War and propaganda

(To Renato Scarfi)

The interview released by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov on the evening of 1 May forcefully relaunched the debate on the value of propaganda in military operations.

In his "Art of War" written about 2.500 years ago, Sun Tzu stated that "... the best of the best is not to win a hundred battles out of a hundred, but rather to subdue the enemy without fighting ..."i. Already in those days, therefore, propaganda played an important, if not decisive, role in the course of the conflict. A role that today is amplified by the diffusion of modern means of communication (television, radio, internet) and gods social media (facebook, twitter, instagram, telegram, etc…). A diffusion that allows propaganda to penetrate deeply and globally in the social fabric and in the minds of the masses. In modern warfare i social medianot having substantial filters, they therefore become important actors able to convey the propaganda of the warring parties. A war defined as "hybrid", precisely due to the presence and use of unconventional tools, which makes it different from the previous ones as it is fought both with weapons and with the extensive use of communication. But how do propaganda techniques work?

The techniques and the means

Propaganda is there most pervasive form of communication, since its purpose is to shape public opinion, attracting it to its own positions / ideologies. It may be evident (overt), conceals (covert) or a combination of the two. It is an activity that can use true information or false news, deliberately and wisely elaborated. However, fake news must be used with care and, to obtain the desired effect, they must be credible. Furthermore, their use normally has an extremely limited time limit.

In planning the communication it is first of all necessary to have clear in mind what is the goal of the propaganda operation, in jargon psychological operation (psyop). The message to be conveyed, in fact, must be modulated in a different way, depending on the result to be obtained and the audience to which it is directed. The demoralization of the opponent? The spread of discontent and distrust of the enemy's hierarchy in the field of others? The exaltation of the morale, fighting spirit and stamina of our troops? The increase in popular hostility towards the enemy? The reduction of the consensus towards the opposing rulers? The growth of support for us from the international community? The objectives of the psyops and the target to be reached, therefore, determine the construction of the message and the tools for its diffusion.

If the attempt is to demoralize opponents, for example, a video can be broadcast in which a prisoner of war asks his government to do everything to free him. We remember the “spontaneous” interviews with Major Bellini and Captain Coccioloneii (photo) and the apprehension they aroused in Italian public opinion. Or, if you want to reduce the support of third parties towards the opponent, a video can be broadcast in which a prisoner (volunteer or mercenary), with obvious signs of beatings, invites his compatriots (third parties) not to support a war that it does not involve them directly.

During the Gulf War for the liberation of Kuwait, however, the themes of Arab brotherhood, the isolation of Iraq, the overwhelming power of the coalition were used to induce Iraqi soldiers to desertion. The radio and TV broadcasts and flyers were full of such messages.

Today there are countless ways to make propaganda, aided by the thousand forms of multimedia communication, which often makes use of both intentionally false or distorted information (disinformation, fake news) and anonymous films made with mobile phones or other commercial means, without having any possibility of understanding the context or origin.

The pattern is almost always the same. In the case of films, the shots are designed to convey the desired message, but the language used is not accidental. The word "war", for example, in Russia has been deliberately abolished in communications and, for the avoidance of doubt, laws have been promulgated expressly prohibiting its use, under penalty of imprisonment. This is because the very concept of "war" negatively predisposes public opinion, raising questions about the real need for conflict.

Then there is the spectacularization of the war, with shots that show one's military power (rows of tanks heading towards the front) or the weakness of the opponent (prisoners and destroyed material). We all remember the images of the columns of Russian armored vehicles or the videos of the sinking of the cruiser “Moskva”, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet.

Another system for the dissemination of news directed to the population is clandestine communication, a real system parallel to the official one. In the second half of the last century, I recall the importance of the role played both by the clandestine press and by the massive presence of VCRs in Polish homes, which allowed Solidarity to spread and consolidate the hold on public opinion and to arrive at the results we know.

