Propaganda has been prominent among many cultures in many different forms all throughout history and the United States is no exception. With the ability to shape a culture’s identity, the media is one of the most powerful forces in the United States. Whether this media is in the form of independent journalism or government-funded propaganda it almost always has a point to be pushed. The author of a journal and the artist of propaganda use their skills to shift their audience towards the cause they believe in. I examined two instances in history where propaganda was most prominent in the United States of America
To understand the media portrayal of Japanese Americans in such a racist way, it is crucial to go back and understand the foundation of this hate. Racial discrimination against Japanese Americans has always been deeply intertwined with the economic aspirations of White Americans. In the early 1900s, Japanese Americans began to exponentially grow in their business operations. Although they only made up a small portion of the population, they began to gain an economic foothold on the West Coast (Ackerman). With this growing economic power also came racial tensions between white Americans and Japanese Americans which led to the passage of the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 (“Gentlemen’s Agreement”). The law stopped the immigration of Japanese people to the United States but did nothing about Japanese-Americans in the United States. Near the same time period, World War One was raging which led to the Japanese gaining more power in the Pacific (Ackerman). With this growing influence, some may assume the general public would be concerned. On the contrary, as Carl Ackerman, a journalist for the Atlanta Constitution put it, “It is not apprehension of Nippon, but of the industry and business activity of Nipponese subjects working and living in this country. It is the business interests and farmers who are alarmed, not the public in general or the laborers” (Ackerman). These business owners held strong power over the public and very adamantly pushed for stronger immigration laws on the Japanese to make sure they were able to compete (Ackerman). The press on the West Coast, supported by business owners, portrayed the Japanese as a slowly invading race that unless contained would take over and turn the west into a “‘new Asia’” (Ackerman). Although there was support behind this movement, the seeds planted by this Nativism did not fully blossom until World War Two.
When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the USA began its foreign and domestic war against the Japanese. At the same time, Americans were fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, they started a mass campaign of propaganda against Japanese Americans focused on the West Coast (Minear). This propaganda has built on the racist stereotypes of Japanese people from decades ago and served to dehumanize them. The government hired famous artists of the time such as Dr. Seuss to create fear towards the Japanese and to support the military (Minear). One of Dr. Suess’ most impactful pieces was of a bird representing Uncle Sam fighting off a horde of slanted eyed cats representing the Japanese in “Jap Alley” (Minear). By choosing to depict the Japanese as a growing horde of creatures attempting to kill American liberties (Uncle Sam), Dr. Seuss is directly contributing to the fear that led to the internment of Japanese Americans (Minear). The mass evacuation of Japanese Americans was founded and justified by the fears that had been perpetuated by propaganda and racial prejudice spanning decades. The government was further able to play on these fears and justify the reasoning of this mass detention on the suspicion of spies in the Japanese American community (Conard).
2000’s – Present
What is Modern Propaganda?
In the twenty-first century, propaganda is continuing to be spread against minorities; however, the method and strategy of distribution have shifted dramatically since the 1940s. With the development of social media platforms, such as Reddit and Twitter, ugly propaganda like this is being distributed by Islamophobic organizations, such as Fox News, faster than ever. As free speech, even hate speech, is protected by the first amendment, there are very limited legal routes to stop it. This propaganda is used by far-right organizations to push an Islamophobic narrative and negatively shift public opinion on Muslims as a whole.
Modern propaganda is no longer merely the usage of overtly racist printed images but rather relies on a constant barrage of false information. Organizations such as Fox News use their position of position of power to pump out Xenophobic and Islamophobic “conspiracy theories” on a daily basis using political commentators such as Tucker Carlson, anchor for Fox News (Illing). These organizations are spreading mass false information in an effort to push their islamophobic narrative onto Americans. Fox News and President Trump utilize similar methods of spreading their propaganda, which Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon describes as “‘flooding the [information] zone with shit.’’ Here “information zone” is synonymous with the information space, which we define as the encapsulation of all current media. As conspiracy theories spread, other news organizations with opposing political viewpoints will respond. This leads to conflicting information on the topic, which only adds more clutter to the information space. The inherent issue of spreading huge amounts of false information is that at some point, Americans become overloaded with information. This results in people choosing a side they support as a method of cutting out the partisan clutter (Illing). As Jason Stalen, Yale philosopher and expert on propaganda stated, “transforming politics into a post-truth contest of tribal identity is an explicit goal of modern propaganda.”
