Have you noticed some suspicious programs on TV or the radio lately?
A new U.S. law went into effect with little fanfare last month, which quietly rescinded a decades-old ban that prevented Americans from being subjected to propaganda created by their own government. This means that thousands of hours a week of government-funded radio and TV programming originally created for a foreign audience now may be broadcast to U.S. citizens, a result which some have criticized as a new and uncomfortable foray into the dissemination of domestic propaganda.
Supporters point out that the ban’s reversal applies only to State Department-funded – and not Pentagon – stories. Newly available programming includes propaganda films and radio shows from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Lynne Weil, spokeswoman for the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which produces this content, told Foreign Policy magazine that this is a “win-win” for Americans because they now “will be able to know more about what they are paying for with their tax dollars.”
Whether you view this development as a victory for greater transparency or the first step in a slippery slope toward more propaganda on U.S. television and radio, it got us thinking about all the international propaganda from the past few years that we might have blithely overlooked. So the editors of The I Files investigative news channel have compiled a top 10 list, sampling some of the worst and most unintentionally entertaining propaganda videos from around the world.
We’ve added our commentary below – but don’t take our word for it. Watch for yourselves, then tweet us @ifiles with your thoughts.
And you can subscribe to The I Files for more insightful curation of the best investigative videos from across the Web and around the world. It’s free, and we won’t try to spin you – promise.
1. “RUSSIA WITHOUT PUTIN” – YOU'RE WELCOME
Starvation, ethnic clashes, civil war, wild dogs roaming the streets. Apparently, these are just a few of the calamities that would befall Russia if not for the continued leadership of Vladimir Putin.
Shortly before the presidential election last year, Putin’s supporters released a video positing what the country would look like if the opposition’s slogan of “Russia Without Putin” became a reality.
The video was a submission in an online contest, though some claim that videos like this one can be traced directly to government-funded organizations. The piece debuted on YouTube and later played on a pro-Kremlin TV station a few days before the election. We’ve translated it into English for the first time.
What’s most impressive about this video is the specificity of the doomsday scenario, with a month-to-month future accounting of just how the Putin-less apocalypse will go down. (May: The Russian nuclear arsenal is put under American control. November: Skinheads win the Russian elections.) The piece plays on fears that Russians will be forced to return to the indignities and suffering of their past: runaway inflation, ethnic turmoil, food shortages.
Putin, of course, was re-elected overwhelmingly. So, no apocalypse.
But last month, thousands of Russians marched through Moscow demanding the release of imprisoned activists and once again calling for a Russia without Putin. So at least some segment of the Russian population appears to believe that a post-Putin Russia might not result in a nightmarish future filled with wild dogs and mass hysteria.
2. WE ARE THE (DELUSIONAL AND PLAGIARIZING) WORLD
Crazy North Korean propaganda videos are almost a cottage industry. Recent noteworthy examples that have premiered on the state-sponsored YouTube channel include a screed featuring President Barack Obama engulfed in flames, citizens wading into waist-high water to hysterically cheer their leader and a precise (if slightly geographically incorrect) animation tracking the proposed trajectory of a North Korean nuclear attack.
Faced with this bonanza of over-the-top propaganda videos, it’s hard to single out just one, but an offering from earlier this year caught our eye – a video noteworthy for its unprecedented juxtaposition of a nuclear holocaust with an all-too-familiar celebrity charity soundtrack.
A North Korean man falls asleep and is lulled into dreamland with visions of flying spacecraft and the obliteration of Manhattan set to the dulcet strains of “We Are the World.” “In America, I can see black smoke,” a caption on screen reads, according to a translation by NK News. “It seems like the devil’s nest that habitually caused wars of invasion and persistence are finally burning under the flames it itself has ignited.”
The video later was removed from North Korea’s official YouTube channel after a video game company submitted a copyright complaint, charging that the scenes of New York’s destruction were lifted from “Call of Duty.”
While it is believed that North Korea lacks the ability to launch a rocket capable of hitting an American city, let alone New York, it seems as though the creator of this video was hoping that viewers in the West might not sleep quite so soundly after watching this North Korean vision of annihilation.
3. THE GUARDIANS OF YOUR INFORMATION
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry stepped up its propaganda soft war last fall, launching a glossy new website to solicit tips and anti-American diatribes. Vigilant citizens can peruse sections like “America from a Different Perspective,” which derides the massive increases in the U.S. prison population, school shootings and obesity.
The ministry has a history of spinning out a variety of Iran-centric stories, with mixed results. Remember the monkey that might or might not have survived a journey into space? Or the state-of-the-art, radar-evading fighter jet that turned out to be far less impressive after someone noticed a human pilot could not really fit inside?
