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A Brief History of Propaganda

Andrew Trabulsi
Board of Contributors
3 MINS READDec 1, 2017 | 18:21 GMT
Stanislaw Tokarski / Shutterstock.com

Today’s headlines provoke a sense that the Politburo never died. In many ways, perhaps, the Soviet propaganda machine that once dominated Cold War counterintelligence operations never truly died. Like the Thieves-in-Law of the legendary Soviet criminal underworld, whose influence agitated the demise of an ultimately naïve U.S. attempt to modernize the post-Soviet economy, it’s difficult to persuasively argue that the geist of the KGB’s disinformation mills do not, indeed, still exist. Nevertheless, while the 20th Century provided numerous case studies for the application of propaganda, the practice dates back millennia.

Over the ages, the misinformation has taken many shapes. The term ‘propaganda’, itself, was born in the nomenclature of the Catholic Church’s missionary efforts in the 17th Century. Originally derived from Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith), the term came to reflect methods used to evangelize the Church’s message, through scripture, symbolism, and ritual. Jason Stanley, in his book How Propaganda Works, points to the works Plato and Rousseau—among others—as foundational to the field of political philosophy, and discusses how these ideas evolved political discourse to eventually counter the prevalence of democracy. While the urgency of the current political firestorms may lead us to believe we are facing a new menace, propaganda is nothing new.

In perhaps one of the most crucial battles in the establishment of Ancient Greece, the Athenian statesman and general Themistocles lured the Persian king Xerxes into a naval fight in the Straits of Salamis in 480 BC, convincing King Xerxes, through the use of disinformation, that the Greeks were not up for a fight following their defeat at Thermopylae. In the ensuing Battle of Salami, the coalition of Greek forces garnered a decisive victory against Xerxes’ Persian fleet, ultimately marking a turning point in the Greco-Persian wars.

While Themistocles was among the first notable political and military leaders to use disinformation on such a stage, its use has extended across centuries and circumstances. Following his success against the Persians around 330 BC, Alexander the Great proclaimed—of all things—his deification as the son of Zeus to the Greeks, replacing the image of Heracles, the fabled son of Zeus, with his own on the currency used through his territories. Embossing his likeness in statues, buildings, artwork, and coin, Alexander found his image to be an effective substitute for real-life presence throughout his empire. 

In the wake of the Indian Rebellion in 1857, the British Government purveyed one of the first modern instances of fake news. To combat the mutiny of Indian sepoys against the British East India Company, the British press spread false and exaggerated claims of Indian men assaulting English women. The claims—used to justify the government’s harsh imperial stance towards the ostensible savagery of the Indians—fomented a violent push from the British. By the end of the sepoy uprisings, as many as 800,000 Indians had been killed.

Today we may look at the Philistine movement espoused by the pedagogues of contemporary influence campaigns as the natural evolution of these practices. A litany of modern euphemisms come to mind in the modern spread of disinformation. Yet while our tactics have become refined, and our tools much more precise, our dealings with the political fury in the modern era could be served by taking a look backwards to understand how the future may still unfold. As this is the beginning of a yearlong monograph, I look forward to exploring these tactics and issues in greater depth.

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