GOVERNMENTS HAVE ALWAYS tried to control their citizens. It's a simple truth that those in authority want to have control of the people’s hearts, minds and allegiances.
In propaganda those in power have had a tool with which they could shape what people think and feel. From Nazi imagery and film used in 1930s and 40s Germany to modern day spin we see so often in the newspapers, it's everywhere.
We've had periods in history where new types of propaganda have been used by those in power to control the people they are supposed to represent.
One was after the invention of the printing press where books carried out religious and political messages, and later the Second World War, where radio was a communication medium used to control and inform the masses with whatever message governments wanted to give out.
But the advent of the web has changed everything. In terms of propaganda it has broken the ability of governments around the world to conduct massive large-scale propaganda campaigns which could control swaths of people.
"The web is the ultimate propaganda machine, but not for governments," said Professor Phil Taylor, of the Institute of Communication Studies at the University of Leeds. "Governments don't use the web very well."
Speaking at Digifest at London's Science Museum he added: "Individuals through web 2.0 are able to challenge established economic information flows which have traditionally been controlled by governments till about 20 years ago."
Through the web, organisations that may have alternative viewpoints, whether it is for example ultra liberal or extremist islamic, can now get their messages across to distant audiences.
He said that we have access to more propaganda than ever before through the web, but also more conspiracy theories - in the sense that an Internet user can pick and choose what they want to believe.
Taylor said, "What do I believe on the web? That's not a new thing. Because when I go to the British Library and pick books off the shelf - which ones of these should I believe? which one of these has credibility? I think that’s the challenge of propaganda that’s going to succeed."
As we come up to the next general election, we are now beginning to see the UK government and other political parties use web technology to promote their party line. But they are finding it challenging to do it in a credible way.
Terry Pattar, an associate with Jane’s strategic advisory services, said: “Governments are trying to engage with those grass-root groups and movements by using the web as a tool.
"They've got a very difficult task in terms of trying to keep track with everything that’s going on, understanding how people are using the web, and at the same time as trying to use it to influence people."
He added, "This is always going to be difficult for a government because as soon as something gets found out to be government sponsored or directed, it loses credibility. By they’ve certainly been trying."
So we are surrounded by propaganda from lots of different sources, whether it's the US with the conservative line peddled by Fox News and Rupert Murdoch to the more liberal viewpoint shown by media like the Guardian newspaper.
But this could be a problem, as there is so much information available on the web that it is impossible to filter out without confirming our existing biases. For instance, extremist groups could use these features of the web to galvanise and recruit new people.
"Extremist groups have these close environments and spaces they can create where the people who come to consume the material they are producing are already interested or sympathetic," said Pattar.
"They come along with one extreme viewpoint, and via the web through links they find sites with similar viewpoints or created by the same people. They can live in quite an enclosed little world where they can really perceive one viewpoint.
"There is nothing to challenge that, because the webmasters who control discussion forums in these kind of environments will be very quick to get rid of comments that dissent from the message they are trying to promote. There is that danger."
China has had big success with social media and discussion forums. The government recruited an enormous amount of people to go through social media channels and write messages supportive of the state government, engaging with those against the party line.
China's fight with Google over the censorship of search results shows that it is completely aware of the power of free information. But the argument centres around the fact that the Chinese state has a completely different ideology than what we feel is normal in the West.
"The Chinese state basically thinks that the collective is more important than the individual," said Professor Taylor. "Where as here in the west we have become so individualistic in our approach. For example in the US they hate government with a vengeance in a way which we are getting to."
Taylor believes that the world wide web had the potential to become a propaganda weapon like media such as film and newspapers were in the past, but had not reached that point and might never likely to do with the web remaining so diverse, global and individualistic.
"Propaganda has traditionally been conducted by organisations like governments, not individuals," he said. "It needs to be controlled, like in the Chinese example. But you can’t control it, we know that. Attempts to build a great firewall will ultimately fail, because if you are a computer geek you can access any website you want to." µ
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