The Islamophobia we see in modern America is very much due to these divisions. When people are overloaded with information, they will group with those most similar to themselves, whether that be by race or religion, and consequently inherit caution to those who are different (Illing). This caution has led to the “othering” we see in media, and to xenophobic fears toward Muslims (Sunar). Additionally, according to Jason Stalen, as Americans are choosing their “team,” they also will align with a singular news source. These news outlets gain tremendous power over their consumers (Illing). With this power, news organizations such as Fox News, are able to easily spread theiroften xenophobic political views backed by false information. These divisions extend onto the Internet, where individuals with similar political views form groups on social media such as Reddit. These groups, where false information is spread unchecked, can transform into the breeding grounds of racist propaganda.
To better understand the issue of modern propaganda, we must look at its many incarnations. Propaganda, of course, still exists in its simplest form as crude, dehumanizing imagery. This form of propaganda is nearly identical to what was used against Japanese Americans, and yet the modern version is much more powerful as it has the power of the Internet. Reddit is a good example of a platform being used to spread this form of propaganda. The subreddit r/The_Donald is notorious for spreading hate-filled messages and promoting violent attacks (Robertson). One example of this traditional form of propaganda on r/The_Donald is a cartoon drawing of a Muslim man. The man is depicted with a bomb replacing his turban and is accompanied by the caption, “Islam is a shitty religion and its followers are either violent terrorists or tacitly support terrorism. Upvote for ban” (u/ThoughtExperlment).
Although we see cases of traditional propaganda, more prevalent is the form of propaganda I talked about previously. These hate-filled message groups are dominated by the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories. One example that stood out most prominently to me was a tweet from conservative news reporter Laura Lynn Tyler Thompson. In her tweet, she claims that an “Islam demographic expert warns that once Muslims hit 16% of the population of your country, there is no way to stop it from becoming an Islamic nation” (@LauraLynnTT). As a source, she adds a dead link from a pro-Israeli newspaper. After looking online, I see this same message across multiple other sites with no actual sources. This tweet exhibits a very clear anti-Islamic stance and positions Muslims as a growing threat set to destroy American life. There is also the implication that we must act to stop this threat, which in turn supports violent action against Muslims. Posts like this are an explicit example of the dangers of modern propaganda. As a researcher, after a few minutes of searching, I was able to disprove this claim, and yet the average American would easily fall prey to this propaganda.
Fighting the Islamaphobia
As freedom of speech is protected by the first amendment, there is not much that can be done to fight this form of propaganda legally (Gjeltin). This means that the main way to fight Islamophobic propaganda is through social change. One of the largest Muslim advocacy group is The Council on American-Islamic Relations. Their approach to fighting Islamophobia can be broken down into a few key elements: education, reporting, and interfaith relations (CAIR).
Firstly, CAIR has been strongly focused on educating Muslims on their civil rights. As Americans, our strongest tools is our ability to vote. Therefore, CAIR has set up large campaigns to help educate Muslims on the voting process to get them out to vote (CAIR). Being able to vote gives these marginalized Muslims a place to get their voices heard and subsequently fight Islamophobia through candidates with similar beliefs. These campaigns have been successful as “about 74% of Muslim-American surveyed in a recent poll said they would turn out to vote” (Rhodan). There is a good reason for this increase as Robert McCaw, “CAIR Government Affairs Manager,” states, “[this] high level of civic participation may be driven at least in part by concern over the rise in Islamophobia nationwide” (Rhodan). Secondly, CAIR has set forth an online service where individuals can report cases of Islamophobia in the media (CAIR). By reporting these cases, CAIR is able to give grounds to the fight against Islamophobia through hard evidence. They have gone to court multiple times to fight these cases of blatant Islamophobia in hopes of stopping the normalization of these events (CAIR). Finally, CAIR has made large efforts to strengthen interfaith cooperation to fight hate as a whole. By creating connections between communities that may have never interacted, CAIR is able to create tolerance. Although not necessarily directly linked, we have seen some tangible results of this increased intolerance. For example, in 2019, the first two Muslim women, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were voted into the United States House of Representatives (“Ilhan Omar”). This further reflects on CAIR’s work on Muslim civil liberties since having Muslims in positions of power gives the community a platform to systematically fight Islamophobia.
