Monday, 11 February 2013

Japan declares propaganda war

On 8 February 2013, published a report with an intriguing title: 'Japan declares propaganda war on China, Korea and Russia' (Japan declares propaganda war). The report is mainly concerned with competing claims over the Kuril and Senkaku islands.

Given that Russia and Japan are in conflict over the Kuril islands it is no surprise that Pravda uses a very confrontational discourse in reporting this news, as revealed in its free (and interchangeable) application of the terms 'propaganda' and 'information war.' There is little in the report to support the casual use of these labels: We are told that the Japanese government has established a 'special unit' - we learn nothing more except the unit is composed of 'officials and independent experts' - to 'study and thoroughly analyse the positions of other countries on the territorial dispute.' Shouldn't such research be a priority for any government involved in difficult diplomatic negotiations with another power? It is a huge leap from engaing in such research to the launch of an 'information war'. Moreover, the report then refers to Japan's urgent need to 'communicate its position to the international community'. This is public diplomacy, hardly the basis for an information war or propaganda campaign.

Beyond the rhetoric, the Pravda report does identify some interesting challenges for Japanese public diplomacy. In particular, it reinforces the existing evidence that the Japanese believe there is a strong correlation between the dissemination of its culture and the capacity to shape the international conversation in its favour, or modify attitudes and behaviour towards Japan (although of course the Japanese are not alone in placing their faith in the power of culture to meet international aspirations).

Research on Japan's JET programme of cultural and educational exchange demonstrates that there is no guaranteed correlation between participation in such a programme and sympathy/empathy for Japan. Participation may increase knowledge about Japan and help one's familiarity with the language, but such outreach can encounter cognitive dissonance among audiences socialised into perceiving a Japanese threat (either historical or contemporary). China is understandably very suspicious of Japan because of their traumatic shared history, yet the Chinese remain major consumers of Japanese pop culture products (Yoshiko, 2008). Writing on the JET programme of cultural and educational exchange, McConnell (2008: 24-7) reveals that, when interviewed, '[M]any alumni were at great pains to separate their love of Japanese culture and people from their views about the Japanese state, and, in their minds, deeply critical views of Japan often co-existed with positive elements.' McConnell also references the 'last three feet' of public diplomacy when he describes the 'face-to-face' interpersonal 'dimension of human exchange'; and he concludes that the JET programme 'is not teaching people to like Japan, so much as teaching them to communicate with Japanese' (McConnell, 2008: 30). This is an important distinction, though it is often overlooked.

The Pravda report reveals that the Japanese 'information war' is likely to mobilise manga, anime and other cultural products that appeal especially to the youth of East Asia and in Russia (which is 'currently going through the Japanese boom'). This conforms to a new strategy in Japanese public and cultural diplomacy which was designed by the government's Public Diplomacy Department in 2004 to project 'Cool Japan'. This strategy made four mistakes:

1.  It assumed that simply disseminating culture was the route to success and failed to reference the audience in a way that would identify whether and how these products were consumed. Does Japanese pop culture reach beyond East Asia? It may have some effect in helping the government realise its ambitions in its neighbourhood, but more research is needed to understand the global audience for such cultural products. There is possibly an issue of cultural dissonance here: manga and anime are extremely popular in East Asia, and it is usual to see adults in cafes, bookshops and on buses and trains reading such books. In the west, however, there is still some suspicion of manga and anime as 'cartoons' (despite their critical success and their often dark, adult and disturbing content - just watch Miyazaki's 2001 Oscar-winning Spirited Away) which means they are seen primarily as entertainment for children (you are more likely to see an adult on the London tube unashamedly reading Fifty Shades of Grey than an animated book).  

2.  The strategy confused public diplomacy, cultural diplomacy, soft power and even nation-branding. Again, Japan is not alone in this. The absence of precision in terminology merely confuses strategy and the capacity and instruments required to implement the strategy. It also means that Japan had no starting point: what was the strategy designed to achieve?

