Difference between World War II and today — it’s easier to disguise propaganda

 Difference between World War II and today — it’s easier to disguise propaganda
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The unfolding story of the Russian Internet Research Agency’s campaign to disrupt the 2016 U.S. elections calls to mind a previous episode when a hostile foreign power weaponized a new and powerful communications medium against us. 

The time was World War II, and the foe was Nazi Germany. Then as now, propagandists used this medium to speak directly to the American public. Their goal was to sow division among American citizens and foster distrust of the nation’s institutions and its international alliances.

As the Russians have exploited the internet, Nazi Germany turned radio broadcasts into instruments of conquest. In the words of Charles J. Rolo, who monitored German broadcasts in 1940 their efforts transformed the medium “from a crude propaganda bludgeon into the most powerful single instrument of political warfare the world has ever known.” Like the Internet Research Agency, the German Reichs-Rundfunk reach spanned the globe.

The first Nazi broadcasts to the United States targeted émigré communities with cultural programming designed to foster nostalgia and pride. Between the 1939 German invasion of Poland and the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Germans pressed for continued American neutrality and sought to undermine support for the Allies.


This new approach to radio required announcers who spoke English with authentic American accents. The most infamous among these was Mildred Gillars (aka “Axis Sally”), who later was convicted of treason along with four of her former colleagues. Today, rather than hiring American traitors, the Russians have trained trolls to mimic the American idiom.

Special prosecutor Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE’s recent indictment reveals that Russians have worked through and with American citizens, witting or otherwise. The same was true just before the U.S. entered World War II, when George Sylvester Viereck, a German-born American citizen, convinced several members of Congress to insert isolationist propaganda into the congressional record.

With help from a Hill staffer, he printed and distributed anti-interventionist arguments at U.S. government expense, using the franking privilege of Hamilton Fish III, a Republican congressman from New York State who was a prominent supporter of the America First Committee. Viereck was later convicted of failing to register as a foreign agent.

Both then and now, foreign propaganda reached a small but politically engaged portion of the American population. In 1941, Harwood L. Childs, a public opinion expert, estimated that five to ten percent of the county’s adult population (somewhere between three and seven million people) had heard European broadcasts. A much smaller number listened on a regular basis.

But this was an important group, according to Child's, because compared to the general population, they tended to “read more widely, take a greater interest in international affairs,” and be “more active publicly.”

A troubling difference between World War II and today is how much easier it is to disguise the source of a tweet or Facebook post than that of a shortwave broadcast. In 1942, the German black propaganda station, call letters DEBUNK, was unmasked by FCC engineers within months of its first broadcast. In the case of Russian bots and trolls, we are only now learning the extent of their reach.

What lessons can we learn from the past? First, a free society will have trouble combating propaganda without compromising its values. During World War II, US government officials sought to discourage shortwave radio listening but stopped short of jamming enemy broadcasts. (In Germany, by contrast, listening to foreign broadcasts was a crime). 

Second, today’s fact checks, like World War II “rumor clinics,” may have the unintended effect of circulating, even reinforcing, falsehoods. Finally, despite the availability of analytics unimaginable in the past, experts will never be able to assess, with any certainty, the extent to which info war tactics shape attitudes and change behavior.

In most cases, we may know a lot about the content reaching user's dials and screens but will never be able to accurately gauge its effect in their hearts and heads.

From the vantage point of history, technical, legislative, and administrative responses to information warfare are doomed to fail. They may succeed in the short run but will last only until our enemies find another workaround or exploit a new media platform. A more lasting solution is to foster a national consensus, for fake news and conspiracy theories are only as strong as the divisions on which they feed.

Ann Pfau is an independent scholar and the author of the book, “Miss Yourlovin: GIs, Gender, and Domesticity during World War II.” David Hochfelder is a professor of History at University at Albany, SUNY. They are the co-authors of the article, Her Voice a Bullet: Imaginary Propaganda and the Legendary Broadcasters of World War II.