The art of psychological warfare

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STEMBILE MPOFU

The end of last week saw the Zimbabwean Foreign Minister, Sibusiso Moyo and the Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Information Nick Mangwana being assaulted by MDC supporters demonstrating outside Chatham House in the United Kingdom.

The reaction from Zimbabweans was mixed. Some felt that the demonstrators’ actions were unwarranted and embarrassed the country while others felt that these actions were a valid expression of the anger that Zimbabweans are feeling at the state of their nation and the actions that the Zanu PF Government had taken against opposition actors like Job Sikhala.

The next day Sibusiso Moyo commented on this incident saying that every one had a right to peaceful protest but that people must learn to define the difference between political contestation and national interest. The import of this statement being that his delegation was in the UK on national business and not on Zanu PF business.

He was saying that people should be able to keep political contestation outside the realm of national business. The question this raised was why it is difficult for us as Zimbabweans to distinguish between the national and political space. In fact it is a problem that is apparent across the African continent. Yet when you look at western societies the majority are able to make this distinction with little or no effort. There is a deep sense of identity and pride that remains within citizens whether there is a democrat or republican in the White House, whether there is a king or queen on the British throne or whether the French government is destabilizing one or other African economy.

This sense of identity and national pride is deeply lacking amongst us as Zimbabweans and in Africans as a whole. I noticed this during my time in Liberia where I heard both Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and George Weah as Presidents of Liberia being subjected to the worst insults by panelists on Radio talk shows and citizens on call in programmes. Recently a story was circulated about Stella Nyanzi a Ugandan academic being jailed for having written a poem about President Museveni’s mother’s private parts in the vilest manner any person could imagine. There is no respect for the office that an individual holds and that lack of respect flows through to every aspect of who we are as Africans. We find it easier to say and believe negative things about our countries and ourselves than it is for us to identify with positive information. With the advent of social media we create and consume false stories on a daily basis and take great pride in circulating them.

In trying to understand this phenomenon I decided to do a little research on psychology because I had identified this as a psychological issue. In understanding the strong nationalist sentiment that resides in the West I was fortunate to come across some Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) declassified documents that outline the thinking around the formation of their psychological warfare department. During the Second World War the CIA formalized the department of Psychological warfare not only to enhance their military efforts but also to fight the ideological war that was the Cold War. Setting up the psychological warfare department was the formalization of tactics that had long been in use and perfected through colonisation. We may venture to say that this was the honing of the psychological warfare apparatus for the new age.

As we all know after the Second World War the world entered the Cold War era. This was now an ideological war and it was necessary to win the hearts and minds of the global citizenry. It was imperative that the Western governments of the day convince their citizens that capitalism was better than communism. To achieve this Western governments like the US government carried out an internal propaganda campaign that demonized communism and promoted the capitalist system. The campaign instilled a strong sense of nationalism that has the majority of Americans believing that the USA is the greatest country on earth. This was instilled through the education system, through the media and pop culture. This message has and is continuously relayed by the positive images and information that Americans receive about themselves, their culture, their way of life and their country. This information is not framed within a political context. It is separate from political actors and celebrates the various aspects of who they are, their food, landscapes, literature, music, history etc. Americans know that their country is the greatest country on earth because that is the image they see reflected of themselves wherever they look. In fact the average American knows very little about the world beyond America and what they know will rarely show the other place as being better than their own country. The information Americans receive about themselves contains more positive feed back than negative feedback.

Meanwhile the Zimbabwean and African story is very different. Africans have been receiving negative messages about themselves from the time of colonialism. Psychological warfare was in fact the foremost weapon in the subjugation of African people. As outlined in the CIA documents one of the main aims of psychological warfare is to undermine the enemy’s capacity to resist through demoralization. The documents outline how this is done through inducing several psychological states. After assessing the morale of a people and identifying their vulnerabilities various methods are used to exploit those vulnerabilities. These methods work to create a state of hopelessness and defeatism. False or misleading information, incidents and events are engineered to induce distrust of ones culture, ideas, cause, issues, systems and leaders. They are also used to create a deep sense of insecurity from which the enemy will offer to provide a solution. During the Second World War the Americans intercepted letters written by Japanese people to their family and friends living in the US. After reading them they then mapped the psychological state of the Japanese people. They identified aspects of their lives isolating things that made the Japanese happy, which music, art and literature they responded to as a people, what incidents and events made them feel secure or insecure, which aspects of their culture were intrinsic to their sense of identity. From this information the CIA were able to design and implement psychological warfare on their enemies.

Understanding the art of this type of warfare will make one realise that Africans are still experiencing this onslaught. There are few positive images that emerge about Africa and Africans. The education system sends out this message overtly and subliminally. It tells Africans that historically they have not contributed anything of value to the to the world and have nothing of value to contribute to the world now. Any statistic that is highlighting something negative will have African countries in the lead and statistics highlighting something positive will show the same African countries trailing at the bottom of the list. We consume this information and have been taught not to question it and believe it to be a true reflection of who we are. The effect of this is that we feel hopeless and defeated. At a global level we become sitting ducks and easy prey for exploitation by any country because psychologically we are defeated. The effect at our own local level is very evident in our behaviour. It is in our eagerness to create, disseminate and consume negative information about ourselves and then act it out as we saw at Chatham House last week.

In the last two weeks alone the number of false stories manufactured and circulated about the aviation industry were astounding. There was a story alleging that there was no electricity at Robert Mugabe International Airport, this was after someone took a picture during a one-minute power switch over from ZESA to generator. A fire hydrant malfunctioned and flooded the floor at Arrivals section and a video was circulated saying the airport was flooded with sewage. An old story about a Fast Jet plane failing to land in Bulawayo after a runway light malfunction was recycled as new and circulated. To add to the heap of stories a well-known journalist Hopewell Chin’ono took a short video of an empty airport tarmac and suggested that there was very little air traffic coming into Zimbabwe because the situation in Zimbabwe was dire, an assertion that was false.

Where news is positive it is given a negative twist to ensure that the feeling of hopelessness continues. Journalists like Hopewell Chin’ono spun the news that Zimbabwe’s trade deficit has been reduced by more than half from 1.34 billion at this time last year to 400 million in May 2019 into a negative story. With such an unrelenting barrage of negativity, is it surprising that we feel justified in using violence to express ourselves. We indulge in behaviour that culturally would be taboo. In the public space we abandon all the learnt behaviours that we practice within our private spaces and say and do things that would result in ostracisation if we were to look at them through the cultural lens.

In order to counter this onslaught we must first of all be able to identify when information is intended to have a negative effect on our national psyche. Identify the sources of that type of information, whether they are individuals, freelance journalists, media publications or organisations. If you find that the information you are reading from a particular source leaves you with a sense of hopelessness and powerlessness do not continue to consume it. Have the ability to pick out the facts from speculative information and the opinions of the writer that influence how you look at the facts. Interrogate all statistics that are presented to you and ask yourself if the information you are receiving matches your lived reality. Most importantly our African purveyors of information like our information ministries, writers, artists must launch a spirited defence to counter this psychological onslaught. We must begin to tell more positive stories about ourselves as Zimbabweans and Africans. The reality is that there are many positive aspects of our lives that we don’t see reflected back at us. It is time to see ourselves as we truly are rather than what we are told we are. In seeing ourselves in a positive light we will have the ability to deal with our challenges in a more constructive manner ensuring that we build ourselves and our countries.