Nicolas TENZER: How propaganda takes advantage of our cognitive dissonance

How propaganda takes advantage of our cognitive dissonance

Photo of Nicolas TENZER

Nicolas TENZER

French civil servant, academic, writer, and editor. He is currently the editor of the journal Le Banquet and is the founding president of the Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’action politique (CERAP), a position he has held since 1986. He was a director of the Aspen Institute from 2010 to 2015 and has acted as its treasurer and president.

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

other articles by this author

One of the main difficulties in analyzing the propaganda of dictatorships is that it cannot be grasped as an object with strictly delimited edges. Propaganda has multiple facets both in terms of objectives, sometimes immediate, sometimes longer term, of means and targets. It also has varying degrees of intensity and, therefore, of visibility and, by a paradox that I have often emphasized, soft propaganda is often more powerful because it is less perceived and more invasive. Finally, one must never lose sight of the fact that its ultimate intention is to change the attitude of governments by making them adopt a complacent, if not passive, behavior in front of the action of dictatorships. In the end, it is those who lead the countries who are the priority target of the propaganda.

Objectives, means and targets: an opaque skein

.As far as the immediate objectives are concerned, the main aim of propaganda can be both to change perceptions of dictatorships and in particular their crimes—in concrete terms, to make them accepted by the general public, opinion leaders and leaders—and to stir up trouble in democratic countries by throwing oil on the fire. This is the case when it gives a special sheen to hostile demands, especially, though not exclusively, when they are carried by far-right movements—from the Capitol insurrectionists on January 6, 2021 in the United States, to the anti-migrant Pegida movement in Germany, to the Yellow Vests in France and the anti-vaccine or anti-sanitary measures movements around the world. This certainly does not mean that propaganda is behind these movements, but they do provide a prime opportunity. In addition to these two objectives—to make their actions acceptable and to delegitimize democracies—propaganda also has the objective of deterring and intimidating critical voices. These can be harassed by means of strategics lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) that are particularly effective for people who do not have the resources to deal with them, but also by more or less insistent threatening messages.

The means are also very diverse. One can of course mention the official organs of dictatorial regimes such as Russia Today or Sputnik for Russia or CGTN for the People’s Republic of China, knowing that their effectiveness is often less through the television programs seen on these channels than through their other products, such as the You Tube channel—hence the right decision of the German regulator to ban it in that country. We must add the discussion groups on Facebook or Telegram in particular, in which, in a discreet way, propagandists can infiltrate. There are also many proxies, in other words channels, Twitter or Facebook accounts, or Internet sites, which are not directly visible as being linked to foreign powers and which can mix anodyne news (weather, news items, sports events) with much more oriented content. The inventory is still incomplete.

Above all, we must not forget the “recruitment” of lobbyists, consultants, journalists, academics, members of think tanks or political figures who can reproduce the narratives of dictatorships. Some may do so publicly, but others may also communicate discreetly with members of the government in power. This form of corruption —it is not always designated as such by the criminal law and that is precisely the problem—is one of the major issues in many Western democracies today. In addition, there is the direct funding of research institutes, think tanks and sometimes under-resourced universities. The members of these institutions are therefore, if not always encouraged to take up the arguments of dictatorships, at least to look away from their misdeeds and crimes.

Finally, the targets of propaganda are multiple: it can seek to reach the general public, parliamentarians, opinion leaders, media outlets, users of social networks, universities, NGOs, political parties and of course the leaders of the countries where it is deployed. But each time, the propaganda of dictatorships, which has considerable and ever-expanding means at its disposal, is led to adjust its modes of action according to the specific objectives it has for each category. To take a simple example: Russian propaganda has made extensive use of extreme right-wing parties and movements in Europe, and even in the United States, in an attempt to strengthen its ideological positions and strike a blow against democracy. However, in some countries, since extremist parties have little chance of coming to power, it can also, sometimes more effectively given its ultimate objectives, try to penetrate, sometimes successfully, the more moderate parties. By focusing on the extreme parties alone, we may therefore fail to perceive its most disturbing reality. The tree should not hide the forest. This is where cognitive dissonance comes in.

Cognitive dissonance: a fertile ground

.The concept of cognitive dissonance has many ramifications. Let’s propose a simple definition here: it consists, for a person, most often involuntarily, but sometimes intentionally, in supporting two or more propositions that are contradictory to each other. Its logical extension results in a discrepancy between the oral expression of a position and the action, illogical with respect to this stance, which follows it. Propaganda, of course, does not promote cognitive dissonance on the part of leaders, but it can exploit it and ultimately benefits from it. In the opinion, this dissonance, precisely because it breaks the rationality of the political discourse that is supposed to obey a certain logic, leads to a lack of understanding of the state of the world. It creates an absence of reference points and a common basis, which can also be called truth, which is also one of the aims of the propaganda of dictatorships.

The manifestations of this cognitive dissonance are multiple in foreign policy, but it also sometimes combines positions that belong to domestic policy. Let us take a few textbook cases.

The first concerns the aggressions committed by dictatorial regimes—indeed, one should say precisely “criminal”. Democratic leaders condemn them, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, they consider that we can negotiate to find an agreement, possibly, on other subjects with these regimes. But how can one both point to these multiple aggressions—notably by the Russian regime against Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan—and consider that there can be common ground with those who launched them? This gives the impression that, after having taken them seriously, we end up excusing them.

