Thursday, March 12, 2015

Putin eats babies: lies, damned lies, and psyops

Google Ngram's results for "propaganda". The term seems to have been most popular in a period that went from the 1940 to the 1970s, gradually losing interest in the following years. Of course, however, propaganda didn't disappear - it just went undercover.

I distinctly remember one day when I was - maybe - twelve; when my father saw me reading something that was lavishly illustrated with red flags and with hammers and sickles. He looked at that, very worried, then he relaxed. "Oh..., " he said, "that's fine: it is our propaganda." At that time, in the 1960s, my father was active in politics and the house was full of pamphlets of the Christian Democratic party. 

What I was reading was one of those pamphlets, full of vivid images of the deformed faces of Soviet communists crushing women and children under their booted feet. Those papers have disappeared from the house long ago, but examples of that old propaganda are easy to find on the Internet. You can see one on the right; it is an image that goes back to 1944, but the style and the message are the same of the time when the cold war was in full swing. Note how the caption says "Dad, save me!" echoing the well known slogan that "communists eat children".

Of course, also the other side, that of the communists, was using the same kind of naive propaganda methods and neither side seemed to think there was something wrong with that. My father, for instance, found natural and legitimate that his political side would openly engage in propaganda. It was "our" propaganda, fighting for us in the political struggle, just as "our" artillery was fighting for us in war. In a war, nobody would claim that the guns on their side were shooting flowers at the enemy.

It was only in later times that propaganda changed its face. The term never disappeared from usage, but it slowly fell out of fashion, at least in the sense that it became politically incorrect to say that one's faction was using propaganda. It was only something used by "them," not by us. "Our" side would never debase itself by using propaganda.

In part, the term "propaganda" was replaced by more neutral terms, such as "consensus building" and "public relations." In large part, however, in the West, propaganda went undercover; fully exploiting Baudelaire's observation that "the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist." It became refined, unobtrusive, subtle. And it was incredibly successful in convincing Westerners that it didn't exist - maybe for a while it even disappeared for real! Perhaps it wasn't needed any more during the period of Fukuyama's "End of History," when everybody got genuinely convinced that the collapse of the "evil empire", the Soviet Union, had shown the superiority of economic liberism At that time, everyone knew that we just needed to sit down and relax to enjoy the goods that free markets would bring to us. There was no need any more to be told over and over that our enemies were dangerous, baby-eating monsters.

But, in recent times, something has changed. Propaganda is back with a vengeance. Here is just an example:

You see? No matter how you see the recent crisis in Ukraine, you have to admit that, in terms of propaganda, we are back to the methods of the 1950s and the 1960s, just a bit more sophisticated in graphical terms, but still based on the same simple theme: our enemies are baby-killing evil monsters. It is an accusation that has been fashionable and effective from the times when the Romans accused their Cartaginese enemies to sacrifice children to their god, Baal. Note how, in the image, they have managed to put the image of a child close to the title, "Putin's killed my son," even though they are completely unrelated stories (that shows, incidentally, the contempt they feel for their readers.)

We are not yet arrived to accusing Vladimir Putin of eating babies, but - as things stand - we may not be far away from that. Look at the image, here, titled "Bloodymir;" where Putin is shown with blood on his mouth, as if he had just finished his breakfast of child meat. And these are just a few examples of the new wave of propaganda that is invading the Western media. It is amazing how these simple tricks worked in the 1950s and 1960s and still seem to work today. And it seems that they are being used to take us straight to a new war. A lot of people, indeed, seem to be reasoning today just in the same way people reasoned in the 1950s: it is "our" propaganda, hence it must be good.

We can see propaganda as one of the several failed technologies of the 20th century, just like nuclear powered cars and weekend trips to the Moon for the whole family. Propaganda never promised to take us to the Moon, but, at the beginning it, was touted as a way to build informed consensus in a democratic society. That was the theme, at least, of Edward Bernays' 1928 book, titled "Propaganda," where he stated that that propaganda is not just good, but essential for democracy: "The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society."

Evidently, something went wrong with these ideas. In its commercial version, propaganda became an instrument to convince us to buy things we don't need, while, as a political tool, it turned itself into the evil form we call today "psyops," the deliberate dissemination of lies to cast an enemy in a bad light. It is a form of black magic; powerful but extremely limited and often backfiring. Psyops can only create enemies, not friends. In the end, the effect is the opposite of what it was supposed to do in Bernay's times: by casting an external or internal opponent as "evil", consensus is destroyed, not created.

Nevertheless, Bernays had a good point: we need consensus. Of course, we don't need the forced uniformity that can be achieved by a dictatorship, but, without consensus on some basic points, it would not be possible to keep a democratic society going. The rule of the law, the need of due process, people's basic rights, are all part of this consensus. And there never was a moment as today in which we are so badly in need of consensus on such vital subjects as climate change and resource depletion which threaten the very existence of human civilization. But we are not achieving a significant consensus on these critical issues; what passes for "debate," today, is a sterile clash of absolutes were psyops have been used with great effect to destroy the credibility of a whole generation of climate scientists.

