What is propaganda?

What is “propaganda”? Is it bad, good, or neutral? Who does it? Is it what “the other guy” does but you don’t?
Is something “propaganda” because of its content, delivery, audience, intent, effect, all the above or none of the above?

I’m interested in your thoughts. Next week I’ll post one – possibly two – proposed revisions to the definition of propaganda to continue this discussion.


22 Replies to “What is propaganda?”

  1. Matt,I read your post and, before checking the comments section, was thinking the same thing as Steve Booth-Butterfield. Regardless of the origin of the word in relation to “propagation” and advocacy of ideas, the word “propaganda” in common usage is inextricably linked to both totalitarian regimes of the 20th century as well as an era when even a non-totalitarian state could effectively control public discussion (or, at least, effectively suppress certain elements of it) in the name of national security. It communicates a notion of one-sided information with lack of debate or discussion, lacking credibility or public acceptance. I’m old enough to have listened to Soviet-era shortwave broadcasts, out of curiosity (I didn’t take notes but can still recall long discourse of tractor production in the mid-1980s) and it simply was not a credible discussion of the topics affecting the culture and politics Soviet Union. In this respect, classic propaganda is obsolete because of the diversity of public information sources available these days.
    One of my first jobs was editing newspapers for U.S. military commanders, and I had to stress to them that no one would believe it when the news was good if the commanders weren’t also forthright when the news was bad. That’s the difference between propaganda and advocacy or public diplomacy, I think. Propaganda, because of historical baggage, implies a one-sided argument that will suppress all information to the contrary and misuse information in order to promote the approved story line.
    As someone who has helped to explain the U.S. government to international audiences, I repeatedly stressed that our political system integrates, by constitutional design, opposing viewpoints and public debate. In my mind, that’s a key element of public diplomacy — seeking to explain your version articulately and credibly enough that it is understood and accepted as a reliable, logical explanation of U.S. policies and positions.

  2. Hello, Matt:Definition of key terms is a recurring problem in both academic social science research and public policy and “propaganda” is a great illustration of this. Most discussion seems to use the term in much the same way as the debate over pornography and obscenity and the infamous “I know it when I see it” criterion of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart. I don’t see much value in this approach other than ensuring a loud, vigorous, and repetitive argument.
    I prefer a propaganda concept and definition that comes out of studies of totalitarian governments (boy, there’s a term you don’t see much any more) that controlled virtually all means of public communication and hence controlled public discussion and opinion. Thus, propaganda is more than disagreeable persuasion (i.e. what comes out of the Fox News channel), but is an instrument of total power and control. We’re talking about who controls the technological means of communication and the reach this obtains. In the public sphere, if I’m the only one with a transmitter and it reaches everyone else, that’s propaganda.
    I’ve also written longer post on my blog at Healthy Influence for anyone seeking more punishment!

