Patterns In Propaganda During War Time
Yesterday, February 23rd 2022, media outlets around the world reported that Russia had launched an invasion of Ukraine. It’s always difficult to get accurate information in the midst of war, but you can be sure that an avalanche of propaganda and disinformation is coming in the days and weeks ahead. It’s said that propaganda is the most important front in a war. We can look back on conflicts from the beginning of the 20th century until now and see that propaganda played a major role in every one of them. War propaganda has existed since ancient times, but in the modern era of high-speed mass communication it plays a bigger part than ever in manipulating civilian populations. Public support is necessary for a successful war effort, and governments throughout history have lied, deceived, and used manipulation tactics to achieve it.
How can we disseminate false information and propaganda from the truth as we watch events unfold in Ukraine? I will share what I have noticed over many years of studying propaganda in hopes that you’ll be able to spot patterns and understand when you’re being manipulated.
The first thing to know about wartime information and disinformation is that there are multiple layers of it. The first level is mainstream media information. This information is filtered through government officials whose job it is to produce an official, cohesive narrative. The official narrative is produced by top military, intelligence, and government officials. It is then refined and marketed by marketing and propaganda specialists who then deliver the main talking points to major media outlets. This is why you’ll usually see talking heads from every major news outlet repeating the same exact framing and phrases in unison. This official narrative is the messaging that those in charge want the public to receive and believe.
The second layer of information comes from “alternative media” outlets. Examples of these might include talk radio, smaller more independent media companies, large YouTube channels, or podcasts. These still have a lot of reach and a big audience. They might challenge parts of the mainstream narrative and provide details or conflicting evidence but are largely ignored by mainstream media. Many people think they are getting “the real news” from these sources. While these sources might try to challenge the official narrative, even successfully at times, they are still limited. This is because there is a third layer of information that is difficult to access which these outlets are not privy to.
The third layer of information is the key to understanding the truth about geopolitical conflict. This information is held by intelligence agencies and high-level government and military officials with top level security clearance. I’m not talking about senators, spooks, and generals. I’m talking about the elite of the elite. This information is highly compartmentalized. This is the most misunderstood concept in understanding conspiracy and propaganda.
The biggest reason people choose to believe the official narrative about an event even when things don’t add up is that they don’t understand how compartmentalization works. Only a very few top-level strategists know all the pieces of the information puzzle. Public figures like these would be people such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, or Jaques Attali. There are more whose names most of us will never know. Even presidents, prime ministers, chief military officers, and high-level intelligence officials usually only have a few pieces of the puzzle. This is intentional, and it makes perfect sense. This information is dangerous and must be kept secret and compartmentalized in the same way nuclear codes would be. There can be no risk of dissent or exposure, so as few people as possible can be in on the whole plan. Only decades after the fact are some of these plans made public when documents are de-classified. By then, most of the people involved are dead and gone, the public has forgotten, and very few pay attention anyway. It’s easy to keep these secrets under the guise of national security.
People readily accept this, with good reason. After all, there is some truth to the best lies, and it is true in theory that you wouldn’t want all your plans laid out in public for enemies to see. However, the public assumes that their own national top-level officials have the best interest of their own country at heart. They never consider that these people might have a much higher allegiance which goes beyond their civic loyalties. But that’s another story for another time.
If you look at the last century or so of war time propaganda from World War I to now, there are several key patterns which emerge. Knowing these patterns and watching for them in the information you hear over the coming weeks will help alert you to manipulation tactics. You won’t be able to figure out what is going on at the deepest levels of the geopolitical chess board, but you will at least be less likely to fall for false narratives.
Heading the war propaganda effort during WW1 was George Creel and the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which was created to garner enough public support to get the U.S. to enter a war in Europe that the public had no interest in. It was supposed to be disbanded after the war, but these agencies never really die. They just morph into other programs. The remnants of the CPI became the Office of War Information during WW2, and then the CIA. These tactics and these organizations are still in use today, which is why we can see the same patterns in all the conflicts the U.S. has been involved in since WW1.
Women, Babies, and Children.
One of the most popular war propaganda tactics of all time is to use women, and especially babies and children to tug at the public’s heart strings. Also called “atrocity propaganda,” this is a highly effective way to galvanize public support for war. A great example of this are posters from WW1 depicting the Kaiser’s soldiers stacking babies onto the bayonets of their rifles. Of course, these claims were investigated and turned out to be false. Yet these posters were distributed all over England. The English public believed the narrative that German soldiers were so inhumanly cruel that they made a game of tossing Belgian babies into the air and catching them on their bayonets. It worked so well that similar propaganda was used in American to drag the U.S. into the war as well.
We see this pattern emerge in almost every modern conflict; with photos of child victims of whatever new evil enemy we must fight in a distant foreign land. Sometimes these images turn out to be staged, faked, or doctored. Sometimes photos of real child victims are used, but from an unrelated disaster. Sometimes the photos are real and presented accurately but are still used to involve Americans in conflicts that the public, although sympathetic, have no interest in joining. We saw examples of all three scenarios in various conflicts including Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria as well as multiple conflicts between Israel and Palestine where American military and monetary support was sought.
