We've seen the movie and it's a horror! Now, let's read the book and hope it cancels out the movie. Well, if the movie is what Europeans in their millions have been watching and reading on Russia and Daesh-inspired media productions, then the way back to common sense should be the Report on countering propaganda to be debated and voted in the European Parliament this week.
Almost everybody in the Parliament agrees that something must be done to protect people from the escalating, sophisticated wave of propaganda generated by Russia and by Islamic radicals. But what? If we want a no-nonsense answer, we should answer another question first: why do we have a problem? Why is the, sometimes aggressive, sometimes crude, propaganda launched against Europe successful? The answer is not simple and, surely, not pleasant. It requires honesty and self-analysis to a degree not very often seen among Western political leaders.
We should admit it: propaganda is effective because too much of the public agenda is left unexplained.
Widespread mistrust in politics and media
As does any conspiracy theory, Russian and Daesh propaganda lives off the unexplained. Wherever and whenever people are not given an honest, courageous explanation in response to their concerns, there is room for a conspiracy theory. With a conspiracy theory masquerading as news, people get, at last, an answer and, more than this, a theory that explains everything: wars and unemployment, hikes in prices and urban traffic problems. Some will protest, but these are outright lies! Indeed. But we know it very well from our experiences of the totalitarian regimes of the past: in the absence of trust, lying becomes the new truth.
For too many years and elections, Western politicians got used to nondescript discourse, addressed to everybody and nobody in particular.
Unemployment? It is expressed in statistics. You will get a new life as a fast food temp and you will forget that you once were a proud steelworker.
Terrorism as a daily threat? If you could only read more Middle East history!
Are you furious and want a real debate? You might very well qualify as a radical and be asked to shut up.
With this, the space for hostile propaganda is created. People, not all of them, but enough of them, start to doubt “the elites” and seek the "hidden truth”. Russia and radical Islam are, of course, ready to oblige.
Or, look to the recent upset brought about by the US elections. The mainstream media very much discredited itself by openly supporting one candidate and hectoring against the other one. The result: a widespread mistrust in the "official” media and the "official” truth.
Communicating honestly with people
So, how does one counter all this? Surprise, surprise: by telling the truth. Not after the event but before, while things are still in the making. Which means, of course, that politicians should gather the courage to say unpopular things.
The report to be voted in the European Parliament may seem too little, but it's a start. It summarises a disconcerting state of affairs and it proposes practical remedies. It asks for the counter propaganda units in the European External Action Service (EEAS) to be financed properly. It emphasises the EU's duty to support independent media in our Eastern partner states. It encourages media to revert to honest, in-depth reporting.
Of course, you cannot legislate for morality or character. This is the private and public duty of every political leader in Europe.
Times are changing in a dangerous way. All over Europe there is a call, a desperate demand, for honest and truthful politics. It comes from the readers and it is aimed at the leaders. If they start speaking the truth, no propaganda can be too skillful. People will see through the Big Lie. And the book will beat the movie.