Throughout the centuries, propaganda has involved publicising information to influence belief and behaviour. The Trajan columns, for example, are an early example of how a ruler, in this case a Roman Emperor, reinforced his authority by glorifying his deeds in the medium of the day. The invention of the printing press, increased literacy, political revolution and the mass media has together increased the amount of propaganda and its sophistication. Today, social media has enabled anyone with a computer to be a propagandist. If that is your goal, the exhibition even gives a user's guide to basic techniques.
The history of propaganda is just one aspect of the British Library's new exhibition entitled Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. In a series of six sections, it deploys some 200 exhibits - pamphlets, posters, ephemera such as coins and banknotes, quotations, film and interviews - to explore the different ways in which propaganda has been used. Countries might use it as a tool to establish legitimacy and a national identity. The exhibition shows how nations demonise other nations in order to justify war by creating a climate of fear and hatred. When at war, propaganda can play a crucial role both in boosting morale and winning the support of other countries. It shows how propaganda can be used for entirely laudable reasons such as in health campaigns.
For propaganda has to some extent been hijacked by those using it for the worst of motives. The current Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "the systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view". Yet, as the exhibition shows, the London Olympic ceremony, the Golden Jubilee and Margaret Thatcher's funeral were all examples of propaganda designed to show Britain off in a good light in an economically competitive world. "Country branding" as former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell terms it. This is vastly different to the demonising of Jews by the Nazis in World War II or of the Japanese by the Russians during their war at the turn of the 20th century. The modern practice of state propaganda is said to have been first used by the British in World War I. Hitler much admired it and used similar methods in his Nazi campaigns. Aldous Huxley once wrote, "The propagandist is a man who canalises an already existing stream. In a land where there is no water, he digs in vain." The exploitation of already-existing anti-Semitism by the Nazis is a case in point here.
David Welch of Kent University argues in a filmed interview at the exhibition, that the real problem is the monopoly of propaganda - that in totalitarian states you do not have access to alternative points of view. In this regard, the journalist John Pilger tells the story of how a Czech dissident once told him during the Cold War that people in Eastern Europe were well ahead of those in the west. He explained, "You believe everything you see on the TV or read in the papers, but we've learnt to read between the lines." In the final section of the British Library's exhibition is the example of Twitter. Twitter has given a voice to the common person, enabling him or her both to challenge and criticise authority, but also to mount his or her own propaganda acts or campaigns. With such vast amounts of information and propaganda coming at us from all sides, and with less time in which to process it to develop an informed opinion, the question I ask myself, after visiting this exhibition, is are we making it more difficult for ourselves to read between the lines?
Propaganda: Power and Persuasion runs at the British Library until 17 September 2013.
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