My political communications lecturer was at pains to differentiate between propaganda and political public relations, but even using the definitions provided to us and the reasoning for it, I’m not sold on it. It’s the only unit I’ve actually done on a political topic, and I am already starting to see how universities frame this kind of content to fit the mould that the mainstream media and academics slowly adjust to. It actually makes me interested in doing further study into it just to observe how a course on these issues is carried out.
These are the definitions that were given for public relations and propaganda:
- PR: “information + persuasion to gather public support for a cause = legitimate communication”
- Propaganda: “a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of the argument = illegitimate distortion”
This, to me, is where the lines between academia, the ideal ‘theory’ of how the world works, and reality get extremely murky. Simply teaching the theoretical without properly analysing the practical and real (a theoretical that is quite narrow to boot) would leave students who are only just being introduced to the topic rather stunted, unless they were to, of their own initiative, look elsewhere for different perspectives. The theoretical, then, becomes the ‘reality’ that they then go out into the world to report on as journalists, or contribute to as political actors of some kind.
There are a few key problems that I pick up on regarding the definitions given:
- Depending on how you frame it, public relations, in a couple of ways, also only shows one side of an argument
- It is all heavily based on the maintenance of image, not actually trying to put forward any particular argument for policy
- The use of PR drags the focus to the individuals themselves, not the actual actions of a political party or politician
- It completely eliminates all notions of propaganda existing as a mainstream concept in what we call “democracies”
Let’s go through them.
This one touches on both the academic and real arenas. In reality, much political public relations, with a few exceptions, relies on, as the above definition says, persuasion and information. But the catch is, information, whether intentional or inadvertent, is always selective. When you are trying to persuade someone of your argument, you will almost always provide examples that support your stance and/or discredit your opponent’s.
One may be using factual knowledge or evidence to get their point across, but there is always a conscious and unconscious bias that guides which facts are used and how. It is the same concept that I have written about before regarding historical works – multiple historians may talk about the same events, but depending on the facts they draw upon and how they as an individual and as a product of the society they grew up in perceive those facts, you could end up with various and oft times contradictory conclusions.
With political PR, to use Australia’s major parties, Coalition and Labor aligned actors will have at their disposal the same policies, actions, etc. but will only draw upon things that will show themselves in a positive light and the other side in a negative light. For example, in the latest Federal elections, persuasion and information was used by both parties to talk about climate actions. Labor talked up their policies (even though they were dismal in comparison to the Greens) and attacked the Coalition for having no climate plans.
Although the latter point was true, they still managed to lose the election quite drastically due to the heavy fossil fuel interests, particularly in Queensland (as a Queenslander, my sincere apologies). This is despite all the facts out there that state explicitly that manmade climate change is real, that renewable sources of power and storage technology is much cheaper, will provide more jobs, and could become an economic boon for the country, and that the ‘cheapness’ of current fossil fuels is only maintained through trillions of dollars of government subsidies globally. But very little of that, if any, was taken advantage of – that side of the argument was ignored entirely.
Especially so by the Coalition, whose only tactic was to scream about the economic cost of Labor’s climate policies. Again, the economic benefits of renewables and the economic destruction caused by fossil fuels were smothered, and the Coalition took it a step further by completely ignoring their own lack of policies and simply stating that they’re meeting the requirements of global agreements – despite, again, much evidence to the contrary. PR, the ‘legitimate communication’, is fundamentally no different to propaganda, only it’s better dressed in a democratic outfit.
Second, the spectrum of discourse, even in the academia referenced in the unit I am doing, is cemented in the liberal, capitalist system that we are currently a part of. Brief allusions are made to ideas beyond that, such as a mention or two of Marx, but overall it is so contained that figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders are seen as ‘extreme’ and ‘populist’ (one guess as to why they’re popular). My lecturer even questioned my labelling of the Murdoch owned Wall Street Journal as right-wing, preferring the much more friendly phrase “financial paper with a strong conservative bent”. It’s Murdoch, it’s business, it’s right-wing, damnit, any step further has you soaking up Breitbart or YouTube personalities like Paul Joseph Watson.
(I actually watched one of PJW’s videos recently, and it turned out to be an almost 6-minute-long advert for his shit news website and begging for money to fight the ‘left’. It’s so ironic seeing people who view the Democrats as evil communists quoting George Orwell as though they are fighting for freedom by supporting Trump; there was even one comment quoting Hitler, which speaks volumes for the kind of audience and cognitive dissonance that exists in some peoples’ minds.)
