Propaganda and the Internet

By June 12, 1999 No Comments

The recent NATO bombing campaign against Serbia was perhaps the first extra-national conflict (aside from some minor border clashes) since the Gulf War of 1991. There is a hackneyed old saying that truth is the first casualty in war — a statement that is too trite to be accurate, and too general to be untrue. In any case, all parties strove to put their own perspectives out to the public. However, this was the first conflict in which extensive use was made by all sides and onlookers of a revolutionary new communications medium — the Internet.

The Internet and the World Wide Web (the two being virtually interchangeable) is a new medium and already might be considered a wonder of the world in its own right. Like everything else humanity has ever produced, it will have an influence on the course of warfare. However, being almost entirely a communications tool, its main role will be largely confined to that sphere.

The attempt to communicate a perspective from one side in a conflict is inevitably called propaganda by the other. Sometimes the charge of propaganda use is true, often it is not.

Propaganda — as opposed to merely “massaged” or “spin-doctored” communications — has some unique characteristics. All of these elements must be present in order for a propaganda campaign to actually occur. Jacques Ellul, the author of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (the definitive work on the subject that even the Soviets recommended) describes these characteristics as:


  • Aimed at the individual within the mass (concentrating on the “average” man insofar as one exists)
  • “Total”, in that all forms of media and communications are used ceaselessly as a part of the campaign
  • Continuous and lasting, Ellul pointed out that “Propaganda tends to make the individual live in a separate world, he must not have any outside points of reference.
  • Organized by an apparat or bureaucracy with control over all themes and communications
  • Aimed at instilling “orthopraxy” in the subject population. This is important to remember; propaganda is not aimed at getting people to think in a particular way, it is aimed at getting them to act in a consistent way. Remember that modern advertising campaigns resemble propaganda in many characteristics. The aim of the Bouncy Bubble Soda Company is not to get you to think their product is nice, but to become a regular consumer of it.


  • The propagandist must know the ‘psychological terrain’ of the individuals within the target audience in order to use existing preconceptions or ideas in developing themes. Ellul concluded that “Hate, hunger, pride make better levers of propaganda than do love and impartiality.
  • The prevailing currents of thought in society must also be utilized. A propaganda campaign cannot re-create an entire society’s feelings towards another society. It can only moderately reshape what already exists.
  • Propaganda in its explicit form must relate solely to what is timely” –without allowing events to redirect carefully prepared themes and messages.
  • Propaganda must be most carefully aimed at the undecided in society.
  • Propaganda must contain some true elements. Sometimes, the truth is tenuous indeed, but it still works. For example, the Nazis used to film Jews who most resembled the stereotypes they had presented in their own propaganda to German audiences. This was a shred of ‘truth’ that helped to dehumanize an entire people.

Ellul’s best definition of propaganda is this:

Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization.

If a communications program does not reflect these characteristics or meet this definition, then propaganda cannot really be said to be present. Were there attempts to produce propaganda during the Kosovo Crisis? Did they succeed? Was the Internet and the World Wide Web a help or a hindrance to any propaganda campaigns?

For a start, the idea of a NATO propaganda campaign can be instantly dismissed. Democratic countries find it extremely difficult to mount propaganda campaigns. It was possible during the Second World War for the US and the UK to create a campaign of sorts. This was only because of the almost universal acceptance of the necessity of the war effort and the wide public participation in it. The diversity of opinion that normally characterizes Western societies and debars government propaganda was voluntarily suspended for a temporary period.

During the Kosovo Bombings, complete unanimity among the 19 NATO nations was absent, nor was there anything like a total endorsement of the bombing campaign among the publics of the participating nations. Under these circumstances, orchestrated propaganda is impossible even should a government be willing to attempt it. Rather, what did happen is that the public reserved judgement of the issue. Support for the bombing was never strong, but neither was opposition to it. The situation probably would have remained the same had NATO sent in ground troops instead.

The Milosevic government in Serbia had the means to attempt a propaganda campaign. Ownership of the media is largely concentrated in the hands of the Milosevic family, and dissenting media outlets were rapidly shut down by the authorities during the crisis. Large elements of the Serbian public were already partly conditioned to an antipathy both towards the Western world and Kosovar Albanians. The Serbs have a large collection of powerful symbols to rally around — their historic allegiance to their church and their tradition of opposition being examples. Large elements of society, particularly the Nationalists whose support Milosevic relies on, were ready to believe what they were told.

Yet the Serbs – like all of their immediate neighbours – are stubborn and suspicious, and propaganda is like a virus. Prolonged exposure does mean that the body politic develops antibodies. Belgrade’s propaganda machinery failed to muster the strength of popular support for the regime that would allow them to withstand the destruction of their civilian infrastructure.

It also does not help when the propagandist used images that are too gratuitous. Indeed, when the propagandist vents his own spleen in constructing imagery of the enemy (depicting enemy leaders with fangs and a tail for instance), it often does his campaign more harm than good. The Yugoslavian government’s attempt to use Nazi symbols to describe NATO certainly did not connect with the average citizen.