  3. I am currently a U.S. military public affairs officer and, like Vince, find I often must remind those I advise that consistency between word and deed greatly influences how the public perceives us. Complicated as it may seem, communication breaks down into some very basic elements: sender, message/feedback, barriers/filters and receiver. My school of thought defines the receiver as the most important element in communication. When it comes to propaganda, how we (the senders) define the term is fairly well irrelevant — if the receiver thinks something is propagandist then it is.Those in my field generally want to define propaganda so (1) we can be confident we aren’t doing it and (2) we can use the definition as the centerpiece of our assertion that we aren’t doing it. Meanwhile, those who believe we are propagandists continue to think so and won’t trust our definition because it’s ours. In a sense our effort to define the term propaganda becomes a distraction from a much-needed focus on the communication process itself.
    It is our very concern about being labeled “propagandists” that sheds the most useful light on the topic. I propose this concern is rooted in two things: organizational credibility and public trust. Both are essential to success in communication and arguably to the success of an organization as a whole.
    So in answer to the question, “What is propaganda?” My answer is, that depends on who is defining it. Any operational definition used by professional communicators (or public diplomats) needs to account for what OTHER people think the word means or its utility will be extremely limited.
    My responses to the other questions run along the same lines: Is propaganda good, bad or neutral? That depends on who thinks so and how they relate to us and/or our organizations. For example, there are those who believe Public Affairs is the propagandist arm of the U.S. military but whose opinion means little in the grand scheme of things. There are others whose trust must be maintained and who, should they accuse me (or my team) of being propagandist, would trigger comprehensive soul searching and process review. In either case, the response would not be “Huh uh. No we aren’t. We aren’t propagandists and that wasn’t propaganda.” Rather, we would need to understand how the accuser defined the term and then either counter the accusation with facts, change our way of doing business, or ignore the accuser as irrelevant.
    Is something “propaganda” because of its content, delivery, audience, intent, effect all the above or none of the above? Yes. And no. The answers will vary based on the receiver. Communication is. That is not a typo. I’ll say it again: Communication is. We cannot not communicate and when we communicate we influence to some degree, therefore we cannot not influence. Military communication practitioners in particular get hung up on and distracted by this issue. Rather than communicating (and therefore influencing) according to a clearly defined set of core principles that preserve organizational credibility and public trust, many simply insist that they do not and cannot influence as communicators. In denying we do something that cannot NOT be done, we chip away at organizational credibility and public trust in a subtle and damaging way.
    Here are a couple of actions organizations and their communication teams might take to address concerns associated with being labeled “propagandists.”
    1. Establish a core set of communication principles to guide activities in a way that preserves and strengthens organizational credibility and public trust. (I propose free flow of information, accuracy, timeliness, unified voice, privacy, intentional communication, delegation and security.)
    2. Ensure alignment between organizational words and deeds (credibility is about doing what we say and saying what we do.)
    3. Challenge our key publics/receivers (and information consumers in general) to hold our organizations to those principles.
    4. Challenge our key publics/receivers (and information consumers in general) to compare our principles to those of other organizations.
    5. If someone labels us “propagandist,” take the time to sort out who they are, how they define the term, and whether their opinion really matters.
    To sum up, the question “what is propaganda?” makes for academically stimulating discourse but the questions to which an answer will be more useful are, who thinks we are propagandists? Why do they think that? And what does their opinion mean to our organization? Ultimately it is the receiver of our information who will evaluate our organizational credibility and decide how much of their trust to give us.

  4. My suggestion: Propaganda is PD without the constraints of ethics (and/or enlightened self interest).A “propagandist” will do whatever it takes to convince audiences of the message – which may include perfectly ‘ethical’, PD-like activities, when such would be effective, but will also include the unethical.
    (I know realpolitikers will prefer enlightened self interest over ethics, but for the sake of brevity I’ll suggest there’s significant overlap between the two and skip on.)
    I wonder therefore if a more interesting, though simultaneously more esoteric question, might be “What are, or should be, the ethics of public diplomacy?”.

  5. I think, to put it very briefly, propaganda is when the act of communication happens in a format which is one-way, asymmetrical, to reflect half of the reality and even sometimes, reality upside down.situations like war (hot or cold) are most likely to induce entities such as governments to resort to “propaganda”. But it is not only governments that “propagate”, but any other entity that thinks “truth” is hurtful in the short term, and even in the long run. It involves the “content”, the “intent”, and the “audience’s” understanding.
    Propaganda is not sth that the other does it and I don’t do. Sometimes to counter the other’s propaganda, I would also resort to some form of communication which is itself propaganda.

  6. I was moderating a panel discusion last week for a group at HQ USMC, which included officers from PA, and IO, and other fields. This issue — propaganda — came up repeatedly, and I made the observation that although Ed Murrow identified “Truth as the best form of propaganda”, the word has become so toxic and laden with baggage that it has become essentially useless except as a strawman. Although Americans love propaganda delivered on Super Bowl Sunday in the form of world-class (sometimes) advertisements, our fear of its political form has become so poisonous that regardless of how many synapses we academicians expend on defning it, its only utility is as a verbal stone to throw at someone.

  7. Propaganda?: Strategic communication run rampant. So, Matt is comes back to SC.Otherwise, we get into the long-winded and defensive obfuscations that need only endless hydraheaded Power Point slides to further confuse the definition-weary.
    In any case, it’s always negative unless used in the context of an adversarial process, that is, the English common law court system. But almost all propaganda is designed to avoid such process based on reason.

  8. Hello Matt,I think the previous comments have laid out multiple aspects of propaganda. So, following that I’d like to simply quote Philip M. Taylor, professor of International Communications at the University of Leeds from his book Munitions of the Mind:
    “Although much modern propaganda appeals to reason, it is more usually felt to play on emotion, with the young being particularly vulnerable to such emotional manipulation…”
    I agree strongly with this assertion. I suspect Islamic extremists do as well. I also believe that the emotion of anger is one of the strongest.

