What is Propaganda?
Scholars, journalists, and politicians have long argued about how to properly define propaganda and distinguish it from other forms of mass communication. Propaganda is biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.
The word comes from Latin and originally referred to the biological reproduction of flora and fauna, that is, to the propagation of plants and animals. It took on new meaning in the 17th century when the Papacy established a special division within the Catholic Church, the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (propaganda fide), to systematically spread Catholic doctrine throughout the world to win new converts and stem the rising tide of Protestantism. Propaganda thus came to connote the dissemination of religious ideas in order to shape the opinions and behavior of mass audiences.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, propaganda took on greater importance in the political realm with the growth of literacy, liberal demands for freedoms of the press, speech, and assembly, and representative governments. Politicians and governments of all types recognized the importance of winning over and molding public opinion through propaganda and other methods of mass persuasion. Instead of relying purely upon censorship as a tool of social control, regimes now created or subsidized newspapers and other organs to disseminate official "news." The "marketplace of ideas" and the court of public opinion became venues for competing social, political, and religious movements.
World War I, however, witnessed the public discovery of propaganda as a powerful weapon for shaping public opinion and behavior. All the major belligerent governments (Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, the United States, Germany, and Austria-Hungary) employed writers, artists, and filmmakers to craft political messages aimed at mobilizing their populations for war, at weakening the enemy’s morale and will to fight, and at winning over audiences in neutral countries. British, American, and French publicists created potent images of the Germans as barbaric, brutal "Huns" who sought world domination and the destruction of western civilization. This portrayal reinforced reports of German atrocities, some real, others exaggerated or fabricated, which aimed to convince their populations of the righteousness of their cause and the need to continue the war until the enemy was defeated.
After World War I, propaganda became a subject of considerable debate and study throughout the western world, but particularly in the United States and Germany. The term came to be perceived in a negative light and identified in many circles with lies, manipulation, and falsehood. Some American opinion leaders feared that unregulated propaganda would destroy the foundations of democracy by creating a nation of obedient slaves marching in lockstep to the government’s orders. Others believed that the democratic marketplace of ideas would counter any potential threats from propaganda. Still others believed that propaganda, when employed for the public good, could create a more educated, healthier, and progressive citizenry.
In Germany, like the United States, propaganda became the subject of serious discussion and intellectual study. It was commonly held that Germany had lost World War I, not on the battlefield, but because Allied propaganda had sapped the fighting spirit of German troops and weakened morale at home by encouraging demands for peace. In contrast, Imperial Germany’s propaganda efforts were widely criticized for failing to explain why the nation needed to continue to wage war and painted non-threatening images of the enemy. Some politicians and scholars of propaganda urged Germans to learn from the victors. Among these was Adolf Hitler, a former German soldier and leader of an obscure right-wing extremist party in Bavaria. "Propaganda," he wrote five years after the war, "is a truly terrible weapon in the hands of an expert."
Nazi propagandists drew upon the successful techniques and strategies used by the Allies, Socialists, Communists, and Italian Fascists to advance their political campaigns, win public support, and to wage war. Once in power, the Nazis eliminated the "marketplace of ideas" through terror and media manipulation and mobilized propaganda as a weapon to unite the German people around a "leader" and to facilitate aggression, mass murder, and genocide.
Since World War II, technologies and strategies for disseminating propaganda have changed greatly. Television and the Internet have increased the speed and spread of information globally. Websites and other online media now reach hundreds of millions of people throughout the world and have become major propaganda vehicles for private and governmental organizations. In the face of such a media barrage, consumers now, perhaps more than ever, must carefully and critically evaluate information in order to become better informed citizens.
How Does Propaganda Work?
Modern propaganda draws upon techniques and strategies used in advertising, public relations, communications, and mass psychology. It simplifies complicated issues or ideology for popular consumption, is always biased, and is geared to achieving a particular end. Propaganda generally employs symbols, whether in written, musical, or visual forms, and plays upon and channels complex human emotions towards a desired goal. It is often employed by governmental and private organizations to promote their causes and institutions and denigrate their opponents. Propaganda functions as just one weapon in the arsenal of mass persuasion.
In contrast to the ideal of an educator, who aims to foster independent judgment and thinking, the practitioner of propaganda does not aim to encourage deliberation by presenting a variety of viewpoints and leaving it up to the audience to determine which perspective is correct. The propagandist transmits only information geared to strengthen his or her case, and consciously omits detrimental information.
Not all propaganda is bad. Propaganda is used to shape opinion and behavior. Public health campaigns, for example, can utilize propaganda. Elections, even in democratic states, often display elements of propaganda, as candidates and political parties vie for office. The real danger of propaganda lies when competing voices are silenced –and unchecked, propaganda can have negative consequences.
Is Propaganda Effective?
Propaganda, of course, is not always successful. Its effectiveness depends upon a variety of factors, including the receptivity of an audience to the message and a favorable social context. Propaganda alone, regardless of the skills of its users, cannot win wars or transform thinking human beings into mindless automatons. Regardless of the power of their messages, for instance, the Nazis could not turn back the tide of Allied victory after the middle of 1943. Nazi propaganda delayed defeat but it could not bring Germany victory.