The propaganda of “propaganda”

This post first appeared at on 13 December 2022. It appears here with minor edits. Be sure to check there for comments on the article and subscribe to my substack for timely follow-ups and new posts through the substack app, through email, and to participate in chats. It’s free!

I heard long ago the lathe was the only machine capable of making itself. I don’t know if that was true, but it stuck with me. I mention that because it seems like there is a loose parallel between that statement and the word “propaganda.” Propaganda is interesting in that it may be the only word in the English language that, when used, may be an act of the very word. In other words, calling something propaganda may be propaganda. 

For nearly twenty years, I worked around the word “propaganda” academically and professionally. Whether I facilitated propaganda is a fair discussion, but whenever I was called a propagandist, the term was used as a pejorative and arguably an act of propaganda itself. It was merely a blanket label based on the notion that any communication, active or passive, deserved the title. The flip side of each of these engagements often (nearly always) absolved other actors from the label. 

In public diplomacy, for example, the propaganda label frequently appears in law review articles analyzing the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948. I briefly reflect on this issue in recent dispatches, calling out “Apple Pie Propaganda” by Weston Sager from 2015 and “The Smith-Mundt Act’s Ban on Domestic Propaganda” by Allen Palmer and Edward Carter from 2006 as two oft-cited culprits here and here. The authors here employ the word casually, without clarification or specificity, in a wink-and-nod that while it is definitionally neutral, its everyday use is definitively pejorative. The pejorative is easily inferred as the authors’ framing concerns a “ban” on seeing or hearing the “propaganda.” 

Propaganda is an easy word to toss out. This or that is propaganda. But being so easy, it lends itself to mischaracterizations and abuse. Is everything propaganda? Is this note propaganda because I intend to change your opinion? What if I was merely informing you, laying out the information for you to make your own choice? Would it then be propaganda? Is it not propaganda because I’m not a government actor?

definition of propaganda from the 1911 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language: Based on the International Dictionary of 1890 and 1900
Noah Webster, William Torrey Harris, and Frederic Sturges Allen, Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language: Based on the International Dictionary of 1890 and 1900 (London, Springfield, Mass.: G. Bell & Sons and G. & C. Merriam Company, 1911).

What do we mean by propaganda? Let’s step back to when, in US English, the word propaganda was not inherently negative. Over a century ago, the word wasn’t very important in American English. There was also a time when it did not appear in American English dictionaries, and when it did, it crept in like, “oh, here’s another definition.” In the 1911 edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language: Based on the International Dictionary of 1890 and 1900 (yes, in fact, I do have a copy of this enormous two-volume tome on my shelf), see the picture above and go to 2b to find, “The doctrine or principles thus propagated.” It is worth a moment to glance at the whole definition. 

In 1920, a fellow named George Creel wrote a book extolling his virtues and why he should be hired due to his awesomeness as a marketer. (This book has been received incorrectly as a factual and complete account of the Committee on Public Information’s purpose, work, reach, and effects, though that is all outside the scope of this write-up). In this book, we find a seemingly oft-cited statement by Creel: “We did not call it propaganda, for that word, in German hands, had come to be associated with deceit and corruption.” Cool, except Creel went on to use propaganda more than one hundred times in the pages that followed to describe truthful and honest information and disinformation, thereby fudging his claim. 

In 1922, a Funk & Wagnall’s dictionary, The College Standard Dictionary of the English Language, still did not have a separate entry for “propaganda.” Instead, under propagate, there was a part 2 with “propagating a doctrine” and a part 3 with “gaining public support for an opinion or course of action.” 

That year, Walter Lippmann described propaganda as an “effort to alter the picture to which men respond.” While this sounds like a description of any communication and applicable to everything Lippmann wrote, he added effective censorship was necessary for the label to apply. In this definition, it is not merely the intent, but parameters around the reception matter. 

Edward Bernays followed up three years later and removed the need for selective hearing: “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea, or group.” This led to the idea a message is propaganda if it is part of a mass engagement, though the size requirement isn’t specified. 

