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What is Propaganda?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When information is disseminated with the intent of manipulating public opinion, it is usually referred to as propaganda. The term has come to be associated with politics in particular, due to extensive government campaigns in the 20th century, but it was not in fact always negative. Examples that are familiar to most people include posters put up during the First and Second World Wars that were designed to elicit public support, and advertisements for products in print and on the television. Both examples include the communication of information, both are intended to evoke a particular response, and both use misleading information to “sell” the viewer on the issue at hand.

The origins of propaganda can be found in the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, an organization founded by the Pope in 1622. The group was formed to spread Christianity to other nations, and initially, the word was fairly benign, suggesting merely the distribution of information. The idea of using posters and newspapers to spread information about important issues came to be known by this term, and up until the world wars, many governments had a propaganda office and were quite open about what they were doing.

World War I and II brought about a change in the way people thought about how information was disseminated, however. Both sides launched smear campaigns designed to malign the enemy, and often the actions attributed to the enemy were patently untrue. The use of many logical fallacies to sway popular opinion began to be widespread, and under Hitler, it became an art form. After the World War II, most governments had an “Information Ministry” rather than a “Propaganda Ministry,” and the term began to acquire negative connotations.

When asked to visualize propaganda, most people think of a poster or advertising campaign that uses false information, oversimplification, and flawed logic to emotionally impact the viewer. Many government campaigns rely heavily on ideals of patriotism, faith, and country to suggest that people who do not agree with the political issue at hand are unpatriotic or even seditious. The techniques that are often used include greenwashing, quoting out of context, misinformation, junk science, buzzwords, and astroturfing. In addition, the material usually contains logical fallacies such as an appeal to ridicule or an ad hominem attack.

As a general rule, propaganda is broken up into three main types. Black uses patently false information that cannot be verified to manipulate the viewer into thinking a particular way about a certain issue. Gray involves the use of information that is difficult to attribute, and may be considered questionable. White propaganda is true, and it is not usually intended to deceive. A number of techniques can be used to determine whether or not something falls under the definition of this term, but as a general rule, people should always examine the source of their information with care.

For example, someone may find himself reading a study that claims that the affects of oil spills on marine life are greatly exaggerated. Given the large amount of information to the contrary, he may want to see who is putting that information forward. It is highly probable in this example that the information is being provided by an oil company, often through a front group that appears innocuous. By following the money, he may determine the true source of the information, which might have an impact on how he thinks about it.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By SarahGen — On Sep 07, 2012

@anon78737-- But it's so hard. Organizations or individuals who do this intentionally hide behind other organizations and names which appear to be impartial.

If I wanted to find out which organizations were linked with who every time I learned something new from them, it would take a long time and a lot of effort. Most people don't have the time or the energy to do this.

By burcidi — On Sep 06, 2012
@sunnySkys-- I don't think we need to go as far as communist regimes to find propaganda. I think propaganda is all around us. In my opinion, anyone who is sharing information with the hopes of influencing people's thinking and decision making is engaging in propaganda techniques. Commercials are a form of propaganda.

Of course, there are degrees of this and I'm sure that in countries where oppressive governments exist, propaganda is used much more widely used and it's probably black propaganda.

By literally45 — On Sep 05, 2012

Propaganda used by politicians during election time is really interesting. Usually campaign ads, which I consider to be propaganda, demean the other runner for that office. It's not always black propaganda though. I think for the most part it's gray and white propaganda and the ads are based on what the other politician actually said and did.

But ad campaigns are also really interesting because at the end of the commercial or at the bottom of the poster or whatever medium is being used, the politicians will actually say that they approve this message meaning that they are the ones who made it. So the public is aware from the very start who is making the propaganda and with what intention. I wonder whether this makes election campaign ads more legitimate?

I mean, if you say "Okay, I'm going to say all these negative things about this person but keep in mind that this person is my competitor and I want to beat them," is it still propaganda?

By sunnySkys — On Sep 04, 2012

@JessicaLynn - While most people would look down on propaganda advertising now, we would be fooling ourselves if we said it didn't happen anywhere in the world. I'm pretty sure that some countries that are communist and censor a lot of information still use propaganda on their citizens!

By JessicaLynn — On Sep 04, 2012

I think it's really interesting that propaganda started out with a fairly benign meaning. As the article said, propaganda was originally meant to just spread true information. However, now it means something completely different!

Can you imagine what would happen now if any country had a "Propaganda Ministry"? People would be outraged at the idea. However, a Propaganda Ministry used to be a totally normal thing and wasn't looked down upon.

By betterment — On Sep 03, 2012

@anon78737 - I agree with you. As the article pointed out, some propagandas can look completely legitimate. It's only when you dig a little deeper and find out who paid for the study or the advertisement that you sometimes find that it's propaganda, and not completely true.

By malik23 — On May 03, 2012

I didn't really understand what this article meant.

By BigBloom — On Jan 25, 2011

I feel like propaganda has become a tug of war and a battle of insults. There is little or no common dignity in campaigns these days, they are almost smear campaigns for the opposite party. People are banking on the idea that negativity is a stronger motivator for voters.

By JavaGhoul — On Jan 22, 2011

There is propaganda and then there is strong reaction. When people think that everything is propaganda they become strong conspiracy theorists. Learning to play off of people's paranoias and hopes is a strongly effective political tactic. Many politicians have a good understanding of social psychology and what makes people tick. Inspiring fury in the masses is sadly becoming an increasingly easy tactic in the states. Let's hope this doesn't escalate.

By Renegade — On Jan 21, 2011

Stalin was a master of propaganda. He would widely publish and distribute images of himself being benevolent and kind, around children and flowers on a sunny day. His Christlike self-attribution was also made to look like the images came from elsewhere, and that people were voluntarily praising him. This kind of Communist propaganda worked on many Western journalists and capitalist nations, who saw communist nations as thriving and generous. Eventually, the facade collapsed.

By anon78737 — On Apr 19, 2010

I totally agree when it says that we must find the sources of the information. A lot of people never take the time to actually investigate who is paying for the information and why. We should be more careful about what we read.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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