  9. Current DoD official definition: “any form of communication in support of national objectives designed to influence the opinions, emotions, attitudes, or behavior of any group in order to benefit the sponsor, either directly or indirectly.”Proposed DoD change: “The systematic propagation of information, ideas, or rumors reflecting the views and interests of those advocating a doctrine or cause, deliberately spread for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, movement, or person…. Propaganda is designed for political effect and selects information with little concern for truth or context. In common usage “propaganda” implies misrepresentation, disinformation, and the creation of ambiguity through omission of critical details. Communication activities designed to educate, persuade or influence do not, by themselves, constitute propaganda.”
    The current definition is so innocuous that it flies in the face of perceptions of the term. The proposed definition is much better and more nuanced…and provides a comparison to what propaganda is, and what it is not.
    Propaganda is such a negatively loaded term, that any claim of propaganda as regards a USG information program tends to result in investigations and bringing such efforts to a grinding halt. A review of the lexicon is critical.
    Interestingly, the negative conotation of this term, while certainly reinforced by the Germans in WWII,is also traced to USG information efforts against both foreign and domestic audiences in both world wars.
    I co-authored a paper about this several years back entitled “Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War” which I shamelessly offer here for consideration. It appears in the Autumn, 2007 edition of Parameters.

  10. While propaganda has a pejorative connotation currently, as Dennis Murphy suggests, the origins of the word should be considered. Propaganda was the term the Catholic church used for dissemination of its message – “it must be propagated”. Every government wants to send out a message to a wide audience, which usually involves its own citizens but also those of other countries. To answer your question, that should not be inherently bad. We would, perhaps, view our own messages and information to be positive and beneficial to all, but one might imagine that others would view that as propaganda. Both intent and perception are key to what propaganda is. But as with so many words in the information sphere, as Dan Kuehl says, there is so much fear and poison involved in the term that it will take some time to get everyone to understand what propaganda really is.

  11. First, I want to offer a caveat to Dr. Kuehl’s comment regarding the discussion at the USMC panel: Note that it was NOT the panelists or the PA and IO professionals attending who kept raising the spectre of propaganda. Rather, it was a line officer who presented it in the ever-defensive context that Cliff Gilmore so accurately describes (misplaced concern over organizational credibility and public trust.)I want to reinforce Cliff’s thorough analysis, and–at the risk of re-hashing old research–I offer the following:
    Maj. Gen. Paul Vallely, USA (Ret.), has described propaganda purely in terms of perspective, going so far as to compare the activity to journalism: “I’m trying to get a story out, so it’s propaganda if you don’t agree with me.” Of course, reporters can be expected to disagree with him: Journalist Paul Peters (in interviewing Vallely) acknowledges that the reporter and propagandist both select the information their audience receives, but argues that the two differ in methodology. In journalism, Peters writes, “the idea is to present information judged most important and/or useful to an audience. Propaganda turns reporting on its head, presenting information based on its importance to the propagandist.” What is important to note is that both journalist and “propagandist” agree conveying select information is NOT what defines propaganda. Rather, it is the audience’s judgment of the information relative to its source that results in a perception of propaganda. [Source: “The Propagandist,” Missoula Independent. 12 January 2006]
    Interestingly, Dennis Murphy cites a proposed DoD revision that was aimed at addressing the current, negative connotation of the term; one that attempts to deal with the etymology of what is today a gangrenous term. To date, that change effort has failed.
    Of note, the new JP 3.13, Information Operations, will redefine “propaganda” as “adversary efforts to…” (i.e. I don’t know what it is, but I know that we don’t do it.)

  12. Interesting point by Peters. Does this mean today’s commercial media is propaganda as they focus stories to draw audiences rather than inform?

  13. Doesn’t that bring us full circle to Steve’s remark about Fox News? Perhaps Dr. Keuhl has a point about our tendency to devour propaganda in the form of entertainment, while despising it as a political tool…

  14. The courts distinguish between commercial and political speech, rather than lumping together. Is it so bad that most human beings do too?

