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North Korean propaganda of a soldier destroying the US Capitol

Propaganda is a specific type of message presentation, aimed at serving an agenda. Even if the message conveys true information, it may be partisan and fail to paint a complete picture. The book Propaganda And Persuasion defines propaganda as "the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist." The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) was launched in 1993 to create what at the time was the only public interest and media organization dedicated to exposing organized corporate and government propaganda and its impacts on democracy and democratic social change.[1]

Kinds of Propaganda

Propaganda shares many techniques with advertising or public relations; in fact, advertising and PR can be said to be propaganda promoting a commercial product. As commonly understood, however, the term usually refers to political or nationalist messages. It can take the form of leaflets, posters, TV broadcasts or radio broadcasts.

In a narrower and more common use of the term, propaganda refers to deliberately false or misleading information that supports a political cause or the interests of those in power. The propagandist seeks to change the way people understand an issue or situation, for the purpose of changing their actions and expectations in ways that are desirable to the interest group. In this sense, propaganda serves as a corollary to censorship, in which the same purpose is achieved, not by filling people's heads with false information, but by preventing people from knowing true information. What sets propaganda apart from other forms of advocacy is the willingness of the propagandist to change people's understanding through deception and confusion, rather than persuasion and understanding. The leaders of an organization know the information to be one sided or untrue but this may not be true for the rank and file members who help to disseminate the propaganda.

Propaganda is a mighty weapon in war. In this case its aim is usually to dehumanize the enemy and to create hatred against a special group. The technique is to create a false image in the mind. This can be done by using special words, special avoidance of words or by saying that the enemy is responsible for certain things he never did. In every propaganda war two things are needed: Injustice and Faint. The faint or the injustice may be fictitious or may be based on facts, the aim is always to create hate.

Propaganda is also one of the methods used in psychological warfare. More in line with the religious roots of the term, anti-cult activists accuse the leaders of cults of using propaganda extensively to recruit followers and keep them.

Examples of political propaganda:

In an even narrower, less commonly used but legitimate sense of the term, propaganda refers only to false information meant to reassure people who already believe. The assumption is that, if people believe something false, they will constantly be assailed by doubts. Since these doubts are unpleasant (see cognitive dissonance), people will be eager to have them extinguished, and are therefore receptive to the reassurances of those in power. For this reason propaganda is often addressed to people who are already sympathetic to the agenda.

Propaganda has sometimes been classified as "white," "black" or "gray." White propaganda generally comes from an openly identified source and is not intentionally deceptive. Black propaganda pretends to be from a friendly source, but is actually from an adversary and is intended to deceive its audience. Gray propaganda falls somewhere between white and black.

Other general methods used for controlling populations:

1) Isolation/control: Isolating groups can take many forms whether racial, demographic or social. Isolating groups politically can be a simple or complex process but always results in leveraged control and potential political marginalization with potential ultimate control as in a one-party state. Propaganda is an essential tool in providing the information to that will allow a particular group of people to be isolated from the mass.

2) Confusion/diversion: Splitting a major issue into separate components can work to resurrect failed but desired consequences, for example when one contentious element of an issue fails related or independent components of the issue serve as new justifications. For example the original goal in Iraq was the quest for WMD's but when WMD's were disproved the issue was transformed to providing "freedom and liberty" for the Iraqi people, and later on simply the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein was the desired goal.

3) Separation: Related to isolation and control, behaviorial psychologists sometimes refer to the principle of "divide and conquer". Divide and conquer is an extremely useful tool to maintain control over disparate groups and propaganda provides the information upon which separation is based.

4) Reaction: strength is based upon action and it is desirable to place the people and unruly groups in positions where they must react, propaganda is a useful tool and adjunct in forcing people to react as a large group. Government takes its strength from action where the strong act upon certain information and the weak and unwary are left to react.

5) Disinformation as weakness: weakness is indicated by reaction, reaction is induced by misinformation and disinformation. Strength is manifest in action to which an adjunct may be the supply of misinformation or disinformation. Individuals must not be allowed to act or think independently, and individuals must not be permitted to act in the face of government coercion. By forcing people to react to disinformation and misinformation individuals in power can pursue their own private agenda.

