The digital age has, in many ways, been a revolution in narrative management and the transmission of propaganda, but the fundamental elements of managing perceptions both domestically and internationally have existed as long as there have been nations to exercise the effort. While some dismiss the effect of information and disinformation operations on the global populace, practitioners of the art harbor no such illusions. Marketing efforts (nothing more than commercially oriented propaganda) have long managed the difficult task of separating people from their hard earned money — all government propaganda had to do, after all, is convince you to feel something; no pocketbook required.
Just as De Beers convinced the American public that diamond rings are the only way to propose (as recently as 1948), the right kind of propaganda can lead an entire nation to a certain way of thinking about itself or its competitors. Today, these efforts are managed through multiple and occasionally intertwining avenues, including global media, social media, and weaponized “infobesity” (or flooding the media with contradictory information until people don’t know what to believe and simply settle on confirmation bias). In years prior, the methodology was similar, though slower paced and often printed in ink.
Managing perceptions is not, in itself, a nefarious act — especially when it comes to addressing the way your nation is perceived among foreign populations. Children who grow up under the constant drum beat of war often end up harboring negative feelings toward the nation their parents fought, and although the Cold War never quite turned hot in a direct fashion, the media climate within the United States and Soviet Union played an undeniable role in the way the general public within each saw their national competitors. International politics, by its very nature, has to be played as a long game. The narratives foreign kids grow up around will come to shape the policies they vote for or champion as adults. Nowhere is this more evident than the complicated diplomatic relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union’s successor, Russia.
Some in the U.S. may be inclined to believe that this battle over perception began with the 2016 presidential election, but nothing could be further from the truth. Propaganda has always been a part of national level politicking, but the Soviets, perhaps better than most, understood right from the get go that narrative doesn’t have any obligation to the truth, and people define themselves through narratives, not facts.
The concern over how America was being perceived within the Soviet Union can be seen readily in a declassified State Department memo held on file within the CIA Archives pertaining directly to how the United States was being represented in Soviet media of the era. Like current day Russia, the media within the Soviet Bloc was an extension of the government that attempted to portray itself as something comparable to America’s free press. That approach allowed them to use media as a weapon of perception in a streamlined and effective way. While the United States was no stranger to attempts at domestic media manipulation, the Soviet Union didn’t have to manipulate journalists — they could simply give orders and eliminate any voices of opposition.
Interestingly, the memo mirrors a number of active and ongoing Russian efforts to both incite discord within American groups and characterize the nation as a racially troubled place. Russian trolls organized racially charged events in cities around the United States by using Facebook to organize groups with opposing views in the same location, and then they used “boosted” posts to incite racial tensions between the two groups. What followed was a real heightening of racial tensions within the United States, motivated both by existing cultural issues and Russia’s attempts to fan the flames. Back in 1970, things weren’t much different.
The memo states:
Soviet press distortion of race problems is exemplified by articles in Pravda and Sovetskya Rossiya decyring “police terror” against Black Panthers, alleging police torture of negros, and charging that the current investigation of Panthers is a whitewash. Trud adn Krasnyay Zvezda fulminate against ‘political murder’ of labor leader Yablonki, and Tass in English asserts police being dilatory in investigation.”
Concerns about race aren’t the only ways Soviet propaganda mirrored modern Russian efforts, as described within this memo. It goes on to discuss how Soviet media (both domestic and international) portrayed America’s relationship with Israel, as well as foreign conflicts.
‘Full US support for Israeli Aggression,’ and ‘Growing US-Israeli Military Alliance’ provide major themes for front page Izvestiya reporting about the Middle East – similar sentiments echoed in Pravda commentator’s column Izvestiya also attacks Vice President Agnew and his Asian trip in editorial, while devoting a quarter page to US Vietnam ‘atrocities’ and revival of the anti-war movement in US.”
It’s important to note, the memo doesn’t submit that these representations of the United States are without any basis at all (in fact, they even cite Russian television’s use of American-produced content to support their intentional narratives). Again, the nature of information operations isn’t about truth, facts, or validity. It isn’t the responsibility of those tasked with perception management to solve America’s political or cultural issues — it’s their job to manage narratives in a way that ensures the safety of the American public, government, and coinciding interests. America, of course, has long struggled with racial tensions just as it does today, but raising a generation of Soviets to believe America is a racist nation is just another small piece of the overall narrative that America is an ideologically loss nation worthy of ire and resentment. This narrative paints the Soviet Union as the beacon of light in a dark world and reduces the likelihood of negative reactions to anti-American diplomatic or even military action.
Above leaves out of account TV coverage of the U.S. which over the past three months has been uniformly far more vicious. At present, we seem to be in an upswing period of anti-American propaganda which several colleagues have commented upon, expecially [sic] the German who sees us taking the number on spot formerly occupied by the FRG. Some of the material is of course of U.S. manufacture in the form of playbacks from the American press. While protests will be unavailing, the time may nevertheless be at hand when it would be worthwhile to remind Soviet officials of our awareness of the present trend and its potential repercussions.”
You can read the complete memo here.