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Essential for Citizens: Propaganda Literacy

Tetsuo Arima
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

In Washington D.C., the capital of the United States, there is an attraction called the “Duck Tour.” It takes tourists on an amphibious vehicle to tourist spots on both sides of the Potomac River. As the vehicle nears the State Department building, the tour guide gives tourists a quiz. “Over there is the Voice of America, a network which broadcasts around the world. What is the only country that is not covered by this network?” When I participated in this tour, I was the first to raise my hand and answer, “America.” The tour guide made a sour face.

The U.S. government does not engage in propaganda toward Americans. Since the people choose representatives to form a government by democratic elections, the government should not lead its people to make wrong decisions by spreading propaganda. This is a basic principle of democracy. Countries such as China and North Korea, which do not practice democracy, control their populations with propaganda.

However, the U.S., which is a democracy, does engage in propaganda toward other countries. Even its allies are no exception. America, with huge “soft” power, has great influence on other countries, mainly through movies, TV programs, music and fashion, and also utilizes propaganda to the maximum extent. The tour guide must have been displeased because he realized I knew that.

Propaganda in the Information Age

We live in a highly digitized world today. The amount of information is growing exponentially, and many people believe unconditionally that more information is better. This is true if such information is true, unbiased and helps its recipients make sound judgments. But as the amount of information grows, so does the amount that is biased and false. In particular, in the borderless world of the Internet, if one continues to pursue related information, one can easily stray into propaganda sites established by various countries without knowing it.

Readers believe that such information is interesting and useful, but its creators take the trouble to translate and present it in an effort to plant certain ideas and images in the reader’s mind. They expend great time and money to do so. Even smallish businesses spend huge amounts of money on public relations and commercials, so it is natural that major countries bring together elite propagandists, organize powerful state agencies, and give them enormous budgets in order to spread propaganda.

VOA, mentioned above, is one of those propaganda agencies. In fact, it is modeled after the British Broadcasting Corporation. The BBC has a strong image as a reputable public broadcaster, but it is also known to spread propaganda, especially during wartime. Nonetheless, it did not spread rumors, praise its country unreservedly, or slander enemy countries, unlike state-owned media in non-democratic countries. The BBC reported news strictly based on facts, but achieved enormous impact by broadcasting only the facts that were convenient to its country and inconvenient to hostile ones.

Responsibility of the mass media

In China, a non-democratic country which controls its people with propaganda, news presented by China Central Television (CCTV), a broadcaster run by the Communist Party, should be regarded as propaganda whether it targets domestic or foreign audiences. Of course CCTV also uses language which makes its content really sound like propaganda. The problem in Japan is that the mass media frequently repeat such propaganda as part of their news. No matter how clumsy, propaganda becomes effective in its own way if it is repeated and people hear it over and over again. In this respect, Japanese mass media are careless and irresponsible.

As China, in violation of international law, builds islands in the South China Sea and places military bases there, it unilaterally raises tension in the region. If China then brings up the topic of “history” to Japan, that is a question of propaganda rather than history. Russia is responsible for causing the deaths of some 340,000 people when it broke the Japan-Soviet Neutrality Pact and invaded Manchuria, as well as 60,000 further deaths of people detained in Siberia. The Russian government releasing photographs taken immediately after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan was nothing but a form of propaganda designed to divert attention from its heinous crimes and focus it on America. Some mass media, however, reported this propaganda in strangely minute detail.

The principle of self-defense

Major countries broadcast propaganda via many channels, not only their own agencies. They also attempt to achieve their goals by using the mass media in other countries, often targeting particular countries. In a well-known example of successful propaganda, during the peace conference in Portsmouth after the Russo-Japanese War, the Russians persuaded the American journalists that Japan had engineered the war to get money, in an effort to prevent Japan from exacting reparations. In an example from the 1970s, Stanislav Levchenko, a Russian KGB officer, recruited many collaborators among senior managers of major Japanese media companies and pushed them to report the Soviet Union’s cultural and economic exchange activities in a sympathetic way. These are only two examples that have surfaced from the depths of history.

The necessity of media literacy has been advocated for a long time, but today, in our highly digitized world, we also need propaganda literacy, a special type of media literacy.

Tetsuo Arima
Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, Waseda University

Prof. Arima was born in Aomori Prefecture in 1953. He completing the doctoral course at the Tohoku University Graduate School of Arts and Letters, he served as assistant professor in its Graduate School of International Cultural Studies. In 1999, he became a professor at Waseda University Faculty of Social Sciences. His specialty is the history of mass media and of Japan’s postwar occupation period. His writings include Rekishi Mondai no Seikai (The Right Answer to History Issues), Shincho Shinsho; Swiss Chohomo no Nichibei Shusen Kosaku (Maneuvering by Swiss Intelligence to End the Japan-U.S. War), Shincho Sensho; and Koshite Terebi wa Hajimatta (Thus Began TV Broadcasting), Minerva Shobo.