3.  By using culture as an entry point Japan overlooked the research that demonstrates there is a negligible correlation between interest and consumption of Japanese culture in East Asia and sympathy/empathy towards the Japanese nation and government.

4.  Japan also failed to notice that the British Labour government's attempt to brand the UK 'Cool Britannia' in the late 1990s failed (and was something of an embarrassment). This strategy was artificial and contrived. Tourists still flock to the UK to breathe its history and tour Britain's castles, stately homes, the Tower of London and to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace . It is possible to argue that interest in Japan is similarly based on its history and cultural memory. Why change what works? Is this an example of Japan throwing the baby out with the bathwater?


Yoshiko, N. (2008), 'Shared memories: Japanese pop culture in China'


McConnell, D.L.M. (2008), 'Japan's image problem and the soft power solution'

are published in Y. Watanabe & D.L. McConnell (eds.), Soft Power Superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe).

Monday, 4 February 2013

Islamism and Propaganda

In the middle of the last decade I heard the term 'Islamism' for the first time, and this sparked an abiding interest in the discourses that have helped define the so-called War on Terror. There is a huge literature on this subject, and almost all observe how language has justified both the terrorist attacks themselves and the response to them. Most famous is President George W. Bush's reference to a 'Crusade' in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 which not only brought to the surface particular belligerent and anti-Muslim images of the US's response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, but also played into Al-Qaeda's hands by using the very narratives which the terrorist organisation exploits throughout its propaganda.

One of the issues I have been thinking about for a long time - and I post my thoughts and questions here in the wake of the intensive coverage of current events in Mali in the hope of getting feedback and clarification - is the insistence by western media and politicians to use the term 'Islamist' instead of 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' to refer to specific groups of Muslims seeking a non-peaceful way of imposing their beliefs. As a student of propaganda I am aware of the emotional and intellectual reaction to 'isms', and one cannot help but wonder whether the ubiquitous and rather arbitrary use of the label 'Islamist' after 9/11 is justified. One did not hear this term used so widely before 2001.

Labels are the easiest form of propaganda: they provide a shorthand, the basis for a simple and emotional reaction to often complex ideas, and therefore help reinforce stereotypes. By describing fundamentalist Muslim groups as Islamist, are audiences persuaded by the very label in a headline to view them in a particular way even before they have heard or read the rest of the story? The natural equation of Islamism with Communism and Fascism provokes the perception of an ideology determined to refashion on totalitarian grounds not only the state and political institutions, but culture, society and man. 

As far as I understand the difference, Islam refers to a faith whereas Islamism refers to a specific political ideology which advocates the sovereignty of divine law and the creation of an Islamic state. It privileges Islamic law within national boundaries, and does not confine law to the personal realm or as a matter of faith and personal responsibility. This means the extension of Islamic law to all people living within a particular national territory, regardless of whether they are Muslim, Christian or Jewish. It offers no policy-making agenda as Islamism is not future-oriented; rather, it is embedded in the past glories of Islam and the historical mistreatment of Muslims. The past justifies the present.

Islamism is in essence the politicisation of Islam, and the word is often used in conjunction with 'militant' or 'fundamentalist' to emphasise its distance from law abiding paths to power. However, such terms also help reinforce the beliefs of  those who, like Samuel Huntington, foresee an inevitable 'Clash of Civilizations'. They help to make Muslims the 'other'  and suggest that 'we' respect legal and democratic paths to government, unlike 'them' who use 'militant' or 'fundemantalist' ways of achieving and exercising power; and when successful they govern in a way that is completely incompatible with western secular understandings of, and approaches to, politics. Islamists become dangerous entities, exercising power in 'rogue states', responsible for human rights abuses and ultimately for the global terrorist threat. So in Mali 'we' support Muslims; 'we'
fight against Islamists. The power of the Egyptian Brotherhood in Egypt has raised concerns about Islamism there and has forced 'the West' to question, as does Foreign Policy magazine, whether 'we' made a mistake in letting the Brotherhood win (in democratic elections that were demanded by the international community. You can't advocate the sovereignty of the people and then criticise the very same people if they elect someone to power you don't like). 

