11M: The lie that triumphed

Beatriz Gallardo Paúls

9 mins - 14 de Marzo de 2024, 07:00

The anniversary of 11M has prompted multiple analyses that add to a long trajectory of academic and journalistic texts on the 2004 jihadist attack. The short version refers to how the leaders of the Popular Party, with the help of conservative media, tried to deceive the public and convince them that it was an ETA attack, but they did not succeed and lost the elections on 14 March. It would basically be a failure of the lie and a triumph of the truth. 

In this text we do not share this view. We believe that the hoax was successful. A partial success, because Aznar did indeed lose the elections, but a prolonged success, because twenty years later 11M in Spain continues to be a debatable issue, with different and incompatible versions. With this in mind, we briefly highlight two effects of 11M: the establishment of a governmental discourse of a propagandistic nature and the creation of a systemic alliance of mutual support between the Popular Party and certain media outlets, which is activated with special effort every time Spain democratically achieves progressive governments.

The Propaganda Hoax
The message elaborated by the government complied with several of the rules of propaganda identified by Jean-Marie Domenach in La propagande politique (1950), but not all of them. Firstly, it complied with the rule of transference; in other words, the propaganda message was based on a previous substratum of an emotional nature. The hoax put forward an idea that fitted in perfectly with general expectations, as Spanish public opinion had been accustomed to this type of news since 1975, and in May 2003 ETA had murdered two policemen. The history of democratic Spain, punctuated by the terrorist group’s bloody attacks, created a favourable climate for this interpretation. The historical context thus functioned as an activator of what Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson call “pre-persuasion”, that is, the kind of ideas or arguments that are taken for granted, that fit with prior knowledge.

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However, from the early hours of the afternoon of 11M, the development of the investigation made it possible to consider Islamist authorship. It was at this point that the communicative situation changed, and the discourse bifurcated to give way to what Steve Tesich, in a 1992 text on the first Gulf War, had called “a post-truth world”. Post-truth, it is necessary to qualify this, does not point exactly to lies, but to the fact that the citizenry assumes them with complacency:

“We are quickly becoming the prototype of a people that totalitarian monsters could only drool over in their dreams. Until now, all dictators had to work hard to suppress the truth. We, with our actions, say that this is no longer necessary, (...) that we want to live in a post-truth world.” – Steve Tesich, "A Government of Lies"
The “post-truth” hypothesis constructed by the Popular government (for example, in the telegram sent mid-afternoon by Minister Palacio to all ambassadors) sought to maintain the emotional transfer of the ETA attacks in order, above all, to avoid the transfer that could be triggered between a jihadist attack and the warmongering policy of Aznar, whose “photo of the Azores” was a year old that same 16 March. 

Moreover, the message followed the rule of amplification and disfigurement, presenting the facts in such a way that any inconsequential fact could be interpreted as a serious threat; and, above all, it complied with the rule of orchestration, that is, the tireless repetition of the main themes over time, introducing minimal formal variations to arouse renewed interest. All the alleged novelties that the media, led by El Mundo, have been “discovering” over the years, draw a cognitive itinerary that simply consists of stirring up suspicion. FAES itself has joined this orchestration with its recent communiqué, in an unusual display of stubbornness that especially defines certain political positions that are alien to ideology; “sustain and not amend” is, clearly, a feature of the current ultras’ rhetoric. 

However, the proposed messages were a radical departure from the other two propaganda rules. Firstly, the rule of simplification and the single enemy. In all the arguments constructed to defend ETA’s involvement, from 11M to the present day, the complexity and the degree of truculence with which they tried to twist the evidence to turn it into supposed evidence is enormously striking. The false news that was proposed, above all from the pages of El Mundo or the microphones of the COPE, created a convoluted story that was constantly being readapted, as happens in bad soap operas that go on year after year, with no more cohesion between chapters than the argumentative skeleton that defines the good guys and the bad guys. There was constant confusion and a change of narrative direction, as well as the distribution of responsibilities; the accusations made between 2004 and 2014 sometimes pointed to the police (who had lied and falsified evidence), sometimes to the jihadists themselves (to whom all kinds of possible links with ETA and the Basque Country were attributed), or even to the socialist party. In short, the revision and prolonged extension of the lies fabricated over the years contradicted some of the minimum requirements of the propaganda discourse, whose messages must be simple and reiterative, and aimed at a single enemy.

Finally, the fabricated message failed with respect to the rule of unanimity and contagion, as the majority of the public backed the version that ratified the data from the investigation, disseminated by media outlets such as SER, El País, and ABC. Although one of the elements that are usually highlighted in relation to 11M is the use of short text messages to call for demonstrations (something that had begun in 2002, in the demonstrations against the war in Iraq), it is important to bear in mind that 11M did not take place in a digital context. Despite the urgency conveyed by the famous “pass it on!”, the truth is that neither the time nor the information rhythms of 2004 were as dizzying as they are today. It had only been a month since a group of Harvard students had launched their digital version of the university yearbook, Facebook, and Western societies were in a climate of technolatry and fascination with the digital that would continue to increase with the appearance of smartphones in 2007 (iPhone) and 2008 (Android) and the emergence of social networks. For this reason, the spread of the hoax needed to be supported by the media.

The Spread of the Hoax
The issuers of the hoax were, first and foremost, President Aznar and his ministers; all of them had two discursive advantages: they spoke from a position of government (something that in 2004 could still be considered linked to a certain expectation of veracity), and they had experience. Both the sinking of the Prestige oil tanker in 2002 and the general strike called by the trade unions that same year had already shown the Partido Popular’s behaviour in favour of disinformation, and the famous “weapons of mass destruction” that led Aznar to involve us in the second Gulf War, against the UN’s position, were undoubtedly an eloquent precedent in the use of lies.

In order to spread their message, these primary issuers found two fundamental allies, among the media and among the public. El Mundo, Libertad Digital, the COPE network and other media outlets actively participated, for years, in the construction of the lie, as multiple reports remind us these days. Alongside these media, echoing the government’s position, citizen support groups have also emerged that respond to the concept of the “lunatic fringe”, groups of people willing to believe any extemporaneous theory, whether it be that man has never set foot on the moon or that Elvis Presley is still alive. In the case of 11M this lunatic fringe was the so-called “Black Pawns”, a group of people who continued to stir up conspiracy theory until 2014, in a way that advocated the style and discourse of the groups that, years later, whipped up the rise of populism.

This sort of “discursive collaborationism” between politicians, media and activist groups has continued ever since. In this sense, there is no doubt that the post-electoral impact of 11M is related to the lack of credibility of the media in Spain, since neither the journalistic world nor the citizens have penalised those responsible for this enormous lack of professionalism, many of whom still walk the talk shows editorialising on current political events; so it is not surprising that, twenty years later, a large part of the public thinks that if the media are private they have no commitment to truthfulness, and that this can only be demanded of the public media. 

This is, in short, the double legacy of 11M. On the one hand, it naturalised lies and propaganda as government discourse; on the other, it normalised the fact that an important part of mainstream journalism can consist of the simple echoic amplification of that discourse.

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