Skip to content

Propaganda: “Better than the Truth – Extra Factual Sources of Threat Conception and Proliferation”

May 19, 2014

UI Talk summary: Professor Kelly Greenhill looks in new ways at the use of information.  Challenging what we understand as “information”, she explores the role of rumour, myth, conspiracy theories, lies and propaganda.  “Extra-Factual Information” (EFI) can influence the development and conduct of state foreign and defence policies.  Disinformation of all sorts can be exploited most effectively in confused, stressful and – particularly – uncertain situations – ie conflict.  We are seeing some very intense examples of this in Russia/Ukraine…

Speaker: Kelly Greenhill
Discussant: Stefan Borg

20140509, UI talk, Foreign Pol and Fiction (16)I was up in Stockholm the other day to attend a very interesting talk given by Kelly Greenhill, who is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Tufts University and a Research Fellow at Harvard. The talk was held at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) and was a discussion to explore the role of rumours, conspiracy theories and propaganda and how non-factual sources of information influence the development and conduct of state foreign and defence policies.

The sub-title was “Better than the Truth” – Extra Factual Sources of threat conception and Proliferation which also gave a good pointer.

The talk could not have been more timely, given the Russia/Ukraine situation and posed a good selection of questions to challenge our understanding of information, what it means, how it is used and to what purpose:

• Why and when does objective reality get influenced?
• Where and how do individuals learn what to fear and how to respond?
• A range of factual and non-factual sources at play – including the entertainment media
• Value in studying “unverified information” and its impact on foreign policy – a picture is worth 1,000 words – e.g. Abu Ghraib. Does it make a difference if info is delivered verbally or pictorially?

An example offered was the way in which American attitudes to torture was shaped post- 9/11 – in which it was suggested that the level of support goes up as the population becomes pre-primed to support torture through exposure to it on prime-time TV. Combined with heightened public anxiety – waterboarding becomes normalised (a growing belief that it works). Interestingly, a key influence on this was Keifer Sutherland’s “Jack Bauer” character in “24”. Credence has now been given to the idea that “ticking time bomb” scenarios are prevalent and that torture is an effective way to deal with info-gathering. This contributes to legitimising torture and undermining rule of law. “Bauer-esque scenarios” justify exceptions to the 8th Amendment (prohibits cruel and unusual punishment) and we can see that social facts become readily “true” within a particular institutional context – “things are true because they are widely believed to be true”

It doesn't even have to subtle...

It doesn’t even have to be subtle…

Extra-factual Information (EFI) was introduced as a term to explain the way in which “truth” can be quite fluid. This is not quite a new way of describing propaganda, although propaganda features as a sub-set within EFI:

o Rumour
o Myth
o Conspiracy theories
o Propaganda/PsyOps
o False Flag Operations…

The way in which information is received and believed is conditioned by three factors:

1.World View
2. Threat Perception
3. Repetition

The nature of the information – unverified/verifiable, is treated as true/false by believers/detractors. EFI spreads easiest in stress/unrest/uncertainty/conflict. The impact is heightened if presented in the context of a “sticky” narrative – in other words a story that reads well and seems believable. Within five days a completely fictional source can get into the New York Times and people lose/forget where they heard it from. Entrepreneurs and savvy political actors can and do take advantage and exploit this.
Optimists believe that the information “market” will find its level and in the end, “the truth will out”. Pessimists suggest that the market does not always clear itself and the EFI can become “fact”, if only for a limited period of time.

Greenhill has looked at some interesting historical case studies:

• Under what conditions can EFI influence the political reality – Greenhill looking at case studies of US; UK; Germany in 19th and 20th century – those with high, low and no impact.
• EFI can be very effective in “ripe” environments – after triggering events, periods of high uncertainty, when organisations need a threat
• But governments need not be complicit – Erskine Childers fictional novel “The Riddle of the Sands” – fuelled British WWI invasion scares and spy fears. “Battle of Dorking”. Fiction masquerading as fact but caused questions to be asked in Parliament about the readiness of British defences.
• A society-wide buy-in is not essential, just key “selectorate”…
“Elders of Zion” Jewish global conspiracy, US illegal immigration and terrorist sleeper cells
• Nothing succeeds like success – the more people who believe, the larger the group who will believe or at least are open to believing.

“Threat conflation” – The intentional or inadvertent blurring and co-mingling of threats, real and imagined, for political-military ends. May identify threats and suggest how to respond, effects may be +ve or –ve

Russia/Ukraine thoughts

• Duelling narratives
• Need to understand context – Russian historical belief in control by foreign forces, Bandera and fascists, Crimea given to Ukraine, Putin and fall of USSR, NATO ops in Kosovo and Libya, NATO expansion/Georgia
• Some evidence feeds Russian narrative – existing right wing, language bans
• Pew data

Final thoughts

I have only partially digested all the ideas, but there seem to be some rich, fresh, new and relevant ways in which to see an old subject – how propaganda it is used and what effect it can have.  It looks very applicable to the Russia approach in Ukraine.  I shall be looking at this some more.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2014 1:54 pm

    Slight tangent but this article shows how much peoples perceptions of things are affected by the amount of coverage they get in the press, even if this is second or third hand.

  2. May 19, 2014 2:08 pm

    Thanks for this Andy – I don’t think it is a tangent

  3. May 19, 2014 5:27 pm

    My comment is possibly, tangentially germane: any time a camera of any type enters the scene of action, “reality” is distorted, in that the people aware of the camera will start playing to it. Off-subject, there are no such things as “reality shows”–they revolve inside an oxymoron.

  4. May 19, 2014 9:23 pm

    I hear you, Ron!


  1. What is “Hybrid warfare”?, Pt I | afghanhindsight
  2. Second verse, same as the first… | afghanhindsight

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: