Encyclopedia > Propaganda

  Article Content


In the broad sense of the term, propaganda is information that serves a particular agenda, which could be true or false. If true, it may be one-sided and fail to paint a complete picture. In late Latin, propaganda means "propagating". In 1622 Pope Gregory XV founded the "Congregation of the Propaganda", a committee of Cardinals who were to oversee the propagation of Christianity by missionaries sent to non-Christian countries. Originally the term was not intended to refer to false or misleading information. Examples of propaganda include leaflets and broadcasts prepared for an enemy audience during warfare and most political campaign advertisements.

Propaganda shares many techniques with advertising; in fact, advertising can be said to be propaganda promoting a commercial product. However, propaganda usually has political and/or nationalist themes. Propaganda is also one of the methods used in psychological warfare.

In a narrower and more common use of the term, propaganda refers to deliberately false or misleading deceptive 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 a situation, for the purpose of changing their actions and expectations in ways that are desirable to the propagandist. 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, rather than persuasion.

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

Propaganda can be classifed according to source. White propaganda comes from an openly identified source. Black propaganda pretends to be from a friendly source, but is actually from an adversary. Gray propaganda pretends to be from a neutral source, but comes from an adversary.

See also: black propaganda, marketing, advertising

Table of contents

History of Propaganda

Propaganda has been a human activity as far back as reliable recorded evidence exists. The writings of Romans like Livy are considered masterpieces of pro-Roman statist propaganda. The term itself originates with the Roman Catholic 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). The actual Latin stem propagand- conveys a sense of "that which ought to be spread".

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 were hired by the United States president Woodrow Wilson to sway popular opinion to enter the war on the side of Britain.

The war propaganda campaign of Lippman and Bernays produced within six months so intense an anti-German hysteria as to permanently impress 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 Lippman and Bernays' work and is still used extensively by the United States government. For the first half of the 20th century Bernays and Lippman themselves ran a very successful public relations firm.

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[?]. Some historical revionists claim that the use of gas chambers in the Holocaust is an instance of an effective Allied propaganda campaign that could not be reined in after the war, much like the now discredited claim made during the Gulf War that Iraqi soldiers were ripping newborn babies out of incubators and throwing them to the ground.

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 Führer, 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. In addition the Nazis had no moral qualms about spreading propaganda which they themselves knew to the false and indeed spreading deliberately false information was part of a doctrine known as the Big Lie.

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 4, 1943, German propaganda emphasized the prowness 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 grey 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.

Techniques of Propaganda Generation

These techniques are used to create messages which are convincing, but false. Many of these same techniques can be found under logical fallacies, which makes sense, because it's essential that the propagandist use arguments which are convincing but 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 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

Techniques of Propaganda Transmission

Common methods for transmitting propaganda messages include news reports, government reports, historical revision, junk science, books, leaflets, movies, and posters.


  • 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.
  • 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. I'm sure there are copies of this whole manual on the web, I'll try to find a good link soon.

See also: propaganda film, Logical fallacy, political media, ideology, spin, Information warfare, CNN, BBC, agitprop

External links

Propaganda[?] were a 1980s UK pop group signed to Paul Morley[?] and Trevor Horn's ZTT record label.

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article

... the major parties and others being ephemeral parties formed to give major-party candidates an additional line on the ballot. Geography See: List of New York ...