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The propaganda multiplier - how global news agencies and Western media report on geopolitics

This study by Swiss Propaganda Research was first published in 2016, it is presented by off-guardian.org in English for the first time. Translated by Terje Maloy.

It is one of the most important aspects of our media system – and yet hardly known to the public: most of the international news coverage in Western media is provided by only three global news agencies based in New York, London and Paris.

The key role played by these agencies means that Western media often report on the same topics, even using the same wording. In addition, governments, military and intelligence services use these global news agencies as multipliers to spread their messages around the world.

A study of the Syria war coverage by nine leading European newspapers clearly illustrates these issues: 78% of all articles were based in whole or in part on agency reports, yet 0% on investigative research. Moreover, 82% of all opinion pieces and interviews were in favor of the US and NATO intervention, while propaganda was attributed exclusively to the opposite side.

Part 6 - “Adding questionable stories“

While some topics do not appear at all in our media, other topics are very prominent – even though they shouldn’t actually be:

Often the mass media do not report on reality, but on a constructed or staged reality. () Several studies have shown that the mass media are predominantly determined by PR activities and that passive, receptive attitudes outweigh active-researching ones.

In fact, due to the rather low journalistic performance of our media and their high dependence on a few news agencies, it is easy for interested parties to spread propaganda and disinformation in a supposedly respectable format to a worldwide audience. DPA editor Steffens warned of this danger:

The critical sense gets more lulled the more respected the news agency or newspaper is. Someone who wants to introduce a questionable story into the world press only needs to try to put his story in a reasonably reputable agency, to be sure that it then appears a little later in the others. Sometimes it happens that a hoax passes from agency to agency and becomes ever more credible.

Among the most active actors in “injecting” questionable geopolitical news are the military and defense ministries. For example, in 2009, the head of the American news agency AP, Tom Curley, made public that the Pentagon employs more than 27,000 PR specialists who, with a budget of nearly $5 billion a year, are working the media and circulating targeted manipulations. In addition, high-ranking US generals had threatened that they would “ruin” the AP and him if the journalists reported too critically on the US military.

Despite – or because of? – such threats our media regularly publish dubious stories sourced to some unnamed “informants” from “US defense circles”.

Ulrich Tilgner, a veteran Middle East correspondent for German and Swiss television, warned in 2003, shortly after the Iraq war, of acts of deception by the military and the role played by the media:

With the help of the media, the military determine the public perception and use it for their plans. They manage to stir expectations and spread scenarios and deceptions. In this new kind of war, the PR strategists of the US administration fulfill a similar function as the bomber pilots. The special departments for public relations in the Pentagon and in the secret services have become combatants in the information war….The US military specifically uses the lack of transparency in media coverage for their deception maneuvers. The way they spread information, which is then picked up and distributed by newspapers and broadcasters, makes it impossible for readers, listeners or viewers to trace the original source. Thus, the audience will fail to recognize the actual intention of the military.

What is known to the US military, would not be foreign to US intelligence services. In a remarkable report by British Channel 4, former CIA officials and a Reuters correspondent spoke candidly about the systematic dissemination of propaganda and misinformation in reporting on geopolitical conflicts:

Former CIA officer and whistleblower John Stockwell said of his work in the Angolan war, “The basic theme was to make it look like an [enemy] aggression in Angola. So any kind of story that you could write and get into the media anywhere in the world, that pushed that line, we did. One third of my staff in this task force were covert action, were propagandists, whose professional career job was to make up stories and finding ways of getting them into the press….The editors in most Western newspapers are not too skeptical of messages that conform to general views and prejudices….So we came up with another story, and it was kept going for weeks…[But] it was all fiction.”

Fred Bridgland looked back on his work as a war correspondent for the Reuters agency:

We based our reports on official communications. It was not until years later that I learned a little CIA disinformation expert had sat in the US embassy, in Lusaka and composed that communiqué, and it bore no relation at all to truth…Basically, and to put it very crudely, you can publish any old crap and it will get newspaper room.”

And former CIA analyst David MacMichael described his work in the Contra War in Nicaragua with these words: “They said our intelligence of Nicaragua was so good that we could even register when someone flushed a toilet. But I had the feeling that the stories we were giving to the press came straight out of the toilet.”

Of course, the intelligence services also have a large number of direct contacts in our media, which can be “leaked” information to if necessary. But without the central role of the global news agencies, the worldwide synchronization of propaganda and disinformation would never be so efficient.

Through this “propaganda multiplier”, dubious stories from PR experts working for governments, military and intelligence services reach the general public more or less unchecked and unfiltered. The journalists refer to the news agencies and the news agencies refer to their sources. Although they often attempt to point out uncertainties with terms such as “apparent”, “alleged” and the like – by then the rumor has long been spread to the world and its effect taken place.

Further info, references, sources:


[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

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