What is Propaganda?

Propaganda – the coordinated attempt to influence large or small numbers of people to some idea and/or action – is among the most ancient genres of human activity, and has been integral to religion, social control, commerce, education, and conquest for millennia. The term ‘propaganda’ originated in 1622 from a Christian commission for the ‘propagation of the faith.’ The Roman Catholic ‘Propaganda Fide’ emerged as a key institution, missionary ministry, and center for specialized ideological and administrative training in response to the threat of the Reformation.

During the 20thand 21stcentury, propaganda emerged as a pervasive, often unavoidable feature of daily life in mediated, ‘Information Age’ economies worldwide. Today the term has increasingly come to be used to describe persuasion processes that involve, at least to some degree, coercive manipulation of beliefs and behavior, particularly when used in pursuit of sectional interests.

In countries with relatively democratic media traditions, the term propaganda is most often employed either pejoratively, in order to dismiss an opposing point of view, or to characterize persuasive communication in states defined in the process as authoritarian or theocratic and hostile political movements.

At the same time, many activities in democratic states that would previously been described as propaganda are now labelled with euphemistic terms such as public relations, strategic communication, psychological operations (psy ops), marketing and advertising. Indeed, as Edward Bernays, the founding father of public relations, famously explained:

propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans … using it [during WW1]. So what I did was to … find some other words. So we found the words Counsel on Public Relations.[1]

Thus, although frequently called by other names, propaganda is also a key feature of liberal democratic states.

Propaganda is not usually understood as a consensual, two-way, process of persuasion among equals. However, it also involves far more than lying. Rather, it is a complex and frequently subtle manipulative process in which a power centre of one sort or another leads an individual or a group of people to believe something, or, perhaps without believing, to act in a particular way, that goes against free will or genuinely informed consent. Propaganda techniques frequently involve linguistic and visual communication (e.g. advertising campaigns) that make emotional and/or rational appeals in order to manipulate beliefs and behaviour. Fears and desires may are typically exploited and, importantly, both incentives and threats can become part of propaganda campaigns. Meanwhile, forms of deception involving lying, omission, distortion and misdirection are also frequently found in propaganda campaigns.

For more information we recommend:-

Short video discussing propaganda with Professors David Miller and Piers Robinson.

See also our Resources page

[1]Edward Bernays cited in Miller and Dinan (2008) A Century of Spin (London: Pluto Press), p. 5.