True Lies

An Interview With Nancy Snow, Author Of Propaganda, Inc. And Information War

Steven Robert Allen
8 min read
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His mind slid away into the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed. Even to understand the word “doublethink” involved the use of doublethink.

—George Orwell, 1984

Most of us understand that even the political figures we most admire are adept at deceiving us. Actually, it's often the case that the better a politician is at spinning charming half-truths, the more admirable that politician appears to us.

You simply can't rise to the top of the political ladder in the United States without possessing considerable skill at molding an appealing message for the masses. Of course, it's almost impossible to sift through the daily deluge of political spin mongering. What's the best way to distinguish falsehoods from facts in our sticky, tricky world of corrupt modern politics?

With this question in mind, the Alibi decided to speak with Nancy Snow—an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California and an assistant professor at California State Fullerton—about the way propaganda functions in contemporary American society. The author of two recent books on propaganda, Propaganda, Inc. and Information War, Snow frequently appears on such media outlets as CNN, ABC News, Fox News Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC to discuss her views on the refined American art of political persuasion.

Snow first developed a professional interest in propaganda during the early '90s while taking part in the Presidential Management Intern Program at the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), one of the main propaganda arms of our federal government in the half century since World War II. (The USIA merged into the State Department in 1998.)

“It was really at the USIA that I came to the realization that the United States was such a global manufacturer of propaganda,” Snow says. “Nobody ever acknowledged it at the agency. The word that everybody used euphemistically was ’public diplomacy.' But you can read some of the early books and literature that have been published about the USIA that were very specific in declaring that what we were doing was in fact propaganda.”

Snow is quick to point out that despite the negative connotations, propaganda isn't necessarily a bad thing. “It’s always been considered a dirty word in the United States,” she says. “We don’t want to call it propaganda because we tend to associate that with Stalin or Hitler. It’s associated with telling lies, which is not really the nature of what propaganda is. There are different forms of propaganda and different techniques, which certainly include deception and lies. But to cast the entire nature of propaganda’s sociology in terms of deception is unfortunate. The most effective propaganda always contains an element of truth.”

Snow insists that the perpetual sludge of propaganda flows just as freely from left-wing sources as from right-wing ones. “Clinton was very good, too, at using propaganda,” she says, “and that’s interesting because a lot of my Democratic friends really miss Clinton. Those were the good old days to them. The Clinton administration certainly mastered the necessity of addressing a problem immediately. They were always going out with a message to counter anything that might come their way. They had quite a formidable opposition, of course. There were people who turned Clinton into the anti-Christ as soon as he was elected. They probably felt that as an administration they had to use a lot of propaganda to counter the Republican right.”

The catastrophe of 9-11, of course, created a fertile landscape for information manipulation by the new Bush administration. “It amazed me how in the fall of 2002 the country was in complete lock-step with the administration,” Snow says. “You can really play on people's fears and emotions in times of crisis.”

Without 9-11, Snow believes there would have been no way for the Bush administration to create the powerful propaganda system it used so effectively to sway public opinion in favor of invading a country that posed no significant threat to us. Ultimately, though, she places the responsibility for the public's gullibility firmly on the shoulders of the public itself. In Snow's view, the Bush administration's propaganda machine in the months leading up to the Iraq War wasn't in the least sophisticated. Of course, given the circumstances, the Bush administration had it fairly easy.

“Even the Democratic Party by and large, with a few exceptions, wasn’t questioning anything,” says Snow. “It wasn’t acting as any sort of opposition. If you did question the Bush administration, then you were immediately attacked as being un-American. Remember, we were only a year from 9-11. I think there was a lot of self-censoring going on among politicians and the media, and that just created this vacuum.”

In this regard, Snow scoffs at the incessant rightwing complaints about a biased liberal media. “That’s a beautiful technique,” she laughs, “that’s been around maybe 20 years. It finally occurred to the right-wing that if they just kept saying this over and over they could make the media very skittish about raising any serious questions about right-wing policies.”

Of course, there's a grain of truth to the critique. According to Snow, that's generally the way propaganda in a free society works. “I have seen studies that suggest that the majority of reporters in the mainstream media might be pro-gay rights, pro-women's rights, pro-choice. So that's what the right-wing, especially conservative evangelical groups, use to say secular ideologues are running the media, but I think that's missing the point.”

Snow insists that you have to analyze the entire media system, not just the grunts working on the bottom. At most levels of the mainstream media, journalism jobs just don't pay all that well, so it's natural that many journalists would identify with the working class. In any case, it's generally true that people can make more money in the business world than by becoming journalists. The owners of the giant media conglomerates, however, are usually sympathetic to conservative policies. This is largely because the financial health of these corporations is based almost entirely on advertising, making them naturally inclined toward siding with business interests.

One of Snow's greatest inspirations in her work is Jacques Ellul's classic book, Propaganda, first published during the mid '60s. Although many of Ellul's case studies are somewhat dated, Snow believes this book provides a profound insight into the nature of modern propaganda.

“Ellul says that there can't be modern propaganda without a high-tech society,” says Snow. “We have this high-tech society with all of its bells and whistles, with all of its visually powerful imagery, but it conditions people to not really use their critical faculties. The media are not really giving us the tools and the bigger picture to allow us to start thinking for ourselves.

“I especially love it where Ellul talks about the elites and the academics of the world,” says Snow. “It's interesting that we read so much and stay on top of so much information, yet we can be lulled into propaganda more than anyone because we're actually exposed to more of it, and we're just as susceptible. There's this false notion of associating susceptibility to propaganda with the less educated. I include myself as one who's very vulnerable to propaganda.”

So what's the solution? How do we identify the lies imbedded in the messages sent to us via politicians and the media?

“There's no one thing you can do to defend yourself,” Snow says. “You just have to be vigilant about your own weaknesses and susceptibility. It certainly helps if you seek out as many alternative sources of information as possible and don't just expose yourself to one point of view. You have to expose yourself to ideas that make you uncomfortable. If you're on the so-called left, you don't want to just consume left-wing sources, because then you're just reinforcing your own ideas and that doesn't put you in a good position to defend a reasonable point of view.”

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