This particular video from a few years ago imagines a (strangely animated) meeting between John McCain, George Soros and Gene Sharp (founder of an organization dedicated to the study of nonviolent action) as they plot to infiltrate Iran with insidious “culture building” propaganda because the U.S. “military presence no longer has the impact it used to have.” When one of their Iranian minions gets instructions via satellite TV to carry out the nefarious American plans, his plot is foiled by a family member (his sister? wife?) who turns him in to the Iranian intelligence agency.
The video impressively manages to indict authors, intellectuals, NGOs, satellite television, Western powers and men with long hair in one fell swoop while at the same time glorifying the act of informing on one’s own family members. The Iranian secret service is surprisingly understanding and lenient with the would-be traitor because he is a first-time offender who ultimately helps their investigation. The story ends with the family being notified that the wayward son will return shortly from prison, a moment for which many Iranians in real life are no doubt still waiting.
4. IGNORANT OR EVIL?
Those of a certain political stripe might find Curtis Bowers’ 2010 documentary, “Agenda: Grinding America Down,” to be a “fascinating look at the people and groups that have successfully targeted America’s morality and freedom,” as the movie is described on its Facebook page.
But politics aside, the film fails to pass the Nazi sniff test – that is, any documentary that references Nazis but isn’t actually about the historical German fascists is almost by definition propaganda.
The movie’s trailer stakes out the thesis that cultural changes since the 1960s are part of an elaborate plot to spread stupidity, obscenity, atheism and government dependence. Things soon take a no-return detour into crazy town as the film asks: “Why would the left still be pushing their socialist agenda on us?” There are only two possibilities, the narrator says: “They’re either ignorant or they’re evil.” You can guess on which side of the equation the film comes down. Cue the black-and-white footage of the goose-stepping soldiers because, of course, nothing says socialism like a Nazi.
Those who are interested can visit the film’s website, where you can purchase posters and T-shirts with an elaborate flow chart tracing the connections between Karl Marx, the anti-war movement, the “radical homosexual agenda,” multiculturalism and Obama.
5. IT TAKES TWO
The Israel Defense Forces have taken to Twitter, YouTube and Facebook recently to promulgate shows of force like the air strike against Ahmed Jabari, a senior Hamas operative. With nearly 5 million views to date, the video is propaganda in blunt and brutal form.
This short music video, produced by an organization that trains college students to be activists for Israel, puts forth its message in a musical. It’s a softer style of propaganda, to be sure, but still decidedly unsubtle. Created last year for Israel Peace Week, which bills itself as a grassroots initiative to counter anti-Israeli propaganda with a simple, positive message, this animated music video purports to show “the real obstacle to peace in the Middle East.”
A Monty Pythonesque version of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sings forlornly of his desire for peace while an array of Arab and Iranian leaders throw knives and flaming rockets at him, calling for Israel’s demise.
“Why do your children hate us?” Netanyahu warbles as Syrian President Bashar Assad holds a book titled, “Jihad for Dummies,” and various leaders dance and crow about how the U.N. is in their pocket. It ends with Netanyahu alone on stage, plaintively singing that he’s still waiting for a partner with whom he can make peace.
Perhaps the one thing that both sides might be able to agree on is the title of the piece, that truly “it takes two” to tango and two to get anywhere in the peace process.
6. NEVER STAR ON THIS SHOW IF YOU'RE A CUTE, FURRY CREATURE
Imagine Mickey Mouse being brutally interrogated and then beaten to death. That was the fate of Farfour, a Palestinian version of Mickey who appeared on “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” a children’s show on the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa channel.
The show featured the loveable mouse and a young co-host performing skits and taking calls from viewers. Critics charged that it stoked anti-Israeli sentiment. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti announced that the show would be pulled off the air, saying, “You cannot do political propaganda with children.” However, the station refused, and the shows continued.
In the final episode, Farfour is arrested by Israeli security, interrogated and, as the show’s young co-host later explains, “martyred.”
In subsequent episodes, Farfour was replaced by Nahoul the bee, who died after he was unable to get to Egypt for medical treatment, and then by Assoud the rabbit, who died in a Gaza hospital after being injured in an Israeli attack.
Earlier this year, the final Farfour episode appeared as one of the “top seven clips from the past seven years of Hamas’ Al-Aqsa TV” on the official blog for the Israel Defense Forces, confirming that a martyred mouse turned out to be a tone-deaf propaganda blunder for the Palestinians.
