Propaganda has been part and parcel of war throughout the history of armed conflicts. With the spread of journalistic and especially digital media, propaganda has become a more effective force, and hence more significant. Propagandists aim to strengthen their own position by influencing their own people and soldiers, or alternatively to harm the enemy. There are many avenues of attack – such as troop morale, questioning the legality of combat missions, or influencing third parties.
Cultural scientist Bernd Zywietz explains the communicative possibilities that are currently available to conflict participants. He particularly mentions, following Moisés Naím, the “YouTube effect”. Real or purported grass roots reporters, shooting photos and videos on cellphones, spread image material via social media that now finds its way into conventional news reporting. For serious editors, diligently checking this material has become an important task.
According to Zywietz, the most effective propaganda is not the direct confrontational attack. Subversive activities prove to have a more lasting impact. The necessary resources are part of the fabric of democratic constitutional states: covert propagandists write readers’ letters and post on web forums, or set up their own media organizations, which they are at liberty to do in a free society.
On this point – and here the enemy propaganda already achieves one of its objectives – democratic countries are caught in an inner conflict. By virtue of their constitution, they allow freedom of expression, but find themselves threatened precisely because of their liberal values. Zywietz advises meeting this challenge with counterpropaganda. As a first step, therefore, he attempts an etymological and historical rehabilitation of the term. Pointing out that until the start of the 20th century, unlike today, “propaganda” did not have a negative connotation, Zywietz argues for a redefinition. Ultimately, Zywietz believes, “propaganda” is just as multi-layered, amorphous and ambivalent a term as “hybrid war”. By taking such a positive turn, the practice of propaganda would be easier to legitimize.