Putting the ‘pro’ in ‘propaganda’

propagandaWhen I read that the ANC had spent R50-million on a propaganda campaign I was greatly relieved because it allowed me to think better of someone.

The person in question, a denizen of Twitter’s sweatier fighting pits, had once showered me with hot, pungent sanctimony after I’d criticised the ANC, and I had gone away believing him to be a wilfully stupid supporter of kleptocrats.

But when news broke of the ANC’s “war room”, everything changed. Because there he was, named as a valued member of the lavishly paid goon squad.

The relief rolled over me like a Gupta rolling over a cabinet minister. His criticisms hadn’t been personal. They hadn’t even been heartfelt. Rather than being a self-righteous prick he was simply being professional: putting the “pro” in propaganda.

My relief, however, was tinged with sadness. Because, even though I was happy to discover that my accuser was simply cranking out lies-by-the-yard for money, I felt terribly sorry for the country’s other propagandists who had just discovered how badly they were being paid.

I don’t know if the EFF has a propaganda department yet. I suspect their “war room” is just a dojo where senior Fighters gather around and applaud while Julius Malema delivers karate chops to an inflatable doll of Jacob Zuma. But if they don’t already have an Alternative Fact Brigade, they soon will: when the Commander-In-Chief publishes his memoirs in 10 years, perhaps titled 100% For Me, expect to see no mention of Venezuela or Robert Mugabe.

No, I don’t know if the EFF pays any propagandists, so it’s not them I feel sorry for. The ones my heart goes out to, the ones lying curled up on their unmade bed, staring at nothing and murmuring “Fifty million?”, are the spin-doctors of the DA.

I met one of them, once, a bright young thing who told me that he writes letters to newspapers whenever the DA needs a little push in the polls. You’ve probably read them: “Dear Sir, as a resident of Khayelitsha I can assure you that the location, or, as we call it, ‘the i-karsi’, is not only very safe but is also being brilliantly run by the DA. Halala Moesie Mymarny! Yours, Sipho Mandela.”

Until news of the war room broke, the future must have looked bright for the DA’s propagandists. There was work galore. Cape Town is busy selling off a large chunk of public coastline to a private developer, and under normal circumstances we might have expected something to appear online in the next few days, perhaps “New Study Proves That Seaside Walks on Public Land are Leading Cause of Depression”.

But that was then. Now, the rules (and the pay scales) have changed forever.

Once, a DA letter-writer was content to be paid with a tin of Danish butter cookies and an Exclusive Books gift voucher. (“With thanks. Buy anything you like, but just so you know, there’ll be a quiz on Helen Zille’s life next week and all the answers are in her memoir. Just saying.”) But how can butter cookies compete with R50-million?

Still, I would urge them to hang on. Their ship will come in, because propaganda is a growth industry. In fact it’s just getting started. And that’s because people are incredibly bad at discerning fact from fiction, especially if the fiction has a headline and some quotes and a photo of a man in a suit.

I should have learned this lesson back when I helped run satire website Hayibo.com. In 2011, our story about the African Union sending troops and food aid to riot-hit London went viral. It was posted to forums and blogs. It was even discussed by commodities traders, wondering how the imports would hit UK grain prices.

In retrospect it was chilling, but at the time we found it bizarrely funny. We simply couldn’t believe that Eton-educated stockbrokers could mistake our silliness for truth. For God’s sake, it even claimed that the AU would be “parachuting in dentists as part of a ‘Feel better about yourselves, Brits!’ initiative”.

I no longer find that story funny, not after seeing how completely adrift we are.

I often hear people wishing that our media were more sophisticated, but I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m starting to suspect that editors and broadcasters might need to revisit their assumptions about how information is received and take a big step back to the basics.

Propagandists everywhere are telling us that up is down and good is bad. They have gone straight back to the first principles of reality in order to rearrange them.

It is easy to point and stare, aghast. But the media cannot react to credulity with incredulity.

Rather, it needs to meet the new Goebbelses back there at Ground Zero. And it needs to start repeating, clearly and relentlessly, that bad is bad, that down is down, and that lies are lies.

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Published in The Times

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