To all this, technological development now makes it possible to add the possibility of inserting oneself into the adversary's radio and television broadcasts, with programs that are difficult to distinguish from the originals. A capacity that allows you to send direct messages to local populations to instill doubts on the respective ruling classes and undermine the will to fight of the opposing troops. A technique that today has reached a particular level of technological refinement, but which was used in a more crude way, for example, also in the Second World War. We remember Japan, which used the broadcaster "Tokyo Rose" to transmit music, propaganda and messages of despair towards the Americans and their alliesiii. A propaganda dissemination system also employed by Germany with "Axis Sally" or from the United Kingdom with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

More recently, during the Gulf War, Americans disseminated direct messages to Iraqi troops via the radio program "Voice of the Gulf". Iraqis have also tried a similar technique, by carrying out radio broadcasts from "Baghdad Betty", with propaganda directed to the coalition troops. The result was devastating (for Iraqis) since the initiative was essentially useless, as not knowing American customs and culture well, the messages transmitted turned out to be devoid of any credibility (and following).

The effects of propaganda on targets

Some claim that propaganda is the art of lying, making people believe you are telling a truth. Nothing more wrong. In fact, in propaganda they are not only given fake news but, on the contrary, real news is mainly transmitted, but magnified (if favorable) or resized (if contrary) made in such a way as to convey the desired message. All this because true propaganda is not composed of completely false news, but mainly of elements that are true and verifiable, because the purpose of propaganda is to be able to exchange a part for the whole..

Continuously hammered by manipulated information, it becomes more and more difficult to distinguish reality from fiction specially created to form our opinion and, in the end, we often get "tired" and end up believing (almost) everything.

But certainly the propaganda must be well thought out. Affirmations that can be easily refuted do not have a long life and almost always obtain the opposite effect to the intended one. Suffice it to recall, just to remain relatively recently, the test tube shown at the UN by Colin Powell, then Secretary of State of the George W. Bush Administration, which (according to him) contained alleged chemical weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein. Or, even more recently, the claims of Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian army, who said "... the Russian armed forces are not attacking Ukrainian cities and the civilian population is not threatened ...".

The most vulnerable to the lure of propaganda are those who, by choice or by less culture, do not regularly obtain information from multiple sources. At the end of a survey conducted in the late 80s in the United States, for example, it emerged that approx a quarter of the US population had never heard of NATO and of those who knew what it was, only 58% knew the US was part of the Atlantic Alliance and just 38% knew the Soviet Union was not part of it. Basically, despite the Cold War being the dangerous one leitmotiv of the previous 45 years, with the US being the protagonists of one of the two camps, about 70% of Americans were not adequately informed, while only a small 30% seemed to know the issueiv. A very fertile "cultural" terrain for the penetration of political propaganda.

Another great target of propaganda are young people because, to get information, they rely almost exclusively on social media, virtual sources which, as is well known, are easily accessible but are just as easily penetrated by propaganda because they are difficult to control.

The complex of all these reasons (choice not to inquire, limited studies, verification difficulties) strongly reduces the ability to think critically and the attitude to ask questions and get reasoned answers. Such an attitude predisposes the target ad uncritically absorb the propaganda message. In this context, many young Americans, observing a video concerning the voting operations at the polling stations, which was submitted to them as part of a debate about the Russian intrusions on the American presidential vote, declared that the video was credible. Too bad they didn't even realize that it was a video shot in Russia (the flag was perfectly visible).

Propaganda, therefore, heavily affects the perception of the masses about the events that are the subject of psyops and often leads to superficially assuming extremist positions (for or against), making it even more difficult to discriminate between real news and those built to mess things up. The Russian news, for example, broadcast videos in which the troops welcome Ukrainian families who fled the war in a friendly way, with interviews during which they thank them for their kindness and availability. Such films wisely avoid transmitting images of cities devastated by bombing, things that are instead repeatedly broadcast by Ukrainian news, along with shots of dead and wounded. Nothing new, it will be said, since even during the Second World War these tools were widely used to support one or the other faction. Suffice it to recall the video shot by the Nazis in Terezin (Theresienstadt).

