The Use of Information Technology by Governments
“I Want You For the US Army.”
— WWI recruitment poster.
During his famous senatorial debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, Lincoln asserted that “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed. Consequently, he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions” (Holzer, 2014).
For governments, shaping public sentiment is crucial for political success, including domestic and foreign initiatives. Governmental use of information technology is especially vital when it comes to warfare. There are several examples in history of information technology (be it the printing press, radio, TV, film, or the internet) being employed to persuade citizens during armed conflict.
One specific domestic example concerns Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s use of radio. In the midst of the Great Depression, Roosevelt utilized radio for his Fireside Chat broadcasts to “bring the nation together, to inspire and to cajole. So effective and affecting were his talks that the number of letters written directly to the president reached unprecedented levels” (Rudel, 2008). This was the first time the American people had heard the voice of their president. Roosevelt’s calm demeanor and reassurances during the so-called “fireside chats” were incredibly important because of the economic uncertainty confronting the nation. One correspondent at the time said that people “felt he was there talking to you, not to 50 million others, but to you personally” (Levine & Levine, 2002, p. 18). Using radio, Roosevelt was able to mold public opinion in his favor.
Prior to this example, other technology was utilized for communication efforts. As American patriots were debating their relationship with Great Britain, writer Thomas Paine published Common Sense in January 1776. This pamphlet quickly became a bestseller, with over 120,000 copies sold by April of that year (Keane, 1995, p. 111). Paine’s arguments convinced many wavering Americans to support the patriot cause against Great Britain.
During the American Civil War, newspapers allied with the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party trumpeted the importance of keeping the union intact by fighting secession efforts by Southern states. The conflict would also see a recent technological innovation emerge: photography. Pioneers such as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner took pictures of generals, soldiers, politicians (including several famous photos of Abraham Lincoln), and battlefields. Some of the photographs of Antietam and Gettysburg showed the grisly reality of battle. Yet, not many Northerners saw those images, so they did not disturb the message of the Lincoln administration and its supporters to keep fighting until the South was subdued.
During WW.I, President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI) by executive order. The head of the CPI, George Creel, maintained it was his duty to “sell the war to America” (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2019). This was accomplished by calls for patriotic duty, alongside unabashed efforts to dehumanize the German government and soldiers.
In WWII, the government used posters, radio, and film to mold public opinion concerning efforts in Europe and the Pacific. The film series, Why We Fight, directed by Frank Capra, was one example of this effort. The films were shown to service members, and were eventually viewed by over 54 million Americans in various movie theaters (Rollins, 1996). All of these efforts were to bolster American opinion on the justice of fighting overseas following years of isolationism.
During the Cold War, the government utilized various information technologies to warn Americans of the danger of a new foe, Soviet communism. At the same time, there was a desire by the government to prepare Americans for a potential Soviet atomic attack. There were numerous civil defense films produced (including the famous Burt the Turtle) about what schoolchildren should do in the case of such an attack.
Even though there was no direct combat during the Cold War, there were proxy wars, which would test the government’s use of persuasion, especially in Vietnam. By 1967–1968, the American government lost control of its narrative that U.S. intervention was necessary, partly because of the popularity of television. In 1950, just 9% of American households owned a television. By 1960, 85.9% of American households had one (Thompson, 2019). This now ubiquitous technology would play a role in how some Americans viewed the war in Southeast Asia (the conflict is often called “the first television war”). Marshall McLuhan, the famous scholar of communication technology, stated in 1975 that “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America—not the battlefields of Vietnam” (Axelrod, 2000). The images and photographs from Vietnam counteracted the government’s rosy pronouncements, and they would eventually feed into an emerging antiwar movement in the United States.
Having learned the difficult lessons of Vietnam, the government attempted to sculpt public opinion in a constructive way during the first Gulf War. As two scholars on persuasion techniques point out, “fear of another Vietnam was initially a negative metaphor, but it also set the groundwork for developing a strong propaganda campaign aimed at creating a mood in the American public that those experiences would never be repeated” (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2019). Remembering the issues with the media presence in Vietnam, the government restricted press access in most circumstances, and any press personnel near combat areas were required to be accompanied by military personnel. The military also utilized television to separate the actual battlefield from the American public. The commander in the field, General Schwarzkopf, gave a number of press briefings to the media, often showing video footage of smart bombs from the perspective of pilots, without showing the aftermath of the explosions. The gritty visuals of Vietnam were minimized, demonstrating that the government understood the need to control the narrative with technology, as it had in WWII.
Today, governments around the world continue to utilize information technology to shape public opinion on foreign and domestic matters. Being aware of how technology is used in this way is crucial as you judge what governmental officials tell you.
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