In the hands of repressive and authoritarian regimes from Hitler’s Germany to the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran, propaganda is a powerful tool to shape the views of the populace and achieve the goals of the state. As part of The Sardari Project, Iran’s ongoing collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, propaganda expert Renee Hobbs and our correspondent Arash Azizi consider the many and dangerous forms propaganda has taken over the course of the last century.
It’s an epithet used to describe any message you disagree with or detest. It’s an essential part of political speeches and government information campaigns. Perhaps it’s all forms of news media during an election year. Maybe it’s even popular music that addresses an important social problem. Because of the different understandings people have of the word propaganda, the American media theorist Neil Postman once called it “a most mischievous word”.
Propaganda takes different forms in democratic countries and authoritarian regimes. It can be truly dangerous when combined with military force or state violence and the suppression of dissenting voices. When propaganda is used to dehumanize others, it can lead to war, mass murder and even genocide.
But to truly understand propaganda, we must start at the beginning. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans discovered that language has social power. The right phrase can connect people together emotionally, shaping knowledge and inspiring action. Through words, social reality can be constructed, and people can be induced to act together.
Propaganda as an Expression of Social Power
When new forms of expression and communication first enabled persuaders to reach larger and larger audiences, preserving information over time and space, they were able to spread ideas effectively. Controlling the dissemination of information, entertainment, and persuasion through the effective use of symbols and large audiences is the deep taproot of all forms of institutional power. From this history comes the established definition of propaganda from Professor Garth Jowett, who defines propaganda as “the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”.
But propaganda can be a shapeshifter as it embeds itself in culture. To be successful, propagandists need to adapt their messages to changes in technology, culture, and society. Originally, the term was used by the Catholic Church to establish the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. In Latin it was called Propaganda Fide, and it was established by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 to counteract the rise of Protestantism. Propaganda was accomplished through the work of clerics “spreading the good news of the gospel” to people around the world.
In the early 20th century, with the rise of newspapers, magazines, movies, loudspeakers, and radio, mass communication enabled leaders and institutions to reach gigantic audiences all at once. Soon, anyone could access the full power of mass communication if they were creative and strategic in their approach. To promote cigarette smoking among women in 1929, Edward Bernays, a pioneer in public relations, persuaded a group of beautiful women to march in a parade, smoking cigarettes. Photos of the event were sent out to newspapers all around the United States, claiming that women were defying oppression by smoking “torches of freedom.” The photo was startling, and it caused much discussion. By visually linking smoking to freedom, Bernays was able to influence public opinion without being a newspaper owner and without spending much money. He initially called this effort “propaganda”, but later decided to use the term “public relations” instead. The shaping of public opinion was possible through creatively and strategically exploiting the power of mass communication.
How can propaganda be beneficial, you may wonder? Propaganda is often used to help improve public health and unify a diverse social group. You are of course familiar with public service announcements (PSAs) that aim to alter your behavior. During the coronavirus pandemic, the public has been continually reminded: wash your hands, wear a mask, and stay home to prevent the spread of the disease. Such actions were strategically designed to affect behavior. Good propaganda can save lives.
But propaganda has a deservedly bad reputation because it can be devious and malicious. It can contain truth, half-truths, or lies. It can help lead to war, death and genocide. Propaganda relies on manipulating public opinion. It can be hard to spot because propagandists carefully design messages that sometimes seem to favor certain ideals or values even as they subtly undermine them. Yale University philosopher Jason Stanley points out that most people don’t recognize contemporary propaganda because it stands at the blurry boundaries of information, entertainment, and persuasion.
Propaganda is an essential tool of all governments and it can be especially pernicious in authoritarian regimes and dictatorships where the government has a strong degree of control over many if not all of the means of communication. In a democracy, propaganda can be devious or sincere, harmful or beneficial, but independent sources of information, free speech and free media serve as important counterweights to government messaging.
How to Spot Propaganda
Why is it important for people to learn to recognize propaganda? Because where propaganda presents content that activates strong emotions, simplifies ideas and information, appeals to audiences’ hopes, fears, and dreams, or attacks opponents, it can lead to automatic information processing that bypasses critical thinking. Today, propaganda can be found in news and journalism when opinions and editorials persuade more than they inform, in advertising and public relations which influence people’s consumer behaviors, and in education, which can present a version of history that aligns with the values of those in power – and in all aspects of daily life. Look for the following four features as you spot propaganda in your daily life.
Propaganda Activates Strong Emotions. Propaganda plays on human emotions – fear, hope, anger, frustration, sympathy – to direct audiences toward a desired goal. Successful propagandists understand how to tailor messages to appeal to people’s emotions, in order to create a sense of excitement and arousal that suppresses critical thinking. By activating emotions, the recipient is moved by the message of 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 symbols.
Propaganda Simplifies Information & Ideas. Propagandists can help people experience moral clarity about the issues and events that most concern them. Successful propaganda tells simple stories that are familiar and trusted, often using metaphors, imagery and repetition to make them seem natural or "true". But catchy and memorable short phrases can 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.
Propaganda Responds to Audience Needs and Values. Propaganda that speaks to people’s deepest values bypasses the head and goes straight for the heart. It breaks through the clutter of everyday life. Effective propaganda conveys messages, themes, and language that appeal directly to specific and distinct groups within a population. Propagandists may appeal to you as a member of your family, as part of your racial or ethnic community, or even based on your hobbies, favorite celebrities, beliefs and values, or 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 expressed 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.
Propaganda Attacks Opponents. Propaganda can serve as a form of political and social aggression 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 command attention. Propaganda can also be used to discredit individuals and destroy their reputation. Because it can be designed to appeal to specific groups in society, propaganda can be used effectively to exclude other groups, incite hatred or cultivate indifference. Words and symbols can be truly dangerous. Propaganda can also encourage "either-or" or "us-them" thinking which suppresses the consideration of more complex information and ideas.
It’s important to reflect on the merits and liabilities of how propaganda functions in democracies and in authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In countries like Iran, Russia, and China, there are plenty of media messages available but they are nearly all controlled by the central government.
In a democracy, propaganda is plentiful in the marketplace of ideas, and people encounter ideas from diverse and multiple players. The threat of coercion through military force is absent. Propagandists compete to attract and hold attention by activating strong emotions, simplifying ideas, attacking opponents, and appealing to people’s deepest hopes and dreams. People are free to accept or reject propaganda – but they must use a variety of strategies to interpret and analyze all of the many messages they receive. Among the most fundamental are identifying the author, the purpose and the point of view. To be a citizen in a democratic society, people are obliged to critically analyze and interrogate the information, entertainment, and persuasion they encounter in daily life.
Read other articles in this series: