Have Someone Else Say It
One of the differences between liberals and conservatives in the United States is that liberals tend to see politics as a debate over issues and policies, whereas conservatives view politics as "the continuation of war by other means." The recent attacks on John Kerry by the GOP-front "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" is a fine example of this philosophy in action.
There is an old saying that "all's fair in love and war," and this is certainly true of the communications strategies employed by propagandists engaged in war, whether it be actual battlefield combat or political warfare. Consider, for example, the leaflets that airplanes drop on enemy soldiers, telling them that they are fighting in a lost cause and will die unless they surrender. Maybe this is true, maybe not. From the point of the propagandist, the question of whether it is true doesn't really matter. The point is simply to influence the behavior of the enemy soldiers who read the leaflets.
Similarly, there is very little reason to believe that the Swift Boat veterans and their handlers seriously believe the charges that they have recently made against Kerry's conduct as a soldier in Vietnam. Swift Boater George Elliott, author of an affidavit publicly criticizing Kerry's conduct and the merits of his Silver Star, is the same man who, as Kerry's commander, recommended him for a Bronze Star in 1969 and wrote several evaluation reports that praised Kerry as "highly courageous in the face of enemy fire," someone whose "independent, decisive action" was "unsurpassed," and "the acknowledged leader in his peer group. His bearing and appearance are above reproach." Roy Hoffmann, another Swift Boater and harsh Kerry critic, also seems to have conveniently forgotten his praise back in 1969, when he wrote glowingly that Kerry had provided a "shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy."
The Swift Boaters' main grievance against Kerry has nothing to do with his actions in Vietnam, but rather with Kerry's public opposition to the war after he returned to the United States. But even in this regard, the Swift Boat Veterans are fighting a war against the truth, not for it. They resent Kerry for having testified before Congress about war crimes committed in Vietnam by U.S. soldiers, but the historical record is quite clear that war crimes were committed. (Kerry gave his testimony shortly after Lieutenant William Calley's court martial for the My Lai massacre.)
The point to all of these attacks is not, as the Swift Boat Veterans pretend, concern for "the truth." Rather, they are engaged in a propaganda campaign aimed at influencing the behavior of a "target population" – in this case, voters.
The Swift Boat attack on Kerry uses a classic propaganda tactic: have PR professionals organize and launch a well-funded smear attack, an ad hominem barrage against Kerry's integrity, and do it through a front group with enough separation from the Bush campaign to pretend independence. Then use the right-wing echo chamber to keep the issue alive and churning, spitting plenty of mud and confusion. It's a strategy that is virtually guaranteed to hurt Kerry in the polls.
What seems surprising is that the Kerry campaign was so unprepared for this attack, especially since this standard tactic has been used for decades by Bush's political mentor, Karl Rove. According to Dallas Morning News political writer Wayne Slater, "It's amazing how similar this type of attack is to the pattern of attacks I have seen over two decades – in some cases involving Bush's campaigns, in other cases they involved campaigns in which Karl Rove was a participant. In every case, the approach is the same: You have a surrogate group of allies, independent of the Bush campaign, raising questions not about the opponent's weakness but directly about the opponent's strength. In every case, it works."
One example of this strategy occurred in 1994, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas against Ann Richards. The Bush campaign benefited then from a seemingly "independent" whisper campaign criticizing her appointments of gays and lesbians to state positions, thus turning one of her greatest strengths – the inclusiveness of her administration – into a political liability.
During the Republican presidential primary in 2000, other "independent" Bush supporters ferociously attacked John McCain (another Vietnam veteran in the U.S. Senate), questioning McCain's commitment to veterans. Yet another front group, calling itself "Republicans for a Clean Environment," spent $2.5 million (covertly provided by Dallas billionaires Sam and Charles Wyly, investment bankers and friends of Bush) to run TV ads in California, Ohio and New York attacking McCain's environmental politicies. Bush distanced himself personally from the attacks on McCain while letting the "independents" do his dirty work for him – the same stance he has taken recently with respect to the Swift Boat attacks on Kerry.