6) Coercion: a government's capability is determined by the government's ability to coerce citizens into adopting certain behaviors. In this manner the government may control and condition its people or the government cannot be successful. Propaganda is an essential tool and sometimes directs the manner in which the coercion is focused.

From the dictionary

From the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, a 742-page and growing work, most recently amended in November (online here); cited in Peter Edidin, "Give a Blood Chit to the Confusion Agent" (New York Times, January 30)

  1. "Any thought or idea expressed briefly in a plain or secret language and prepared in a form suitable for transmission by any means of communication."
    —Definition of "message"
  2. "Any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly."
    —Definition of "propaganda," in above cited dictionary
  3. "Those overt international public information activities of the united states government designed to promote united states foreign policy objectives by seeking to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences and opinion makers, and by broadening the dialogue between american citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad."
    —Definition of "public diplomacy," in above cited dictionary

History of Propaganda

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World War I recruiting poster for the U.S. Army, designed by the Creel Committee

An example of propaganda from an earlier authoritarian and militaristic culture are the writings of Romans like Livy, which are considered masterpieces of pro-Roman statist propaganda. The term itself, however, originated in Europe in 1622, shortly after the start of the Thirty Years' War, which pitted Catholics against Protestants. Catholic Pope Gregory XV founded Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (sacra congregatio christiano nomini propagando or, briefly, propaganda fide), the department of the pontifical administration charged with the spread of Catholicism and with the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries (mission territory). Originally the term was not intended to refer to misleading information.

The modern political sense of the term "propaganda" dates from World War I, and was not originally pejorative. Propaganda techniques were first codified and applied in a scientific manner by journalist Walter Lippman and psychologist Edward Bernays (nephew of Sigmund Freud) early in the 20th century. During World War I, Lippman and Bernays both worked for the Committee on Public Information (known informally as the Creel Committee after its director, George Creel), which was created by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to sway popular opinion to enter the war on the side of Britain.

The Creel Committee's pro-war propaganda campaign produced within six months an intense anti-German hysteria. Its success permanently impressed American business (and Adolf Hitler, among others, with the potential of large-scale propaganda to control public opinion. Bernays coined the terms "group mind" and "engineering consent", important concepts in practical propaganda work.

The current public relations industry is a direct outgrowth of the Creel Committee's work and is still used extensively by the United States government. Several of the early figures in the public relations industry were members of the Creel Committee, including Bernays, Ivy Lee and Carl Byoir.

World War II saw continued use of propaganda as a weapon of war, both by Hitler's propagandist Joseph Goebbels and the British Political Warfare Executive.

Nazi Germany

Most propaganda in Germany was produced by the Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda ("Promi" in German abbreviation). Joseph Goebbels was placed in charge of this ministry shortly after Hitler took power in 1933. All journalists, writers, and artists were required to register with one of the Ministry's subordinate chambers for the press, fine arts, music, theater, film, literature, or radio.

The Nazis believed in propaganda as a vital tool in achieving their goals. Adolf Hitler, Germany's F? was impressed by the power of Allied propaganda during World War I and believed that it had been a primary cause of the collapse of morale and revolts in the German home front and Navy in 1918. Hitler would meet nearly every day with Goebbels to discuss the news and Goebbels would obtain Hitler's thoughts on the subject; Goebbels would then meet with senior Ministry officials and pass down the official Party line on world events. Broadcasters and journalists required prior approval before their works were disseminated. Hitler and other powerful high ranking Nazis such as Reinhard Heydrich had no moral qualms about spreading propaganda which they themselves knew to be false. Nazi disinformation came to be known as the Big Lie (ironically, a term that Hitler coined initially to describe what he characterized as dishonest propaganda by Jews).

Nazi propaganda before the start of World War II had several distinct audiences:

  • German audiences were continually reminded of the struggle of the Nazi Party and Germany against foreign enemies and internal enemies, especially Jews.
  • Ethnic Germans in countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Soviet Union, and the Baltic states were told that blood ties to Germany were stronger than their allegiance to their new countries.
  • Potential enemies, such as France and Great Britain, were told that Germany had no quarrel with the people of the country, but that their governments were trying to start a war with Germany.
  • All audiences were reminded of the greatness of German cultural, scientific, and military achievements.

