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Propaganda in the Classroom

At War with Iraq: the Propaganda Battles

Propaganda Works!

In the buildup to the 2003 war against Iraq, the US government and domestic mass media mounted an unrelenting propaganda campaign to mobilize US and world support.  For months on end, the mass media and government officials repeated in innumerable ways the message that "we are good and they are bad".  Poll results show that the campaign was exceptionally successful in the US.  Throughout the first half of 2002, polls (with the glaring exception of Fox News) consistently showed just over one third of the US public supported a war against Iraq without UN backing; nearly two thirds opposed it.  By the beginning of 2003, polls showed the US public almost evenly split.  During the first three months of 2003, public opinion moved so that just over half supported war.  After the US attacked, nearly three quarters supported it.

By the end of September 2003, as events on the ground in Iraq and investigations into administration and media claims prior to the war proved much of the pre-war propaganda false, public support for US policy again fell below 50%.

On October 2, 2003, PIPA (the Program on International Policy Attitudes) published a report (Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War) showing that many Americans came to support the war because their news sources left them with untrue beliefs about relevant world events.  The press release accompanying the report stated that, "a majority of Americans have had significant misperceptions and these are highly related to support for the war with Iraq."  Based on their analysis of seven polls conducted from January through September 2003, these researchers found:

  1. 48% incorrectly believed that evidence of links between Iraq and al Qaeda have been found,

  2. 22% that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq,
  3. 25% that world public opinion favored the US going to war with Iraq,
  4. overall 60% had at least one of these three misperceptions,
  5. the frequency of Americans’ misperceptions varies significantly depending on their source of news,
  6. those who primarily watch Fox News are significantly more likely to have misperceptions, while those who primarily listen to NPR or watch PBS are significantly less likely,
  7. among those with none of the misperceptions listed above, only 23% support the war,
  8. among those with one of these misperceptions, 53% support the war, rising to 78% for those who have two of the misperceptions, and to 86% for those with all 3 misperceptions.

In April 2004, PIPA published two polls. The first was titled, Americans on WMD Proliferation (published April 15, 2004); the second, US Public Beliefs on Iraq and the Presidential Election (published April 22, 2004) was a follow-up to its October 2003 report.  The latter seemed to show that support for Mr. Bush in the 2004 general election depended on people continuing to hold false beliefs about the former Iraqi regime's relationship to al Qaeda and the September 11, 2001 attacks in the US, and the incorrect belief that it possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs).  The September 11 Commission thoroughly investigated and rebutted the first misconception, while the Duelfer Commission report found no evidence to support the second.  In 2006, PBS' Frontline produced a report (The Dark Side) exploring the Bush-Cheney efforts to project these misconceptions.  From the program's web site, you may view the broadcast and/or read its transcript.

The PIPA summary states:

  1. 15% said they are hearing “experts mostly agree Iraq was not providing substantial support to al Qaeda,”
  2. 82% either said that “experts mostly agree Iraq was providing substantial support” (47%) or “experts are evenly divided on the question” (35%)
  3. 34% said they thought most experts believe Iraq did not have WMD
  4. 65% said most experts say Iraq did have them (30%) or that experts are divided on the question (35%).
  1. Iraq had WMD, 72% said they would vote for Bush and 23% said they would vote for Kerry
  2. Iraq did not have WMD, 23% said they would vote for Bush and 74% for Kerry
  3. Iraq had supported al Qaeda, 62% said they would vote for Bush and 36% said they would vote for Kerry
  4. Iraq was not supporting al Qaeda, just 13% said they would vote for Bush and 85% for Kerry
  1. 56% said it was their impression that the Bush administration is claiming the US has found clear evidence that Saddam Hussein was working closely with al Qaeda
  2. 38% perceived the administration saying the US has found clear evidence that just before the war, Iraq had weapons of mass destruction
  1. 41% were aware that this is the case
  2. 59% was unaware of this, with 21% saying that a majority of world public opinion favored the US having gone to war, and 38% saying “views are evenly balanced"
  3. Among those who knew that world public opinion opposed the US going to war with Iraq, only 25% thought that going to war was the right decision
  4. Among the group that thought world public opinion was about evenly balanced, 70% said going to war was the right decision
  5. Among those who perceived world public opinion as favoring the war, 88% said going to war was the right decision

PIPA has established the following links to the work of its researchers.  (Each link opens an Adobe Acrobat PDF file in a separate browser window.)

October 2003 poll

April 2004 polls

the April 15, 2004 poll Americans on WMD Proliferation

the April 22, 2004 poll US Public Beliefs on Iraq and the Presidential Election

2006 polls

By 2006, the percentage of Americans believing that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction or had active WMD programs before the start of the war in 2003 was still high.  There was also still a marked difference in the perceptions of Republicans and Democrats.

Click here for access to more polls, and help learning how to think about polls.

On Sunday, April 25, 2004, the Washington Post published an article by Dana Milbank titled, Bush's Oratory Helps Maintain Support for War.  Although he does not call it propaganda, Milbank describes how White House propaganda has helped convince Americans to believe false facts and therefore to support the war and the president.  He begins his article as follows:

With skillful use of language and images, President Bush and his aides have kept the American public from turning against the war in Iraq despite the swelling number of U.S. casualties there.

Even with the loss of more than 700 U.S. troops in Iraq, recent uprisings against the U.S.-led occupation there, a dwindling number of allies and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, a majority of Americans still believe that going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do. By 52 percent to 41 percent, Americans trust Bush more than Democratic challenger Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) to handle the Iraq situation, according to last week's Washington Post-ABC News poll -- a double-digit improvement for Bush from a month before.

Political strategists and public-opinion experts say a good part of this resilience of public support for Bush and the Iraq war stems from the president's oratory. They say Bush has convinced Americans of three key points that strongly influence overall support for the war: that the United States will prevail in Iraq; that the fighting in Iraq is related to the war against al Qaeda; and that most Iraqis and many foreign countries support U.S. actions in Iraq.

At the same time, the administration has limited damaging images of the cost of war in Iraq. While the president has met privately with the families of many of the war victims, Bush has not attended any funeral for fallen service members, and until last week the administration barred the public release of images of flag-draped caskets.

Bush's opponents say he is building support for the Iraq war -- and himself -- by deceiving the public. "He has not leveled with the American people about the true cost of the war, how long we'll be there, or the number of troops that will be needed," said Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "Americans would rather see sound policy rather than just positive rhetoric."

But others say that while support for the war has eroded, Bush deserves credit for keeping the bottom from falling out. "Administration rhetoric -- and more importantly, the reality that Bush is very resolved and is not afraid to show it -- has undoubtedly helped shore up public support," said Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on President Bill Clinton's National Security Council. "Moreover, administration rhetoric is tailored to address key features of public opinion -- not only the public's concern for success but even the specific indicators of success that resonate with the public."


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original web posting: Saturday, October 4, 2003
last modified: Friday, March 26, 2010