With the recent withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, a disheartening push has been made by the mainstream media to criticize and oppose it. Many mainstream media outlets, which at the beginning of 2021, were speaking negatively about George W. Bush and his hasty rush to war in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, are now railing against Joe Biden and his administration for the withdrawal. They show pictures of people falling from planes, run articles written by Afghan women who sided with the US-backed government, make often-false claims about the Taliban killing civilians or closing schools, and otherwise use almost every means available to push a pro-war narrative.
This has caused many people, especially those new to the antiwar movement, to wonder how the media can be so pro-war when the situation suits it. However, once one analyzes the conflicts of interest at play in American media reporting, the truth is crystal clear. The key issue in American public perception of foreign policy is a failure to recognize the media and other institutions as part of the military-industrial complex. We are taught from the time we are in elementary school that the media is an essential component of democracy. Various media corporations, journalists, news sites, and the like all compete with each other to provide an unbiased view of American foreign policy. The media and education system also put out messages which ostensibly preach independent thought and going against the crowd, ensuring us that our beliefs are correct and that the information we receive from them is accurate. However, the reality is that this cannot be further from the truth.
In reality, this perception is simply a ruse to make people believe everything the media tells them. There are massive conflicts of interest at play which ensure that everything you see in the mainstream media promotes policy which benefits big business. Most of the largest shareholders in mainstream media companies are also the largest shareholders in defense contractors. The four largest shareholders in Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, are State Street Corporation, the Vanguard Group, Blackrock Inc., and Capital Group. The same four companies are also the largest shareholders in Comcast, which owns NBC. State Street, Vanguard, and Blackrock are also the three largest shareholders in Raytheon, with Capital Group being 5th. Vanguard, Blackrock, and State Street are the three largest shareholders in Viacom, which owns CBS and Paramount Pictures, as well as in Disney, which owns ABC, ESPN, Marvel Studios, and Pixar. This kind of pattern can be seen in all of the major media companies, with the overlap in ownership being as much as 30%, as well as in any other industry which stand to profit from government blood money. Furthermore, these investment banks own tens of trillions of dollars of stake in various other corporations, many of which advertise on these networks. As media corporations receive the overwhelming majority of their revenue from advertising, these banks can then use this to further their influence on these media corporations, allowing them to threaten reductions and modifications to advertisement contracts if they do not broadcast content which is favorable to them.
Information such as this is unknown to most Americans. While they are generally aware of the military-industrial complex, they fail to grasp the sheer extent of its influence on society. It goes far beyond lobbying Republicans and Democrats in congress. And while this is a key feature, it is only the tip of the iceberg. The MIC’s influence is omnipresent in the media, education, academia, think tanks. Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, is one of the largest donors to the Council on Foreign Relations, along with many other executives of weapons corporations and big banks. The Paul H. Nitze school also receives most of its money from corporations, individuals, and organizations which stand to benefit from war such as Exxon-Mobil. The Brookings Institute gets large donations from war profiteers such as David Rubenstein and the Qatari Government through their embassy. You would be hard pressed to find an aspect of society which is not influenced by the MIC. Most Americans will label you as a conspiracy theorist or mentally ill if you attempt to argue this to them. However, this is publicly available information, and there is little debate to be had here about the conflicts of interest present.
Now that we have laid out how the military-industrial complex influences the media and society, we can address the methods it uses to brainwash people into supporting its wars. One of these methods has already been mentioned, and that is benign reputation. The MIC has managed to convince the public through lobbying of the education system that institutions such as the media, academia, and think tanks are impartial guardians of truth and that they have no conflicts of interest in the content they put out. Thus, once a unilateral narrative begins to be pushed by every content-producing institution imaginable, few stop to question its validity. "If every left-wing and right-wing source agrees on something, then it must be true", is the thought process. This then spreads to everyday discourse between individuals, flooding social media networks with war propaganda, which is advanced through electronic algorithms, the selection of which, of course, is influenced by the big banks and war profiteers. At this point, anyone who questions the narrative is viewed by most, either consciously or subconsciously, as a conspiracy theorist or foreign sympathizer and not worthy of attention. The best example of such an event in recent history was during the 2014 Ukraine crisis and subsequent deterioration of US-Russian relations. The mainstream media completely downplayed the US’s role in ousting the Ukrainian government, as well as the radical beliefs of the people they installed in its place. Furthermore, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, they made it look as if Hitler was marching into Czechoslovakia; that Russia planned on invading Ukraine, conquering all of Eastern Europe, and asserting itself as the chief world power. This is despite the fact that Russia has repeatedly proven they have no intention of invading Ukraine without provocation, let alone Eastern Europe. And that the annexation of Crimea was completely bloodless without any intentional confirmed fatalities, done through a referendum, and that western polls confirmed in the weeks and months following had a roughly 90% support rate among Crimeans. However, these facts were conveniently excluded from the mainstream narrative, instead trying to peddle lies and twist words about the events which were happening. This media onslaught continued over the next several years, with Russiagate being another key example. Anyone who questioned these narratives or doubted the impartiality of the media was labeled as a conspiracy theorist or Russian sympathizer. This one advantage that the military-media-industrial complex has in democratic nations which it doesn’t have in undemocratic ones. In nations where the government controls the entire media and education system, it is easy for the public to see the conflicts of interest present and oppose them. However, when the people of a nation have trust in their political system, such a mass realization is substantially more difficult.
