DM168 REFLECTION

When populism meets propaganda, humanity suffers

By Branko Brkic 11 September 2021

Illustrative image | Sources: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Alon Skuy) | VBS Mutual Bank customers in long queues outside the bank. (Photo: Antonio Muchave / Sowetan) | Nadine Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In the old days, it was not easy. There was no internet or social media. Today, the price of propaganda has plummeted and anyone with enough skill, some money and plenty of zeal can wreak havoc.

Branko Brkic

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

My close friends, quiet people who just wanted to live and let others live, changed – sometimes overnight. Peaceful men suddenly wanted to fight. The usually soft-spoken humans filled the tenuous void with shouts of anger and intolerance. In cities, towns and villages across the land, suddenly unhappy residents gathered to lay the blame for all ills that were ailing them on someone else, someone on the other side, a faceless “enemy” that was hellbent on destruction.

Fear and uncertainty were omnipresent and overpowering. Mothers cradled their children, racked with deep anxiety, afraid of the years that were to come. “How will we all go through this?” they asked, uncertain of what to do, and when.

No one knew what was to come. Everyone knew they were afraid. And all knew it was the other side’s fault.

The year was 1991, and although every word you have read so far could have been applied to South Africa, it is Yugoslavia to which I am referring.

The crisis started with the ascension to power of Serbian populist president Slobodan Milošević in 1987, and the subsequent takeover of most other Yugoslavian republics by the Milošević-like characters whose main platform was that only they could protect their people from the Serbian strongman.

My generation was badly hit by the chaos we grew up to be part of. Lives were ruined. Careers disappeared into the ether.

It is what it is, we try to console ourselves these days. At least we’re still alive, a luxury that way too many of our age could not afford. But, even from this perspective, it burns when we think about populists who brazenly and cynically destroyed so many lives through malice, stupidity and callousness.

In 1987, one of the first things that Milošević did was to take over Serbian TV and radio, with daily newspapers next, then finalised the move by taking over the political and news magazines. In the days of the final breakdown of the federation, the first casualty was communication with other republics, especially Croatia, whose then new nationalist-populist president, Franjo Tudjman, was best described as bizzaro-Milošević.

State media propaganda was brutal, on all sides, and in the manner that only the populists can do – through othering of the opponents with whom their audience had no way of communicating. We were being prepared for war, without knowing it.

And war we had. Not one, not two, but three.

The decade of the 1990s was to host countless massacres and war crimes, millions displaced and exiled, tens of millions of lives prevented from being lived in peace and fulfilment. Economies were shattered. Some people recovered. Some never will.

All of that calamity was brought on by populism, perhaps humanity’s most dangerous political invention. It’s difficult to fully and precisely determine, but is recognisable once you look at it. In the old days, it was popular strongmen such as Argentina’s Juan Perón, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, Louisiana governor Huey Long. In today’s world, it is the vile and cowardly “leaders” such as the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. We have a South African member of this high-performance club in the EFF’s Julius Malema. Each has their own flavour, but they are joined at the hip by stoking and invoking the lowest and most hateful in their followers. Every single one of them has the potential to permanently change the face of their nations and alter the future into something much closer to the fate suffered by Yugoslavia.

What is truly chilling is the propaganda arsenal the populists were handed by modern technology. In the old days, it was not easy. There was no internet or social media. Today, the price of propaganda has plummeted and anyone with enough skill, some money and plenty of zeal can wreak havoc.

In these pandemic days, people are afraid for their lives, their families’ safety and their livelihoods. The majority of them are sitting ducks for the new generation of the disciples of Joseph Goebbels. They don’t need to own newspapers and TV/radio stations any more, though some still use them as part of their overall attack. All they need to know is how to exploit people’s fears, weaknesses and insecurities. They can use Twitter and Facebook from anywhere and it will cost them next to nothing. They will convince us that it is the foreigners’ fault our economies are in free fall. They will “prove” that vaccines do not work. They will make you “understand” that your newspaper is run by “lizard people”, even though you know many of them personally.

You might think I’m pushing this too far. How about this, then: in 1991, many Yugoslavian parents were convinced by the propaganda machinery that the parents on the “other side” did not love their children any more. Can you imagine anything as vile as that? Sting sang about it in his seminal 1985 song, Russians: “I hope the Russians love their children too.”

Propaganda in itself is a powerful thing. Evil propaganda is more powerful than nuclear weapons. In populists’ hands, it has a chance of destroying our humanity. And they can afford it for less than a pair of Louis Vuitton shoes.

Think of it next time you see a tweet from Julius Malema, Duduzile Zuma and uLerato_pillay, and a thousand others pushing you to hate those standing in their way. We see you. DM168

Branko Brkic is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Daily Maverick.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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All Comments 7

  • Propagandists in wartime do not disappear during peace time. They are otherwise known as marketers, men of the cloth, and populist politicians. Their job stays largely the same: convincing an unsuspecting populace to buy something they do not need.

    To estimate just how prone a people are to propaganda, consider each generation of each nation. If any of them seem to be highly religious, highly brand-conscious, or highly ideological, together with an absurdly irrational sensitivity and intolerance for anyone who thinks differently, you may consider that segment of society as doomed to be the puppets of demagogues, charlatans, and other dishonest ne’er-do-wells.

    • That is one of the best comments I’ve read anywhere in the DM. Its not only a great response to what Branko wrote, its a great lens useful for identifying those groupings likely to impede progress of Homo Sapiens or even take the entire biosphere to the brink of extinction. I will quote you Stephen T.

  • Excellent, thank you Branko.
    For as long as social media platforms do not take responsibility & regulate (read self-regulation not govt.), the amount of vitriolic garbage that is spewed by their users, we’re headed for even bigger trouble. The people who designed the algorithms that feed & recycle social media users’ narrow warped views back to them & their circle of “friends”, make Joseph Goebbels look like a rank amateur.

    As repeated ad-nauseam, the main-stream press is subject to some form of checks & balances, why not social media?

    • Can you imagine what a check and balance on Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, would do to their bank balances … and the ‘right’ of radicals to spread disinformation and even lies ? All in the name of an abused ‘freedom of speech’ !

  • Rule by populism is a male phenomenon – we need more female leaders – people who really want what’s best for the group not just themselves! The examples led by populist leaders in modern history is shameful…power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely!

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