Saturday, December 10, 2005

Iraqi Propaganda Was Just the Iceberg's Tip

The New York Times has a very informative medium-length article in today's issue exploring the extent of the US military's post-9/11 propaganda activities. One quote from the second page stood out to me as particularly relevant to the efficacy of such information campaigns:
Many Iraqis say that no amount of money spent on trying to mold public opinion is likely to have much impact, given the harsh conditions under the American military occupation.
I think this is spot-on, for the simple reason that actions speak louder than words. Under unstable conditions such as those that currently prevail in Iraq, people will be more likely to form their opinions based on how they judge the quality of their own lives rather than on news reports and editorials. Public opinion can only improve when insurgent attacks decrease, utility capacity grows significantly, and job opportunities promulgate across the nation—in other words, when the benefits of invasion become self-evident to the average Iraqi. The $100 million we've spent building up the Iraqi media should have gone toward real-world efforts at realizing these benefits, e.g. infrastructure development, business investment, and/or local military training.

Here in the US, the situation is different: mediated accounts from news agencies and the government offer us our only window onto Iraq, which becomes the sole basis upon which we form our opinions on how the war is progressing. This suggests that in general, propaganda has its most significant effects on topics with which the target populations have no direct experience and vice versa. One recent example of the latter would be Bush's Social Security reform proposal from earlier this year, which now lies stillborn on the legislative backburner despite a major information campaign touting its necessity. People understood that Social Security will eventually begin to lose solvency due to increased life expectancies among a burgeoning retiree population, but they weren't willing to swallow an immediate need to switch to private accounts when more pressing problems demanded resolution.

Getting back to Iraq, most of the accumulated evidence leads to the conclusion that the information war is at best a relatively insignificant front in the larger struggle for hearts and minds. Given that covert propaganda carries a high risk of exposure and isn't very effective even when it remains hidden, the military should focus its efforts on creating good news in the field rather than with the word processor.