State of deception: Propaganda in the war on terror

Originally published in Economic Affairs

Find the full article here.

Propaganda and war have been intricately entwined throughout history. Adolf Hitler, whose regime created and disseminated some of the world's most recognised propaganda, noted that “[propaganda] is nothing but a weapon, and indeed a most terrifying weapon in the hands of those who know how to use it” (1925, p. 155).

Today's discourse surrounding propaganda has turned towards discussions of mainstream media, social media networks, conceptions of ‘fake news’, and the impacts of commercial advertising. But as Hitler's quote foreshadowed, contemporary governments continue to recognise –and utilise– propaganda as a means of garnering support for, or acquiescence to, their policies both internally and externally. And although propaganda is typically associated with autocracies, democratic governments also employ propaganda. This is particularly true within the context of war and foreign intervention, in which governments must often convince their own populace of the merits of the policy.

Within the context of democratic societies, accurate information is vital in two ways. First, it is necessary for policymakers to adopt policies which advance the well-being of citizens. Second, it is important for the operation of checks and balances –for example, voters, oversight bodies– to protect against abuses of power. Propaganda poses a threat to democratic societies by introducing noise into these two channels; the risk is that policies may be adopted that are at odds with the interests of citizens and that checks and balances will be ineffective in preventing political opportunism. Scholars from many disciplines have studied the creation, dissemination, and use of propaganda, but the topic has been largely ignored by economists. In our recent book Manufacturing Militarism: U.S. Government Propaganda in the War on Terror (Coyne & Hall, 2021), my coauthor and I develop a framework for understanding propaganda within the context of democratic societies. We explore the use of propaganda within the US defence and security sector in the era since the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, and argue that propaganda has perverse short- and long-term consequences, some of which threaten the very foundations of self-governing, democratic institutions. 

In this article I summarise some of the reasons why democracies are particularly prone to domestic propaganda and the problems this poses to free society. I introduce a brief case to the US Department of Homeland Security's ‘See Something, Say Something’ pro-gramme to illustrate these dynamics. My coauthor and I address these ideas in much greater detail and provide more comprehensive case studies in Manufacturing Militarism, upon which I have based this article.