The next and most obvious method that they use is nationalistic propaganda. They make it seem as though supporting a war is supporting America or its soldiers, that the country or group they are fighting is a major threat to the US, and that any dissent is akin to treason. In the past, this kind of messaging was overwhelmingly used to justify almost every war that’s ever been fought. From the earliest tribal wars in ancient Africa, to Babylonian conflicts, to the wars in Europe during the middle ages and up to the 20th century, nationalism has been a driving factor in the desire for territorial expansion and political conflict. However, in the modern world, cosmopolitanism, globalization of trade and communication have substantially reduced the effectiveness of such tactics. Few will buy into a politician saying that Afghans or Iraqis are inferior human beings who need to be civilized by the developed west, or else they will eventually come to dominate us. As such, other methods of influence need to be used in conjunction with this.
Another method used is what I refer to as "cyclical messaging". In short, this involves pushing a message of non-interventionism and regret of war in times of peace, then switching to a pro-war narrative whenever a new conflict starts. This creates a belief among the public that the government cares about preserving peace and that wars only the fault of the people it opposes. Probably the best example of this in American history was the lead-up to US entry into WWII. During the 1920s and 30s, the overwhelming consensus among Americans was that US entry into WWI had been a mistake, enabling the rise of communism and fascism. As such, when WWII broke out in 1939, opposition to entry into the war among Americans was high. 84% of Americans opposed entry into WWII in September of 1939. However, as the war dragged on, the media and weapons corporations began promoting escalation. In 1940, a year after the war started, the Roosevelt administration approved lend-lease, providing the Allied powers with military equipment for substantially less money that they would have otherwise cost. Oil and steel embargoes were placed on Japan, with Japanese assets being frozen in July of 1941. These events ultimately led to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 and US entry into WWII, rapidly leading to the adoption of a total war strategy which would have been completely unthinkable just a few years prior. This kind of messaging was not exclusive to WWII, with a similar cycle of messaging being done between the Vietnam war and Reagan years. During the mid-to-late 1970s, many Americans had grown discontent with US involvement in the Cold War following withdrawal from Vietnam. However, the mainstream media used the fall of Laos and Cambodia to Communism, the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to convince Americans that the USSR was still a substantial threat to America and disengagement from foreign conflicts would cause communist takeovers everywhere, leading to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who took the Cold War to its absolute height. A similar process is currently underway with the War on Terror. Mainstream media outlets will often speak negatively about the rush into war following 9/11. However, whenever a new intervention begins, be it against Syria, Libya, Iran, Russia, or China, they will support it wholeheartedly. Escalations are never taken as seriously increasing the threat of war, one-sided perspectives are presented, and before you know it, we’re in another endless conflict.
The next method used by the military-media-industrial complex to push war is systemic disinformation and misinformation. This occurs when the media presents one-sided narratives, omit important information from discussions, word content in a way which favors a particular side, or even straight-up lie about various events around the world. This was done ad nauseum during the Ukraine crisis, but this is far from the only example. Through disinformation and misinformation, the media is able to create a false image of foreign relations within the minds of the public. People end up believing that every nation always wants to conquer the United States, and that without a strong military or nuclear weapons the US will be invaded within days. Of course, there are scores of nations far weaker than the US which get along just fine without strong militaries, but this is not considered by most people. Another example of the extent to which misinformation and disinformation affect the foreign policy debate is knowledge about Israeli and Iranian nuclear weapons. It is an objective fact that Israel is in possession of nuclear weapons while Iran isn’t. However, only 52% of Americans know that Israel possesses nuclear weapons and just 16% of Americans know that Iran does not. Given that these are two of the most vital focal points of American foreign policy, the fact that so few people know about this is a testament to the systemic propaganda campaigns which the military-media industrial complex subjects the public to. Furthermore, by focusing on nonpolitical issues which can easily create psychological tensions, such as race relations or social justice, the media causes people to be completely disinterested in getting the correct picture of America’s interventions. Virtually no one in America knows that the US has been backing Jihadist terrorist groups, including Al-Qaeda, in Syria and Libya since 2011. All anyone hears about is how bad Gaddafi was or that Assad is backed by Russia. Alternatively, when wars are so unimaginably unethical that there is no nationalistic or fear-based approach to garnering public support, the mainstream media simply doesn’t talk about them at all. The war in Yemen is the best examples of this. According to current estimates, as many as 400,000 children could starve to death in Yemen in 2021 because of the US-backed Saudi Arabian blockade of the country. Who is America backing here? Jihadist terror groups who are fighting for the preexisting Hadi government, which has virtually no popular support in the country. Through this, simply not enough people in America are willing or able to oppose US wars. Not only that, but they push the position that any opposition narrative is misinformation and disinformation. During the Iraq war, it was considered an almost objective fact that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Anyone arguing otherwise was labeled as pushing "misinformation". Of course, when Iraq was invaded and no WMDs were found, nothing was ever heard about them again from the mainstream media. Today, the media will rail on when an antiwar activist or politician makes incorrect or misleading statements about Russia or China, labeling it "misinformation". However, the "misinformation" which leads to the aforementioned lack of knowledge about Iranian and Israeli nuclear weapons is somehow not a problem. The conflicts of interest in the media are exactly why it is of the utmost importance to human freedom that "misinformation" not be censored. Any attempts to do so will always be scarred by hypocrisy, conflicts of interest, and bias, such that the eventual outcome of such efforts is the complete censorship of any minority views.
