Insights into Media Manipulation and War Propaganda from a Leading German Expert and Researcher in the Field of Propaganda and Bias Research

Insights into Media Manipulation and War Propaganda from a Leading German Expert and Researcher in the Field of Propaganda and Bias Research

Germany’s “Zeitenwende” (turning point in history) brings back disturbing memories.

Exclusive Interview with
Dr. phil. Christian Hardinghaus, M.A., M.Ed.

born in 1978 in Osnabrück, Germany, at whose university he completed his studies in history, media and social psychology. After completing his master’s degree, Hardinghaus habilitated with the dissertation “The Eternal Jew and Generation Facebook. Anti-Semitic Nazi Propaganda and Prejudice in Social Networks.” He works as a specialist journalist for various media and as an author. As a historian and media scientist, he conducts research in the field of propaganda and prejudice.

In an anti-Semitism study that caused a stir throughout Germany, Christian Hardinghaus examined 1,200 users of social networks for possible anti-Semitic attitudes. The astonishing results of his survey show, for example, that 20 percent of respondents blame Jews for their persecution in Nazi Germany. One in four assumed that Jews were different and one in five said that Jews had different physical characteristics than non-Jews. With this and other studies, Christian Hardinghaus has shown how easily anti-Semitic and extremist propaganda can be spread on social networks.

His latest book, in German language, is entitled: “War Propaganda and Media Manipulation: What You Should Know Not to Be Deceived”.

Felix Abt: Dr. Hardinghaus, propaganda has always played an important role in German history. Without their sophisticated propaganda, for example, the National Socialists under Adolf Hitler would hardly have come to power. How was propaganda carried out in the past?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: The rhetorical and psychological propaganda techniques have not changed throughout history. You could say that today’s rulers use the same methods as in the days of the emperor, because they still mislead people in the same way. It doesn’t matter whether the ruler is a king, a dictator or a democratically elected government. They all use the media of their time to secure their power and to impose their political agenda on the people by means of fear-mongering, scapegoating or deception. It is important to know that propaganda does not equal lies though. Propaganda uses every form of political influence.

What differs is the respective propagem, i.e. the ideological content of the propaganda. What has changed are the technical means available to rulers. In the Middle Ages, pamphlets transported the desired propagems, in the early modern period books, and later newspapers. Since the beginning of the 20th century, with the development of the new media, rulers have been able to manipulate the masses, especially by synchronizing the media, which is always the first act of any dictator. That mass manipulation and mass destruction go hand in hand was first seen in the First World War. But people did not learn from this, on the contrary, the Second World War and the Holocaust followed. Already six weeks after their seizure of power, the Nazis had founded their Reich Ministry of Propaganda and could control the entire social life with their propaganda.

Felix Abt: In the meantime, the means and possibilities for spreading propaganda and disinformation have changed massively, not to say “improved”. You have also dealt intensively with social media, which have become an indispensable part of everyday life and have gained an enormous influence on people’s thoughts and actions in recent decades. How do individuals, but also governments, for example, use the Internet today to sell people their views and agenda as “truth”?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: In the past, propaganda relied on censorship of all information that was not in the interests of the rulers. That is no longer possible today in the digital age. Curiously, however, today it is actually the oversupply of information that facilitates the path of propaganda. Propaganda today literally knows no boundaries. Propagandists can reach virtually anyone in the world at any time. This is the basic principle of digital information wars we are dealing with today. 

Wars no longer take place only where tanks roll and bombs drop. The warring states try to draw the whole world into the conflict, to get the people of other countries on their side in order to gain financial, military and moral support. That’s why traditional news hardly plays a role anymore, because people are now reached directly via social networks. The youngest generations have always been particularly susceptible to this. Today, warring states deliberately infiltrate networks like TikTok. If I look at videos from a certain warring party here, the algorithm quickly ensures that I only see them. Users begin to see the war from the respective perspective and to understand their view as the truth. They feel sympathy, suffer, rejoice over successes, and become virtual comrades. They also learn that the other side is abysmally evil and begin to hate them. They then think in terms of the principles of war propaganda, glorifying one side, demonizing the other, each pretending a just war.

