Weapons of mind and mass destruction

Propaganda

By Dr R. Neerunjun Gopee

If you believe, you can lie
If you know, you can live.
– Anon

With the advent and explosion of IT, it came to be said that ‘knowledge is power.’ Well may it indeed be, but the crucial issue is what use is made of this power. And here I like to cite an article that was written in Le Monde Diplomatique many years ago by late French geneticist Albert Jacquard, whose title was ‘Les effets pervers de la science’ (‘The perverse effects of science’).

Scientific knowledge is inherently neutral, so it would seem that science per se cannot generate perverse effects; rather, it’s how we use that knowledge that can do so, in other words, the intention behind what is done. However, with the rapid advances that have been taking place in Artificial Intelligence and the success of devices like Deep Mind, scientists have been fearing that AI apps may develop a degree of autonomy, that is, escape from human control. They may then go wild and become destructive – to the point of one day destroying their inventors i.e. human beings. That is the one example which one can think of as being an actual perverse effect of science, in the category of unintended consequences.

That day may be far off, but in the meantime, IT with its array of related electronic devices and the software networks that have been created as a result have amply illustrated the potential for harm that they can inflict at all levels of society. Parents and governments are locked in a battle with tech giants to regulate content that are harming kids who are lured into becoming addicts of the tech platforms. Citizens are apprehensive about their governments leveraging these to snoop on their private lives and breach confidentiality, but more ominously to blackmail and control targeted individuals deemed to be adversaries or opponents.

These platforms have now added to the list of conventional means that have been used for propaganda purposes. In today’s world, these are the tools and forces which try to influence minds, and of which one must beware:

* Official propaganda including spin-doctoring
* Agenda of the printed press
* Social media tech giants
* Advertisements
* The educational system
* Religion

 Propaganda is effective because the masses prefer convenient beliefs to uncomfortable truths.

Truth is about knowledge; belief is about ignorance.

People were forced to believe, for example, at the cost of being spiked to death, that the sun went round the earth. Galileo paid the price, but he was steadfast in his knowledge that it was the earth that went round the sun. Truth, if it is real, remains the same over time: as it was yesterday, it is today and will be tomorrow. Belief, because it is unreal, changes when it is exposed by fresh knowledge. Believers, alas, tend to cling to their old beliefs: perhaps that is why there is a whole new discipline about managing change.

If you resist official propaganda, you are anti-government, even if you voted to put it there in the first place. If you puncture the façade of press propaganda, you are against ‘us’ and one of ‘them/the other.’ If you turn away from the billboards, you are not modern enough. If you challenge your teacher, you are trying to be a smart ass. And if you question a preacher, you are an infidel who deserves the damnation of hell if not elimination.

All these forces conspire to prevent the individual from using his mind and finding out the truth for himself. In this respect, for scientists, it is religion which is the worst offender. Its unsubstantiated claims are not able to stand up to the scrutiny of logical reasoning or even pass the test of plausibility, and scientific knowledge in particular has exploded several myths held to be sacrosanct by the religions which propound them.

For any system to be credible it must not contradict what human reason and experience uncover by observation and analysis. The classical example is that of the rotation of the sun and the earth given above. A more mundane example is the crooked appearance of a stick when it is put in water with part of it above the surface: nobody can dispute that the stick is in fact straight. Belief is like seeing the stick in water. Knowledge is like seeing the stick out of water.

Thus, belief is always overlaid with ignorance, whereas knowledge leads to the light of truth. Belief covers up. Knowledge lays bare. Hence we speak of the naked truth. That is why spiritual insight is always preferred by scientists (such as Einstein) to religious belief, and propaganda is akin to the latter. When religion and propaganda mix, we have the recipe for a weapon of both mind and mass destruction – as has been seen this very recently in the killings that have taken place on minorities in Bangladesh, which the country’s authorities have established as being a planned attack following a video that went viral, have identified the main culprit and have made arrests accordingly. Whether this intervention will put a stop to such acts or bring about peace is another matter.

Propaganda tools have become so ubiquitous that enormous energy has to be deployed to counter them, leading to a wastage of resources and time that could be more fruitfully used to address the more important problems that a country faces.

This is illustrated by the drug case that is making headlines in India and involves the son of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan who was caught with friends on a cruise ship bound for Goa, whose reputation as a haven for rave and similar parties is legion. The thrust of the investigation being led by the Narcotics Control Board of India (NCB) is to get to the bottom of the drug menace that is ravaging Indian society and its youth, and unravel its ramifications which stretch from Mumbai to Punjab, Pakistan, Dubai and Afghanistan and cause similar social damage. Instead, the motivated propaganda machine fuelled with covert foreign support is, according to information coming through, busy trying to deflect attention by putting in doubt the NCB and publicly attacking its lead investigator by prying into his private life which has clearly nothing to do with the investigation. That, if anything, is a fine example of perversion -, in this context, of the course of justice.

Uncovering the truth is never easy; all manner of obstacles are put in the way. And the propagandists/obstructionists do not give a damn for all the harm that is done.


* Published in print edition on 29 October 2021

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