The last propaganda method used by the media which I will discuss here is perhaps the most important one, and that is promotion of cognitive dissonance. While estimates vary, between 500 thousand and 2 million people have been killed in US wars since 9/11, which killed just under 3,000 people. Imagine, for a second, if such a policy was implemented in America. Suppose, following the Oklahoma city bombing, that the US military went around for years blowing up structures, killing tens of thousands of people and destroying the economy in the process, in an attempt to find Timothy McVeigh and the other people responsible for the bombing. Then, once McVeigh was killed, they continued to bomb structures. This, essentially, is what the war on terror is from an objective perspective. However, because the corporations which own the media stand to profit from it, they cannot allow people to perceive war for what it actually is. They downplay the deaths caused in foreign conflicts; divert people’s attention away from them. People end up paying more attention to Taylor Swift’s butt than they do to the war in Yemen. Furthermore, the media manages to make people think that war is a game. If you point out to a right-leaning person that going to war with China over Taiwan would likely lead to nuclear war destroying Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there’s a good chance they’ll say something along the lines of, "Oh well, I don’t mind losing those liberal cities!". Of course, they mean this sarcastically, as few of them think 9/11 happening in left-wing New York City was a good thing. However, because they know so little about foreign policy, and because they support politicians who have the capacity to get involved in wars like this, that when they go out and vote, the sarcasm becomes reality. This does not only affect people on the right, of course, as left-leaning people will often support provoking Russia over Crimea and use similar justifications. People, either consciously or unconsciously, often see deaths in war as less tragic or important than deaths not caused by war. If 12 people were killed by a US drone strike in Syria, most people won’t give it a second thought. But if a police officer intentionally caused a bus to crash and 12 people died as a result, it would be on the news for weeks. It is this kind of American exceptionalism that allows the foreign policy of the US to go on as it does. Because America has so much power over the world, it creates a sense that foreign policy does not matter, as none of it will ever lead to impact on the American public. The United States and western countries are not the only nations susceptible to this, though. And Russia and China also have similar problems. This creates a deadly cycle in which conflicts escalate more and more, and can only end through the voluntary withdrawal of one party, collapse of a nation, or war between superpowers, which would involve nuclear weapons.
The lack of understanding by the American public, as well as people of other nations, of conflicts of interest present within the media is one of (and likely the) largest driver of America’s world empire present in western society today. Through their benign reputation, nationalistic propaganda, cyclical messaging, and systemic disinformation and misinformation, they managed to get Americans to support a foreign policy as terrible as the one we currently have. Mainstream media corporations have massive conflicts of interests when it comes to providing people with accurate information on foreign policy. If we are to ever have media reporting which accurately depicts what’s going on in the world and what the West’s role should be in it, then we must not allow the government to provide massive corporations with the money and incentive they need to implement such a system in the first place. However, even then, there will still be conflicts of interest present, which raises important epistemological principals. In any particular point of contention, there will always be people with differing views, regardless of how much knowledge they have on the subject. At the same time, people on both sides are always going to have conflicts of interest and are going to stretch the truth to push their agenda from time to time. As such, you must only base the beliefs you have on information you yourself have been exposed to and intellectually analyzed. The fact that a majority of "experts" in a field believe something should have literally no influence in the beliefs you personally hold. If their position on a subject is so righteous that no one should oppose it, then it should be easy for them to convince you that they are right, assuming you’re willing to analyze their arguments with intellectual honesty. Otherwise, their point of view does not have sufficient evidence behind it to confirm its validity.
Starté Butone was born in the United States and is interested in foreign affairs. He regularly listens to the Scott Horton show and reads Antiwar.com.