Why Do Dictators Bother with Propaganda?

By Matteo Tiratelli

It seems strange that, in the midst of unrest and economic distress, dictators would choose to spend precious resources on propaganda. And not just any old propaganda which, being generous, we might assume is effective, but patently absurd and unbelievable propaganda. Terrible Photoshop jobs. Outrageous and unbelievable claims. A personality cult which everyone knows to be out of touch with real opinions.

There is a long heritage of autocratic leaders making these kind of ludicrous claims and, while we might accept that a medieval peasant would have believed that their king had singlehandedly defeated a Saracen horde, we can not make those sorts of excuses any more. Italians in the 1920s and 1930s never truly believed that Mussolini had read every book ever written. Nor could Syrians in the 1980s have believed that Hafez al Assad was both the ‘father of the nation’ and the country’s ‘premier pharmacist’. However, these claims became key tenets of their respective personality cults. It is often tempting to explain these farcical propaganda claims as being effective because of the ‘lack of education’ (read: simplicity) of these third world peoples. But this is the crudest form of Orientalism, which seems to assume that since these people live in poor and deprived regions they are somehow stupid. In fact, by 1931, nearly 80% of Italians were literate and so would have had a good idea of quite how long it would take to read all the books ever published.

To take a more contemporary example look at this recent image of President Bashar al Assad meeting the new governor of Hama:


The question is why would the regime bother producing such obviously faked images? Would anyone have cared that Assad was not at the inauguration of a new governor? And, seeing as Syrians have the same understanding of the traditional rules of perspective and photography as us, are they likely to believe that Assad actually met Mr Naen on a slight diagonal at the longest meeting table known to man?

Equally, would any internet-savvy Chinese people really have believed that state officials floated above the new highway while they inspected it?


In order to understand why regimes do spend scarce resources on phony propaganda we must follow Middle East scholar Lisa Wedeen’s suggestion and look at the behaviours that this propaganda produces. These personality cults build up a symbolic language and a set of public behaviours in which people are forced to act as if they revered their leaders. On the simplest level this allows the regime to specify the form and content of “civic obedience” and set guidelines for public speech. This is the sort of regime-speak that is so wonderfully parodied in Mikhail Bulgajkov’s The Master and Margarita where every single mention of Caesar’s name is met with the reply, “Long live Caesar”. What is more interesting is the way these forced behaviours can be used to show off the regime’s power. When people are forced to publicly declare that they believe all of the various claims made by the propaganda, then the regime proves that it can control their actions.  Even if they do not actually believe in it, making people do and say ludicrous and unbelievable things is still making them do it –  the compliance is what counts. So when people are forced to admit in public, “Yes of course Kim Jun Il hit 38 under par on his first ever round of golf”, the regime is engaged in a very public display of control.

There is an even more sinister side to this. Citizens can easily be conned into thinking that their unbelief in the official propaganda and their “ironic” compliance somehow counts as genuine resistance. Even if they only praise the leader “ironically” they are still praising the leader, and in many ways that is all that matters. By enforcing a public transcript of reverence and obedience individuals are isolated and atomised. When everyone is acting as if they believed that Kim Jong Il was born under a double rainbow, how can you tell who really is a believer? When everyone’s public behaviour is controlled and ritualised, it becomes impossible to know who to trust.

It is important to note that citizens often find ways to undermine the atomising impact of these personality cults. Given that everyone is forced to become fluent in the symbolic language of the regime just to get on in life, there is ample scope for satire and comedy. For example, as the laughter from a shared joke at the regimes expense echoes around a room, people can be reconnected in their shared unbelief. However, today there is another important atomising force at work. Fordist and State Socialist economies had an emphasis on jobs for life and full employment which encouraged a certain kind of limited unity. Think of the way factory life incubated and protected a shared working class culture. Neoliberal economies, on the other hand, are characterised by “fluid job markets”, zero-hour contracts and outsourcing, all of which further isolate the individual, encouraging competition with those around you instead of friendship and solidarity. These two forces ensure that forming a unified resistance is extremely difficult if not impossible.

This also helps to illustrate a key difference between this sort of propaganda and what many on the left call “Western Propaganda”. The Propaganda Model works through structural biases and exclusions and it might well be very important, but it is fundamentally different from deliberate and conscious propaganda. No matter how unbelievable the American Dream might be, it would make no sense to say that the system is publicly displaying its power by forcing people to pretend to believe in it. They are different phenomena and deserve to be treated as such.

In short, the reason why autocratic regimes bother making such terrible propaganda is so that people have to pretend to believe it. This public display of power controls public discourse and isolates individuals, thus reducing resistance. It is not a case of the North Korean regime not knowing how to use Photoshop, or the stupidity of the masses, but rather a power play to prove who is in control.

5 Responses to “Why Do Dictators Bother with Propaganda?”
  1. Anon. says:

    You may want to consider running your articles by a knowledgable editor before publishing them – one who might be able to point out mistakes like the following:

    “And not just any old propaganda which, being generous, we might assume is effective; but patently absurd and unbelievable propaganda” : incorrect semi-colon usage

    “Nor did Syrians in the 1980s have believed that Hafez al Assad was the ‘father of the nation’ and the country’s ‘premier pharmacist’” : typos

    “However, these claims became key tenants of their respective personality cults.” : incorrect word usage (n.b. a tenant is someone who occupies rented land, a tenet is a belief or principle)

    Nice content though.

    • gottfried says:

      get a fucking life you pedantic melt

    • incorrect use of colons throughout your comment

      • Anon. says:

        I’m not the one presenting my thoughts in ‘essay’ form. Clearly I employed a convenient shorthand for pointing out multiple errors with concision.

        I see the points I raised have been deemed prudent enough for the original piece to be edited accordingly. You’re welcome.

      • Yohann says:

        Woah let’s all calm down here. I think we can both thank Anon for his/her contribution whilst simultaneously acknowledging that he/she comes across as a bit of a divvy.

        Let’s not forget, “slippers are made so that one can slip them on one’s feet without using the hands. They are monuments to the hatred of bending over.”

        Nice article, Matteo.

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