Felix Abt: The human brain is a forgery workshop, our perception is often highly selective, and we prefer to have our views confirmed rather than questioned, no matter how wrong they may be. How much do these and other psychological factors play into the hands of manipulators?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: Today, we are literally flooded with so much information every day that we can no longer form differentiated judgments. There is not enough time. On the other hand, politicians and the media are constantly creating new horror scenarios. This creates fear, and the need for support and orientation becomes all the greater. People then tend to subscribe to the simplest possible opinion, often simply the presumed majority opinion, which in many cases actually corresponds to the government’s opinion. People leave it to their chosen politicians and media to think and classify the world. 

Propaganda serves the simplest schemata, it divides the world into good and evil. The fact that propaganda is incredibly successful is shown today by the fact that more and more people think and sort in black and white images. After all, they take at face value what the propagandist tells them. Of course, the propagandist uses all kinds of rhetorical techniques to create fallacies and all available media manipulation methods. He does not even have to lie. News broadcasters use fragmentation, framing or aestheticization to show a different picture of reality. The camera shows people only what they are supposed to see. One should always consider whether a small camera pan would not produce a completely different picture.

Felix Abt: There is a lot of lying in wars, and the truth is always the first casualty. For example, in 1840 the U.S.-Mexican War was justified with the lie that Mexico had invaded the United States, the Vietnam War was justified with the Tonkin lie, and the Iraq War was justified with the lie about the alleged weapons of mass destruction. In the Ukraine war, the lies are less conspicuous, but the gaps are even more so: For example, the prehistory of the war, such as the Western-directed overthrow of the democratically elected Ukrainian government in 2014 and the subsequent civil war against the Russian-speaking population in the Donbass, which resisted the coup, is omitted from German and other Western media.

If according to the definition of the great philosopher Hegel “the true is the whole”, then now the untrue dominates. And the Russian point of view is censored all the more: Anyone who dares to mention it is defamed as a “Putin-Versteher,” which literally translates “Putin understander”, i.e. “one who understands Putin.” It is a neologism that originated in Germany and even made it into Wikipedia. How is it possible that in Germany, of all places, the former land of poets and thinkers, understanding is now frowned upon?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: I looked at the wars of the last century and this century for my book, and no war has been without lies. You have given a few examples. Most of the time there is a lie that starts the war. The truth comes to light years and thousands of deaths later. This is then hardly worked up and with the next military conflict the same game starts again from the beginning. 

I have dealt a lot with German history. A deeper look into it shows that the Germans have always allowed themselves to be manipulated quickly. Behind this is a kind of “Führergehorsam” (obedience to a leader), the irrepressible desire to be on the right side, to be a good German. They then can’t stand it when the neighbor has a completely different view, consider him a traitor and try to stigmatize him: Putinversteher (“Putin understander”), Wutbürger (citizen who’s angry at political decisions), Schwurbler (someone uttering vague, crazy or conspiratorial things). German discord comes to the fore again and again. 

With the many partly home-made crises of the past, I have the feeling that the Germans are desperate to show the whole world that they have something to make up for, but they are not thinking of the world, but of themselves and their reputation. They don’t realize that this has long been seen as arrogance and pretentiousness abroad. The world does not need and does not want to be healed by German nature. The world needs a Germany that is at peace with itself, so that it can be an equal partner.

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[Ed.] Previous German chancellors have shaken hands with adversaries and talked to them. Olaf Schulz refused to shake hands and talk with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov representing President Putin at the recent G20 meeting. (RP online media headline: “Olaf Scholz refuses to shake Sergei Lavrov’s hand and talk to him.”)