An important example of the “save the babies!” propaganda is the notorious Nayirah testimony before the UN. This was false testimony given by a 15 year old girl named Nayirah in 1990. It justified American involvement in the Desert Storm conflict. Nayirah gave tearful, emotional testimony that she was a hospital volunteer in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion. She said she witnessed Iraqi soldiers removing infants from incubators, leaving them to die on the cold floor. She also said she saw a young man tortured nearly to death by Iraqi soldiers, and that she and her family were abused by the soldiers and heard them mocking then President George Bush. President Bush and other world leaders began using words such as “sadists” and “brutality and inhumanity” to describe the Iraqis. The same terms were also used to describe German forces in both World Wars. The truth was later exposed that Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S. and that she was coached to deliver this false testimony. But the testimony was already broadcast to at least 90 million Americans on the nightly news, and the U.S. entered the war anyway in large part due to this hoax. You can still watch it here:
Whenever the powers that be want to enter a war that they know their public won’t support, there is a massive demonization campaign before entering the conflict. This happens in accordance with the atrocity propaganda I just mentioned. The leader of the nation will usually be demonized first, then his nation will also be demonized. The Kaiser, Hitler, Ho Chi Minh, Saddam Hussein, The Taliban, Bashar Al-Assad, and now Vladimir Putin have all been demonized and de-humanized. Once they are established as depraved, blood-thirsty villains their people are usually demonized as well. There will often be accusations of them attacking their own people- usually an ethnic minority within their own country. This often proves to be false or misleading later but provides a justification for outside intervention. Watch for these characterizations. All day I have seen news reports portraying Putin as a murderous communist spy who poisons his own diplomats. Whether these accusations are true is not the point. It’s just one piece of the puzzle to take notice of since we see this pattern repeat so often.
3. Threat of Expansion
Also known as “fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here” propaganda. This is another common theme. How many people believe that the reason the U.S. entered both World Wars was because Germany was trying to take over the whole world? There is no historic indication that this was true. Germany may have been attempting to expand its territory in Europe, but the idea that they were going to try taking over America is laughable. Yet:
You might remember Cold War propaganda like the movie “Red Dawn.” This movie had a whole generation of Americans believing that the Red Army might parachute in any day, even though there was never any evidence that Russia was planning a U.S. invasion. Then there was the idea that the U.S. HAD to go fight in the Vietnam and Korea quagmires to stop the threat of communism spreading across the world. My favorite example of this pattern is that Islam was about to take over the whole world, and only the United States could contain the impending jihadi caliphate. Now we have declassified documentation of things like Operation Cyclone, which show that the CIA had funded and trained the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS insurgents. Saddam Hussein was also a U.S. asset. Given these revelations, it’s insulting that we spent trillion of dollars and almost 60,000 U.S. casualties fighting insurgent groups we helped create, and topple dictators we helped install. But the big nine event and the huge propaganda effort against “Muslim extremism” created massive public support for these wars for years. There is already a narrative developing that Ukraine is only the first part of Putin’s plan to take over Eastern Europe, and who knows what else, so watch for this one.
4. Preservation of Liberal Democracy
This might be the most annoying of the war propaganda themes. Invoking “muh liberal democratic values” is a favorite of the global elite. This was a shadowy theme that was more of an undercurrent in WW1, but resulted in the end of European monarchy anyway. It became a bigger theme in WW2 when Americans were told we had a responsibility to stop the spread of fascism. Then in Korea, Vietnam, and the Cold War it became a focal point that America was tasked with stopping communism and spreading democracy and freedom around the world. This propaganda became so over-the-top after the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq that it spawned one of my favorite comedies.
It also produced a number of cringe-worthy patriotic country songs. Almost all of us who were adults at the time fell for it. The internet was brand new, and only a handful of people knew the extent of the deep state and intelligence agencies’ treachery. Americans forgot about the commies it had been worried about for half a century. Suddenly, we all hated Muslims and wanted to defeat the Taliban, despite so much of the big nine event narrative not making sense. Not a single jihadi with a box cutter came from Afghanistan. But for some reason we were rooting out terrorists in Afghani caves and bringing liberal feminism to the Middle East. We had to fight the Islamic extremists over there, so we didn’t have to fight them here. To do that we had to “spread democracy around the globe,” according to George Dubya Bush. But why? Why did Muslim terrorists topple the twin towers and crash a plane into the Pentagon? Because they hate us for our freedom, that’s why. So, the solution was to force American democracy down their throats so that they will learn to love freedom. Makes ZERO sense, now, but we just went with it back then. We would not have such abominations as the Department of Homeland Security or the Patriot Act without this piece of wartime propaganda.
NATO is already saying Putin is a threat to liberal democratic values in Europe, so I expect this will remain a theme.
There is no way for us as part of the general public to know what will happen with Russia and Ukraine, but I hope this helps you make some sense of the propaganda that will be bombarding you in the coming weeks.