It is important to consider the definition, purpose, and effect of propaganda:
- understand that propaganda is defined in different ways depending on the culture, time period, and the context
- recognize that propaganda activates strong emotions, simplifies ideas, appeals to audience needs, and values, and targets opponents
- develop a sense of social responsibility for the appropriate sharing of propaganda
- increase confidence in expressing views and in thinking through controversial topics where people have differences of opinion
- reflect on propaganda’s potentially beneficial or harmful nature and its impact on individuals and society
Propaganda appears in a variety of forms and uses common techniques to successfully influence people, including:
- Activating strong emotions
- Responding to audience needs & values
- Simplifying information & ideas
- Attacking opponents
1. Technique: Activate Strong Emotions Propaganda plays on human emotions—fear, hope, anger, frustration, sympathy—to direct audiences toward the desired goal. In the deepest sense, propaganda is a mind game—the skillful propagandist exploits people’s fears and prejudices. Successful propagandists understand how to psychologically tailor messages to people’s emotions in order to create a sense of excitement and arousal that suppresses critical thinking.
By activating emotions, the recipient is emotionally moved by the message of the propagandist. Labeling is another weapon of choice for the propagandist. What emotions are important for those who create propaganda? Fear, pity, anger, arousal, compassion, hatred, resentment - all these emotions can be intensified by using the right labels.
3. Technique: Respond to Audience Needs & Values Effective propaganda conveys messages, themes, and language that appeal directly, and many times exclusively, to specific and distinct groups within a population. Propagandists may appeal to you as a member of a family, or your racial or ethnic identity, or even your hobbies, your favorite celebrities, your beliefs, and values, or even your personal aspirations and hopes for the future.
Sometimes, universal values are activated, as when our deepest human values—the need to love and be loved, to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of place—are activated by propaganda. By creating messages that appeal directly to the needs, hopes, and fears of specific groups, propaganda becomes personal and relevant. When messages are personally relevant, people pay attention and absorb key information and ideas.
3. Technique: Simplify Information & Ideas Propaganda may use accurate and truthful information, or half-truths, opinions, lies, and falsehoods. Successful propaganda tells simple stories that are familiar and trusted, often using metaphors, imagery, and repetition to make them seem natural or "true."
Oversimplification is effective when catchy and memorable short phrases become a substitute for critical thinking. Oversimplifying information does not contribute to knowledge or understanding, but because people naturally seek to reduce complexity, this form of propaganda can be effective.
4. Technique: Attack Opponents Propaganda can serve as a form of political and social warfare to identify and vilify opponents. It can call into question the legitimacy, credibility, accuracy, and even the character of one’s opponents and their ideas.
Because people are naturally attracted to conflict, a propagandist can make strategic use of controversy to get attention. Attacking opponents also encourages "either-or" or "us-them" thinking which suppresses the consideration of more complex information and ideas.
Propaganda can also be used to discredit individuals, destroy their reputation, exclude specific groups of people, incite hatred or cultivate indifference.
The creation of artificial reality is the key of understand modern propaganda. To achieve this goal propaganda through media should act as a coordinated, highly correlated set of voices. Governments have well-funded departments that serve as a coordinator for foreign policy issues.
Although those categories overlap and often used in some combination we probably can distinguish three types of propaganda:
- Hard or dark propaganda is what people commonly call a lie. So here the picture presented in a coordinated fashion is fake and completely detached from reality. To make it more plausible emotions or other tricks enter the picture. In such cases "documentary evidence" is staged, photos are photoshopped and sound records falsified.
- Soft propaganda is more subtle and more insidious than “hard propaganda”. It is based on filtering and avoids telling an open lie, but at the same time distorting the reality sometimes even more effectively. In the hands of a skillful propagandist, “soft propaganda” creates an impressionistic aura of bleakness and evil on attacked persons or country, that affects the target and the other people on a subconscious level. To counter their efforts is difficult. Studying the basics of propaganda and comparing news from various sources might help but poison gets under the skin in any case.