My personal solution to the issue can be broken into two levels of change. On a more personal level, I believe that to fight Islamophobia, people must be actively conscious of what media they are consuming. The simplest solution to fighting the spread of propaganda is to only read from sources who are not actively contributing to it. Attempt to avoid politically biased news sources such as CNN or Fox News and stick to sources such as PBS or NPR (Relman).
Additionally, one could use trusted databases, as most information is peer-edited and fact-checked. When reading more biased news sources or social media, people must be conscious of what they are actually reading and check information if needed. There are many fact-checking tools, such as factcheck.org, that will instantly tell you the truth of what you are reading. If people were to understand the authority of the information they read, propaganda would be virtually useless as it would no longer have an audience. Therefore, this solution would be extremely effective as it would completely stop the spread of propaganda. On a larger level, one could work with organizations such as CAIR to hold those spreading the misinformation accountable. By compiling the instances of Islamophobia in a clear case, organizations would be able to cut away from the media overload and bring public attention to the issue at hand. With public support, people could begin to put pressure on those accountable. This would mean not only going after the new agencies propagating the propaganda but also the social media sites giving a platform for this propaganda to grow. We have seen this to be effective with social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. After public backlash toward propaganda spewing accounts, both Facebook and Twitter agreed to have a stricter policy on these types of accounts (Kelly). However, these measures are not enough, and we need public support to pressure these platforms to have a stricter policy on the spread of misinformation. With large scale public support, we would be able to bring slow yet steady systematic change and undercut the oppressive cycle of propaganda.
In the end, propaganda is merely a reflection of the prejudices held by those spreading it. Therefore, beyond all of the practical solutions I proposed, a deeper systematic fight against propaganda must be a fight against the hate fueling the propaganda. Sadly, one cannot shift a nation’s prejudices with legal action, which is why educating oneself on the media they are consuming is so important. Reading non-biased sources allows the reader to stop the push of the Islamophobic narrative by not even being exposed to it. By both stopping the spread of propaganda and attempting to understand where Islamophobia comes from, we as Americans will begin to build tolerance toward the Muslim community. If we look at statistics on current Japanese sentiment, we can understand why I believe tolerance will build with time. According to the Pew Research Center, 68% of Americans “trust Japan a great deal/fair amount” and “associate positive personality traits with the Japanese, but do not associate negative stereotypes with people in Japan. Americans overwhelmingly see Japanese as hardworking, inventive, and honest” (“American, Japanese: Mutual Respect”). This is obviously very different from the extreme anti-Japanese sentiment I talked about in the previous section of this paper. This growth of this tolerance comes both from an increase in economic trade deals along with a growth of mutual respect between the cultures. This initiative to fight Islamophobia is extremely prevalent due to the current state of the nation. Although we have seen some growth intolerance, we have also seen a large growth in hate crimes committed against Muslims. In 2014 there were 154 hate crimes against Muslims (“2014”); this grew to 307 in 2016 (“2016”). That is nearly a 200% percent increase in a two year time period. This statistics is also in the same time period as the nomination of President Trump, a candidate whose campaign “sail[ed] with the winds of Islamophobia” (Sunar). He has cultivated a political base of outspoken Islamophobic activists who are also spreading Islamophobia propaganda (Cohen). As you can see, we are in a period where the issue of Islamophobia is coming to a boil. As I mentioned earlier, these issues are leading us down a path very similar to what occurred to Japanese Americans in WW2, which led to their incarceration. We, as a community, must fight to stop this plague of hate before we reach that critical point. If we don’t stop the spread of Islamophobia now, there may no longer be a point where Muslims, such as myself, are welcomed in a country that once stood for the freedom of all people.
Please leave your thoughts on my project in the comments below