How Orwell gave propaganda a bad name

Huw Lemmey in New Humanist:

For all the talk of something disturbingly novel and unknown about a post-Trump world, with its crumbling trust in mainstream media and lack of faith in the institutions of democracy, there’s also something curiously retro about the whole thing. It’s not simply the US president himself, whose brash, greed-is-good confidence and private-jet-and-golden-tower personality were obnoxious enough the first time round, in the 1980s, nor his adoption of an outdated rhetoric of an America reawakened. It’s also in the rhetoric of his rivals, who have reached back to Cold War imagery of Soviet spy threats and reds under the bed when invoking the probable Russian interference in the 2016 US election. It’s not just collusion in Trump’s campaign they’re warning of. It’s also a return to that seemingly most Soviet of influences – Russian propaganda – finding its way into the innocent homes of the American people. Twitter bots, online trolls and “fake news” have all been described as modern propaganda, updated versions of the bold posters and misleading pamphlets of official Stalinist culture. Their role, it’s claimed, is nothing less than undermining truth and knowledge itself, the values on which democratic culture is built. How did propaganda get such a bad name?

Determining the root of its ignominy is complicated by the fact that the term has itself been adopted as a slur to throw at the political arguments of one’s opponents, but in his influential 1928 book on the subject Edward Bernays, the godfather of Public Relations, regarded propaganda as vital to the flourishing of democracy: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” No one person is capable of truly grasping the collosal amount of information needed to make an informed decision in the modern world, he argued. Instead, politicians should corral the facts into a coherent narrative to present to an irrational public, in order that they might understand the effects of policies being proposed, convincing them, in the process, that their vision of the nation was clearly the best. “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.”

More here.