Word games

Propaganda has been a tool for govts during times of war, but internet & social media dramatically expanded its reach.

Sabina Khan July 31, 2014

“Palestinian death toll reaches 850 as Israel promises more attacks.” As accurate as that headline depicts the situation in Gaza right now, you are not likely to read it on the front page of any major international newspaper. The Palestinians are on the losing end of the word game. Earlier in the week, The New York Times actually reported on the events in Gaza with this headline, “Palestinian Death Toll Nears 100 as Hamas Promises More Attacks on Israel.” Confused? So were many of their readers — so many that the newspaper made the decision to go rework their title to clarify that Hamas wasn’t the one attacking Palestinians.

Languages are nuanced and it is easy to forget this fact when you’re paging through your newspaper at the breakfast table or swiping your smartphone. However, there is an entire industry built on manipulating your daily headlines. We must stay mindful of this. Frank Luntz is one of the political strategists famous for taking deceit to new heights. He made his living, in part, by running focus groups for clients to help them sell their product or turn public opinion on a subject. In a 2004 interview with Frontline, Frank attested to the power of words and stated that he’s seen effective language change the course of history.

The Bush administration put another of Mr Luntz’s assertions, that 80 per cent of life being on an emotional level, to test by repeating sensationalised terms to garner support for attacking Iraq and Afghanistan. By now, we’re all familiar with the war on ‘terror’ and the ‘Axis of Evil’, etc. Instead of questioning the existence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the media adopted the sensational language, framed the entire discussion around the location of these weapons, and focused on what could be done to disarm them. It was too late to undo the damage when the world discovered that Bush’s yellowcake, aluminum tubes, and a self-proclaimed witness were just fabricated excuses to bomb Iraq back into the Stone Age.

Propaganda has historically been a trusty tool for governments during times of war, but the internet and social media have dramatically expanded its reach. In 2012, Israel gave out ‘scholarships’ of $2,000 to university students in an effort to promote pro-Israeli information on social media for five hours a week. Currently, a project by the name of ‘Israel Under Fire’ consists of about 400 student volunteers performing similar duties from a computer lab at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, a private university north of Tel Aviv.

With these deceitful acts, we are being deprived of the ability to understand the honest sentiments of fellow readers throughout the world. Sure, manipulative language and false testimonies obscure the truth, but the real injustice reaches far deeper. These practices perpetuate a false divide among us and distract us from our many commonalities, which would, without interference, bring humankind closer than ever before. While modern technology provides exciting opportunity to connect and interact with anyone and everyone, the people who profit on our division are working hard to maintain the status quo. We owe it to one another to diligently sort fact from fiction, to find new ways to interact, and not be fooled by the caricatures of one another.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2014.

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