So, we are stuck: we need to manage a planet, but we don't know how to do it. Will we ever be able to find an agreement on something important that doesn't involve hating or bombing someone? Maybe there are ways, but we haven't found them, yet.


(*) Maybe you are curious to know what was the effect of a massive exposure to right-wing propaganda on a teenager (me) in the 1960s. Well, it is a long story, but I can tell you that too many and too blatant lies can badly backfire. The story of my very wavering juvenile political positions is not so interesting, but I can say that one of the reasons that led me to become a scientist was to search for an unbiased truth, somewhere, perhaps the result of the overexposure to propaganda I experienced in my youth. Over the years, I found that even science is not without biases, but, at least, in scientific debates we don't accuse our colleagues of eating babies. 


  1. Not to pick nits here, but the Engram Graph appears to have "Propaganda" peaking in 1940, not the 1960s.


    1. You are right. I was referring to the broad envelope of the curve; not to the exact peak.

  2. Try to google for Spinning, not the sport, but the propaganda techniques used against climate change. Sharon Beder, as an example. Or SLAPP.

    So, propaganda is more alive than neve, but in a more subtle way, and not only creating enemies.

    For spanish readers, this can be interesting. It works on system dynamics, so it is in the same field exposed here.

  3. Dear Bardi,
    Kudos to your itellectual honesty.
    Now, please, be so kind to post an Italian version of this article on the "national" version of your blog.
    You know, just to see the effect on persons as the one that posted a comment like the followin one on the translation of the Orlov article you just published today... ;-D

    1. It is going to be published. In the meantime, we have the one on the Russian bear translated.

    2. Dear Bardi,

      I... "don't see the hour" (OK, OK: some "maccheronic English", I know... :-D

      At least to see what new level of "mirror climbing" skill will it produce in our "friend" commentator Fra, notoriously so kind and impartial in his opinions on Russia and Putin... ;-)

      PS: Keep the good work flowing!

  4. Participation in modern life means drowning in a sea of video. In our sea of video the ability to think and perceive reality is submerged. Electronic devices have blurred the tenuous line between reality and fantasy to such a degree that mankind has now lost the ability to tell the difference between the two. Propaganda appeals to emotion and rejects truth. Critical thought has been lost and the grasp on reality which has always been tenuous is gone.

    Critical thought is the enemy of propaganda for critical thought embraces truth. Truth would have you believe the human experiment is in serious crisis. Overpopulation, resource depletion and the unsustainable lifestyles our society is committed to as articles of religious faith are not products of fantasy; they are real. To recognize that the world as it is can not endure is a truth too unpalatable and uncomfortable to accept by the greater mass of humanity. Consequently the social corpus embraces propaganda in a futile effort to make the unsustainable sustainable.

    It won't work, somebody is going to wind up eating babies, and it won't be Putin. Bernays embraced the idea that men of virtue would disseminate propaganda for the common good conveniently forgetting for his own private reasons that the devil exists within all men. Lacking virtue himself and having no regard for his fellow man he was a consummate trickster. Propaganda rocks the cradle of truth and soon we will see.

    ' what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.

  5. I think the greatest propaganda dominant today is that capitalism is the fundament of democracy -- not that either is what is purveyed. And behind the words are forces, and behind them, "monsters behind the door."

  6. We do need consensus. But I don't think it needs to be built using Bernays' methods, ideas and premises. His methods obviously do work however. His life shows that he was a brilliant opportunist. I think during the 103 years that he lived he did a lot more harm than he did good. I would like to think that human nature can be more noble and that the consensus that is needed can be built with more respect for the free will and critical thinking capacities of humans. But perhaps I am wrong. In any case I am surprised that there are any more babies left in Russia for Putin to eat for breakfast because I was sure that Stalin had eaten them all for dinner already. Perhaps that is the real reason why Putin commanded all of those Russian tank divisions to brutally invade Crimea? He was desperately looking for more baby meat to eat for breakfast? . . And OUI, Je Suis Charlie aussi ...and long live Bibi too.

  7. Ugo
    TAE highlights an extract from a Putin speech that decided USA to go for him:

    “I am convinced that we have reached that decisive moment when we must seriously think about the architecture of global security. And we must proceed by searching for a reasonable balance between the interests of all participants in the international dialogue.” February 10, 2007, 43rd Munich Security Conference

    What do you think?
    Others suggest that the decision was much earlier when it was clear that Russia had found a competent leader.
    PS I similarly benefitted from the ironies of political belief at home in my childhood: 'our propaganda'. I gravitated to uncertainty, which I found useful when I actually needed to do a bit of experimental science. It was always a relief to be able to speak truthfully, even if, often, I could not understand what we were looking at.



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)