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Influence: a scary reminder that you're not immune to propaganda

The long shadow of weaponised communications has manipulated and influenced SA in insidious ways. Firms have engineered public narratives like the rainbow nation, the Guptas and land expropriation
Author: Neo Mosala
Thu, Feb 17, 2022

Most of us can admit that politics is theatre and a carefully crafted spectacle, but this explosive documentary will make you question how much your convictions have been influenced.

Influence tells the story of the weaponised communications industry through tracking the activities of Tim Bell and the now defunct PR firm Bell Pottinger – often in the words of its disgraced co-founder Bell. With his career as a PR mercenary for companies, governments, political parties, and public figures spanning decades and continents, Bell has quite the story to tell.

While he describes himself as amoral, Bell’s public relations work was clearly driven by a cynical, conservative view of how the world should be – ‘might is right’.

The reasoning that those with the most financial and political influence in society know best how to run it, and that in their pursuit of the ‘greater good’ they have the right to manipulate and control the clueless masses, is not morally or politically neutral.

The premise that the powerful need to shepherd the mindless herd allows weaponised communications to work in democracies and dictatorships alike. However, in democracies where brute force can’t be used to absolutely control citizens, even the most oppressed people can shape society through organised labour, protesting and voting, so controlling what people think their interests are becomes especially important.

Edward Bernays the father of PR who developed consent engineering famously described it as “the essence of democracy”, and the way propaganda is used to direct whatever free choices people do have is evident in the South African, Iraq, US and UK cases presented in the documentary.

The documentary also highlights that even though Bell Pottinger was widely criticised for working with the Pinochet and Assad dictatorships, the firm’s dubious activities in and for democratic states grew unfettered for decades.

It would have been easy but dishonest for Influence to depict Bell Pottinger as an anomalous 'PR gone wrong' case study. The wider exploration of the weaponised communications industry’s increasing shadow over our lives, including in recent controversies like the Cambridge Analytica scandal, forces the viewer to question how much they’ve been influenced by well-funded propaganda campaigns they might not even know about yet.

It hits home for me as a South African because it’s unlikely that the Oakbay were the first or the last to target the marginalised majority using weaponised communications.

Bell Pottinger’s covert work for the infamous Gupta family aimed at “fomenting racial tensions in South Africa” using Twitter bots and articles, was the scandal to destroy the infamous firm.

The expose of Bell Pottinger’s activities in South Africa was sobering and featured riveting interviews with former parliamentarian Phumzile van Damme, whose testimony helped in the expulsion of Bell Pottinger from its trade body, and the former National Party leader, South African Deputy president and an early client of Bell, FW de Klerk.

The same PR firm which rebranded the National Party leadership for the 1994 election campaigns and helped manufacture the reconciliation optics needed to sell a multiracial democracy, came back to the country decades later to disrupt the notions of racial harmony. The documentary highlights this irony brilliantly.

It then goes further and brings into question how free and fair the outcomes of the first democratic elections were, with Bell and some South African commentators suggesting the results were also a political settlement.

While watching the documentary, I was once again stunned by how important issues concerning our survival can cycle in and out of relevance like trends or fads. Land was the ‘hot topic’ at the time the documentary was made and now it's out – with politicians like Black First Land First’s Andile Mngxitma seemingly losing relevance along with the cause.

Problems like land injustice, poverty, inequality, and unemployment are ongoing and shape daily reality for most of us, but we are increasingly limited to taking widespread civic action in short lived ineffectual bursts based on what mass media and the political class allow to become national concerns.

So, are we as a society immune to the propaganda? It’s probably not a good sign when virtually any political stance you take or any grassroots movement you join seems to eventually bolster one of the prominent political parties or factions, figureheads, funders, and their various interests.

PHOTO: Daniel Hewett

It’s worrying to consider what we are limited to think about, debate, protest for and organise around is predesigned to fit whatever political objectives the Bells of the world have decided on. It’s worrying that public buy-in can be commodified and sold to the highest bidder.

Understanding the magnitude of this influence and the lengths that powerful people will go to get it should make us far more critical of all the actors vying to shape our worldviews. It should also make us more introspective because the gaps caused by taking for granted how we developed our opinions and ways of reasoning are where weaponised communication can flourish undisrupted.

  • Influence is streaming on Showmax