“The Gulf War Did Not Take Place”. This audacious claim was made by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in March 1991, only two months after NATO forces had rained explosives on Iraq, shedding the blood of more than a hundred thousand people.
To understand Cambridge Analytica and its parent firm, Strategic Communication Laboratories, we need to get our heads round what Baudrillard meant, and what has happened since: how military propaganda has changed with technology, how war has been privatised, and how imperialism is coming home. …
Not long after Baudrillard’s iconic essay was published, Strategic Communications Laboratories was founded. “SCL Group provides data, analytics and strategy to governments and military organisations worldwide” reads the first line of its website. “For over 25 years, we have conducted behavioural change programmes in over 60 countries & have been formally recognised for our work in defence and social change.”
Of course, military propaganda was nothing new. And nor is the extent to which it has evolved alongside changes in media technology and economics. The film Citizen Kane tells a fictionalised version of the first tabloid (or, as Americans call it, ‘yellow journalism’) war: how the circulation battle between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World arguably drove the US into the 1889 Spanish American War. It was during this affair that Hearst reportedly told his correspondent, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”, as parodied in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. But after the propaganda disaster of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam softened domestic support for the war, the military planners began to devise new ways to control media reporting.
As a result, when Britain went to war with Argentina over the Falklands in 1982, they pioneered a new technique for media control: embedding journalists with troops. And, as former BBC war reporter Caroline Wyatt blogged, “The lessons from embedding journalists with the Royal Navy during the Falklands war were taken up enthusiastically by military planners in both Washington and London for the First Gulf War in 1991.”