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Propaganda Meets Social Media

What does propaganda look like in the age of Twitter?

June 9, 2013

Credit: Seita -

State propaganda is a fact of life for many in 2013. Just ask South Koreans. Orwellian press offices in neighboring Pyongyang regularly issue a constant flow of invective, which at times becomes a torrent heading north to south.

North Korea launched a satellite last year on December 12, 2012, conducted a third nuclear test on February 12, 2013 and threatened to attack the United States with nuclear weapons.

The North Koreans’ usual condemnation of the South and its allies rose to new intensity following joint military exercises it didn’t like during March to April this year.

The familiar outpourings of DPRK television news announcers were followed in April by the movement of missiles and closure of the Kaesong joint industrial complex.

Next came the unveiling in Pyongyang of two huge bronze new statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il on April 15 to mark the 101st anniversary of the former leader’s birth.

“So what’s new?” or “Don’t make me laugh” or “It’s the usual propaganda” came the responses from several South Korean, British and American television commentators, when asked in April for their reaction to the North’s threatening rhetoric.

Instead, BBC News reported in April that more South Koreans were worried about the quality of local K-Pop star Psy’s new single than Kim Jong-un’s threatened missile release.

Yet the power of propaganda continues to inform global international relations.

A fascinating new exhibition, just opened at London’s world-famous British Library — Propaganda, Power and Persuasion — explores the state’s use of propaganda — today otherwise known as news management or “spin.”

The exhibition’s aim is to show visitors how states — Western, Asian, democratic and totalitarian — have put their messages across from the third century BC to the social media-rich environment of 2013.

“We want visitors to consider the role of propaganda in their own lives today, as well as look at the state’s use of propaganda throughout history,” says Jude England, the British Library’s Head of Social Services.

The gallery displays show that “propaganda” — defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view” — is largely a 20th century phenomenon.

Propaganda was most notoriously deployed by the totalitarian regimes of Russian Soviet Communism and German National Socialism.

As the exhibition notes suggest, it was in these years that states and national leaders became truly sophisticated in controlling (or persuading) citizens to their own purposes.

Their aims were to refine political information techniques to forge a shared sensed of national and political identity, denounce enemies, justify military action and demand social cohesion at home.

All to bolster a state’s (or national leader’s) position. An editorial position not unknown in Pyongyang in 2013.

It’s no surprise then that North Korea and Maoist-era China are featured right from the exhibition’s start. Before entering the gallery, the visitor is confronted by a large, triumphalist North Korean poster of the socialist-realist school.

The exhibition catalogue also features photographs of the monumental statues of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung.

Once inside the gallery, a glowing video floor projection of a mutating virus drives home the message that propaganda can be virulent and destructive.

In totalitarian regimes, propaganda tends to result in the death of millions at home and abroad.

The displays go on to examine propaganda in its global context across the ages.

Exhibits include third century BC coins from the Middle East, a reproduction of a Roman triumphal column, 16th century religious tracts, a vainglorious portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte (1813), and Western European colonial pamphlets.

20th century photograph albums extolling the virtues of Soviet Communism and Nazism: a Nazi wireless radio set from 1933 favored by arch-Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, as well as a section of venomously anti-Semitic European posters and literature.

There is also James Montgomery Flagg’s well-known Uncle Sam First World War recruiting poster — “I Want You For the U.S. Army” (1917).

The use of propaganda in Asia is specifically highlighted, showing how political messaging by Imperial Japan, Great Britain, Communist China and the United States shaped the continent’s history in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the early exhibits are two striking Japanese posters celebrating Japan’s victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. That war was fought partly for control of the Korean Peninsula.

Both posters — “Long Live the Great Japanese Empire” by artist Mizuno Toshika in 1894 and “Troops engaged in the Mountain area near Port Arthur” by artist Ogata Gekko in 1894 — illustrate the grandiose war aims of Meiji-era Japan versus China’s ailing Qing dynasty, with Korea as the sacrificial victim.

Both works presage the later tragedy of Japan’s brutal annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910 and Korea’s nightmare of occupation until 1945.

