Uses and Abuses of Information in Orwell’s 1984
In George Orwell”s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, we are presented with a dystopian vision of the future. Orwell”s book follows the life of Winston Smith, a citizen of Airstrip 1, formerly Britain and part of the nation of Oceania. The country is governed by Ingsoc, the English Socialists, a totalitarian regime led by the iconic leader Big Brother. Oceania is constantly at war with as well as always being in alliance with one of the other two nations of the earth, Euraisia and Eastasia.
The population is divided into three social groups, at the top of the power structure is the Inner Party, whose members are the policy makers and number relatively few. Below them are the members of the Outer Party, who are educated and work in governmental departments. It is this group which Winston Smith belongs to. Underneath them are the proletariat, the uneducated masses that made up 85% of the population. The life of a party member involves being constantly subjected to government propaganda by the medium of the telescreen.
This is a device similar to a television placed in the home and workplace of Party members, unlike a television it cannot be turned off and it transmits as well as receives. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, one of four government ministries. The Ministry of Love is concerned with law and order, The Ministry of peace concerns itself with war, The Ministry of Plenty which deals with economic affairs and The Ministry of Truth which is responsible for the production of news, education, entertainment and fine arts.
Orwell is said to have based the infrastructure of Oceania on that of Stalinist Russia of the 1940s. I want to compare and contrast Orwell”s vision of the future and control of information to the world of today. I hope to draw parallels in the ideology of Insog, governments of the present day and those of past regimes. Winston worked in the records department of the Ministry of Truth. His job consisted of the constant updating of news archives. He was responsible for altering or ‘rectifying” news reports from back issues of the state newspaper.
For example, it appeared from The Times of the seventeenth of March that Big Brother, in his speech of the previous day, had predicted that the South Indian front would remain quiet but that a Eurasian offensive would shortly be launched in North Africa. As it happened, the Eurasian Higher Command had launched its offensive in South India and left North Africa alone. It was therefore necessary to rewrite a paragraph of Big Brother”s speech, in such a way as to make him predict the thing that had actually happened. (Orwell1949). In another case the Ministry of Plenty promised there would be no cut in the chocolate ration.
After a cut in the ration, this speech was rewritten to say that they had predicted a cut some time in the future and eventually that the ration had been increased. Once these articles had been rewritten, the old newspapers were destroyed, new issues printed and used as historical records. All documentation of the past had been tailored to say exactly what the government wanted it to. No other records of the past existed other than those that had been manipulated and falsified by the ministry of truth. This may seem fantastic and unfeasible in modern western society, but Orwell himself performed a similar role in the BBC during World War II.
This gave him a solid taste of bureaucratic hypocrisy and may have provided the inspiration for his invention of “newspeak,” the truth-denying language of Big Brother’s rule in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Johnson 1993). In 1944 Orwell wrote a letter to tribune bringing up the question of how true history actually is. He said that until recently the chances were that major events were recorded with some accuracy. He says that the battle of Hastings probably happened in 1066, that Columbus discovered America, that Henry VIII had six wives, and so on.
A certain degree of truthfulness was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don”t like it. (Orwell1944). He goes on to say that even as late as just prior to World War I, a substantial amount of facts in the encyclopaedia Britannica are compiled from German sources and were regarded as neutral. An account of World War II would vary from different sources. The Nazis of the day would have a completely different account of the war than that of the Allies. The decision of which of these accounts reaches the history books is decided on the battlefield.
If Hitler and the Nazis had won the war, the ‘history books” would undoubtedly be different from those we are brought up to believe in post war Britain. For example Orwell says that in 1941 and 1942 the Luftwaffe were busy in Russia, whilst at the same time German radio was proclaiming the devastation of London through aerial bombing. According to our history, these raids never happened. If we were living in London at that time we would know that those raids never happened, if Hitler then seizes power, those raids might as well have happened as the history books will be written accordingly.
This theory is the basis that Orwell uses for the management of information in the fictitious Ministry of Truth. There are countless examples of history being re-written. Orwell gives other examples: Is the protocols of the Elders of Zion a genuine document? Did Trotsky plot with the Nazis? How many German aeroplanes were shot down in the Battle of Britain? Does Europe welcome the New Order? In no case do you get one answer that is universally accepted because it is true: in each case you get a number of totally incompatible answers, one of which is finally adopted as the result of a physical struggle.
History is written by the winners. (Orwell 1944). Noam Chomsky develops these ideas and applies them to the Vietnam and Gulf wars. He describes a study that was done at the University of Massachusetts on attitudes towards the Gulf war. This study was designed to gauge the beliefs and attitudes of television watchers. One of the questions asked in that study was, How (sic) many Vietnamese casualties would you estimate that there were during the Vietnam war? The average response on the part of Americans today is about 100,000.