Casual use of the term 'Islamism' or 'Islamist' is a useful propaganda device, and like all propaganda devices, the more we hear it, see it and use it in a cavalier fashion, the more value it acquires as propaganda. The complexity and the precision of the meaning is lost. It also serves as a way of reducing the divisions within Islam to easily-packaged and digestible soundbites. Islam becomes an homogeneous unit, and the very real theological and geographical differences between Muslims or Islamists are conveniently overlooked. You are either a 'good' Muslim or a 'bad' Muslim.

My intention here is not to judge the accuracy or otherwise of the perceptions of Islamists; nor do I wish to defend Muslims or Islamic states which engage in human rights abuses or are compliant with terrorists, just in the same way I do not wish to defend any government, religion or secular movement which threatens, cajoles or is intolerant of any other people or creed. Rather, I wish to bring to the table my own thoughts on the use of the term Islamism and the way its imprecise application by the media can be a valuable tool of propaganda and helps demonise groups and individuals. I know very little about Islamism, and so I hope that some of the readers for this blog will respond and help me understand better this interesting and important issue. I look forward to your comments.                                

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Qatar's soft power

Here is a link to an excellent article in The Observer newspaper (3 February 2013) by Chatham House's Jane Kinninmont (From football to military might).

Jane discusses why Qatar now enjoys such a strong international presence, and links this with issues of 'soft power' and especially the prominence of Al-Jazeera. I wish to link to the article here because in December 2012 I did question Qatar's omission from Monocle's 2012 Soft Power Survey (Monocle's Soft Power Survey).

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Acoustic Artillery: Songs of War

Regular readers of this blog will know of my sincere admiration of, and love for, the work of The Children's Television Workshop. Sesame Street  and its local variants provide education through fun, visual entertainment and song for millions of children throughout the world; and it also teaches them about difficult social issues that may be specific to their locale, the need for tolerance, love and friendship, and these programmes can help to break down cultural and social barriers between people from different societies and backgrounds (Sesame Street in Pakistan; More on Sesame Street;US to Fund Sesame Street Remake for Pakistan).

In May 2012, Al-Jazeera broadcast a programme called Songs of War which discusses how music has been used as an instrument of psychological warfare, torture and as the soundtrack for Americans engaging in combat in Iraq (Songs of War). The programme follows Sesame Street's resident composer, Christopher Cerf, as he discovers that his own music for the programme has been used as part of the interrogation of captives held at Guantanamo Bay. Victims are held in claustrophobic conditions, hooded and shackled and forced to listen to music turned up to full volume. The same songs are repeated over and over again. Cerf talks to the interrogators, the victims, American marines, psychologists and the musicians themselves to understand the development of "noise" as a weapon of war - Acoustic Artillery.

The dominant theme of the programme is how noise, including music, is a method of controlling the environment in which the detainees find themselves. It is part of an intensive programme of sensory dissonance which is designed to isolate and weaken the captive, deprive him of his sensory capacity, interfere with his cognitive processes, and ultimately increase his vulnerability and dependence on his interrogators. The idea is not to torture through noise, but to push the captive to a point where he demands relief from it and thus becomes a willing participant in the interrogation process. The western music played at Guantanamo, a mixture of heavy rock and the otherwise good-humoured songs of Sesame Street - with both being played at the same time to amplify the unpleasant nature of discordant noise - also strengthens the cultural dissonance the victims experience.

Cerf discovers that music and warfare have a long history, and the marines in Iraq are consuming music for the same reason warriors have listened in centuries past: as a bonding exercise before battle, or to feel the adrenaline pump through their bodies as they go into combat.

This is a very disturbing programme that contributes to our understanding of modern psychological warfare. Congratulations to Al-Jazeera for making and broadcasting it.