generate destructive wars." It is unpredictable and uncontrollable internet propaganda will ossify and destroy positive social change like cancer cells destroy a healthy body.

    The doghouse just shook from a screaming low altitude run. I'm glad I'm not in Gaza.

  4. " I have a bridge between Brooklyn New York and Manhattan Island to sell you."

    In Italy, we have a tradition of selling the Coliseum in Rome to American tourists! :-)

  5. My son will be on a plane to Milan in four days, I'd better warn him!

    1. Don't worry. The Coliseum thing was years ago. Now the Americans are selling us hamburgers.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)