The Many Lives of Propaganda


These days people cry “propaganda” at a message or information with which they deeply disagree or that they intensely dislike. When the news media reported that Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, said that Paul Ryan’s budget was “more extreme” than the GOP’s past “propaganda,” one of the immediate public comments to the story published in the Washington Post was that the “Democrat/Media propaganda machine is working this one hard.” Statements from both left and right imply that something negative and dishonest is coming from the opposing side. To label a message as propaganda calls for its dismissal as a lie, distortion, deceit, or manipulation. As a matter of fact, any of us can hardly speak on a subject that affects our own interests without emitting propaganda, no matter how impartial we may try to be. In that sense, as just expressing one’s convictions, the term has a non-controversial meaning similar to how it was originally used in 17th century by Roman Catholic church to refer to dissemination of its teaching.

The word propaganda in popular usage continues to carry negative connotations most strongly associated with the Nazi effort from the 1930s to generate support for the murderous regime through skillfully crafted imagery. Although the intensity and evilness of Nazi propaganda loom large in public’s negative perceptions, it was earlier, during World War I, when the inconvenient news and opinions were first stigmatized as propaganda. Walter Lipmann described Allied military communiqués that exaggerated enemy losses and fed this false information to the press as what “we have learned to call propaganda.” By manipulating news reports, the military created mental pictures to make the public see the war as they desired it to be seen. The same effect was probably accomplished more subtly by the embedding of reporters within army units during the Iraq War, but very few dared to call it propaganda. Modern promoters of ideas and products on a large scale have long distanced themselves from the dirty word “propaganda,” and describe their work by borrowing more prestigious words such as education, information, public relations, or publicity. Similar to practitioners, scholars of propaganda also sanitize the word propaganda by using the term “persuasion” instead. Persuasion emphasizes psychological aspects of influence and individual opinion change. However, the focus on individuals rather than on shared collective attitudes exonerates social institutions from responsibility for creating conditions in which propaganda may reach its full sinister potential. Propaganda works best to manipulate and control the “public mind” when it is hidden and undetected.

The classic post-World War I propaganda research of Harold Lasswell centered on detecting how symbols (words and images) are manipulated to attain the control of controversial collective attitudes. Particularly important for Lasswell was the manipulation of symbols in the “media of communication.” He devised a number of tests for identifying propaganda in news stories, which he believed to contain the most important symbols instrumental in elite’s control of collective attitudes. The simplest test was the “avowal test,” the explicit identification with one side of the controversy, and the most refined was a “distortion test” or persistent modification of statements through omission, addition, over or under-emphasis in a direction favorable to one side. The study of propaganda has effectively become a study of biased communication.

Confronted with the onslaught of Nazi propaganda, one of the most pressing questions for the U.S. government during World War II was how to use and create information that would boost the morale of both soldiers and civilians and counter Nazi propaganda. A Yale psychologist Carl Hovland was hired by the Information and Education division of the U.S. Army to study the effects of a series of documentary movies Why We Fight that were specifically produced to persuade American soldiers to fight. Hollywood director Frank Capra made the movies as a direct answer to notorious Nazi propaganda movie Triumph of the Will directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Against expectation, exposure to the Why We Fight movies did not affect soldiers’ optimism about the war. It seemed that soldiers had psychological defenses that protected them from being brainwashed by propaganda. Subsequent research focused on psychological mechanisms activated when the individual is confronted with various types of persuasive messages, and discovered that people are not duped easily and indiscriminately by mass communication. The implication was that mass media might not have been as powerful as feared in spreading propaganda and influencing people’s opinions.

After World War II, the word propaganda fell out of fashion as the ideas of powerful media faded. The 1944 seminal book on voting, The People’s Choice, summarily referred to radio and newspaper content as well as election campaign communication, as propaganda, but concluded that it had not been effective in opinion change. More than four decades later, a prominent social psychologist, William McGuire, confirmed in his book The Myth of Massive Media Impact that evidence in support of the claim of sizable direct impact of media on the public is weak. Gradually, propaganda was treated mostly as a subcategory of persuasion that is distinguished mostly by its purpose—to serve only the interest of propagandist. By 2010, the latest edition of The Handbook of Social Psychology, a standard academic reference for the field for the past 50 years, did not index the word “propaganda” despite having the whole chapter devoted to persuasion. Within the field of social psychology, the word propaganda evolved to mean simply mass persuasion.

