In every country in the Middle East, there are posters hung or plastered on the walls with the noble-looking picture of one political leader or another. These photos seem to grace every avenue, boulevard and wall in the region and, in Lebanon, they even include slogans celebrating “Victory” or calling for “Unity.”
Some might call this “communication,” but there is a clear divide between communicating and spreading propaganda. Although a form of communication, propaganda is deliberately biased and misleading, with a clear intention to discredit or support the views of a specific group or organization by presenting a slanted opinion most often intended to keep that group in a position of influence and power.
To be a propagandist means being selective and unbalanced in the information presented, exaggerating one side of the story and encouraging instinctive reactions by appealing to the emotions of audiences and seeking their compassion and sympathy, while trying to trigger hatred and fear of their opponents.
Propaganda is certainly not open to discussion and interpretation; in fact, history has witnessed just how political propaganda can limit people’s outlook and rally the masses into a frenzy using fear and intimidation. World War II is the most famous example of this, with both Allied Forces and Hitler and Goebbels using propaganda to varying degrees and outcomes.
In the Middle East, the mass media channels that propagandists have relied on for decades to repeat the same slogans are beginning to die out, with the advent of new technology that competes with the concept of a single ideology or worldview.
As propaganda previously relied on hammering messages through a limited and controllable number of media channels, the dawn of the new media era might have been hailed as the demise of propaganda. Instead, we witness today the revival of propaganda, with countless new channels and technologies breathing new life into it, as it never ceases to adapt, evolve, and become ever more versatile, resilient and let’s face it, cost efficient.
This means that the most effective propaganda today is not the traditional propaganda of the totalitarian leader, but the far more subtle and harder to avoid messages generated even in the nations we consider democracies. New channels of communication are blending with the old. Israeli-edited videos of suicide bombings and scared Israeli children in bomb shelters are uploaded onto YouTube and circulated in emails. These videos do not only show how new technology is propagating political opinion, but are also a powerful emotional weapon used for psychological warfare.
In the US, presidential campaign advertising, well-known for defaming candidates and resorting to personal attacks, is now easily circulated as online video and highlighted by campaign bloggers, from claims that Barack Obama is really of Muslim faith to ones that Hilary Clinton is a puppet of the Jewish lobby.
Regardless of the hype, the effectiveness of this propaganda remains questionable, and although many are fascinated by its power, chances are they will only reap the benefits of propaganda in the short-term. Whether you are appealing to fear, misinforming, or withholding the truth, propaganda will eventually lead to resentment, bitterness and erosion of credibility.
But how does one compete in such a ruthless and hostile propaganda environment? The response is to choose “genuine communication” — communication that appeals to a system of values rather than demonizing opposing parties, and to a people’s aspirations and dreams rather than their fears and instincts; communication that has the guts to say the entire truth rather than hiding behind half truths, that tackles the problems and issues head-on rather than getting lost in generalities, that presents rational arguments rather than engaging in emotionally biased discourse; communication that uses facts rather than assumptions, communication that shares responsibility rather than scapegoating.
Only when we exorcize communication and free it of its many propagandist demons will we gain the sought credibility and create a true partnership with audiences. Only then will communication become effective and far reaching, with sustainable winning results for all stakeholders, and only then will our many issues and problems be closer to resolution.
Genuine communication is the only form of successful two-way communication, and it is of utmost importance, today more than ever, for all propagandists to become true communicators. Communication is a mirror of society, and as society develops and becomes more tolerant and democratic, it elevates the media to become an empowered fourth estate. But the opposite is true as well — working on making our communication genuine and responsible will surely catalyze our societies’ development to catch up and become the tolerant, modern, peaceful, stable, and democratic havens we all dream of.
Ramsay G. Najjar is chairman of S2C