Until the Battle of Stalingrad's conclusion on February 2, 1943, German propaganda emphasized the prowess of German arms and the humanity German soldiers had shown to the peoples of occupied territories. In contrast, British and Allied fliers were depicted as cowardly murderers, and Americans in particular as gangsters in the style of Al Capone. At the same time, German propaganda sought to alienate Americans and British from each other, and both these Western belligerents from the Soviets.

After Stalingrad, the main theme changed to Germany as the sole defender of Western European culture against the "Bolshevist hordes." The introduction of the V-1 and V-2 "vengeance weapons" was emphasized to convince Britons of the hopelessness of defeating Germany.

Goebbels committed suicide shortly after Hitler on April 30, 1945. In his stead, Hans Fritzsche, who had been head of the Radio Chamber, was tried and acquitted by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.

Cold War Propaganda

The United States and the Soviet Union both used propaganda extensively during the Cold War. Both sides used film, television and radio programming to influence their own citizens, each other and Third World nations. The United States Information Agency operated the Voice of America as an official government station. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, in part supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, provided gray propaganda in news and entertainment programs to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union respectively. The Soviet Union's official government station Radio Moscow, broadcast white propaganda, while Radio Peace and Freedom broadcast grey propaganda. Both sides also broadcast black propaganda programs around special crises.

One of the most insightful authors of the Cold War was George Orwell, whose novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are virtual textbooks on the use of propaganda. Though not set in the Soviet Union, their characters live under totalitarian regimes in which language is constantly corrupted for political purposes. Those novels were used for explicit propaganda. The CIA, for example, secretly commissioned an animated film adaptation of Animal Farm in the 1950s.

Techniques of Propaganda Generation

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Saddam Hussein pictured as a decisive war leader in an Iraqi propaganda picture

A number of techniques are used to create messages which are persuasive, but false. Many of these same techniques can be found under logical fallacies since propagandists use arguments which, although sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid.

Some time has been spent analyzing the means by which propaganda messages are transmitted, and that work is important, but it's clear that information dissemination strategies only become propaganda strategies when coupled with propagandistic messages. Identifying these propaganda messages is a necessary prerequisite to studying the methods by which those messages are spread. That's why it is essential to have some knowledge of the following techniques for generating propaganda:

Appeal to fear: Appeals to fear seeks to build support by instilling fear in the general population - for example Joseph Goebbels exploited Theodore Kaufman's Germany Must Perish! to claim that the Allies sought the extermination of the German people.

Appeal to authority: Appeals to authority cite prominent figures to support a position idea, argument, or course of action.

Bandwagon: Bandwagon-and-inevitable-victory appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to take a course of action "everyone else is taking." "Join the crowd." This technique reinforces people's natural desire to be on the winning side. This technique is used to convince the audience that a program is an expression of an irresistible mass movement and that it is in their interest to join. "Inevitable victory" invites those not already on the bandwagon to join those already on the road to certain victory. Those already, or partially, on the bandwagon are reassured that staying aboard is the best course of action.

Obtain disapproval: This technique is used to get the audience to disapprove an action or idea by suggesting the idea is popular with groups hated, feared, or held in contempt by the target audience. Thus, if a group which supports a policy is led to believe that undesirable, subversive, or contemptible people also support it, the members of the group might decide to change their position.

Glittering generalities: Glittering generalities are intensely emotionally appealing words so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that they carry conviction without supporting information or reason. They appeal to such emotions as love of country, home; desire for peace, freedom, glory, honor, etc. They ask for approval without examination of the reason. Though the words and phrases are vague and suggest different things to different people, their connotation is always favorable: "The concepts and programs of the propagandist are always good, desirable, virtuous."

Rationalization: Individuals or groups may use favorable generalities to rationalize questionable acts or beliefs. Vague and pleasant phrases are often used to justify such actions or beliefs.