A decade later, in 1935, Leonard Doob, opened his book Propaganda: Its Psychology and Technique, saying, “In America, the word ‘propaganda’ has a bad odor.” This suggests a lack of inherent neutrality of the term, which probably contributed to the label propaganda being accompanied by a qualifier, like “good,” “bad,” “our,” or “their.” 

For example, testifying before Congress on February 19, 1946, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes spoke on the applicability of the propaganda label and the need for a qualified use concerning the pending Bloom bill to authorize the State Department’s global informational efforts through the provision of libraries, speakers, posters, news releases, and more (the Bloom bill had previously been introduced by Rep. Karl Mundt and called the Mundt bill before being renamed the Bloom bill; in 1947, it was reintroduced by Mundt at the request of the State Department and later became the Smith-Mundt Act):

Let us look at the word “propaganda.” We would defeat our objectives in this program if we were to put forth lies, or in distorted or biased selection of the facts, or engage in special pleading. Our purpose is, and will be, solely to supply the facts on which foreign peoples can arrive at a rational and accurate judgment. A fair and balanced picture of American policies, and of the national life that lies behind those policies, is all we want or need to convey. If that is propaganda, it is honest propaganda.

Dishonest propaganda isn’t worth the money or effort spent on it. It is easy to detect and expose where any measure of freedom exists. The audience for it is small and growing smaller. But the audience for honest information is large; the world is hungry for reliable information about America. That is what we have been supplying… 

(The above two paragraphs immediately preceded quote #7 in the “Who said it, when, and why” quiz a few weeks ago.)

A week later, Elmer Davis, formerly the head of the Office of War Information, emphasized that propaganda was not inherently bad: “The truth is that a fact — an incontrovertible fact — is often the most powerful propaganda.” (This was quote #10 in the Who said it, when, and why quiz.)

In 1951, the need for a qualifier continued. The US Advisory Commission on Information, established by the Smith-Mundt Act as an oversight body over the government’s international information programs to advise Congress, the Secretary of State, and the President, used the word propaganda: 

No propaganda can be any stronger than the policy from which it springs. Thus the information specialists should be at all times and at all levels just as close as they possibly can be to the making of policy… Since most foreign policy is made by the State Department, the closer the information program can be to the State Department, the more effective the propaganda will be.

The 1946 edited book Propaganda, Communication, and Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Reference Guide, edited by Bruce Lannes Smith, Harold D. Lasswell, and Ralph D. Casey (Princeton University Press), stated, “Not all use of language is propaganda.” They segregated certain uses, like diplomacy, while applying criteria, like “aimed at large masses” and the intention is to “influence mass attitudes on controversial issues” (italics in the original). To these authors, the “clumsy vehicle of words” meant that “Every government on the globe, whether despotism or democracy, whether at war or at peace, relies upon propaganda—more or less efficiently harmonized with strategy, diplomacy, and economics—to accomplish its ends.” The label propaganda would become a more “clumsy vehicle.”

A close reading of the countless examples of qualifiers accompanying propaganda suggests Doob’s 1935 observation was accurate. So, why did the word choice persist? Likely because it encapsulated so much, allowing authors to skip discussions about influence, intentions, persuasion, and so on. Propaganda is just this relatively neat package, but is it? 

What is propaganda, is it something known when seen, echoing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 comment about pornography obscenity? This suggests the receiver or witness defines propaganda, and the intent or structure has little to no bearing. Such a broad and subjective interpretation is not helpful (and is quite lazy). 

Is it simply about the intent to influence? Can one inform without influence? Say the audience is large, and you are intentionally affecting behavior and opinions, is it possible this is not influence? Would this be propaganda? 

Let me offer an example I’ve used in discussions around the ability (spoiler: inability) to “inform without influence” for more than a dozen years. Imagine you are the public affairs officer at a large military base in the United States, and there will be a major construction project at the main gate. This effort will cause significant travel problems for the surrounding communities and not just for the personnel and vendors trying to get on the base. Naturally, you work with the local community to identify ways to mitigate the negative impacts on commuting and travel near the base. You probably help develop and communicate alternative routes and options or encourage the development and communication of alternatives to ease the impact on travelers and businesses. Part – perhaps the majority – of your incentive to engage with the community on this issue is a consideration of the importance of their perception of the base and its personnel. The base maintaining good relations with the community is good politics, the base is a government institution, and the public affairs officer is a government employee, so this must be political communication and propaganda, right? 

