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.