Intentional vagueness: Generalities are deliberately vague so that the audience may supply its own interpretations. The intention is to move the audience by use of undefined phrases, without analyzing their validity or attempting to determine their reasonableness or application

Transfer: This is a technique of projecting positive or negative qualities (praise or blame) of a person, entity, object, or value (an individual, group, organization, nation, patriotism, etc.) to another in order to make the second more acceptable or to discredit it. This technique is generally used to transfer blame from one member of a conflict to another. It evokes an emotional response which stimulates the target to identify with recognized authorities.

Oversimplification: Favorable generalities are used to provide simple answers to complex social, political, economic, or military problems.

Common man: The "plain folks" or "common man" approach attempts to convince the audience that the propagandist's positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms (and clothes in face-to-face and audiovisual communications) in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person.

Testimonial: Testimonials are quotations, in or out of context, especially cited to support or reject a given policy, action, program, or personality. The reputation or the role (expert, respected public figure, etc.) of the individual giving the statement is exploited. The testimonial places the official sanction of a respected person or authority on a propaganda message. This is done in an effort to cause the target audience to identify itself with the authority or to accept the authority's opinions and beliefs as its own.

Stereotyping or Labeling: This technique attempts to arouse prejudices in an audience by labeling the object of the propaganda campaign as something the target audience fears, hates, loathes, or finds undesirable.

Scapegoating: Assigning blame to an individual or group that isn't really responsible, thus alleviating feelings of guilt from responsible parties and/or distracting attention from the need to fix the problem for which blame is being assigned.

Virtue words: These are words in the value system of the target audience which tend to produce a positive image when attached to a person or issue. Peace, happiness, security, wise leadership, freedom, etc., are virtue words.

Slogans: A slogan is a brief striking phrase that may include labeling and stereotyping. If ideas can be sloganized, they should be, as good slogans are self-perpetuating memes.

See also doublespeak, information warfare, meme, psyops

Techniques of Propaganda Transmission

Common methods for transmitting propaganda messages include news reports, government reports, historical revision, theater, books, leaflets, movies, radio , television , and posters.

Recognizing Propaganda

Some of the most effective propaganda techniques work by misdirecting or distracting the public's finite attention away from important issues. It's important to read between the lines of the news and see what isn't being reported, or what is reported once, quietly, and not followed up. In an age of information overload, distraction techniques can as effective as active propaganda. One way to test for distraction is to look for items that appear repeatedly in foreign press (from neutral and hostile countries) and that don't appear in your own. But beware of deliberately placed lies that are repeated with the hope that people will believe it if it is repeated often enough.

All active propaganda techniques can be tested by asking if they tend the target audience to act in the best interests of the distributor of the propaganda. Propaganda presents on point of view as if it were the best or only way to look at a situation.

Sometimes propaganda can be detected by the fact that it changes before and after a critical event, whereas more honest information like medicine, science or any training manual should largely remain the same after the event as before. If there are big disparities, or if some "valuable lesson" or "wake-up call" has occurred, it means that what was provided before the fact was not really "instruction" but "guessing," or - if there is no consistent explanation that survives - propaganda..

Propaganda organisations

US government examples

British government examples

Australian government examples

Resources and articles

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. The Propaganda Model: a retrospective, Journalism Studies, Volume 1, Number 1, 2000, pp. 101–112, Edward S. Herman, University of Pennsylvania, USA

External Sources

  • Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2006. ISBN 1-4129-0898-1.
  • Howe, Ellic. The Black Game: British Subversive Operations Against the German During the Second World War. London: Futura, 1982.
  • Edwards, John Carver. Berlin Calling: American Broadcasters in Service to the Third Reich. New York, Prager Publishers, 1991. ISBN 0-275-93705-7.
  • Linebarger, Paul M. A. (aka [w:[Cordwainer Smith|]]). Psychological Warfare. Washington, D.C., Infantry Journal Press, 1948.
  • Shirer, William L. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941. New York: Albert A. Knopf, 1942.
  • Much of the information found in Propaganda techniques is take from: "Appendix I: PSYOP Techniques" from "Psychological Operations Field Manual No.33-1" published by Headquarters; Department of the Army, in Washington DC, on 31 August 1979. [1].

External links

Wikipedia also has an article on Propaganda. This article may use content from the Wikipedia article under the terms of the GFDL.