Many of the original ideas of Walter Lippmann and Harold Lasswell that emphasized the role of mass media in dissemination of propaganda were resurrected in Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. The book provoked strong reactions and particularly objectionable was the use of word propaganda to describe the workings of American mainstream media that pride themselves on their objectivity and independence. Herman and Chomsky identified as a primary function of national mass media to mobilize public support for the special interests that dominate the government and the private sector. Media perform this function by selection of topics, distribution of concerns, emphasis, framing of issues, filtering of information and bounding of debate. These characteristics of media performance strikingly resemble many of the tests that Lasswell applied to detection of propaganda, and many of them have been established as specialized theories of media effects on public opinion in their own right. Therefore, despite propaganda being a feared and avoided word that many do not want to talk about, research in propaganda continues by other names. Most well known among these are agenda setting and framing.

Modern propaganda theories recognize a profound role of media representations in shaping public opinion. Although they show that media effects are not monolithic, patterns of their presentations steadily tip our emotions, perceptions, and thoughts in predictable directions. These effects are facilitated by development of sophisticated techniques of mass persuasion applicable to all public opinion contexts—political, business, news and entertainment, or social service. News producers use these techniques to sell their content to audiences in a similar way to political campaign managers who use them to sell their candidates to voters.

With the growing mastery of media technology, propaganda is becoming an even more formidable force. New technologies may actually increase our vulnerability to propaganda by lulling us with the sense of individual control and liberation. At the same time when the Internet makes us feel empowered, digital data about what we like and buy are assembled to construct profiles responsive to messages customized to activate needs and wants that further the desired goals of the propagandist. Similarly, the Internet with its interactivity and openness democratized the public discourse, but also opened the floodgates to unreliable and unverified information. Sacrificing accuracy to authenticity contributes to public misinformation and heightened levels of political polarizations. Research has shown that individuals in our society are learning less from the media over time despite maintaining their levels of interest and attention to public affairs. Propaganda analyses of interaction between forms of “biased communication” and audiences’ responses may help solve a puzzle of why the increased levels of formal education and unprecedented availability and quantity of media information fail to translate directly into a more informed citizenry and stronger democracy.

Propaganda is a multidimensional concept that can be approached from many perspectives–individual, social, cultural or political. Every approach imbues propaganda with a distinct meaning, but in essence propaganda is a concept grounded in communication. Spread of inaccurate messages represents the simplest form of propaganda, but it is nuances, subtle suggestions and distortions that make propaganda truly dangerous. Karin and Folke Dovring endowment will build on the Lasswell-Dovring tradition of message/ content analyses and develop new ways to detect biased communication and hidden undercurrents of meanings especially in the new media environments.

Karin Dovring[1] saw the key to propaganda effectiveness in the correspondence between symbols in messages and shared values of a particular public. When a high correspondence is achieved, the public is defenseless against the bias that it does not recognize as such. Propaganda analyses that reveal symbols and values deeply involved in the preservation of ideological structure of the community may help the public to resist accepting someone’s exclusive interests as their own. The endowment will help develop research that explicitly connects certain symbols with public’s reactions as an exercise of power over an established social order.

New media technologies linked together different communities, but also increasingly exposed their different publics to “one” loudest communicator. Propaganda is a global phenomenon, and it is not limited only to times of war or restricted to particular countries. Nevertheless, it is not clear that all our knowledge about propaganda can be applied to “world communication,” or that same mechanisms of propaganda operate in different places. The endowment’s support for analysis of international persuasion makes possible discovery of varied propaganda patterns that may have been overlooked in our own country. International study is also a prerequisite for comparative research that may reveal how propaganda works in the context of different communication and political systems or under different social and cultural circumstances. This will enrich the theory of propaganda and may help improve the global communication by identifying common values as a basis for shared understanding.

[1] Dovring, K. (1959). Road of propaganda: The semantics of biased communication. NY: Philosophical Library