In North Asia the personality cult of Chinese communist leader Mao Tse Tung is also fully treated.

On display is a well-known portrait from 1922 of the young Mao in prophetic pose by artist Liu Chunhua. An incredible 900 million copies of this eulogistic piece were distributed, making it the most reproduced painting in the world to date.

Maoist doctrine and propaganda — which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 30 million people during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and around one million more during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) — is further examined by the inclusion of Mao’s Little Red Book (1967) along with posters, badges and books.

Propaganda in Asia from different perspectives is also found in British leaflets dropped into Japanese-occupied territory during 1941-1945.

These depict Japan variously as an octopus, spider or gangster threatening world peace with its so-called “Co-Prosperity Sphere,” otherwise known as the subjugation of over 100 million Asians from December 1941.

Not to be outdone, counter propaganda leaflets issued by Japan exhort local villagers to fight allied troops.

More political messages are found in a patriotic U.S. wartime film display denouncing Japanese actions and atrocities across Asia.

Such propaganda efforts find echoes with North Korea’s loud declaration on March 30th this year that it had “entered a state of war” with South Korea.

With the 60th anniversary of the signing of an armistice (but no peace treaty) ending the Korean War (1950-53) approaching on July 27th, the world was again reminded that both nations, technically at war since 1953, are drenched in competing political narratives.

Elsewhere, Propaganda, Power and Persuasion investigates how state propaganda in western democracies often masquerades as “information campaigns.”

Examples of how democratic states propagandize and persuade are to be found in recordings of the 1951 U.S. “Duck and Cover” nuclear civil defense campaign, featuring “Bert the Turtle” as its perky cartoon star.

Its British equivalent from 1983 offered optimistic suggestions including: “how to make your home safe in the event of nuclear attack.”

The exhibition also shows off more recent ephemera, such as the pack of playing cards famously used to identify key military figures during the U.S.-led invasion (2003) of Iraq — Saddam Hussein is the Ace of Spades.

Above: Intelligence Agency of United States, Iraq War Playing Cards, 2003. Image courtesy of the British Library. On loan from David Welch.

Finally, there are examples of the flawed intelligence used by the British press and the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to justify its involvement in the same conflict.

Which brings us to the present day.

With regard to South Korea, for instance, regularly cited as the “world’s most wired nation” — a social media and digital technological powerhouse and possessor of the largest per capita broadband access and fastest internet speeds — the British Library exhibition offers both reassurance but also a warning.

Social media may deliver unprecedented opportunities, such as for peaceful protest in the cascading Arab Spring revolutions since December 2010. But with opportunities come threats.

Social media is as much a state propagandist’s dream — think of China’s state control of its Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo — as it is for the individual.

The final exhibit of Propaganda, Power and Persuasion captures this dual potential vividly. A large video wall art installation — “Chorus” — reveals the awesome power of social media, in this case Twitter.

The display — accompanied by a deep, pulsing electronic tone — shows the volume of Tweets (color-coded for positive and negative messages) unleashed in real time after recent world events.

Using third party message address data, the video display shows how information spikes dramatically seconds after global news releases.

When the Beijing and London Olympics open in 2008 and 2012, Twitter message volumes explode on the screen before the visitor’s eyes.

Likewise, when U.S. President Barack Obama announces his second term victory at 8 PM U.S. Pacific Time on November 7, 2012, an incredible 327,452 Tweets per minute pour in.

It appears to be a living wave of digital enthusiasm (even if the origins of the individual messages are unclear).

Above: Tweets from U.S. Election Night 2012. Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of the British Library.

The impression given is ambiguous and unsettling: one both of joyous celebration as well as offering Orwellian control possibilities. In this sense, the British Library exhibition is timely and relevant.

Today, iron-fisted regimes such as North Korea still hold a crushing state monopoly on mobile and internet access.

Such regimes will continue to make use of every form of technology available to reinforce their national positions, foster the cult of the leader, denounce enemies, control populations, demand subservience and justify threats of war.

Propaganda, Power and Persuasion offers a compelling, at times chilling, insight into the proven effectiveness of such political manipulation and its future social media potential — for good or ill.