Recognizing Propaganda

From capitalistManifesto

It can be challenging to recognize propaganda especially when it's found in entertainment, education, and news because we don't expect to be manipulated by such content. In the real world, however, these are some of the most effective forms of mass propaganda. 

Propaganda is found in virtually all forms and genres of communication. These days we are used to treating advertising as propaganda but become most of us find it difficult to see the propaganda when it's delivered woven into the content we've actually chosen to receive. This is, of course, what makes entertainment, news, and education such a fertile field for authors of propaganda.

Begin from the starting point that propaganda is in all aspects of daily life. It's in news and journalism, advertising and public relations, education – throughout our school lives. It is present in information from government, business, religious and non-profit organizations, and in many forms of entertainment including music, TV shows, movies, video games, and social media like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. 

Six Propaganda Staples

  1. Journalism and Public Relations: Public relations is the term used for communication professionals who seek to shape perceptions and influence public opinion on behalf of a business client. In the U.S., there are four public relations professionals for every working journalist. PR people feed journalists based on their agenda. They may aim to get information and positive opinions about a business into the news media by using events, video news releases, blogging, newsletters, policy documents, and social media. In general, people are not aware of how public relations efforts have shaped the content of newspaper articles, blog posts or other online information.
  2. Advertising: There is a big difference between advertising and propaganda. Advertising supports sales and marketing goals. For example, McDonald’s spent $998 million to buy advertising placements in television, outdoor advertising, radio and magazines in 2013. Advertisers want to generate increased consumption of their commercial products and services by using a variety of forms of mass media and digital media to persuade readers, viewers, users or listeners. The public is generally aware of advertising and recognises its purpose. Many forms of free mass media, including broadcast television, radio and search engines depend on selling advertising, which enables businesses to sell products and services.
  3. Government: Throughout the 20th century, the United States has generated war propaganda by defining battles as conflicts between good and evil. Propaganda is also used to help improve public health. You may be familiar with public service announcements (PSAs) that aim to alter your behaviour. For example, when researchers found that college students overestimated how many of their peers were involved in binge drinking, they designed messages that showed that binge drinking is not as common as many people think. By reshaping perceptions of social norms, the campaign had a beneficial impact in helping lower the rate of binge drinking among college students. 
  4. Education: From kindergarten to college, some forms of education are explicitly designed to lead people to accept a particular world view. Education can be a form of indoctrination when certain doctrines, ideas, information, values, and beliefs are not permitted to be questioned. Propaganda enters the classroom in many ways. Many businesses and technology companies provide curriculum materials to educators which are explicitly designed to promote a particular point of view. For example, Monsanto and other biotechnology firms provide videos, lesson plans, and other materials for science teachers. In Illinois, state law mandates that schools promote a positive image for coal mining.
  5. Entertainment: Some stories are just entertainment, but many stories are also a form of propaganda. Stories offer ideas and information about good and evil, right and wrong, thus embedding values and ideology into narrative form. For example, as early as the 1930s, Warner Bros. movies offered stories that interpreted contemporary life by presenting a specific point of view on current events, often indirectly through the lens of history. In many American movies and video games, violence is depicted as justified and morally courageous, which is a value message that is generally not questioned in society. Another way that propaganda is embedded in entertainment is through native advertising or sponsored content, where a company’s world view is presented as a form of entertainment. In 2014, the restaurant chain Chipotle launched an online comedy series about the agriculture industry on Hulu. Using comedy, the show reflected the company’s values about sustainable agriculture and the humane treatment of animals used for meat.
  6. Advocacy: People who are trying to improve society or create social change use propaganda to influence public opinion. Activists try to promote social, political, economic, or environmental change through using communication activities and public events that attract attention and influence people's knowledge, attitudes, and opinions.


Identify one example of each of all six vehicles for delivering propaganda. You can use Google to find them or use our partner site at which has a diverse collection of propaganda images.

As you view your chosen images, try to decide which of the six vehicles have a greater impact on society: is it propaganda in entertainment, propaganda in education, or propaganda in journalism and public relations, or government, advocacy, or advertising? Make sure you consider evidence and reasoning.

Propaganda in entertainment, journalism, advocacy, advertising, education, government, and news is not always easy to spot. Ironically, people can be the blindest to propaganda that aligns with their existing world view. This is an engine for mass conditioning used by interest groups across the political spectrum.

Some social theorists have suggested that propaganda is a form of social control that unifies and stabilizes society, while others see it as repressive and limiting to human freedom. In truth it can be the former - if it's used to distribute important information, for example - but in reality tends to be some degree of the latter - used by powerful vested interests to coerce consent (e.g. a purchase, a vote) in a way that's often manipulating the individual's instincts against what's in his or her interest.

