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Why film is effective for propaganda, and the dangers of the ‘Tik-Tok war’

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From the moment the Lumière Brothers patented their cinématographe in February 1895, film was destined to be a leading vehicle for political and social manipulation. Methods of manipulating and encouraging people towards a particular belief or ideal have existed as long as humanity itself. From the Behistun Inscription of Ancient Persia to the pamphlets of American revolutionaries, wars of information and misinformation have been as much a part of society as the sword and the gun. Yet with the advent of film and cinema, propaganda became, and has proved to be, a particularly effective tool. Why? 

Film, to borrow a clichéd phrase, was born for propaganda. Propaganda, fundamentally, is about manipulation and deception. Film similarly deceives; a series of flat images almost by magic converted into vibrant scenes of depth, movement, and most importantly, life. The combination of visual and auditory storytelling inherent in film provides an immersive experience unavailable to all other media. The Nazi regime of the 1930’s and 40’s recognised this power and the importance of harnessing it. Joseph Goebbels’ newsreels, shown before feature films, portrayed a Germany that was rich and powerful, far superior to other nations, in a life-like manner utterly convincing to audiences. Perhaps the most famous example of Nazi propaganda filmmaking, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, showcased the awesome power of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler as an all-conquering emperor at the Nuremberg rallies. The visual symbolism of huge crowds, flags, and uniforms, supplemented by sweeping music and cheers, created an overall sensual effect which no other propagandic media, such as pamphlets or radio announcements, could achieve. 

Film is also such an effective tool because of its universality; unlike other forms of media, such as the press, it is not shackled by the needs of language and literacy. It is accessible to young and old, to the casual and the initiated, to the illiterate and the intelligent. This significance was recognised by Lenin, who understood the limitations of the highly uneducated peasant population of the early Soviet Union, saying ‘Of all the arts, for us cinema is the most important’. Sergei Eisenstein’s silent film Battleship Potemkin is a classic example of propagandic filmmaking. Its combination of a dramatic, building score and fast-paced editing (known as montage) juxtapose the heroic common sailor and his tyrannical superior, vividly highlighting the versions of good and evil the Soviet Union wished to propagate in its overall ideology in a manner understandable to all.  

Indeed, creating these ideas of us against them, of good against bad is a fundamental tenet of propaganda. Here, film again demonstrates its effectiveness. Quite obviously, successful propaganda must be disseminated as widely as possible, and film achieves this as a medium with a wide popular appeal. Most crucially, however, film-watching is a shared experience. Unlike any other media, even television, film is watched en masse, in a crowd – and the individual spectator’s views are shaped not just by the events unfolding on screen, but by the reactions of those around them. Because of this, film has been particularly effective at conveying rhetoric such as Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic agenda, or even America’s anti-Japanese sentiments in the Second World War. Film plays on our most primal tribal instincts; by being part of the crowd, the individual spectator becomes one of ‘us’, one of the good guys, not one of ‘them’, and they are therefore imbued with the very sense of identity the machine of propaganda wishes them to believe in. 

How is this relevant, then, in today’s world, where literacy rates are generally much improved, and total control of information by the state, like in the Soviet Union, is much more difficult due to the access provided by the internet and social media? One need only look at the events in Ukraine, which some have dubbed the ‘Tik-Tok War’ due to images of live combat being shown on social media, to understand how the issue of information and misinformation being spread through film has again raised its head. This time, however, it has come in its modern form, through small-screen iPhones on social media etc., not the film projectors and picture-houses of old. 

Propagandic filmmaking in its new guise shares two of the key attributes that differentiated it from other media in the past, and therefore makes it still so dangerous. Firstly, as reflected upon above, much of film’s success as propaganda comes from it being a shared experience: in the world of Twitter and Instagram, it is almost impossible to not have a shared experience. Secondly, filmmaking in the time of Goebbels and Lenin was ground-breaking, providing life-like, moving images unlike anything seen before. ‘Film’ today is almost too realistic. Take the story of the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’, an early legend from the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, an incident that succinctly demonstrates the danger of modern propaganda in film.  

This was a story distributed across social media of a heroic Ukrainian fighter pilot who single-handedly shot down six Russian fighter jets – a most inspiring story of courage against the odds. The story’s veracity was ‘proved’ by video clips highlighting the ‘Ghost’ in action on sites such as TikTok – and yet these videos were later shown to be fake, rather being clips from a hyper-realistic video game, and other details of the pilot have been debunked as myth rather than reality. Yet for some time this story spread like wildfire across social media, and indeed leading news outlets, leading to headlines such as this, “Ukraine’s Fighter Ace ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ May Be Myth, But It’s Lethal As War Morale”.  

This may be true; and indeed, such stories may be welcome to boost morale in the face of such unjustified and reckless Russian aggression. Nevertheless, it highlights the unique power film propaganda seems to hold, and therefore the danger it can carry. If such a story can dominate Western wavelengths for so long, just imagine what similar propagandic film could do in Russia itself, where crackdowns of censorship have reached unprecedented levels? The world may have changed immensely, but it is clear that film as propaganda remains, in a new guise, in today’s world – and we would do well to heed the lessons of its immense and seductive powers.

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