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The word ”propaganda” is used and understood, broadly speaking, in two different ways. First, it is often understood, neutrally, in a sense related to the Latin word ”propagare,” meaning ”to propagate.” In this sense, propaganda can be defined as an organized attempt to affect the thinking, feelings and actions of a target audience in ways desired by the communicator. In line with this usage, propagating messages is not necessarily good or bad in itself; rather, the goodness or badness of the dissemination will depend on the goodness or badness of the messages and the intent of the communicator.
But the second, and more common, understanding of the word ”propaganda” is negative. Propaganda here becomes distinguished from ordinary attempts at persuasion by the use of means that are discreditable, including manipulating a target audience with a view to gaining or maintaining power over them. Typically, for propaganda in its negative sense, the interests of the audience are subordinated to those of the propagandist. Such things as truth, education, clarity of reasoning and adequacy of information sources become treated as secondary. Propaganda in this pejorative sense can be defined as an organized attempt, through communication, to affect beliefs, attitudes or actions of a target audience by means that circumvent or suppress the target’s ability to understand and evaluate the truth of a pertinent matter.
Lies are an obvious form of propagandistic communication, but deception can often be achieved by one-sided, selective presentation of truths that, taken together and in isolation from other truths of contrary import, create a false impression. To mention one country’s attack on another, without mentioning that the other was the first to attack, is an example. Censorship can be an important component of propaganda by suppressing facts that, in the minds of the target, would create discord with those beliefs or attitudes that the propagandist wishes to impart.
The goal of propaganda is not necessarily to create conviction. The intent may merely be to create uncertainty and inaction among those who would otherwise be staunch opponents of some political, economic, or military power. Falsehoods repeated endlessly can have this effect. A common goal is to encourage forgetfulness about some things and artificially stimulate attention to others. Music, pageantry, imagery, catch-phrases and slogans can all be utilized to capture and sustain the attention and impart feeling to a target audience, often without the target being conscious of any manipulation. To succeed, propaganda generally needs to escape detection.
A very common technique in propaganda is to disguise the source of messages designed to influence people. ”Fake news” involves video material that resembles a TV station’s news format, but is paid for and produced by an interested party, with no acknowledgement of this fact. As another example, so called ”Astroturf” protest groups resemble spontaneously formed community groups but are secretly created and controlled by an interested party.
Practitioners and analysts of modern mass persuasion stress the importance of how an issue is framed in the public mind – health versus freedom of speech in the case of tobacco advertising, for example. Much ingenuity is spent in finding memorable catch phrases and enduring images to sustain the desired way of framing the issue.
Since it is well understood that in certain contexts of eristic (combative) discourse, such as in a courtroom or with electoral campaign literature, truth presentation will be selective, some greater leeway can be allowed before calling this discourse ”propaganda,” because the message recipients will be on guard and the other side will be presented. The case for this leeway collapses, though, when an eristic presentation is disguised as heuristic (truth discovery) discourse – for example, by concealing the true source.
- Ellul, J. (1965) Propaganda. Random House, London.
- Marlin, R. (2002) Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Broadview, Peterborough, Ontario.
- Walton, D. (2007) Media Argumentation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.