People need to decide for themselves how to categorize the many forms of propaganda to which they are exposed. Propaganda is apolitical. The independence of an individual in the 21st century can only be guaranteed if its foundations are an active working understanding of how, where and why propaganda works, what is its agenda, and where it is fact as opposed to fiction. Armed with an ability to see the truth of a piece of propaganda we can then make decisions on how to react and how to integrate new information into our decision making for the future.

Psychology of Propaganda

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. In order to recognise and then deconstruct propaganda you need to be mindful of the psychology the propagandist is using. The techniques are simple but hugely effective.

[RC: the above section is missing an explanation of how thinking is suppressed and what’s wrong with emotions.] [RC: Books, film, plays, music, etc. also create emotional responses deliberately but aren’t propaganda or even using rhetoric most of the time.] Emotional Appeal

“Propagandists understand how to psychologically tailor messages to suppress critical thinking using mental hacks." - RC

A favourite propaganda psychology you see everywhere is emotional prompting.

Our brain is roughly divided between the old animal limbic brain, akin to a needy baby, and the cortex human brain, full of our thoughts (including neurosis but also rationality and logic). Emotion is an extension of the limbic mind and it comes with no idea about what originates it, where or how. It’s the part of you that is always ‘in the now.’ It's only when your rational mind is engaged at the same time as the emotional and limbic senses that you become able to shine a light on what's causing an emotion and why. This is an essential part of recognising and analysing propaganda. It's one of the key skills to be trained, by the propagandist and us, the targets. It's not a skill we are trained in at school.

A propagandist exploits this lack of training by designing messages that exact strong emotional responsea, such as excitement, arousal, or fear. These kinds of emotions are strong, primal signals in our brain that there is a life-or-death, now-or-never crisis. The propaganda that's able to play with these emotions tends to be much more effective than a more complex, nuanced message; even if the message is true and the propaganda is false. Emotions, though, are never attached with a note telling you why — they ‘just are’. The emotional response can take priority, if it isn't interrogated, because after all it originates in you. The message (which takes longer to process) can then take on the ‘feeling’ of being your own idea or what you've always believed. In reality, the propagandist has made you feel what he wants you to feel, and using feelings as a blindspot, inserted the thoughts he wants you to think.

There is no need to gain trust or authority in this case, because it all originates with you. This is one of the most subtle and cunning devices of the propagandist.

Emotion versus Reflection

The emotional appeal of propaganda can be spotted and stopped. A good rule of thumb is this: "any information or opinion that you are taking on board with just the sense ‘it is right’ is nearly always wrong." Even if, after reflection, you agree with the propagandist's message, you've placed yourself in an entirely different relationship to the mob being manipulated without even being aware they're tools of an agenda outside themselves. To recognize and relate to the propaganda we must treat news, live events, politics, advertising, and blogger opinions using a version of our own personal scientific method. Freezeframe the feelings, think about them, and pinpoint the cause. See the agenda, parse the truth beyond the limbic appeal. Train this process until it's unconscious - much of this Propaganda course addresses that very training - and only once you've gotten a handle on both the detail and the bigger picture should you let the emotions and the reactions flow freely. On your terms. Not somebody else's.


Reflection is an essential part of learning, especially when it comes to something so important and emotionally charged as propaganda. It's where you discover what you really think and feel; and learn to separate the reaction feeling from the thoughtful analysis. When we take time to reflect, we deepen our understanding of new ideas and are able to apply these ideas to everyday life.

Remember: propaganda is everywhere but propaganda plays on knee-jerk emotional responses (or subliminal techniques where we aren't aware we're being manipulated). The more we train ourselves to think and analyze BEFORE deciding how we feel, the closer we get to be independent and free.

Harms and Benefits of Propaganda 

  • What are the dangers, risks, and potential harms of propaganda? What are some potential benefits of propaganda for individuals and the general public?
  • Describe a piece of propaganda that you think is beneficial and explain why you would consider sharing it with people in your social network.
  • Describe a piece of propaganda that you would never share with your social network and explain why you would not share it.

Propaganda in Your Life

  • How do you experience propaganda in your daily life?
  • Are you now or have you ever been a propagandist? If so, please describe your efforts. If no, explain why you are not.
  • Can you think of examples of propaganda that could be labeled "logos", "pathos" or "ethos"? Try to come up at least one of each. Which is the most effective?
  • When is propaganda ethical? When is it unethical? Are all methods of propaganda equally ethical or unethical?
  • Do you think young people should be exposed to and also learn about contemporary propaganda? Why or why not?

Reflection on Learning 

  • What was the most interesting or important thing you learned about propaganda?
  • What questions do you have after completing the workshop? What would you like to learn more about?
  • What surprised you most about how others interpreted propaganda examples?