The attack on Kerry is merely the latest incarnation of this standing Bush strategy. The Swift Boat Veterans even use some of the same personnel: people like Merrie Spaeth of Spaeth Communications, a public relations professional with deep Republican ties who served as the spokeswoman for "Republicans for a Clean Environment"; Benjamin Ginsberg, an attorney who represented the Bush campaign during the 2000 Florida recount debacle and was also counsel for the Bush 2004 re-election campaign; and Chris LaCivita of the DCI Group, a Republican lobbying firm with ties to Karl Rove.
The "third party technique" is a standard PR tactic, and is at the heart of the Bush campaign's successes. As one PR pro describes it, the technique is fairly simple: "Put your message in someone else's mouth" – the mouth of someone the public will believe, or at least who will be believed sufficiently to influence the opinions of your "target audience."
We examined the third party technique at length in our 2001 book, "Trust Us, We're Experts!" The technique offers several advantages for the propagandists out there:
It helps hide the vested interest that lurks behind a message. If George W. Bush were to come out himself and attack Kerry's battle record in Vietnam, the message would be quickly dismissed, and in fact would backfire in light of Bush's inability to prove that he even showed up for National Guard duty back when Kerry was patrolling the Mekong Delta. By putting the attack in the mouths of Vietnam veterans, the Bush campaign has given its message a degree of credibility that it would not otherwise enjoy.
Emotions Over Facts:
It replaces factual discourse with emotion-laden symbolism. Sometimes the identity of the third-party messenger becomes more important than the content of the message itself. The Swift Boat Veterans are designed to symbolize "veterans versus Kerry," evoking associations and emotions that are difficult to address through logic or debate. For the Bush campaign, evoking these emotions provides a welcome distraction from rational discussions about policies on health, the environment, the economy or foreign policy.
None of these attacks would work, of course, if the news media did their job and provided careful fact-checking to help separate fact from fiction. Professional journalists are supposed to act as information filters as well as information providers, but their ability to do this has been undermined by the 24-hour news cycle and the orchestrated propaganda campaigns of the right-wing echo chamber – the combined voices of websites such as the Drudge Report, right-wing talk radio and Fox News – which work in concert to push Republican talking points into the mainstream media.
What's needed, therefore, is some new way of filtering the news by exposing the propagandists behind the scenes who manipulate the news. If traditional media aren't doing their job, perhaps the Internet can help the public do it ourselves.
A year ago we launched a new website to help track front groups. We call it the "Disinfopedia." Among other things, it is an experiment in citizen journalism, using web-based "wiki" technology that invites visitors to not just read the information they find there, but to also edit and add to it. Our online editor, Bob Burton, helps us root out vandal attacks and misinformation, as does a growing community of online journalists who use the Disinfopedia.
John Kerry was slow to respond to what he eventually branded a "front group" for Bush, but the Disinfopedia wasn't. By the time "Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth" started to make front-page headlines with their dishonest attacks on Kerry, Disinfopedia contributors had compiled an impressively detailed article about the group.
We like to think that the Disinfopedia is one reason why, unlike cable TV, the print reporting on this topic has been relatively good. Journalists who start with a Google search for "Swift Boat Veterans" will see the Disinfopedia link at the top and have the opportunity to avail themselves of the research on that page.
When the Swift Boat Veterans story exploded in August, we thought it was interesting to see how the right wing responded to the Disinfopedia. Since anyone can contribute, conservatives attempted to edit the article along with everyone else. Rather than fact-checking or adding new facts, however, most of their contributions consisted of trivial attempts at vandalism, such as deleting facts that they found embarrassing or even deleting the entire article and replacing it with profanity, insults or invitations to worship Jesus.
These vandalisms are easy to fix, since the Disinfopedia keeps a history of each editorial revision. What the experience demonstrated, though, is that when a forum like the Disinfopedia requires contributors to present evidence and logic in support of their political positions, right-wing attackers are left helpless. They have become very good at waging political war, but they've forgotten how to engage in civil discourse. There will always be propaganda and deception, but Disinfopedia is proving a powerful tool for getting to the truth.