Manufacturing consent in the digital age


Manufacturing consent in the digital age

In the shadow of the West’s imperial wars, propaganda is now re-fashioning itself. By Boubacar Boris Diop.

In mid-June 2012, millions of people received an email that warned of a conspiracy being cooked up by the CIA, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all of whom were deeply engaged in the toppling of Bashar al-Assad. Its main thrust was this: elite special services were going to hack the Syrian broadcast network and air-spam material pre-recorded in some obscure studio. The footage would be so realistic that the Syrian population would flood the streets, and quickly overwhelm the regime in Damascus, because even Assad’s devotees would be then concerned with only one thing: saving their own skins.

So, on a Friday afternoon, at exactly 12:32 PM, Syrian citizens witness live on television the fall of the major cities of Damascus, Homs, and Dera. The collapse of the “bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad” is described as a “tremendous shock,” given that it was hitherto known for its iron grip and strong ties with China, Iran, and Russia. It is also stressed that “Western democracies”, which have been working overtime for Assad’s demise, are welcoming this outcome with great relief. What about the rebel leaders? Judging from their body language, they are still coming to terms with the 

magnitude of their historical mission. Only motivated by their noble ideals and aspirations, these barehanded democrats have been able to defeat one of the most deeply entrenched police states on the planet. Viewers around the world tuning in to this fictitious programme are told that the whereabouts of the president remain a mystery. Witnesses report that he left hurriedly. Some say he gathered the entire palace personnel and had them all killed, to cover his tracks. Reuters and Sky News report that no independent source could be reached to authenticate this claim. Ministers and generals of the old regime are in a mad rush to pledge their allegiance to the new rulers.

All over Syria foreign news correspondents, still in their combat fatigues and multi-pocketed bulletproof vests, avidly record the scenes of popular effervescence. Negotiations are already underway to form a provisional government that will be tasked with organising fair and transparent elections, fourteen months from now. According to some sources, Syrian “moderate Islamists,” having borne the brunt of the Assad regime’s brutal repression of the revolutionary movement, are poised to seize control of key ministries. And the tale went on.

Four years after the prediction of its spectacular downfall, the Syrian regime is still firmly in power.

A year earlier, I had heard news channels routinely mention the huge quantities of Viagra that Gadhafi, cornered on all fronts, had had distributed to “his African mercenaries”, these young negroes so eager to brutally rape Arab women. It was a lie, of course, but it worked very well. Put another way, in such situations any resemblance to real characters, far from being purely fortuitous, is entirely deliberate. We all remember that shameful moment when Colin Powell was literally showing live to the whole world Saddam Hussein’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction.

What impacts people’s lives is not necessarily the actual events on the ground but rather, the stories crafted from those realities. Even invented ones.

As a writer, I find all this rather fascinating. What impacts people’s lives is not necessarily the actual events on the ground but rather, the stories crafted from those realities. Even invented ones, like the fictitious Syrian media blitzkrieg. A young American, Ben Rhodes, is said to have authored the Syrian piece of media faction – the “popular insurrection” and ousting of Assad. Rhodes is an expert on psychological warfare – a genius even, according to some, and I’m ready to take their word for it. Here is one contender serious about beating the novelists at their own game of narrative invention. Writers, after all, are forever preoccupied with those most central of human questions – what is the use of literature? Can a novel change the world? With the arrival of Ben Rhodes, at least one of them can now emphatically reply: “Yes, we can!”

Telling the truth or lying amounts to the same thing, given that we are here in the eminent domain of narrative techniques. The main thing is to know how to spin a good yarn; in politics, real events matter less than how they are “engineered”, “spun” and “presented” to the public.

Like Hollywood, even the journalist is now preoccupied with producing narratives that invariably evince a clear-cut binary logic, the point being to reduce infinitely complex political situations to a simple story about the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. After all, the common man or woman hastens to take sides, not to incur the risk of having their brains melt from puzzling over complex questions.

Soundbites heard throughout the day gradually assume the form of carefully thought-out personal opinions. The good guys are the democrats, men and women of goodwill, courageously standing up to the bad guys, the scourges of humankind, the enemies of human rights – the Assads, Gbagbos, Gadhafis, all full of hate and cruelty. And even if it isn’t always (or ever) that coarsely simple, who cares?

It is hard to argue the fine points against the repeated televised images of the tyrants, real or imagined. For instance, if you try to show that some of the United States’ allies are not what they claim to be, you will end up looking like the one without a clue about what this really is all about.

All of this confirms one thing: propaganda no longer consists in yelling angry slogans into loudspeakers, and stomping down the streets with fellow party members, amidst a putsch of clenched fists and swastika-adorned banners.

That is totally passé. The new propaganda plays to the tune of a sweet, sleep-inducing music, just like a lullaby. It doesn’t even need to conjure up utopian visions of a land of milk and honey. Likewise, it is no longer hampered by millenarian promises of a “date” with the new people of a classless society. With a hitherto unmatched craftsmanship, it mints political currencies in the crucible of the trivial, the everyday. Painstakingly, with an almost manic dedication, it attends to those little “intangible” facts of existence, the minutiae of consciousness so dear to novelists, until now the uncontested masters at this art of capturing, in well-crafted prose, the mundane materiality of the universe.

One comes out of a journey deep into the fantasy world of contemporary propaganda spun and rinsed from the brainwash, reeling from the realisation that things are decidedly not what they seem to be, that the “world”, as we always knew it, has long ceased to exist. Nothing is more troubling, nothing is more likely to rub our nose smack against this cold, hard fact: the wretched frailty of human existence.

Such elaborate flimflams are always politically motivated, of course. And tragically efficient. With uncanny prescience, Malcolm X, long before the advent of social media, issued this warning: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving their oppressors.”

In the end, the new masters of politics-as-fiction, are playing a dangerous game: we have reached a point where no sooner are we told that innocent civilians have been massacred or savage acts of torture committed, than we spend time on Twitter and Facebook “debating” whether this breaking news is real or just another hoax – instead of empathising with the hapless victims.

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