By Nicholas Rabb
Note: This article was originally posted to Common Dreams. The original posting can be found here.
As catastrophic violence continues in Palestine, with the Israeli offensive pushing the death toll over 9,000 Palestinians killed (most of whom are civilians, including 3,600 children), the horrors do not seem to have an end in sight. Attempts at using diplomatic pressure to abate the assault have failed, in most part due to refusal by Western nations, including the U.S., to pressure Israel.
The U.S. and Israel are securing their populations’ support for Israel’s bombardment through calculating rhetoric and supportive media systems. They are manufacturing the consent for violence by utilizing typical propaganda techniques of warring and genocidal states. Many of these techniques, tried and true at manipulating the human psyche, may seem invisible unless explicitly called out.
As a scholar of disinformation and propaganda, I believe it is imperative to reveal these manipulations and their capacity to undermine critical, reasonable discourse. The U.S. has tremendous power to stop the conflict, as it is a key enabler (and could-be detractor) of Israel. But so far, its rhetoric and action is strongly in line with Israel’s desire to continue its bombardment.
In- and Out-Group Construction
Key to justifying violence and war is the formation of clear in- and out-groups in the minds of the governed. This lesson is a century old, expressed by media scholar Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War. He writes, “So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations that every war must appear to be a war of defence against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about whom the public is to hate…”
This rhetoric is constant in U.S. and Israeli state media. In a speech alongside British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made these group distinctions clear, claiming that “Hamas are the new Nazis, the new ISIS, and we have to fight them together.” He continued to argue that this is a “battle of the entire civilized world” against “an axis of evil, led by Iran.”
U.S. mainstream media has followed suit, with right-wing media having stoked fears against a “day of jihad” and “increasingly large numbers of people on the terrorist watch list [who] are slipping past our southern border.” Liberal media has also drawn distinctions, as MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” warned of “an axis of anti-American forces… that want to recreate the world in their own tyrannical image.” Rachel Maddow’s co-host Nicole Wallace shared a polemic defining the “we” in this conflict in the aftermath of the destruction of Gaza City’s Al-Ahli Arab Hospital.
“The ‘we’ isn’t everybody, right?” said Wallace. “It doesn’t include the Hamas terrorists… they’re not part of the ‘we’… the ‘we’ isn’t the people who have the innocent hostages… the ‘we’ is the rest of us. The ‘we’ isn’t the people protesting without accurate information. The ‘we’ is the victims of the terror attack and the United States at this point.”
This stark division creates a psychological barrier towards empathy in the minds of those who agree with it. Removing empathy from an entire group of people is a dangerous game to play: group psychology scholar Mina Cikara has shown that otherwise immoral behavior can be viewed as justified as long as it is against an out-group.
Dehumanizing the Out-Group
Once in-groups and out-groups have been established, it is then typical of propaganda justifying violence to remove any moral ambiguity or nuance from the character and actions of the out-group. Again, Lasswell writes that “if the propagandist is to mobilize the hate of the people, he must see to it that everything is circulated which establishes the sole responsibility of the enemy.” The lack of nuance is crucial, and a media system that erases any nuance is playing with fire.
Another scholar of propaganda, Jason Stanley, makes clear the consequences of removing the humanity of the out-group in political rhetoric. In his 2018 book titled How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, he writes that “genocides and campaigns of ethnic cleansing” are regularly preceded by creating stark divisions between “us” and “them,” manufacturing a “mythical past” for the aggressor state where they have never done wrong, and constructing an “unreality” that creates a hierarchy of “safe” and “dangerous” people.
Exemplifying Stanley’s warnings, official Israeli and U.S. statements have pushed for this hierarchy of good and evil, safe and dangerous. In a now infamous speech, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called Palestinians who attacked Israel “human animals.” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the wake of the Gaza City hospital destruction, tweeted, “This is a struggle between the children of light and the children of darkness, between humanity and the law of the jungle” – only to soon after delete the tweet. During his October 20th address to the nation, U.S. President Joe Biden claimed that “Hamas unleashed pure, unadulterated evil in the world… there is no limit to the depravity of people when they want to inflict pain on others.”
