China could learn propaganda techniques from the U.S.

China’s attempts to control the impression that the world has of China at the Beijing Winter Olympics is clumsy compared to propaganda used by the U.S. during the First World War.

image: Amazon

Back then, the U.S. showed how reporters and can be recruited to carry positive messages around the world.

China is making a mistake by increasing the control and intimidation of reporters.

Unlike the last time when Beijing hosted the Olympics in 2008, visiting reporters will not be able to travel around either the country or the city itself, but will instead be confined to a “closed loop” bubble with limited interaction even with athletes taking part in the Games.

According to a report from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China:

“The Chinese state continues to find new ways to intimidate foreign correspondents, their Chinese colleagues, and those whom the foreign press seeks to interview, via online trolling, physical assaults, cyber hacking, and visa denials.”

The U.S. successfully overcame resistance to the First World War by using public relations techniques.

In 1917, the U.S. had joined the Allied forces in defeating Germany. But Americans had voted for President Woodrow Wilson because he had promised to keep them out of war. Recent immigrants and radical working-class organizations viewed the war as an imperialist rivalry between states that served industrial elites.

To overcome the opposition to the war, Wilson hired public opinion guru Walter Lippmann to gain national and international support for the war.

“Wilson used his executive power to establish the Committee on Public Information (CPI) for the purpose of rallying US and world opinion to the cause of defeating Germany and promoting the supremacy of the United States’ liberal democratic capitalist ideals (Hearts and Mines, Tanner Mirrlees).”

The head of the CPI said: “recognition of Public Opinion as a major force” made the First World War different “from previous conflicts in that it necessitated a “fight for the minds of men, for the conquest of their convictions. There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch, no medium of appeal that we did not employ,”

One of the targets in the public relations exercise was the foreign-language press. The CPI opened press offices in every world capital. The federal agency also provided war correspondents with its own content.

The CPI brought reporters from around the world to the U.S. so they might “see with their own eyes, hear with their own ears,” the power and resolve of the United States.

While travelling the U.S., the foreign newsmakers sent home daily reports by cable and by mail, and on returning home, they wrote glowing news articles and lectured to promote U.S. aims.

Importantly, because these journalists were not directly affiliated with the U.S. government, their depiction of the United States seemed more credible and trustworthy. Every column carried weight because it came from the pen of a writer in whom the readers had confidence.

China’s attempt to harass and intimidate reporters at the Beijing Winter Olympics is counterproductive from a public relations point of view. It will simply reinforce the impression that the West has of a country under siege.

Why people knowingly share falsehoods

It used to be that liars would be embarrassed when caught in their lies.

But in our post-truth era, the truth is secondary to beliefs. Lies no longer result in humiliation.

image: The Conversation

Oxford Languages, the world’s leading dictionary, explained the essential characteristic of our new age when they chose post-truth as the word-of-the-year in 2016. In a press release, they said we are living in an age in which there is no distinction between truth and feeling; we were entering an era in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” 

That was the year when the Great Pretender became president of the United States.

Fact checker Daniel Dale itemized the sayings of President Donald Trump and found he had made a total of 30,573 false and misleading claims throughout his presidency.

The torrent of lies would have brought down a president before the post-truth era. But even after his falsehoods, 54 per cent of Republicans said they would vote for Trump again.

Naively, I thought that if people were educated on how to assess the quality of information that they would stop spreading falsehoods. Not so.

Researchers in Denmark found that the truth is no barrier in the spread of falsehoods. Using a series of educational videos, researchers educated 1,600 Twitter users on how to identify untrustworthy content online. Then they compared their Twitter interactions before and after they had watched the videos.

The study found that, while training taught people how to identify false content, it did not dissuade them from sharing it. “Participants performing well on the ‘fake news’ quiz were just as likely to share untrustworthy news stories.”

Huh? Even when people knew that was they were sharing was false, they did so anyway?

It turns out that people don’t share fake news because they actually believe it to be true. Rather, they believe in its value. Sharing demonstrates their allegiance to a particular social group.

I now realize that the boundary between facts and opinion has blurred. A comment on one of my columns was: “This is opinion?” I thought it was obvious that what I write is my opinion. Sure, I quote what I hope are reputable sources to support my opinion but in the end it’s just my view.

I now realize that what the commenter was looking for in an opinion piece was a rant. Anything that wasn’t bombast was a statement of fact.

Viviane Fairbank, a professional fact-checker for Harper’s and the Walrus, struggles with the difference between fact and opinion. Maybe everything we read, aside from science, is a matter of opinion:

“I’ve now come to believe there’s another, more salient characteristic of our age, beyond the post-truth designation. It is a relic of the past few centuries of rationalism in the Western world: the idea that there can ever be a definitive distinction between fact, on the one hand, and everything else, on the other (the Walrus, April 7, 2021).”

Fact-checking has become a form of allegiance signalling. Fact checks that begin with the implicit premise “look how wrong and stupid these people are” only lead to greater mistrust between groups.

What really matters is social bonding. The only way that minds will be changed is by influencing group leaders.

In the post-truth era, that’s a fact.