Threats to journalism and journalistic autonomy come in many forms. At the most extreme, journalists are directly threatened, intimidated and, all too frequently, harmed by political actors seeking to influence the ‘information environment’.
As a form of coercion, aimed at controlling what journalists write and say, threats and attacks can be understood as a form of propaganda: as a kind of ‘propaganda of the deed’ they function not only to silence individual journalists but also to send an unequivocal message to other journalists.
More common forms of propaganda involve approaches to shaping perceptions and actions through the manipulation of information. Although of a different scale to threats and killings, their effect can also be profoundly damaging to the autonomy of journalists. Understood by some to refer to any form of persuasive communication, most definitions of propaganda throughout the 20th and 21st century have recognized that, at some level, propaganda is a form of persuasion that works via manipulation and subversion of the rational will.
One important way in which propaganda manifests itself, and perhaps the one which is most frequently associated with propagandistic communication, involves some form of deception. Whether through outright lying, omission of important information, distortion or misdirection, propaganda frequently involves manipulation through deceiving people with respect to reality.
For Western publics, the most recent high-profile and well-documented example of this occurred in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During this period, through a combination of distortion and omission, US and UK government information campaigns misled many people into believing there was a clear and imminent threat from Iraqi WMD. As Chilcot, (chair of the Iraq Inquiry) recently noted, Tony Blair went ‘beyond the facts of the case’ in promoting the war against Iraq.
Of course, recently, the issue of deception and manipulation has become a major focal point for debate in the so-called ‘fake news’ crisis. Much of this debate has been driven by concerns from within the liberal centre ground that political crises surrounding the debate in the UK over Brexit, and the election of Trump as US President, have been fuelled by the resort to outright lies by anti-establishment actors utilising alternative media outlets.
At the same time, the term ‘fake news’ has itself become a propaganda meme providing a useful shorthand to discredit information being provided by alternative media, whether truthful or deceptive, and serving to underpin the frequent allegations being levelled at Russia with respect to interference in the US elections and its military actions in Syria. At this point, no evidence has been presented to confirm the allegations being levelled at Russia. Moreover, there has been little sustained mainstream media attention to the content of the DNC (Democratic National Congress) leaks/hack which have fuelled so much of the controversy regarding the US elections and alleged Russian information warfare.
Indeed, these leaked/hacked emails, released by Wikileaks, showed that the DNC actively favoured Clinton over Sanders during the primaries whilst evidence of question fixing with CNN was also revealed. There are no serious challenges to the authenticity of these emails and, as such, they do not appear to be actual examples of fake news. This has not stopped, however, media coverage linking Russia with the leaks and, arguably, conflating all of this with a fake news/propaganda narrative. Moreover, whilst the fake news debate has been overwhelmingly focused on alternative media and external actors (i.e. Russia), little attention has been paid to the use of deception and propaganda by Western governments.