Brexit, Billboards and Big Money: The Role of Propaganda in Democracies

If you were to cast your mind back these two past years, you’ll find yourself back within the strenuous turmoil that was the Brexit referendum; strenuous, because it was an exercise in shameless propaganda and populist rhetoric. I woe the day that we might have a second one, despite my own support for it, for I worry that those past events might just repeat themselves. Propaganda, it seems, is rife in the world of politics and the media, either protesting the end of the world or driving up hatred for minorities. Its existence is inevitable, and yet sometimes dangerous for our democracy.

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Photograph taken from EU Referendum Analysis 2016. The above poster, supported by Nigel Farage, was likened to the anti-migrant campaigns of Nazi Germany. The similarities are chilling.

In the journal article, Propaganda and Democracy, the theorist Allen Wood relates for us the words of Jason Stanley, whose work on propaganda gives us the termUndermining Propaganda. To Stanley, such artistic and textual works exists in order to convince a public that institutional, coercive forces are not like they seem. In this way they act as a stabiliser, or pacifier, keeping the public unaware of state forces that are otherwise negative. To the brexiteer, the below image of a government leaflet is a great example of this, for their attempts to use public funds to improve the EU’s image would, to such a person, be covering up a negative force. The bold writing, and the royal insignia, give it an official air which actually backfired in the minds of an anti-establishment audience.

But governmental propaganda is not the only form, for which our democracy certain oligarchical forces can hold influence as well. This is also mentioned in Stanley’s work, where undermining propaganda can exist to improve the image of bothgovernmental and privateinterests. He questions whether or not, in a social order where money maintains control, we can even call ourselves liberal at all. The echoes of his words can still be found today, where both Brexit campaigns found their funding in aristocratic or bourgois pockets. The image above, which was funded and supported by the likes of Farage and the Leave Campaign itself, likens the migrant crisis to an invading army in a chilling, hitler-esque manner. Considering the falsities of their claims, and many others, their ability to penetrate the minds of the electorate with this rubbish is truly shocking. They know that such images of “hordes” of people will exemplify a society’s fear of the other and help them achieve their goals. Samuel Huntington, quiet gloomily, believed that too much democracy, that being, one that becomes controlled by the powerful, can make a society politically ungovernable.

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Photograph taken from Guido Fawkes. Cameron’s government spent millions on these leaflets in the run up to the election, and are a good example of state-disseminated propaganda.

Moving onto another theorist does not give us any more hope. The ‘father of public relations’, Edward Bernays, wrote in his famous text Propaganda that propaganda itself was inherently good and essential within a democracy. However, as nice as this may seem, the evidence for his theories does not paint a pretty picture. In one page he tells us that:

‘We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.’

There is little more frightening than that, but unfortunately, it very much rings true. Most of the population are unaware as to the chief-editors and corporate CEO’s that sit behind the layers of our local and national media, and so it follows suit that these incredibly influential men (as they often are), play the strings in our minds with near anonymity. Although Bernays’ elitism is also striking, for he saw ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses’ a positive force. But despite that, and the fact that he wrote in the 20s, there isn’t much to criticise. Many claim that such bold, brash propaganda pieces, whether that be the Brexit bus or Wetherspoons’ beer mats, have subtly changed the result of this election.

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Photograph taken from Waterford Whisper News. This bus was infamous throughout the campaign, and hosted a variety of Leave Campaign activist. Unsurprisingly, the £350 million promise was never fulfilled.

These sceptics could be right, or they could also be exactly the sorts of people the brexiteers voted against. Either way, I must say that it is hard to imagine a world without propaganda in all its forms. We all have things that we believe, and ways in which we would like others to believe it, and in this internet-driven world we are all guilty of being our own propagandists; sharing things online and having arguments with our friends. Perhaps the problem lies in the rich, and in the state, and theirundermining propaganda. Visual representations of belief will always be the most powerful, but they should be open to all, not just the wealthy donors and government officials. Otherwise, in the event of a second referendum, our beliefs will be left up to the elite.

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