Propaganda in the coronavirus era
The significance of these moments go beyond the man himself. The word “propaganda” has carried a dirty connotation since it became a pervasive systematic government activity, both here and abroad, during World War One. However, the word should not be considered strictly pejorative. The control of propaganda marks one of the thorniest problems of democracy, in part because it is needed. Like the deadly nightshade plant, which can promote sanity or bewitch, depending on how the potion is administered, government information can sustain democracy or undermine it.
President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information, the first and only propaganda ministry in the country, in World War One. Because of this establishment and his commanding speaking ability, he was called “the greatest propagandist known to the modern world”. The Committee on Public Information had made prepackaged reports a quotidian aspect of government. It spread all his messages through articles, cartoons, and advertisements in newspapers and magazines, through school textbooks and church sermons, through feature films and advertisements on theater curtains, through talks during movie intermissions and anywhere else its 75,000 volunteers found an audience, through posters plastered across buildings, and through pamphlets sent around by the millions.
This propaganda led people on a mass scale to take on the equivalent of social distancing and hand washing today. They enlisted, conserved fruit, bought war bonds, and donated thousands of binoculars to the Navy. The Committee on Public Information pioneered the idea of public diplomacy abroad. Its daily newspaper paved the way for the federal register, which makes government actions more transparent. It also had another legacy. It is often blamed for harmfully suppressing information about the Spanish flu but, in fact, it provided reports on the pandemic. President Wilson did suppress political speech and criticism by passing effective laws to allow censorship and by making unwanted comments seem traitorous.
President Trump fences back inconvenient information by calling it fake news. President Wilson declared that people who questioned his policies were guilty of enemy talk. The Committee on Public Information also used front organizations to spread messages, misrepresented facts, and played on emotions. It was worth considering, one of its members said, “whether a brief scare head item on the frontpage, which everybody reads, is not worth a whole inside page of detailed matter that very few arrive at.”
As the misdeeds of the Committee on Public Information noted, there is nothing wrong with government officials using their positions of power to inspire a country. Simple acts such as the decision of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to lower flags to honor those who have died bind people together in periods of stress. We can take heart from people like Anthony Fauci who can be depended on to tell the public the truth. This is not only important in a national emergency. False hopes and fake nostrums breed cynicism. As political scientist Harold Lasswell had explained after World War One, “The mighty words that exploited the hopes of the mass in war had in many minds given way to cynicism and disenchantment.”
We hope that our thoughts will soon turn from surviving the coronavirus to avoiding and managing outbreaks in the future. Part of this effort must be directed at the failures of government communication. It is now time for stronger protections from the stark politicization of executive branch messaging. President Trump should not use the bully pulpit to attack his enemies and demonize journalists. Government websites should not have scientific studies taken offline when a new administration comes in. How much propaganda power do we want to give to a leader whose decision to add his name to the stimulus checks will delay their delivery?
We need policies that will foster confidence in government information. Adopting federal quality standards for public communications can be a good start. It can be achieved by expanding the Information Quality Act and bolstering the antiquated legal prohibitions against propaganda. The Government Accountability Office can run an annual survey of agencies, grade the quality of communications, and make the findings public. This watchdog has studied government communications, and has in the past deemed some of them to be propagandistic. A century has passed since President Wilson took his public persuasion operation too far. Today we have to reel another kind of government propaganda back in.