Monday, 29 July 2013

Beware the propaganda you pay heed to

Bogart with fag: filtered or not?
A few days ago, with an hour to while away at lunchtime, I pottered along to the British Library to see its current exhibition on Propaganda: power and persuasion.

Although the subject is hardly new, the exhibition itself is described as ‘groundbreaking’.

On that note, I was at a bit of a loss to understand why. That’s not to say that some of the exhibits are not fascinating – a 16th-century book of anti-papal cartoons, for instance, which is used to illustrate the importance of the printing press to the spreading of propaganda – but it hardly felt revelatory.

The exhibition included recorded interviews with various people, including, for instance, Alistair Campbell, the former spin doctor to Tony Blair, while various exhibits bring the subject bang up to date by examining how social media is being used in the cause of propaganda.

There were materials from both sides in the first and second world wars, materials relating to colonialism and liberation struggles, to domestic politics and also to the sort of health and public information messages that we perhaps forget are also propaganda.

Perhaps it all felt a little staid because of the times we’re living in.

After all, this is the government that has looked as though Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It has been its working script for governance.

And that’s before we mention Iain Duncan Smith’s repeat offence of being ‘economical with the truth’ about welfare stats.

Or David Cameron’s “there will be no more top-down reorganisations of the NHS”.

They could give Goebbels lessons.

Mind, as we’re also seeing, a complicit, conniving media is a big help.

In much the same way, as the issue of pornography has hit the headlines, the propaganda machine has been beavering away to sell the idea of internet service providers (ISPs) putting anti-porn filters on any contract.

You’ll have to opt in to ‘adult material’, not opt out.

But as I asked the other day: “One of the concerns about this announcement is whether it softens people up for further censorship. Do we trust government on the issue?”

Well, I didn’t then and the reasons are becoming increasingly apparent – whatever personal feelings are on the issue of pornography itself.

Because it seems that porn is far from the only thing that the government wants ISPs to block.

It seems that users may also find that they have to actively opt out of blocks on a variety of things from ‘violent material’ to ‘suicide-related websites’ to ‘alcohol’ to ‘smoking’.

Now it’s hard to know how this would work – whether a search for Alcholics Anonymous, for instance, would be barred if you hadn’t opted out of the relevant one. But that’s far from the only issue.

Many of the currently listed topics to be ‘filtered’ could easily play well with the population – ‘extremist’ materials, for instance.

But who finds those by accident anyway?

What should alert people rather more to the real agenda here is seeing ‘web forums’ listed – why? – together with the extraordinarily-labeled ‘esoteric material’, which, one suspects, could be applied to mean whatever someone wanted it to mean.

After all, since ‘esoteric’ means, in essence, ‘only understood by the initiated’, that could be applied to anything.

This blog, for instance. Trade unions. Religious groups. Take your pick.

Or, more to the point, whatever is the pick of whomsoever is in charge of defining these things at the time – fuller story here.

There’s a simple lesson to be learned here – hopefully before it’s too late: beware the propaganda that you allow yourself to believe.

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