Felix Abt: German Chancellor Scholz described the Ukraine war as “Zeitenwende” (turning point in history). The former Germany of “Ostpolitik,” which stood for peaceful coexistence and cooperation, including economic and cultural exchanges, with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is breaking off relations with Russia and carrying out an aggressive military buildup, which Moscow in turn sees as a threat.

M.K. Bhadrakumar, a former Indian ambassador and prominent international observer, notes a resurgence of revanchism in Germany. Are there demagogues and ignoramuses at work here who, with the help of the media, which support them unconditionally, could consciously or unconsciously lead the country back to dark times?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: I do not believe that there is any revanchist thought behind this. As in past wars, Germany is joining the “alliances of good” and wants to make a special moral stand. The decision to provide Ukraine, which had been invaded by Russia, with financial and military aid to help itself was right and important. But to abandon all diplomatic relations with Russia, to stop pushing for peace negotiations and to turn the war in Ukraine into a war in Europe, and to really believe that Russia can simply be brought to its knees militarily by supplying weapons without negotiations, is naive. 

Nevertheless, as a historian, an uneasy feeling creeps over me when I observe the reporting of some German tabloid media. They eagerly follow the glorious path of the mighty German weapons on the Eastern Front and headline accordingly: “German Leopard tanks storm Russian front“, “The German Leopard. That’s why it is the best tank in the world“, “Ukraine hopes for German superweapon.” I think this is very dangerous. In the exuberance of real or supposed Ukrainian successes, people in this country seem to have completely forgotten that Putin has a huge nuclear arsenal.

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[Ed.] On September 6, one day before the start of elections in Donetsk, the area Russia now controls and considers its territory and which used to be part of eastern Ukraine, a missile struck a market in the Donetsk industrial town of Kostiantynivka, killing numerous civilians. German and other Western media immediately blamed Russia for the attack, relying exclusively on claims from Kiev, although this defies all logic: why would Russia attack Russian citizens on Russian territory? Watch this video dissecting this obvious propaganda.

Felix Abt: What is even more worrying is that, just as at the beginning of National Socialism in Germany, when wealthy Jews were expropriated, another group is coming under general suspicion, their property is being confiscated, the presumption of innocence is being abolished and they are being denied the right to a legal hearing: This time it is the rich Russians. Anti-Semitism is castigated in Germany and can even be punished with imprisonment. Russophobia and discrimination against Russian people do not seem to bother politicians and media, on the contrary. Combine this with the fact that Germany is once again supplying large quantities of weapons to war zones, even though this is prohibited under German law. It is the largest arms supplier in the Ukraine war after the USA. Historically, Germany has a relatively short history as a constitutional state, but the fact that it is just being driven to the wall again doesn’t seem to bother anyone. How could it have come to this?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: I don’t think much of comparisons with National Socialism or the fate of the Jews. We hear here every day from all sides that this or that is reminiscent of National Socialism, that we are again on the verge of the seizure of power. Every war is a war of extermination, every war crime is a genocide, every dictator is the reincarnation of Hitler. And yet many Germans behave today just as they did then. They denounce, spy on each other, demand that others distance themselves from something they have not even moved towards. In the process, the desire to finish off others who are somehow different always resonates. All it takes is one rumor and people call for a boycott of the concerts of one of Germany’s most successful musicians, one photo with the declared wrong people, and Germany’s most popular entertainer is considered a right-wing radical. 

As for the castigation of anti-Semitism, that is, in my observation – and I observe very closely there – more appearance than reality. Unfortunately, that too is increasingly degenerating into a political phrase. Very few of the Germans who adorn their Facebook profile pictures with “Never again” slogans would jump to the side of a Jew who was being threatened or discriminated against on the open street. Unfortunately, I have often heard this from those affected.

