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All the President's propaganda

What happens when the tweeter-in-chief controls the US' influential $1.4 billion public communications machine?

It didn't take long for US President-elect Donald Trump to claim his first triumph on the foreign trade front. In a series of Twitter posts on Nov 17, he announced he had successfully lobbied Ford to keep its "Lincoln plant in Kentucky - no Mexico".

As several news outlets subsequently reported, this was not quite true. Ford had never intended to close its plant, only to shift production of one vehicle line to Mexico and to increase production of another in Louisville. No jobs would have been lost.

Such "truthiness" is nothing new for Mr Trump. After all, this is a man who, in the 1980s, pretended to be his own spokesman on phone conversations with reporters. And as we've seen in the weeks since his win, self-laudatory, truth-bending tweets will likely be part of the President's M.O.

And Twitter is just the beginning: Come Jan 20, Mr Trump, with the help of former Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon, will have his hands on the levers of the government's US$1 billion-plus public communications machine. It is a disturbing prospect. Information is one of the United States' greatest and most underappreciated vulnerabilities.

A healthy democracy depends on the provision of government information. Elected leaders cannot be held accountable if citizens don't know their policies and plans, and their progress in implementing them. The government must be transparent about how much it spends, and for what. Beyond this, the ability of the government to collect and analyse accurate data helps the public make informed decisions: Businesses rely on Commerce Department trade statistics to assess foreign markets. The National Weather Service tells us if we need to take an umbrella when we go outdoors.

But democracy is distorted when the government uses our tax dollars to shape our opinions on what it should do and how it is performing. And whatever Mr Trump does with these tools, he won't be the first to manipulate the government's informational power.

As seen in the weeks since Mr Trump's win, truth-bending tweets will likely be part of his modus operandi.
As seen in the weeks since Mr Trump's win, truth-bending tweets will likely be part of his modus operandi. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE- PRESSE

The Labour Department is running a public relations campaign to pressure Congress to increase the minimum wage, which is set by law. "See how raising the national minimum wage will benefit America's workers," the agency's Web page proclaims. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has pointed out that raising the wage would eliminate some jobs; but the Labour Department's Web page labels this a "myth".

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was flagged by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for running a covert propaganda campaign for a controversial environmental rule. And, of course, Mr George W. Bush's administration manipulated intelligence to drum up public support to invade Iraq.

The beginnings of such efforts date from our earliest days. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton generated favourable government reports to promote his pro-industrial policies.

But it wasn't until World War I that the nation saw the beginnings of a systematic, pervasive programme of government propaganda. The Committee on Public Information, which tried to drive support for the war, was headed by President Woodrow Wilson's own Bannon, journalist George Creel, whose approach was emotion-laden and often coercive. "There was no part of the great war machinery that we did not touch," Mr Creel said, "no medium of appeal that we did not employ."

Today, the GAO estimates that the salaries for government public relations employees exceed US$400 million (S$571 million) per year. By our tally, executive agencies spent US$800 million this past year on advertising and public relations contracts. Every federal agency has an Internet presence. The Justice Department has a YouTube channel. The EPA has about two dozen Twitter accounts. President Barack Obama established a White House Office of Digital Communications in 2009.

The lines between salubrious and unwholesome government information are not easy to draw. Should the government, for instance, seek to dissuade people from eating trans-fats? Still, there are some very basic steps that can help curb propaganda.

The first is to get a sense of the volume. We have no good measure of how much information the government generates, who provides it and for whom it is intended. Such data could be added to the items the White House must submit with its Budget request to Congress.

The few laws that exist are inadequate and anachronistic. A 1913 statute, still on the books, sought to thwart propaganda by forbidding the hiring of "publicity experts", a ban that has as much to do with modern communication as cuneiform tablets.

A 1919 anti-lobbying statute bars agencies from whipping up citizens through telegrams but not via the Internet.

These laws do not define "publicity" or "propaganda", or hint at the differences by providing distinguishing criteria (for example, government communications should be written in a tone that doesn't extol the agency or its activities). Updating and expanding these laws would provide an institutional counterweight to propaganda and provide watchdogs with the information to fight it.

Mr Trump's inclination to play fast and loose with the truth, even after being elected, should elevate our concerns about the dangers of largely unchecked governmental power to propagandise citizens. Whether or not one likes Mr Trump as tweeter-in-chief, the potential for abuse is bipartisan. When his time in office is over, the problem of errant government communications will become more dire, thanks to rapid advances in information technology.

Why not start to fix it now?

•John Maxwell Hamilton is a professor at Louisiana State University's Manship School of Mass Communication and a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Kevin R. Kosar is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute and the editor of LegBranch.com. They are the authors of the report Government Information And Propaganda: How To Draw The Line?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2016, with the headline 'All the President's propaganda'. Print Edition | Subscribe