The second case study concerns human rights. Democratic leaders strongly defend the principle of human rights, reiterating their universal value and declaring themselves on the side of freedom fighters. But at the same time, they will hesitate to name those who violate them in international forums—think of the crimes against humanity committed by the People’s Republic of China in Xinjiang in particular, the ferocious repression in Hong Kong or the massive war crimes, even greater than those of the Islamic State, committed by the Russian regime in Syria. After the end of the Second World War, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials where certain Nazi criminals were tried and sentenced, international law defined the notion of imprescriptible crimes and established tribunals to judge them, the last of which was the International Criminal Court, but they seem reluctant to incriminate the leaders who gave the orders. This weakens and marginalizes international law and risks becoming obsolete or only partially applicable. It is even one of the foundations of the international order that is undermined in this way, which is also one of the primary objectives of revisionist regimes. The same applies, of course, to the concept of the responsibility to protect (R2P), which has not been applied in Syria, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus or, more recently, in Kazakhstan. Silence is also a form of expression of cognitive dissonance.

A third and perhaps more complex example concerns the lack of understanding of current dictatorial regimes, particularly that of Russia. Leaders around the world can see—or are supposed to see—that the primary objective of this regime is only indirectly or partially one of those defined by classical geopolitics. It is not only to control and annex, but to radically challenge the foundations and principles that are supposed to structure the international scene and to replace the political values of freedom and open society with the systematic destruction of the notion of order itself. But they pretend to consider that the goal of the Russian dictatorship—and increasingly of the Chinese—has nothing to do with the objectives of the powers of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. As if to reassure themselves, they reason on the basis of old patterns that prevent them from perceiving the nature of the activities of these regimes, whereas these regimes have already moved into a form of geostrategic postmodernity that combines ideology, military aggression and targeted attacks on the foundations of democracies. The cognitive dissonance thus lies in this: on the one hand, there is evidence of the absolute novelty, in their radicality, of the offensives of these regimes, which is clearly perceptible; on the other hand, we prefer to reduce them to known patterns for convenience.

Let us also mention a fourth textbook case, which lies in the disconnection between the different dimensions of the Russian regime, as if it were possible to separate its revisionism in international matters and its ideological offensive. Sometimes, certain governments will thus, on the one hand, make lucid statements about its multiple aggressions and rightly defend an attitude of absolute firmness, and on the other hand, copy its ideological discourse, notably in the area of “family values”, and take up its fight against LGBT people, if not refugees, and even undermine the independence of the judiciary and the media. Therefore, the most accurate and lucid positions on the security threats of the Russian regime are likely to be struck with a relative illegitimacy by this form of ideological resemblance.

Finally, a fifth example is based on an internal dissonance on geostrategic issues. We have thus seen certain Middle Eastern regimes, firmly committed to fighting Iran’s expansionism through its various movements, have an attitude of appeasement with Russia, and even reconciliation with Assad, the worst criminal against humanity of the 21st century, even though they are the surest vectors of Tehran’s control over several regions of this zone. We find mutatis mutandis the same attitude when leaders, well aware of Russian threats, receive with great pomp and ceremony political figures, or even leaders, with strong links to the Kremlin. The same is true when Muslim leaders who claim to defend the Muslims of the whole world turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed against the Uyghurs of Xinjiang in the name of their good relations with Beijing.

The examples could be multiplied at length. It is important to understand how these different forms of cognitive dissonance are a boon to propaganda.

First, they reinforce the impression, not always erroneous, of the West’s inconsistency. In so doing, they testify to its irresolution in action. They lend themselves to the accusation of a double discourse, which is one of the most well-known rhetorics of the propaganda narrative.

Secondly, they facilitate the work of undermining undertaken by dictatorships of what carries and supports the legitimacy of free democracies: the rule of law. From the moment when this rule can be flouted with impunity, when we tacitly accept the crime, when we do not judge those who commit it, when we do not come to the aid of people whose lives are shattered by dictatorships, we encourage them to go further and further in the violation of fundamental rights.

Finally, by not alerting public opinion, for supposedly diplomatic reasons, to the crimes committed and the attacks on the security of the European continent, we make it even more difficult to respond. Indeed, if we do not prepare public opinion, we contribute to its being perceived as incomprehensible and, ultimately, unacceptable. How many French, Italians, Spaniards, Belgians, even Germans, know that there is a murderous war launched by Russia against Ukraine, which has been going on for nearly eight years? How many know that the war in Syria, led by Assad against his own people with the support and involvement in the crime of the Russian and Iranian regimes, is still going on and has killed about one million people? It is a common lesson that crime thrives in silence. It would have been a duty to tell this to the public opinion of the Western countries and to dispel the idea that we would be done with these “endless wars” of which President Biden spoke. No, the war is there, and it is madness to think that we could be spared it as long as it lasts on our borders.

.Therefore, we can and must, with particular urgency, fight much more actively against the propaganda of foreign media and their relays. We must also, as a matter of urgency, track down corruption linked to foreign influences and strengthen our laws. But until we realize how the attitudes and words of some of our leaders promote the hold of dictatorial regimes on our minds and sometimes, unwittingly, theirs, we are only halfway there. Will we be brave enough, but also intelligent enough, to understand this?

Nicolas Tenzer

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 18/02/2022