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(Ed.) Group punishment for Russian citizens in retaliation for the actions of their government. Above headline is from German medium NTV: “Customs seize cars from Russian vacationers” in Germany. The “Berliner Zeitung” below reports that no cars, smartphones or cosmetics are allowed: The EU Commission humiliates ordinary Russians by forbidding them to bring even their own clothes into the European Union. Annex XXI of EU Directive No. 833/2014 lists the goods from Russia that are banned regardless of their purpose and the length of their stay in the EU, including clothing, toothpaste, shampoo and other hygiene products.

Felix Abt: When on June 6, 2023, during the Russian-Ukrainian war, the dam and the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant were severely damaged, Chancellor Scholz did not wait for the results of the investigation and on the same day held Russia responsible. Foreign Minister Baerbock also immediately condemned Moscow for this.

In each case of such catastrophes, Russia demands a neutral investigation, e.g. in the UN Security Council an independent investigation of the blowing up of the Nord Stream pipeline or the massacre in Bucha. But each time, Western governments, including Germany, refuse to do so. And the media, which have abandoned their role as the fourth power that should keep an eye on governments, look the other way. Do politicians and the media fear that neutral investigations might refute their war propaganda?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: This fits the picture just as well, and it clearly shows the hypocrisy. Politicians and the media never tire of appealing immediately after an “everyday crime” that one should wait for the investigation and not speculate. But they do not do this themselves if it does not suit them politically. 

I fully understand if you want to stand on the side of Ukraine because it was attacked. But that doesn’t mean that you can judge every event in favor of Ukraine and against Russia just because it suits your own political agenda. I have the feeling that the Nordstream blow-up will fall heavily at our feet in Germany. Foreign intelligence services and journalists have been warning our government for a long time that Russia was not the culprit in this case. Our government is silent about it. Depending on the outcome of the war, this could have devastating consequences for Germany’s position in Europe.*j38Io6htUcKWit0w.jpg
[Ed.] Anka Feldhusen, German ambassador to Ukraine poses with a plush model of a leopard tank. The German battle tank is currently used against Russian soldiers and Russian-speaking separatists in the Donbass. Eight decades ago, German tanks rolled into Russia in the largest land offensive in human history, helping to slaughter millions of Russians. (Source: Tweet by Anka Feldhusen)

Felix Abt: One cannot help feeling that in Germany, more than anywhere else in the West, mainstream journalists pumped full of morality are driving politicians before them to further escalate the war in Ukraine. The war in Yemen, which is being waged with massive Western support and has caused incomparably more death and property damage than the war in Ukraine, is largely ignored. Why does the otherwise omnipotent moralism in the media have such a one-sided effect?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: I am a journalist myself and I also talk to many colleagues who work in the so-called mainstream media. It is not the ordinary journalists who want this one-sidedness. But they adapt because their job is at stake, because they, like many others, are afraid to express a dissenting opinion. 

It is the media system that is sick and that sets the tone. Above the editorial offices stand large publishing houses, above them international media groups that are closely intertwined with politics and lobbyists. Agendas are being set. An entire profession is at stake if nothing changes soon. According to the recent Mainz-based long-term study Media Trust, only 45 percent of Germans surveyed trust the established media on the subject of the war in Ukraine. The situation is even worse for other crises. I’m afraid nothing will change from above, which is why journalists need courage above all now. We all need courage to speak our honest minds, despite and precisely because of the moralistic fingers being raised everywhere.

Felix Abt: Let’s conclude the interview with a positive outlook: Are there any encouraging trends, for example that people are becoming more aware of the dangers of manipulation and perhaps informing themselves more diversely and comparing reports more often?

Dr. Christian Hardinghaus: Public opinion has long been far removed from published opinion. If people would say in public what they say in private, then something would change. As I said, I know many good journalists and, at least in the local area, some good politicians. At some point, courage, reason and prudence will prevail again. I remain convinced of that. As far as recognizing propaganda is concerned, however, I would like to see a much stronger commitment on the part of schools.

Dr. Hardinghaus, thank you for the interview.