The official figure is about two million. The actual figure is probably three to four million. (Chomsky 1991). This example highlights an almost eerie foresight into the future from Orwell. Are the telescreens that pump out propaganda and manipulated facts and figures to the population of Oceania really that different in principle to the televisions that are dotted around our houses now? It seems that the information broadcast on television is believed by its viewers. The history of the Vietnam war has probably altered since it ended.
It may be hard to write an objective history of it from an American perspective, as attitudes toward the conflict seem to be ambiguous. When the war ended, American vets were seen by their country as failures, now they are honoured officially. It is unclear who is writing the history of Vietnam. During the conflict, news coverage was biased toward the plight of the American forces and anti communist ideals, creating a monster out of the enemy as to keep people”s thought irrational and unquestionably loyal to the American war effort.
Towards the end of the seventies we saw the first of a wave of Vietnam feature films. It was now the directors telling the story, but whose is correct? Mc Carthyists may argue that Hollywood is adopting a communist point of view and thus siding with the old enemy. Is it just wars whose facts and figures are subject to alteration? Who is to say for instance that the so-called financial boom of the eighties actually happened? As it the decade gets more vague in our memories, it may be open to historical manipulation for political means.
The likelihood is the current Labour government of 1999 will have a different recollection of the financial situation of the last twenty years than that of the Conservatives. Which, if either, account is correct? We (the public) have our own realities of the era; the amount of money we had at the time. As individuals though we are not in a position of power with which to rewrite history. Chomsky talks about the first modern government propaganda, that of the Woodrow Wilson Administration of The United States at the time of World War I.
The population of America were pacifistic at that time and saw no reason to become involved in a European conflict. The Wilson government were committed to war and decided to do something about it. They established a government propaganda division, called the Creel Commission, which succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population which wanted to tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world. (Chomsky 1991). These same techniques were used for anti socialist campaigns after the war, which destroyed unions and restricted the freedom of the press.
The same techniques were used by the British propaganda ministry, whose commitment at the time, as they put it in their secret deliberations, was ‘to direct the thought of most of the world”. (Chomsky1991). Chomsky goes on to say that the British propaganda ministry”s aim was to control the thought of the more intelligent members of the community in the United States, who would then disseminate the propaganda that they were concocting and convert the pacifistic country to wartime hysteria.
He says that this taught a lesson to Hitler and many others that state propaganda, when supported by the educated classes and when no deviation is permitted from it, can have a big effect. A concise example of the use of propaganda in nineteen eighty- four is the rabble rousing Two Minutes Hate. This is a daily gathering where members of the Party vent their hatred for enemies of the state, In particular the spectre of Emmanuel Goldstein. Party members gather together in front of a telescreen while a film of the traitor Goldstein is shown.
The participants are worked into a fury of hate before being brought back to calm by the image and voice of Big Brother. In chapter 1 of the book Orwell describes the event: Goldstein was delivering his usual venomous attack upon the doctrines of the Party – an attack so exaggerated and perverse that a child should have been able to see through it, and yet just plausible enough to leave one with an alarmed feeling that other people, less level headed than oneself, might be taken in by it. (1949)
I believe evidence of Orwell”s own belief in the power of persuasive propaganda is expressed through the thoughts of Winston. Although Winston is a rebellious thinker who initially uses the two minute hate to vent his detestation of Insoc and it”s subsidiary organisations, he finds his feelings switching to a hatred of the image of Goldstein. He then voluntarily switches his hatred to the image of the girl behind him. Oceania is personified by the image of Big Brother, whilst its enemies are symbolised by Goldstein.
This rhetoric is well used in propaganda and there are many examples, either official, as with Marianne and Germania, or unofficial, as in the cartoon stereotypes of John Bull. (Hobsbawm 1983). I have not really scratched the surface of concepts of information manipulation that Orwell highlights in Nineteen Eighty- Four, Newspeak for instance. A whole book could be written on this language and probably has been. After reading Orwell and Chomsky a great deal of correlation is evident between their ideas.
Orwell says: The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities” but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future (1944) Although we live in a so-called democracy today the practice of history rewriting still seems to be prevalent. Chomsky says: the picture of the world that”s presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality. The truth of the matter is buried under edifice after edifice of lies upon lies… It”s not like a totalitarian state, where it”s done by force.
These achievements are under conditions of freedom (1991). Although we do live in a free society (try arguing that we don”t with someone who”s lived under an oppressive regime), we live under what Chomsky calls a self-imposed totalitarianism (1991) with our televisions as our telescreens. As our daily newspapers switch political allegiances, who is to say that they are not employing modern day Winston Smiths to change accounts of the past. Why should the Sun hark on about the good old days under the Tory government when they want Blair to win the next election?