What are called dissenting voices on either ‘side’ of mainstream politics are really just people with a different idea of capitalism than you, or are covered in layers upon layers of social causes and opinions. There are never any prominent voices that offer legitimate alternatives because that would shake the boat a bit too much, and might actually bring fresh ideas to the population.
Now, in this context, it’s admittedly difficult to equate public relations to propaganda – as most parties and politicians are centred around capitalism, it makes sense, of course, that that is what they will talk about. But to believe that PR doesn’t take a certain side, or doesn’t only represent a single side of an argument, is naïve and purely academic.
This hardly needs much explaining as it is pretty self-explanatory. Most public relations that politicians undertake is purely for the purpose of making themselves look good, not to actually convince people that they are good. A perfect example of this is politicians showing up at various events or commenting on news stories in a superficial manner. The most common of these is sporting events, where the individual in question (Scott Morrison very much adopts this method) attends games and says they support a specific team, making them appear more ‘human’ and average – I like this team, and so do they, that’s cool.
On a more serious, professional level, a couple of recent examples show this pretty well, regardless of whether you support the stance behind them or not, or if they actually do either, for that matter. The first is Tim Wilson’s escapade to Hong Kong, where he was photographed near protesters and voicing his solidarity with their cause. A powerful popular movement against an oppressive regime, it certainly makes a statement – particularly from a politician in the governing party whose country so heavily relies on China to keep the economy running.
But all it is doing is taking advantage of a legitimate struggle, because some people did a little digging and realised that the Liberal MP hasn’t always been so amiable or sympathetic towards popular uprisings. A tweet from a number of years ago had him condemning protests in Melbourne, suggesting water cannons be brought in, a common weapon to disperse mass gatherings. Someone told a quick story on a Facebook post about a time Wilson had shown up to a charity event, but that he only posed for some photos, made a few friendly gestures, then disappeared.
All of this adds up to portray an incredibly shallow man using PR to boost his image while refusing to practice what he preaches. Given his party is dedicated to opposing environmental protests on their own soil, it is difficult to believe he actually cares about Hong Kong in any way.
Another example, that was met with approval from most of the public, was Labor leader Albanese passing through Biloela a while back to voice his stance on the Tamil family that was going through the tumultuous and plainly wrong process of potential deportation. This PR move worked in his favour, but it still doesn’t mean all that much given his party has, since the election, collapsed and capitulated on countless policy stances. A cynical perspective, sure, but any move that will boost his own image and that of the Labor Party at this time is just that – an image booster. Even if you agree with the statements made.
Particularly in Queensland, Labor is trying to appease some people by crushing the civil liberties of citizens in a series of moves that have been compared to the Joh era. In turn, this is obviously alienating heaps more people, which, in my view, will probably cost them the next State election (I doubt they would even consider an alliance with the Greens, if their vote rises, and the split would undoubtedly push the Coalition into power).
Presidential Style Focus
Gone are the days where substantive policy proclamations and the ideals of a party were the central focus of public relations. The only information that is necessary is what individuals do or say, without critical analysis, and people no longer need to be persuaded politically but personally. Making an individual or group seem relatable carries more sway than convincing people that your ideas are worth listening to.
It is how the Coalition is able to so successfully bring in so many poor and lower/working class people into their midst. John Howard was portrayed as a friend to tradies and workers, which worked, but his party obliterated the Union movement and destroyed the TAFE and apprentice system. Morrison talks a lot about individual liberties, which quite a few people latch onto without realising that the context he’s referring to is corporate power. Policies and laws such as the anti-encryption laws passed last year, or the cashless welfare cards that leave welfare recipients humiliated, limited, and dehumanised, are brushed under the carpet or spun to be positives.
An interesting view that I heard earlier today in a new ContraPoints video (Natalie Wynn, a transgender YouTuber) was that of Donald Trump’s appeal through wealth. Talking about opulence, she says that unlike a lot of upper-class people who inherit their wealth, who don’t need to flaunt it to appear wealthy – they just are – Trump acts very differently, despite being born into that same inheritance story. A lot of people, especially in America, still look up to the ideals of the “American Dream” (or Scott Morrison’s “have a go to get a go” motto, for an Australian counterpart).
As such, many people try to appear as though they are wealthy, mostly through aesthetic and outward displays of opulence; Wynn describes Vegas as a city built on that idea, that even poor people can feel rich and are drawn to the idea of ‘making it’, being the next rags to riches story. Trump, who tries to paint an image of ‘self-made businessman’ and ‘anti-establishment’, flaunts wealth through the aesthetic of his personal and business properties. It’s not enough to be wealthy, he has to feel like it too, as if to prove that he is.