  15. Phil Taylor writes…There are so many interesting points here I don’t know where to begin….
    I think that the idea that ‘we’ do not do propaganda but ‘they’ (usually an adversary) do, fosters a self-delusion that ‘our’ influence activities are not propaganda. We are so afraid of the charge, coupled with the historical abuse of the practice, that we try everying to avoid the word. Even those coining the phrase public diplomacy back in the 1960s were conscious of this (‘we wanted to call it propaganda….’).
    I am an advocate of the ‘propaganda as value neutral’ idea which, as Lasswell summarised it so famously 80 years ago, claims that it is ‘no more moral or immoral than a pump handle’. Value judgements should therefore be directed at the intentions of the sender. Who, for example, could object to the idea of ‘propaganda for peace’?
    That said, I recognise that the public use of the P word is unwise. The tidal wave of historical misuse is too powerful. But although we need euphemisms (like ‘strategic communications’) we should not delude ourselves…..
    My own definition of propaganda is: ‘a process of persuasion designed primarily to benefit the source by getting people to think and/or behave in a desired manner’. Too broad? Too like ‘advertising’ (‘commercial propaganda’) or ‘public relations’ (‘corporate propaganda’)?
    Here I would add that the 20th century essentially threw up 2 ‘models’ of how to do propaganda, particularly during wartime. (1) The totalitarian/authoritarian model based essentially on Goebbels’ ‘Big Lie’, i.e that it didn’t matter whether what you say was true or false but simply that if you repeated something often enough, people would believe it. (2) By contrast, there was the democratic model based on what FDR called the ‘strategy of truth’ (which doesn’t mean the whole truth has to be told!). There are rules for conducting this democratic model, namely:
    – Don’t deliberately lie
    – Tell as much truth as you can (OPSEC comes in here)
    – Avoid the word ‘truth’; there are many ‘competing truths’ amongst human kind. Talk of propaganda ‘with facts’ – verifiable and credible ‘facts’
    – Avoid the word propaganda; facts and news based messages are more like information.
    Of course there are those who will always dislike propaganda of any sort because it is about selection of facts and news on which views are based (i.e. ‘manipulation’). But don’t we all ‘manipulate’? From the clothes we wear to the information we select to make our point? Back to motives and intentions…..

  16. And repetition as a cardinal tenet of messaging, Phil. Repeat, repeat, repeat. (I know it wasn’t intentional — or was it?!) In any case, it’s all strategic communication by any other name.

  17. I think the term “propaganda” has a negative stigma that (for the subject audience) rouses feelings of suspicion and cynicism, and (for the message peddler) a reluctance to conduct strategic communications in depth lest they be accused of it. This makes your evangelical efforts in this field so vitally important.

  18. Interesting discussion … most importantly for how it is based in culture and social mores.Recently did a joint planning exercise where I was moved out of my comfort zone and a PLA officer on course with us picked up the 59 role. English being his second language he asked me to look over his IO CONOPS before he presented. It was a pretty impressive attempt for a guy who normally flew fighters but the crunch came with his multiple uses of the ‘P’ word. Essentially propaganda was almost used a task verb in his plan (and in the wider understanding of the concept as outlined above, perfectly acceptable). I had to lean over and whisper in his ear that for us (because we steal so much from the US) propaganda was something that the bad guys do. It took a few seconds for his synapses to click and he inadvertently blurted out “but we do propaganda” (usually he is far more reserved about the inner workings of the PLA) and then it dawned on him … I just smiled, shrugged and offered up some alternative terms. We still laugh about it every time I run into him. For him and the PLA there are no negative connotations with propaganda – probably another nail in the coffin for us ever getting back to a true understanding of the term.

  19. As a newcomer to the site, I must commend Matt on the quality of the site and to the contributors for the quality of the discussion found on the boards. As to the question at hand I would broaden the definition wider than Steve’s somewhat narrow totalitarianism context, the test has to be broader than who controls the technical means of dissemination.I would agree with Javad’s point about the asymmetrical and (and therefore distorting ) nature of propaganda, even though “classical” models of totalitarian propaganda are not as valid in open societies. An cursory examination of China proves that more classical models are still possible even in our information based society.
    To Maj. Gen. Vallely’s point about the audience’s judgment of the information relative to its source that results in a perception of propaganda. While it should be clear to all viewers of the Super Bowl that they are being willing subjected to propaganda in the pursuit of capitalistic ends, what is sorely lacking among the general audience is the conscientiousness to the source of information, it is this oft lacking awareness that is required for the relativity required to test for propaganda.
    Join us for Meet the Press for a roundtable (implying a open exchange of wide ranging varied perspectives) discussion of US foreign policy, produced by a GE owned company sponsored by Boeing. Lacking an independent media, non-corporatist or pacifistic voice in the entire conversation to challenge even the must basic of assumptions on which the conversation is based. Does the average consumer of the information question the source deeply enough to even begin to make the required judgment to relativity as to its creditability?

  20. Hey Matt,I, too agree with Javad on his definition, but I feel that often for messages contained in propaganda are, by natural processes, the sincere belief and message of the authoring party. For a force to provide largely objective information would do little to persuade others to their cause, and be less effective. So I feel there is a place for it as a “necessary evil” in the field.

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