In the end, the bombing campaign was over too quickly for NATO to have to worry about the public’s shallow support for it, while Milosevic probably realized that his political support (not his public approval) was rapidly eroding as the civilian infrastructure was destroyed.

When a new medium of communication develops, two of the first users are likely to be pornographers and propagandists. This was certainly true of the printing press – where woodcut-illustrated “how-to” manuals competed with early diatribes for printing space. Later, broadsheets and pamphlets became endemic in the political struggles of the 16th to 18th Centuries. The new mediums of film and radio were quickly turned to the use of the propagandist (and the pornographer – for film anyway). The films of Sergi Eisenstein and Leni Riefenstahl are cinematic masterpieces, despite being works of propaganda.

The video and audio cassette tapes of the 1970s and ‘80s perpetuated this tradition. Taped propaganda is common. Iranian Mullahs used taped sermons to help incite the rebellion against the Shah and to spread the word of their revolution elsewhere in the Islamic world. Video tapes from the far left and right were circulated about several issues, especially as a means of distributing “docudramas” and other films to a wider audience. There are also cases when fabricated and posed videos have had an enormous effect in uncritical audiences – as witness some of the anti-seal hunt material that has entered circulation in recent years.

Since 1990, the internet has taken off as the fastest growing method of communication in the world. The pornography industry is well represented here, but so are preachers and propagandists for a number of causes. It must be remembered that Neo-Nazis, much restricted in their access to other forms of media, were among the first major political pioneers on the Net. (Again, the Neo-Nazi movement is far too weak, diffuse and disconnected to conduct a workable propaganda campaign.) The radical left and conspiracy theory addicts were quick to follow them in, but by the mid-1990s, everybody was climbing onboard.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Internet, its characteristics are these; Users must access it over telephone lines, although satellite link-ups and TV cables are also used. So long as these exist, access to the World Wide Web exists. Access to the web and the hubs for electronic mail and storage of web sites is available through hundreds of different “server” companies – although tens of thousands of private hubs also exist. Servers vary in size and capability. The physical requirements for a server are small and not necessarily bound by geography. Many servers can handle clients from almost any nation.

A national government that attempts to impose its will on the Internet is fighting a losing battle. While a government might ask servers to cooperate, only rarely can it compel them to do so. A nation that hopes to prohibit Internet access to its citizens must either cut off all phone connections, or else attempt to arrest all those citizens with a computer who may be hostile to its purposes. Both measures might be successful in the short term only, but a nation that long pursues such a course will soon become quite backward.

While the Neo-Nazis may have been among the pioneers of Net-use for political communications, they have certainly been joined by many others. The well-funded Tamil Tigers have insured that there are dozens of sympathetic web-sites to back their cause; which makes finding more critical sites that much more difficult. Activist communities, such as the radical left, can be quick to support particular causes — thus the F ARC guerrillas of Colombia are favourably mentioned in dozens of sites, while opposing opinion is scarce.

But one of the salient features of the Web is its diversity. There are millions of sites on the web already, and such Internet features as chat rooms and discussion forums are rapidly multiplying. Anybody with an opinion and a computer can get on the net and express themselves. When a search for information can yield hundreds of sites in seconds, there is a plethora of commentary and fact available for any researcher.

During the Kosovo Crisis, dozens of websites offered a wide variety of information. The latest press briefings and policy statements from NATO nations could be downloaded, as could informed commentary and quality research from many private companies. Advocates for the Albanian and Serbian causes provided many sites. Some were eccentric (at least) in content while others were exceptionally sober and informative.

In the Kosovo crisis, the Yugoslavian government’s attempt to restrict dissenting Serbian media outlets was bypassed (for a time) by the Internet. One of the few outlets not owned by a Milosevic family member or supporter had its broadcast facilities shut down, but continued to transmit its own stories over the Internet. As long as the Internet remained open, the Serbian government could not mount an effective internal propaganda campaign.

Alas, concerns — valid and otherwise –about intelligence gathering and potentially violent activities by some Serbian expatriates convinced international telecommunications companies to cut off links to Yugoslavia for the duration of the bombing campaign. This is an interesting development; while a government might not be able to cut off its international telecommunications connections, concerted action by outside corporations can accomplish it. This may portend a new dimension to the privatization of warfare.

The Kosovo Crisis demonstrated two facts: The Web, while perhaps inclined to partisan opinion, is too diverse to lend itself to being used as propaganda. Secondly, so long as it is allowed to operate within a country, its leaders cannot hope to control all forms of communication. The Internet is a counteragent to propaganda campaigns.

However, in a secondary manner, the Internet could be of use to the propagandist. It is timely — often running at immediate speeds. It does allow one to rapidly gauge the general feelings and instincts of a society, and lets one get an idea of what the “common man” believes and is thinking. It can certainly reflect majority opinions, although as those who visit such places can attest, its discussion areas can be superficial in content. However, none of these characteristics are constant as discussion is mercurial and diverse. Good well-reasoned arguments and accurate facts can have an immediate impact on participants around the world.

But the Web cannot be long controlled, nor can it convince people to act in a particular way. As it continues to grow and expand, it may be the ultimate antidote to propaganda. Let’s make sure the whole world becomes plugged in.