Nov. 16, 2012 --
With Israeli and Palestinian forces in a deadly conflict from the air and now on the ground in Gaza and Israel, another battle is being waged, the war of public opinion, on an unexpected battlefield: social media. Conflict between both sides might not be anything new, but the use of Twitter and other social media platforms to sway users on the digital landscape might be a first in military history. Although the war of words on social media might be unexpected, propaganda and innovation have always gone hand in hand.
Long before the invention of social media, computers or even paper, leaders created propaganda in the form of massive public construction works to project their power and enshrine their places in history. In "Archaeology: Propaganda of the pyramids," an article published in 2003 in the journal Nature, author Jared Diamond highlights research contending that even the Great Pyramid of Giza may have been a massive propaganda tool in addition to being a burial site. The pyramid was designed and built to project strength at a time when Egypt could dominate its neighbors, the research contends.
The ancient Greeks were innovators in the use of drama to convey political messages. Plays, poems and other works of fiction, even if based in history, were laced with nationalist subtexts, particularly during times of war. In "The Republic," Plato writes that Socrates even called for all poets to be banished because they were dangerous and untrustworthy.
The invention of the printing press in the 15th century made mass production propaganda possible. Its introduction had a particularly strong impact on the great schism within the Catholic Church that would become the Protestant Reformation, with both sides using the innovation to press their arguments. Coincidentally, the term "propaganda" itself was first used by the Catholic Church in the 17th century. The word was short for Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, which means "congregation for propagating the faith."
The early 20th century saw the introduction of revolutionary propaganda campaigns that went well beyond past efforts initiated by governments or interest groups. With their strong ideological underpinnings and emphasis of the themes of triumph, strength and prosperity of the state, Communist propaganda aimed to convince not only citizens within that nation of the merits of central state planning, but also project a message to the world of the supposed superiority of the political system. At a time when the Soviets were engaged in a war of ideas with the United States, images such as this one, which was produced in the early 20th century and painted with the message "Strength is in Unity," were a vehicle through which to highlight Communist values.
World War II might be the first war in modern history in which sex -- or at least sexual innuendo -- played a role as a propaganda tool, becoming a kind of symbol of freedom within the United States. Coincidentally enough, the term "bombshell" to describe an especially attractive woman can be traced back to the early 1940s. In this photo, three women pose for a photograph outside of an Army recruitment office, claiming that they wouldn't marry during the war unless it was to someone who was serving.
Women themselves were also targeted in propaganda to assist in the war effort for an unprecedented nationwide campaign for women to take over the jobs men serving overseas couldn't do back home. Although not especially popular at the time, the most famous icon of the era in modern memory is Rosie the Riveter, a working woman who represented to American women what they could accomplish.
North Korea is a country that takes propaganda to the extreme. The Hermit Kingdom adopted the 20th century model of the totalitarian state and created a propaganda machine to maintain control over its people. The state strictly regulates all forms of media ranging from books to newspapers to television and more. Traditional forms of propaganda, including statues, posters and even buildings, reinforce the message of absolute power on the part of the ruling class, of which Kim Jong Un sits atop. The end result is a nation that reveres its political leaders, both past and present, as almost god-like figures.
This iconic image of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara is almost a work of pop art as propaganda. Widely disseminated on everything from posters to T-shirts, the photo, originally taken by Alberto Korda and later redesigned, has become an almost universal symbol of rebellion and revolution. Rather than being a piece of propaganda in support of a particular movement, it has instead almost become a political message by popular demand. In other words, it might be the most popular crowd-sourced piece of propaganda in history.