Information and Myth-making

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Joseph Goebbels, Reichsminister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945

It has been said that the ability to perpetuate myths is one of the most powerful cultural catalysts: newspapers, cable T.V, and now the internet all play a crucial role but the most influential factor maybe society’s distant chords of memory, with emphasis on the memory (or in some cases, the lack of). Information and the mediums that support its delivery comprise the pedagogical tools that enable people to acquire and produce new ideas or revamp old ones. But what happens when information is disinformation or misinformation? When that occurs, what becomes of some of our previous premises that arose from such information? Do they continue as dominating cultural beliefs or are they eventually dismissed?

In the 1960’s, under the cauldron of the Cold War the United States and Soviet Union waged relentless asymmetrical warfare. The use of propaganda and disinformation took on paramount importance in this fight. Within the Central Intelligence Agency one source of “unplanned” disinformation was the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)1. The purpose of the FBIS was to monitor radio broadcasting (including CIA fabricated information) around the world from more than a dozen listening posts located in such varied places as Hong Kong, Panama, Nigeria, Cyprus and San Francisco. The FBIS also determined whether pro-western clandestine transmissions were reaching their intended targets. Many of the programs monitored by the FBIS were disseminated within the U.S. government, media, and academia.

The FBIS did not differentiate between sources when it forwarded its reports to subscribers (government agencies, universities, corporations, and the media were the major subscribers to this service), so no one knew if they were getting accurate information or simply disinformation. Even though the editors of the FBIS were members of the CIA’s Intelligence Directorate, the operators in the clandestine services refused to reveal their covert operations (which included the above mentioned covert radio transmissions) to the FBIS, therefore a certain amount of information was simply disinformation (unbeknownst to the FBIS). The CIA’s Clandestine Services department seemed untroubled by this development, showing little if no regard for misleading the media, academia and other CIA analysts, State, and Defense department colleagues as well.

So can we differentiate between “good” information and disinformation, if that’s at all possible? I believe only by systematically studying the sources, context, and provenance of the information can we arrive at an approximate objectivity. In the case of the FBIS, a topological and functional analysis would needed to have been done before the information could have been evaluated for its degree of objectivity. The analysis could have asked the following questions: what function (role) does the FBIS have; how does this function relate and affect other departments within their parent organization; what are the records or information that are created as a result of that internal and external functionality; and what is the temporal and spatial influence of the information (who is using it and for how long)?  In addition to a functional analysis, a documentary analysis could also have been done, (if there were documents to study, see: previous blog post on, How to Study Documents), which could have yielded further positive results.2 By answering or attempting to answer these questions, a higher degree of scrutiny and possibly better understanding of the information could have been acquired.3

So, do we know the extent of damage done by the creation of disinformation by both Cold War protagonists? No and I would venture to guess that most people do not care. This should not be dismissed simply as a cynical remark but one based on the fact that our society is deluged with a constant flow of information. Some good and some not so good but when faced with an abundance of data, people will generally fall back on preconceived notions and myths (such as the popular urban legends of the CIA assassinating JFK or selling drugs in South Central Los Angeles).

“History is the enemy of memory,” cautioned historian Richard White, after researching the archival sources and discovering many of his mother’s stories (which consisted of her childhood memories in Ireland) to be false.4 However, did Richard White prefer the truth or were the stories told to him of greater importance even though they had a layer of hyperbole and myth-making (we could further discuss the ambiguity of truth5 and the influence of story telling in shaping societal constructs)? It is the responsibility of document curators, archivists, librarians and researchers to make sure myths and memories do not replace empirical truth (or at the very least we need to create a level playing field) but we must not lose sight of this dichotomy: people generally prefer a good story, even an embellished one, regardless of its veracity. While “the truth maybe stranger than fiction,” many times it is not as riveting. I began this blog with a quote from Joseph Goebbels and his views on the “truth,” and I will end it with my own observation.  “People may believe a lie if repeated long enough but people tend to get bored with the truth much sooner.”

(Click here to read more on the question of information permanence).

  1. Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks, The CIA and The Cult of Intelligence (New York: Doubleday, 1980).
  2. To read more about documentary analysis, see: Luciana Duranti, Diplomatics: new uses for an old science (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  3. To read more about functional analysis, see: Helen Willa Samuels, Varsity letters: documenting modern colleges and universities (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  4. Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Society of American Archivists, 2009).
  5. William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (New York: Meridian, 1955).
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