Recognizing and Combating the Pernicious Effects of Propaganda

The U.S. is extraordinarily secure from physical threats, and the threat of international terrorism is small and manageable, but the government has nonetheless waged a "war on terror" for the last 20 years in which it assumed extensive new powers that encroached on Americans’ constitutional rights, wreaked havoc in numerous countries, and left hundreds of thousands of people dead and millions displaced. Given how small the threat was and still is, how did the government get the public to go along with so much of this? The government used and continues to use propaganda to stoke fear, inflate threats, and sell policies that concentrate more power in hands of policymakers, and this problem is most acute when it comes to national security because of the secrecy that is exploited to keep the public in the dark. Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall detail several these propaganda efforts from the "war on terror" and the Iraq war in their excellent new book, Manufacturing Militarism: US Government Propaganda in the War on Terror. They show how the government used propaganda to build public support for specific policies, including the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and they also document how it uses other kinds of propaganda through sports and popular entertainment to create a bias in favor of US foreign policy and militarism in general.

Many of the specific examples that Coyne and Hall cite come from the first decade of the "war on terror," but their study is relevant and essential reading today. We can see the harmful effects of similar propaganda efforts in many places today. The rapid collapse of the Afghan government after twenty years of US state-building confirms what we already knew: our political and military leaders have been lying to the public about the capabilities of the Afghan military and progress in the war all along in order to sustain support for the US presence in the country. The report that most Americans wrongly believe that Iran possesses nuclear weapons is another example of how a steady drumbeat of misinformation and fearmongering on an issue from political leaders and media outlets can lead a majority to believe the things that militarists want them to believe. The government routinely exaggerates the threat from foreign terrorist groups to justify endless military campaigns against armed groups that cannot attack the United States and often have no interest in doing so.

Coyne and Hall remind us how the Bush administration successfully promoted one lie about a nonexistent link between Iraq and Al Qaeda and another about the weapons of mass destruction programs that had already been dismantled. As many of us remember, the government was aided in propagandizing the public by a highly deferential and sycophantic media that functioned as little more than mouthpieces of the state. Despite the lack of evidence for either claim, the sheer repetition of these claims and the failure of most members of the media to challenge them convinced large majorities that both false claims were true. Coyne and Hall cite a January 2003 PIPA/KN poll that found that 68% believed that Iraq played an important role in the 9/11 attacks. In a later poll that same year, only 7% gave the factually correct answer that there was no connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda. The relentless propagation of false claims about weapons of mass destruction was even more effective in convincing the public. A 2002 New York Times poll found that 80% of the public believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Amplified by a compliant and complicit media, the Bush administration repeatedly barraged the public with false information to promote the war they wanted, and as we know their propaganda campaign worked. Public support for the invasion at the start of the war was very high, and the government’s concerted propaganda effort in the months leading up to the invasion was a big reason why.

To keep public support for the war going as the occupation dragged on, the Bush administration relied on a compliant media to deliver their desired messages. They did this through selective leaking of pro-occupation information to certain outlets that would then pass this along to their audience, and they also did it through the practice of "embedding" journalists in military units to limit and influence what they would report. The media’s reliance on "military analysts" with connections to military contractors and strong incentives to toe the official administration line served to amplify the government’s preferred message. Coyne and Hall write: "What was unknown to the public, and in some cases to the media outlets themselves, was that many of these "objective experts" had direct ties to military contractors and lobbyists – companies whose financial bottom lines were directly linked to US military operations." All of this had the desired effect of misleading the public to believe things about the war that weren’t real. "Instead of becoming better informed about the state of affairs in Iraq as one consumed more news, those who watched more coverage of the Iraq War were just as likely, or more likely, to have misperceptions than those who watched less."

The book details how the government has used so-called "paid patriotism" in professional sports to cultivate pro-government and pro-military sentiments. It also shows how the Pentagon uses its connections with Hollywood studios to influence the content of television programs and movies to create a favorable impression of the military and US interventionism. In their study, Coyne and Hall trace the history of US government propaganda efforts back to their origins in WWI and their evolution through WWII and the Cold War. The American public has been steadily propagandized to support unnecessary wars and US militarism for most of the last century, and that propaganda comes in a variety of forms beyond the messages that government officials deliver themselves.

Threat inflation and fearmongering are two major drivers of our destructive and meddlesome foreign policy. If the government and its hangers-on presented the evidence of foreign threats accurately and soberly, they would presumably have a much harder time rallying the public to support aggressive and interventionist policies. If they exist at all, the threats typically do not warrant the actions taken to "counter" them. Instead, political leaders and policymakers choose to sensationalize, exaggerate, and in some cases simply invent threats to create the pretext for policies that give policymakers the opportunity to amass more power and expand the budgets of the relevant agencies. Political leaders and policymakers employ propaganda to get the public on board with policies that are often detrimental to the interests of the American people by convincing them that these policies are essential to keeping them safe.

So what can be done to counter this pernicious use of propaganda? Coyne and Hall consider various protections, including existing legislation regulating propaganda, government whistleblowers, and media scrutiny, but they identify significant weaknesses with all these that make them ineffective much of the time. The last defense against propaganda is to have citizens that inoculate themselves against it. "Ultimately, this means that it is up to the members of the populace as to whether they choose to accept or reject the messages communicated through government propaganda." This requires engaged, active citizens that are willing to put in the time and effort to learn enough about U.S. policies and the other parts of the world affected by them to be able to recognize propaganda when they see it. Coyne and Hall conclude: "This involves realizing that militarism is a choice and that citizens possess the power to curtail efforts by government actors to expand their influence through the dissemination of propaganda." It falls to us to use that power to dismantle the militarism that the government has been building for decades.

Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.