So Difficult to Make Good Propaganda these Days

It’s so difficult to make good propaganda these days. Or perhaps it was always the case.

Many moons ago, I did mandatory army service in Sweden. The officers once showed us a propaganda film from Russia, covering a big army exercise. One shot was from inside an airplane carrying paratroopers. The camera zoomed in on two soldiers and the voice-over said “when we filmed this, we did not know that these two would become heroes”. Then there was some story of how one had saved the other when one parachute failed to open properly. Very easy to see through, hard to imagine how anyone would buy it, am I right?

Fast-forward to the renewed Russian war in Ukraine and the attached propaganda. On February 22nd (two days before the renewed invasion), Russia claimed a terrorist attack had killed three people in a car in Donetsk and used that for a casus belli. However, on closer inspection, the story was as full of holes as the paratroopers thirty years before – investigative reporting from Bellingcat demonstrated that the incident had been manufactured and the dead bodies likely had been taken from a morgue and put in the burnt-out car.

Speaking at the recent Wexfo – World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, Norway, Bellingcat’s executive director Christo Gozev explained their work method. Not looking for sources, but verifiable facts. Through “open-source intelligence” (looking at publicly available sources) Bellingcat geo-locates and “chrono-locates” images, videos and other content and thus investigates stories. “Shared facts lead to shared values” said Gozev.

Some propaganda may be more difficult to dismiss for anyone without special training or access to tools – think about deep fakes for example – the answer is not that we are post-truth and all information is equal. Rather, this is a moment for proper investigative reporting and for us readers to choose carefully which reporting we put our trust in. And perhaps educate ourselves on some critical thinking…

Done right, we can see through at least the most obvious cases of propaganda, such as claims that one of the bomb victims in Mariupol was an actor. Brings to mind an epistemology principle often quoted in cheap crime fiction: Occam’s Razor – the explanation with the fewest parameters is likeliest to be true.

Maybe it’s not so difficult after all to make good propaganda these days. But we can make it difficult for it to have an impact.