To understand how pervasive and convincing propaganda can be it is enough to remember that the BBC between May and September 1940, when the invasion by the Germans seemed imminent, began broadcasting a series of English lessons "in favor" of potential invaders in a way that they knew how to say "the ship is sinking", "I burn". Broadcasts supporting reports from British agents in Germany about the British ability to set fire to much of the English Channel in the event of an invasion. News without foundation but so well planned and just as cleverly disseminated that, even after decades (early XNUMXs), some German veterans were still convinced of their truthfulnessv.

However, propaganda can also "get carried away" and can lead the originator himself to believe in the narrative being made to the masses. In this case we speak of the narcissistic syndrome of the manipulator. As Narcissus fell in love with the image of him reflected on the water, so much so that he fell into it and died, the manipulator began to truly believe in his narration, until he completely lost the connection with the reality of the facts. The most common mistake is to make blatantly false and immediately recognizable claims as such, losing credibility and therefore the ability to persuade.

A recent example is an intervention by Minister Lavrov when he said that "... Russia has never attacked Ukraine ..."vi. A gross slip committed at a very high level which, however, clarifies his level of love for the narrative. A communication error that has raised more than one doubt about the actual degree of clarity with which decisions are made in the Kremlin.


Returning to the televised intervention of Minister Lavrov and having illustrated the general concepts that determine the effectiveness of propaganda, it is possible to say that the Russian minister has miserably failed in his attempt to persuade the validity of the Russian claims and has failed to instill the doubt in the minds of those who, last May 1st, had the tenacity and patience to listen to his words. Not only does he have mechanically repeated the official narrative without bringing any new and objective element to support it, but he also made some aberrant and obscene claimsvii which, for example, led Israel to immediately summon the Russian ambassador to ask for a formal apology while, at the same time, it began to consider sending military aid to Kiev. Another sensational Russian own goal, all the more serious if you consider that the Israeli government had tried to maintain a difficult position after the invasion began, not adhering to the Ukrainian request to send weapons and proposing itself as a possible mediator between the parties .

As the first interview released since the beginning of hostilities to a television of a country that has joined the sanctions against Russia, it was an important opportunity to try to attract some "sympathy". A significant amount of propaganda was therefore to be expected, but we have seen one unconvincing performance by the head of Russian diplomacy because, I repeat, propaganda is effective only if it is credible.

Today we are going through a period characterized by extreme dynamism and unpredictability. In this context, it is likely that propaganda will become increasingly important both before and after the conflict, precisely because we are immersed in a global society dominated by the media (of all kinds). It is therefore an activity that will continue to grow in value and will represent a fundamental strategic resource, with its potential to change the perceptions, attitude and orientation of public opinion, on which the consensus of those who governs.

Sun Tzu, if he did not invent the psyops, was at least the forerunner of what has now become a widespread practice in every modern operating theater. An activity that has proven its effectiveness on and off the battlefield, at least as much as the careful use of firepower and the shrewd use of maneuver. An activity which, being able to heavily influence the decision-making process of the ruling class, can ultimately determine the development, duration and to some extent the fate of an armed confrontation.

iThe art of war, from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz, Einaudi Ed, 2009, p. 11

ii Operation "Desert Storm", 1991

iii Luca Fontana, Psychological operations (psyops). The conquest of the minds, Information Magazine of the Defense, 6/2003

iv Frank L. Goldstein, Psychological Operations. Principles and case studies, Air University Press, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1996

v Luca Fontana, op. cited

vi Statement made by Lavrov during the press conference at the end of the meeting with the Ukrainian counterpart Kuleba in Antalya (Turkey) on March 10, 2022

vii Mario Draghi, May 2, 2022

Images: Mediaset / RAI