The destruction of the Gaza City hospital perfectly exemplifies Lasswell’s recommendation to constantly establish the “sole responsibility of the enemy.” President Biden’s initial remarks claimed it was done by “the other team,” and media outlets like MSNBC and CNN followed suit, with Rachel Maddow disparaging anyone who claimed Israel may have been involved, and CNNciting only U.S. and IDF reports of the attack. Now, analysis from the New York Times is casting doubt on the IDF and U.S. conclusion, but days after mass circulation of officials claiming it was Hamas’ own missile.
This rhetoric and its incessant one-sided nature is laying the groundwork for the uncritical demonization of Palestinians, a necessary prerequisite for dramatic violence against them.
Removal of Context and Inconvenient History
Scholars of propaganda have also identified the role of removing historical blemishes from the national identity as a precursor to ethnic violence and war. Lasswell wrote that “when the public believes that the enemy began the War and blocks a permanent, profitable and godly peace, the propagandist has achieved his purpose.”
Stanley details far-right, ultranationalist politics that construct a “mythic past,” erasing any trace of darkness in the history of a regime. The mythic past is being actively constructed, as the Israeli government claims self-defense, and attempts to ban Al Jazeera from reporting in Israel, suspends parliamentary members critical of the assault, and arrests citizens speaking out; and U.S. organizations are canceling speaking events for speakers critical of Israel.
Pinning the originators of violence on a group without acknowledging its history is also something that the U.S. and Israel are keen to do. During its own campaign in Afghanistan, U.S. media often uncritically condemned Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, invoking “terrorist” as a catch-all to identify those who began the war. But the U.S. had a complicated history with radical groups in Afghanistan, as it had funded them during the Cold War as a means of countering the Soviet Union.
U.S. official statements on Israel and Hamas bear the same lack of historical context, blithely condemning Hamas as terrorists with no explanation of their origin. President Biden reduced Hamas to a one-dimensional evil, defining them in his speech as “existing [for] the destruction of the State of Israel and the murder of Jewish people.”
Israel’s relationship with Hamas has striking similarities to the U.S. case, as they funded the group’s rise as a means of countering the popular Palestinian Liberation Organization. Official Israeli government statements about Hamas during this conflict have no such nuance. Nor do reports of the conflict include any acknowledgement of the decades-long violence inflicted on Palestinians due to Israeli colonization and apartheid rule.
The Need for Critical Analysis, Empathy, and Context
At this time of heightened conflict and massive acts of violence being continued by the Israeli state, citizens of allied nations, particularly the U.S., bear the responsibility of grappling with the legitimacy of national actions that continue or halt suffering. The U.S. has considerable influence over the actions of Israel, and thus far has been choosing to prolong suffering. However, the population does have some degree of control over the actions of the state, through withdrawing participation in its crucial institutions; if only the population can be unified enough to act, and not fight among itself.
The reporting from mainstream outlets and state officials in the U.S. and Israel is deplorable. Using the typical manipulation tactics used to convince populations to go to war or commit ethnic cleansing and genocide is no small offense. As these outlets continue to enable unimaginable destruction in Palestine, these reporters and speakers bear responsibility for the unspeakable crimes being committed.
In light of U.S. and Israeli media propaganda tactics, there is an increased need for critical analysis and counternarratives that move towards ending the suffering. Identifying propaganda tactics is the first step. But then, empathy, context, and a curious desire for true understanding are paramount. We must not fall prey to psychological manipulations typical of states justifying profound violence. Otherwise, we may look back and wonder, as we do of past genocidal regimes, how large swaths of the population gave their consent for such horrors.
Nicholas Rabb is a Massachusetts Peace Action board member and a PhD Candidate at Tufts University studying the dynamics and spread of disinformation.