Monday 14 May 2018

African Propaganda In a Nutshell

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
Change is happening all over the world. It is impossible to stand still. Yet as we change, there are those who would wish to influence that change—some in a positive and some in a negative way. My intention is to focus on invidious change that others seek to bring about through propaganda. Specifically, in Africa.
Propaganda is biased, misleading, and intends to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines propaganda as ‘the active manipulation of opinion by means that include distortion or concealment of the truth.’ It usefully distinguishes between ’agitation propaganda, which seeks to change attitudes, and ‘integration propaganda’ which seeks to reinforce existing attitudes.

Africa has been the victim of both agitation propaganda and integration propaganda—and while propaganda anywhere in the world may share the same characteristics, I here offer examples which are characteristically African, which Africans are primarily aware of—or ought to be. Mark Nichol, a writer, offers these four useful descriptions of propaganda, from which I develop my thoughtful analysis:
An appeal to prejudice, or the black-and-white fallacy. Africa is a place of unusually stark contrasts, historical, cultural, social, and geographical. Politicians and religious leaders exploit this by presenting only two alternatives, one of which is identified as undesirable. They do so to exploit an audience’s desire to believe that it is morally or otherwise superior. However, the goal is the pleasure of the propagandists, regardless of whether the victim is in poverty or has riches.

An appeal to fear. Africa still wrestles with fundamental issues, more so than other regions of the world, so that it faces many fears and uncertainties. Propagandists exploit fear and doubt, disseminating false or negative information, to undermine adherence to an undesirable belief or opinion. They do so to exploit audience anxieties or concerns through fear of political identity, gender, race, tribes, and religious or traditional practices.

Half-truths. Governments and political parties in Africa tend to be secretive about information, which may further be difficult for the public to access. Full knowing the full truth, they still make statements that are partly true or otherwise deceptive to further their own agenda. The government often disguises this as a matter of national security, so that the full truth lies under a veil of secrecy.

Obfuscation and glittering generalities. In Africa, the spoken word may have priority over the written word, so that it is received personally, not critically. Propagandists resort to vague communication and word prejudices intended to confuse the audience as it seeks to interpret the message. In South Africa, the ruling party has for each election campaign used this method to continue holding power. It tells the story of apartheid history and how its injustices ought to be fixed, however may only be fixed if each person votes in remembrance of their leaders who fought the apartheid system.
Where does the solution lie? It surely lies in our personal choice, as to whether to accept or reject what we see, read, and hear. Our identity and its underlying attitudes are changed over time, through those choices that we make—and our ideology, which is the consequence of what we were and are exposed to, often plays a crucial role in shaping our perception of what is truth and propaganda.

As individuals, we need to examine our judgements of information at the bar of mature reasoning, in order to avoid judging amiss and believing the propaganda. If we continue to fail this test, propaganda will prevail as it allows what is biased popular opinion to turn into the judgement of the minority opinion.  This then infringes on the right we all ought to or do have—freedom of speech.

The theologian Isaac Watts gives us this timely advice:
‘When a man of eloquence speaks or writes upon any subject, we are too ready to run into his sentiments, being sweetly and insensibly drawn by the smoothness of his harangue, and the pathetic power of his language. Rhetoric will varnish every error so that it shall appear in the dress of truth, and put such ornaments upon vice, as to make it look like virtue: it is an art of wondrous and extensive influence: it often conceals, obscures, or overwhelms the truth and places sometimes a gross falsehood in a most alluring light.’ 
Let us use logic as the measure of reasoning and sharing information. Not biased opinion from an eloquent man.


docmartincohen said...

Thoughtful post, thanks very much again, Sifiso Mkhonto. But I have to admit at the end I reamin a bit 'unconvinced'. Yes, those tools of the propagandist are always there, and yes, we would like debates to be presented and for people to see things more honestly and clearly. But logic? That's where I thin I depart from your discourse. You see, the great statesmen (meaning in this case 'men') used great eloquence and while they avoided the ies of the propagandist they were hardly offering up proper arguments. Lincoln, Gandhi, MLK? Fine sentiments backed by eloquent words seems to be the pattern and the secret. Is not the trouble in South Africa, in the USA, in Brexit Britain more the twisted sentiments that underlie the weasel words and half-truths, than the word tricks themselves?

Alas, I guess that is even harder to change.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Sifiso. Based on this post, it seems to me that propagandists take advantage of weaknesses in public conceptions -- and select those conceptions which run deep. This would seem to agree with what you say about 'mature reasoning' -- which is to say, it falls back on the public as to whether propagandists succeed or not. Yet who is capable of mature reasoning -- or who is able to know what it is? Especially when it comes to such propaganda.

Keith said...

Thank you, Sifiso, for your thoughtful discussion. I was onboard, until the last two sentences: “Let us use logic as the measure of reasoning and sharing information. Not biased opinion from an eloquent man.” Ancient orators (good guys and rogues alike) and 2018’s orators (good guys and rogues alike) have routinely depended on impassioned speech to sway. The matters of ‘logic’, ‘reasoning’, and ‘information’ are often called into question by competing camps: one person’s may not be another’s. And one person’s propaganda may not be another’s. Spin — especially impassioned spin — matters as much (more?) in the complicated stratagem of persuasion than do the niceties of reasoning and facts. Deft articulateness — what your last sentence rightly characterizes as ‘eloquence’ — matters, too. Good guys and rogues alike take advantage of the audience’s everyday expectations, playing on their confirmation biases, cognitive dissonance, and other vulnerabilities to gain advantage. They always have, and they always will.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

With reference to the last of the four points above, Angus Gellatly writes, 'People in oral cultures do not explicitly recognize the difference between a thought and the words which express it.' 'Oral cultures' would surely be a relative term. What I mean is that some cultures are less critical or analytical. The merits or demerits of that would be another question.

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Thank you Martin for the comment. It is unfortunate that the end seems unconvincing. The aim of the end part is to encourage information sharers to use facts, realities and as known by some logic provides us with strict principles of validity of information. I agree with you, the trouble is in the underlying twisted sentiments. Would you mind highlighting the ones which stand out for you?

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Thank you Keith for your comment. It is true that 'Good guys and rogues alike take advantage of the audience’s everyday expectations, playing on their confirmation biases, cognitive dissonance, and other vulnerabilities to gain advantage. They always have, and they always will.' Now the question that bothers me, when will we act against this reality and allow truth to flourish?

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Thank you Thomas for your comment and questions. Any individual is capable of thinking and should be capable of improving their own reasoning capacity through reading and asking questions when provided with information by another person. Then comes the responsibility to verify the information. History often provides accurate recorded information. Believing what is said about the future or its promises remains a risk each individual decides to accept. Propagandists thrive on being ambiguous about the future. This raises the question is there positive propaganda and in whose interest does it serve?

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