‘He who controls the media, controls the mind’ [Jim Morrison]. What role has the media and/or propaganda played in shaping the civil war process?

Conflict is one of the defining features of the modern world and since the end of the Cold War there have been countless civil wars involving the deaths, suffering, and displacement of millions of people. There has long been a close association between media and warfare, and as such mass media often plays a key role in shaping the civil war process. As a rule media within the country experiencing civil war has been used to support the struggle of the motherland. However, with the expansion of global media, such as CNN and Al-Jazeera, as well as the internet, information is broadcast to people around the world on an almost instantaneous basis. Subsequently this leads to public reactions, often moral outrage or anger, resulting in pressure on governments to intervene in civil wars across the world. As a result it is no longer just the media within the country at war but also the global media which shapes the civil war process. Additionally, propaganda has played a significant role in the prelude and execution of war throughout the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. Propaganda interprets events in biased ways often exaggerating the successes or virtues of one side, while inflating the failures of the adversary. This contributes to the shaping of the civil war process by lending support to one side, enabling them to reach out and appeal to the population of their own country and to third parties who might intervene in the civil war.

Propaganda is defined as ‘the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause through information reflecting the views and interests of those advocating such a doctrine or cause’. Prior to the expansion of global media, propaganda was widely used in shaping the civil war process. It was used to mobilise hatred against the enemy, preserve the friendship of allies, and if possible to procure the cooperation of neutrals. The Bolsheviks organised a highly effective propaganda campaign during the Russian Civil war of 1918-1921. Through speeches, newspapers, and posters, the people were continually told that under the Bolsheviks life would be better and more equal. In addition Bolshevik propaganda pressed home the idea that the White Armies and leaders would destroy the achievements gained during the revolution and reinstate the ways of the Tsarist regime. In this way the Bolsheviks were able to build upon their support. Moreover the media was very one sided since the Bolsheviks imposed severe censorship. This effective propaganda campaign and censorship of the media helped shape the civil war process in Russia by allowing the Bolsheviks to build a support base, handing them an important advantage. According to Christopher Lazarski, white propaganda was a half-hearted, badly organised effort which could not effectively counter-balance the propaganda of the Bolsheviks; even bringing more harm than good according to General Denikin. The Reds controlled the majority of what was published, thus appearing the lesser of two evils.

The media has played a much larger role in shaping the civil war process in more recent years, in 1962 only 29% of Americans cited the television as their primary source of news while post 9/11 this increased to 81%. Studies also indicate that television is more trusted than other news sources, because images often verify the claims that have been made. The CNN effect is defined by Steven Livingston as the impact of new global real-time media on diplomacy and foreign policy, it incorporates the responses from domestic audiences and political elites to global events that are transmitted by real time communications technology. It claimed to change the very politics surrounding war and was considered an important factor in subsequent western humanitarian military interventions throughout the 1990s; thus the media played a large role in shaping the civil war process. According to Robinson (1999) the CNN effect theorises that when news media broadcast emotionally driven stories of human crisis, a major response was provoked amongst domestic audiences and political elites.

In a humanitarian circle it is seen as a cause for good often leading to outside intervention in civil wars where cases of human suffering might otherwise have been ignored, such as in Kosovo. The civil war in Kosovo was a brutal war which is seen to have been shaped by the media. In 1998/1999 images of human suffering in the war shocked the Western world; it was largely seen as these images of massacres which galvanised western support against the Serbian side and pushed the world’s greatest military alliance, NATO, into war. Additionally the Nigerian Civil war, 1967-1970, was a war in which both the media and propaganda played a central role in shaping the civil war process. Media had a big influence on morale at home and the dynamics of international involvement. The Biafran war bombarded western culture with images of the starving African child, intensifying in the summer of 1968 as the famine caused by the civil war was classified as genocide around the world. Biafran elites studied western propaganda techniques and carefully constructed public communications in an intentional fashion to appeal to international public opinion, while maintaining morale domestically. It was the television pictures of starving children in Biafra in 1968 which were credited with provoking a major response, primarily NGO led, and in shaping the civil war process.

Interestingly the lack of media coverage can shape the civil war process. The civil war process in Rwanda was shaped by the media in the sense that a lack of media coverage led to continued massacres of Rwandan citizens. In the mid-1990s 8,000-10,000 Rwandans were being killed each day, Bearsly 2003, but the international media failed to inform the world of this mass genocide. For almost 3 weeks the story failed to make the top of the TV news bulletin despite being branded as one of the 20th century’s worst crimes. Richard Dowden, the director of Royal African Society said this was widely a result of Rwanda not being important enough to western editors. Lieutenant-General Dallaire said during the crisis, “I felt that one good journalist on the ground was worth a battalion of troops because I realised they could bring pressure to bear”. This sums up the impact the media can have on shaping the civil war process very succinctly, had the media emphasised the genocide more widely it is highly likely that countries would have taken steps to prevent the crisis. Policy makers feel compelled to respond to media pressure when humanitarian interests are at stake, and as such media can often drive foreign policy decisions when it comes to civil wars, thus shaping the civil war process.

Mass media has an enormous influence over how civil wars are presented to the public, via the media people are constantly bombarded with information which is often shocking and inhumane. The media are drawn to events that display significant levels of human suffering, often resulting in public outrage about civil wars. This subsequently leads to pressure upon governments or humanitarian organisations to intervene in the war, shaping the civil war process. Many diplomats and policymakers have viewed the emergence of the media and propaganda as an intrusive new player in the civil war process that could pressure governments into making foolish decisions. Despite the adamant opinion of many politicians, such as former British Secretary Douglas Hurd, that policy should not and will not be dictated by the media there is no denying that the media and propaganda both play crucial roles in shaping the civil war process.


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