(My past use of this PAO and the base gate closure example was to suggest public affairs officers can and do influence public opinion and effect behavior, both of which are notionally things “only PSYOP does” since public affairs can magically “inform without influence.”)

Modern definitions seeking precision vary, but let’s check on Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell’s definition in their fourth edition of Propaganda and Persuasion(2006): 

Propaganda is the deliberate, systemic attempt to shape percpetions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.

The focus here is the intent and means of the “propagandist.” Without qualifying parameters drawn from motives, this definition situates the PAO example above as propaganda by a propagandist. This leads us back to the need to add whether propaganda is good or bad. 

Consider efforts to transmit factual, truthful, and honest news (“straight news”). Since the need for a motive is absent from the definition, calling this function propaganda seems appropriate, including when sending information to empower people with factual and truthful information to, for example, undermine the disinformation or misinformation they are otherwise living with. Certainly, the gatekeepers trying to ensure only the disinformation is received would claim the true and accurate news is propaganda, and in absolute terms, they’d be right. Is propaganda only when a government sends the information? What if the information is from a commercial news service or the content and transmission are controlled by a commercial entity? It would seem the sender doesn’t matter. 

We can apply the Jowett-O’Donnell definition backward to Paul Blackstock in The Strategy of Subversion: Manipulating the Politics of Other Nations (Quadrangle Books, 1964) in his description of the application of “non-military tools of foreign policy”: 

In practice, the use of any of these methods of political warfare has been accompanied by propaganda activities ranging from straight news services and cultural relations programs to the most scurrilous forms of “black” or non-attributable proapganda and rumor mongering.

It’s all propaganda. But it’s not, and Jowett and O’Donnell don’t claim everything is. They go to great lengths to consider differences, bringing in “rhetoric” as an alternative label. In their Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion (2006), they argue for a distinction between rhetoric and propaganda that would place my examples of the PAO and the base gate and “straight news” outside of the scope of propaganda. After all, there must be some way to counter this statement, shared by Donald C. Bryant in his 1953 “Rhetoric: Its Functions and Its Scope” article: 

Propaganda, after all, is only a word for anything one says for or against anything. Either everything, therefore, is propaganda, or nothing is propgaganda, so why worry?

My tortured point (and congratulations for reading this far) is the meaning of “propaganda” is elusive. While substantive definitions exist, Doob’s 1935 comment that “In America, the word ‘propaganda’ has a bad odor” seems like a severe understatement nearly ninety years later as the gap between academic discussions and the view of the street, so to speak, has likely grown. If you ask your coworker, neighbor, classmate, or random stranger whether “propaganda” is bad or good, I doubt many would respond with “it is good” or “it depends.” 

It is easy to call something propaganda, but the stunning lack of precision and constraints in the definition, whether a precise definition or merely a commonly accepted view of the word, is why entire books are written to define and assign parameters to what is and is not propaganda. Applying the label without specificity is potentially misleading as it will likely impart a negative view of the “propaganda” and the “propagandist” being discussed and analyzed. 

If there is one takeaway from this dispatch, I hope it is this: Be careful calling something propaganda, doing so might make you a propagandist. 

What are your thoughts? 

One thought on “The propaganda of “propaganda”

  1. Matt:
    Glad to see this; I hadn’t read it before. Interesting conversation that I doubt will ever be finished. In Holt and van de Veldes’ “Strategic Psychological Operations and American Foreign Policy” (1960): “…to be fully exploited the psychological instrument must also have a part in initiating policy and action. This is not to claim any position of pre-eminence for the psychological instrument; it is to plead for it a status of equality with the diplomatic economic and military instruments, each of which will find its role constantly moving up or down a scale of relative importance, reflecting the set of circumstances peculiar to any given world situation in response to which the particular policy must be developed or particular action taken.”

    As a former PAO and current psyop soldier, I like the image of a moving scale and have explained this to my soldiers as a way to see how their work is part of a larger piece of public diplomacy. I shy away from the role of “propaganda” for the exact reason you say – it is elusive and, I think, even discursive some times.

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