Counter Propaganda: Cases from US Public Diplomacy and Beyond [PDF]

By Nicholas J. Cull

July 2015


By Peter Pomerantsev

The 21st century information age is seeing a new focus on propaganda from actors
as diverse as Putin’s Russia and ISIS. The West is starting to consider a response: from attempts by the EU to create myth-busting campaigns; NATO establishing a new Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence in Riga; attempts to reform the Broadcasting Board of Governors in the US; and a whole industry of counter-terrorism communications efforts and a renewed focus on media literacy in education.

But what can past efforts at counter-propaganda teach the present?

In this essay USC Annenberg Professor Nick Cull, one of the world’s leading historians of propaganda, looks at counter-propaganda successes and failures from the Reformation to the Iraq War, from the wisdom of Samuel Johnson to the madness of McCarthyism, and draws a list of recommendations for today’s counter-propagandists. Counter-propaganda turns out to be a subtle art: get it wrong and you end up strengthening the original propaganda by giving it too much attention; get it right and you end up not only fighting the enemy, but also improving your own society. 

This publication was launched at the Legatum Institute on Friday, 24 July 2015. Details here.

About the Beyond Propaganda Series

The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.