- Doublespeak (a variant of doublespeak used in corporations is sometimes called corporate bullshit). In this case, language is distorted to obfuscate and misrepresent reality. Orwell’s description of political speech is extremely similar to the contemporary definition of doublespeak. In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness… the great enemy of clear language is a combination of imprecision and insincerity. As Orwell opines, whenever there's a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.
- Edward S. Herman outlined in his book, Beyond Hypocrisy the principal characteristics of doublespeak:
What is really important in the world of doublespeak is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.
- Manipulation of the English language is one of the key methods used in propaganda. More will be discussed on this later but, to introduce the topic, one important example is ‘mainstream dichotomy’ which means ‘deeply embedded double standards in the reporting of news’. For example, the use of state funds by the poor and financially needy is commonly referred to as 'social welfare' or 'handouts', which the 'coddled' poor 'take advantage of'. These terms, however, do not apply to other beneficiaries of government spending such as tax incentives and military spending.
Propaganda versus Brainwashing
Propaganda is not the same as brainwashing or mind control. These terms refer to psychological tactics, sometimes used in warfare, that are designed to subvert an individual’s sense of control over their own thinking. Brainwashing usually requires isolation of the individual from his or her social group. By contrast, propaganda is often so ordinary that it becomes enmeshed with “common sense.”
Although propaganda sometimes involves deception, most forms of propaganda use well-verified, factual information. Propagandists may use partially true or incomplete information that comes from a source that looks authentic but is controlled by sources that are disguised. These disguises come in many forms. Businesses often provide funding to sources (like researchers and other professional communicators) to create information and transmit messages that align directly with their interests and goals. For example, in 2014, the government of Norway paid $5 million to a non-profit organization to produce information designed to influence top officials in the White House. Online, the term sockpuppet refers to the use of online sources that are specifically created to praise, defend, or support a person or organization. When such efforts mislead the public, they can be called propaganda.
Propaganda uses any means to accomplish its goal. Motives may not be selfish and the cause might not necessarily be bad but these days, authors of propaganda recognize the need to employ a variety of methods to get across their message.
Do you think of propaganda as good or bad, on the whole?
Don't forget advertising is also propaganda.
Truth is, propaganda is both good and bad. Some is used for nefarious purposes. Some is used for benign conveying important information.
By its very definition, propaganda is a tool and it is at the disposal of the company, organization or party that put it in place, regardless of the fact that its scope might be more or less noble or morally acceptable.
Contrary to common belief, propaganda might be used for good causes as well.
Charities and NGOs resort to propaganda as much as populist political parties leveraging on emotions instead of rational and elaborate explanations. Motives may be good, in the case of the charity, but techniques are the same: rather than weighing pros and cons, it suffices to present a phenomenon under one only perspective or point of view instead of mentioning voices of dissent or what might be detrimental to the image that must be conveyed.
Do you think this 'only one perspective' technique is reasonable, or is it lying by omission? Does it matter if the motives are good or bad?
Beneficial or Harmful?
Words and symbols are powerful. They shape our perception of ourselves, our communities, and of possibilities for the future. For thousands of years, people all over the world have understood that control over words and symbolic expression – storytelling, art, music, news, and information – can change the world, for better or for worse.
Like all forms of communication, specific examples of propaganda may be more or less effective. They may be beneficial, benign, or harmful. Perceptions of its impact will vary depending upon people’s individual identities, life experiences, and values. Propaganda can’t be successful without the active participation of audiences.
Factors To Consider
To assess whether a particular example of propaganda is beneficial, benign or harmful, consider these factors:
- Message: The nature of the information and ideas being expressed
- Techniques: The use of symbols and rhetorical strategies that attract attention and activate an emotional response
- Environment and Context: Where, when and how people encounter the message
- Means of Communication & Format: How the message gets to people and what form it takes
- Audience Receptivity: How people think and feel about the message and how free they are to accept or reject it