While a background aspect of his character, people focus on this, and those who are not exactly well informed see it and his message and say, “he made it, so surely I can too”. (I have possibly butchered this concept a little bit, but I think I got the main gist across; I recommend watching the video if you have time to get a better idea).
Trump’s PR, whether it is his larger than life personality and presentation style or his ‘aspirational’ opulence when he visits his own venues, is entirely focussed on him, and it is insanely effective. Much to the detriment of the world. This obsession with personality over policy, used extensively in PR, does little to inform people or persuade them of worthwhile issues and views. The result is a cultish mass of people who are simply unaware of how fundamentally screwed their system really is and leads them to believe those leaders are somehow representative of what they could be as well, if only they just tried…
Propaganda in a Democracy
Propaganda still exists in the fairy tale we call “Western Democracy”. The US is probably the most unashamedly warped version of this neoliberal shitshow, with elections literally being bought by those with the money to influence elections as they please. For a system like that to exist, there is undeniably some powerful force shaping public opinion, and it’s not just because there is some fluffy PR put out by Congress over there.
Donald Trump is called a non-establishment player in the game, but he is the physical representation of America’s heart – he is a product of the establishment’s making. But negative news against him isn’t necessarily propaganda on its own, because many of his misdeeds are reported on profusely in the media. For this, we have to shift the definition of propaganda from not only instances where “one side of the argument” is presented, but to also include the omission of vitally important discussions and events.
Where public relations is the tool of politicians, propaganda, as described by Chomsky and Herman in their book Manufacturing Consent, is the secretive tool of the mainstream media in a ‘democratic society’. Real democracy isn’t acceptable for those in power, so one of the core roles of the media is to provide the illusion of openness and democratic process while cutting out anything that could be perceived as opposition to the system.
Again, to use the US as an example, the 2016 election that saw Trump win the White House had so many factors filter into it, and yet the media only appears to focus on Russia’s minor role. Never mind that the DNC rigged their own primaries to favour Hillary Clinton over Sanders while his coverage was abysmal, or that the Electoral College is an outdated and racist institution that saw the popular vote overlooked. Never mind the media’s complicity in the rise of Donald Trump as a serious contender for the election, or the insane levels of funding that cycled through the campaign machinery. Never mind the fact that the Republican Party managed to win both the House and the Senate but only the White House result is properly scrutinised, or that perhaps Clinton was just a shit candidate.
None of the above is ever questioned seriously, and impeachment was never suggested for the countless offenses that could have been laid at Trump’s feet, until Biden was directly under threat, because that would constitute meaningful change. Other than Murdoch owned Fox, the mainstream media is certainly not propaganda for Trump. But it is absolutely propaganda for the wretched, broken system of unbridled capitalism that rules over the most powerful Empire in history.
To pretend, as so many of these academics, journalists, and citizens do, that propaganda is only present in ‘dictatorships’ is to deceive yourself. While countries in the “West” may not be totalitarian, it is an incredible stretch to consider ourselves democratic, and much more so to naively consider the mainstream media a “pillar” of that democracy.
As fascinating as theoretical discussions and academic ideas are, many in the sphere of mainstream political communication and journalism have no legitimate basis in reality. The idea that journalists are a check on power is an honour than can only be bestowed on a minority of, mostly independent, journalists. The idea that politicians engaging in public relations is a legitimate, non-propagandistic method of communication is also incredibly flawed.
Only massive, and global, systemic change will lead to any of this façade collapsing, but until that hopeful day arrives, we must arm ourselves with the tools of critical analysis and question everything. We cannot allow ourselves to complacently accept the narrow view of the world presented to us through mainstream communications. There are ideas beyond that that are worth exploring, and avenues that, if people knew about them, would most certainly be traversed.
As a final note, I should mention that it is not redundant or useless to read or listen to these mainstream actors. To the contrary, it is important that we do acknowledge what they have to say for two reasons. The first is so that we can provide examples to counter whatever narrative is being pursued, such as the Guardian (a ‘liberal’ paper) clamping down on Corbyn’s Labour rebirth. The second reason is because there can be important information and ideas present through those mediums – you just need to absorb it through a context that is not supplied to you, like when the NYT’s calls Palestinians militants while quietly acknowledging Israel’s brutality.
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