Fifty Shades of Propaganda

As we enter the homestretch of the electoral campaign, the propaganda war is heating up with the rising summer temperatures. Put in social media to the mix and it becomes viral like a deadly disease.

The word “propaganda” is often associated with dishonesty and lies. But, strictly speaking, propaganda is defined as “the planned use of any form of public or mass-produced communication designed to affect the minds and emotions of a given group for a specific purpose, whether military, economic, or political.” That definition is from Paul Linebarger in his book, Psychological Warfare, published in 1954.

Linebarger classified propaganda into different shades: (1) White propaganda – issued from an acknowledged source; (2) Grey propaganda – information that may or may not be accurate without any clearly identified source; and (3) Black propaganda – claims to emanate from a source other than the true one; often associated with covert psychological operations.

In short, any form of propaganda aims to persuade a specific audience and argues a particular opinion. So, whether for or against someone or something, it is definitely a partisan activity.

During this campaign period, the name “Goebbels” has been name-dropped by all parties. It refers to Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda who was tasked to promote the Nazi cause. They invoke his name whenever they want to point out that the information is false and malicious. That name seems synonymous to black propaganda most probably because of Goebbels’ principle number 11: “Black rather than white propaganda must be employed when the latter is less credible or produces undesirable effects.”

It looks like the ruling party finally realized that no amount of feel-good “Daang Matuwid” white propaganda could boost Mar Roxas’ popularity and desirability among Filipino voters so they accelerated their black propaganda machine probably funded by blood money (profits from the rape of the environment, for example).

And they are doing all that while audaciously and hypocritically claiming they are the “decent” ones.

But, judging from latest survey results, it looks like their plan is not working. Especially among supporters of leading presidential candidate, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte.

In psychological warfare, the best propaganda often drives a wedge between the other side’s leaders and its mass membership. The effectiveness of such propaganda depends on the enemy leaders’ conduct.

That worked in World War I when propaganda showed generals living in comfortable, even luxurious conditions while they ordered their poor, hungry troops into senseless battles. During the American Revolution, vulnerability of the leaders to personal attack is one of the major elements. Linebarger points out that George Washington was a major asset because his personal character could not be attacked effectively. On the other hand, American propagandists effectively attacked the British King George III and members of his cabinet as “boors, fuddy-duddies, too-little-and-too-laters, and conspicuous nincompoops.”

So what does it say about the Liberal Party leadership when members are shifting their support to the opposing camp? There is a clear wide wedge, no doubt.

Class differences, especially between the privileged elite (symbolized by Mar Roxas and Grace Poe) and the masses (who see the simple Rody Duterte as their hero) are being exploited for propaganda purposes this campaign season.

The very unpredictable and dirty-talking Duterte whose remarks often get lost in translation (especially when he attempts to speak the language of imperial Manila) should have been a PR nightmare. But he keeps bouncing back and the masses seem to love him even more after each blunder.

Why is that? I think because the Duterte campaign has successfully packaged itself as a real alternative with the hashtag #TunayNaPagbabago. Duterte is now the face of every ordinary Filipino who is sick and tired of corruption and incompetence; who is mad at an indifferent and ineffective government that is in collusion with the economic elite; who feels powerless against rampant crime and violence.

Duterte is the Pinoy’s big “f*ck you” to the status quo. And he is far from the perfect candidate or even the best presidential candidate per Miriam Defensor Santiago’s high standards. But he is the best candidate to take on foreign interventionists and imperialists, crime syndicates, the mighty Catholic Church, the imperial Manila establishment, the oligarchs, the lawless elements.  And Duterte did not just assume this persona for this year’s electoral campaign (like a certain “Mr. Palengke”), he has been like that most of his 71 years.

Roxas and his supporters do not get it. The more they vilify and demonize Duterte, the more he gains followers. Because Roxas and his followers have shown themselves to be hypocrites and Pope Francis himself said: “hypocrisy brings about so much evil.” Which brings me to a popular Proverb: “Better to be known as a sinner than a hypocrite.”

Roxas’ propaganda is not working because he simply does not inspire or move people who are desperate for change. He simply cannot convince Filipinos that the status quo that is “Daang Matuwid” is good or even just good enough. And that is why he cannot convince them to continue down that path with him as their leader.

On the other hand, many Filipinos are willing to follow Duterte, some almost blindly, because they feel their current situation is so bad that they would rather embrace the unknown, the uncertain, and the untested than remain the same for another six years.

The popularity of Duterte is not actually a reflection of his greatness. Rather, it is a reflection of how awful the real state of the nation is. And no amount of propaganda in whatever shade – white, grey or black –  can contradict the people’s real experience on the ground.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, April 28, 2016.