7. WATCH THIS PROPAGANDA EPIC, OR YOU'LL NEVER SEE HARRY POTTER AGAIN
To mark the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2011, a state-run production company released what is arguably the most expensive propaganda film ever made. “Beginning of the Great Revival” chronicles the founding of the Communist Party and the inception of the Chinese revolution. With a cast boasting hundreds of well-known figures, including movie star Chow Yun-Fat and director John Woo, Chinese authorities supposedly set a box office goal of $125 million.
But when ticket sales proved to be less than vigorous, officials reportedly blocked access to foreign summer blockbusters like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and the final installment of the Harry Potter series until the propaganda box office projections were reached. To help boost the tally, state-run businesses were required to buy tickets for their employees, and in some cinemas, tickets were printed with the title “Beginning of the Great Revival,” even though movie-goers were attending other movies. The Chinese Ministry of Truth – a title straight out of George Orwell’s “1984” – also barred media outlets from publishing negative opinions of the film.
This directive didn’t stop frustrated cinema-goers from expressing their contempt online, as many pointed to the irony of a film about the overthrow of a dictatorship being trumpeted by an authoritarian government with a strict one-party system.
The movie has a rating of 2.6 out of 10 on imdb.com, perhaps from all those disgruntled Harry Potter fans who were forced to sit through it.
8. SPIES ARE YOU
A man walks into a café accompanied by strains of ominous music and a deep-voiced narrator.
“From the beginning, he knows his mission and target,” warns the disembodied voice. “He will sneak into your heart, as if you were old friends.”
The man joins a group of friendly strangers, who don’t seem to notice his shifty eyes or his propensity to note every word they say on his cellphone.
This public service announcement, which aired on Egyptian television last year, warns Egyptians not to open up or complain to foreigners, for fear that they are spies looking to harm the country.
“Every word comes with a price!” the narrator warns. “A word can save a nation.”
The video was mocked widely in Egypt for its unintentional humor, xenophobia and the fact that the things Egyptians are heard complaining about – gas prices and transportation difficulties – are hardly state secrets. Others worried that the ad signaled a more serious threat to foreigners and journalists, especially in the wake of the case brought against foreign democracy activists last year.
It’s unclear who was behind the ad, but its appearance just days before the presidential runoff last year and its warning about voicing opposition to the status quo raised suspicions that it was linked to Egypt’s intelligence agency. It’s also unclear who added the somewhat-sketchy English translation and uploaded the PSA to YouTube.
The ad eventually was removed from state TV because, as the president of one state-sponsored TV channel told the AFP, “it was being misunderstood.” Others argued that the ad was removed because it was understood all too well.
9. “OUR CHAVEZ WHO ART IN HEAVEN"
Apparently, old propagandists never die – they are just reincarnated and animated from the great beyond.
“Our Chavez who Art in Heaven” is a new cartoon series starring the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died in March. Broadcast on state-sponsored television, the first installment features Chavez arriving in heaven (bizarrely, via tram) and being welcomed by various deceased Latin American leaders like Simon Bolivar and the leftist revolutionary Che Guevara.
In the second chapter, Chavez lectures his fellow celestial dwellers until Uncle Sam sneaks in through a cloud, accompanied by a dog with freaky eyes. Uncle Sam is swatted back to earth by a passing satellite as Chavez yells, “You are a donkey, Mr. Danger. Imperial Yankee, go home!” – a reference to an insult he once made to former President George W. Bush.
The clip ends with Uncle Sam splat on the ground in Venezuela while Chavez’s successor Nicolas Maduro, who was once a bus driver, drives by, feverishly honking his horn. The side of the bus is decorated with a picture of a winking Chavez, presumably giving his successor a stamp of approval from beyond the grave.
10. THE HOUSE THAT'S NEGLECTED IS THE HOUSE THAT'S DOOMED
While by no means recent, this classic short from 1954 ranks as an excellent example of straight-up, old-school propaganda (and also happens to be a personal favorite).
“The House in the Middle” attempts to illustrate how keeping your house clean and painted will increase your chance of surviving a nuclear strike, arguing that “cleanliness is an essential part of civil defense preparation.”
The video documents a series of civil defense tests in which an atomic bomb was detonated near three houses in various stages of upkeep to see which was more likely to survive the blast: “the dingy house on the left; the dirty and littered house on the right; or the clean, white house in the middle.” The outcome is not surprising, considering the film was produced by the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association. Apparently, no tests were conducted to see how the occupants inside the houses might fare.
“The house that’s neglected is the house that may be doomed in the atomic age,” the narrator warns. “It is your choice. The reward may be survival!”
Almost 50 years after the film was produced, it was selected by the Library of Congress to be part of the National Film Registry as an “artistically, culturally, and socially significant” film, proving, we suppose, that sometimes propaganda can transcend its original message and actually become educational.