Eric Brahm

August 2006


The term propaganda has a nearly universally negative connotation. Walter Lippmann described it as inherently "deceptive" and therefore evil.[1] Propaganda is more an exercise of deception rather than persuasion. Partisans often use the label to dismiss any claims made by their opponents while at the same time professing to never employ propaganda themselves. It is akin to advertising and public relations, but with political purpose. Although propaganda has been utilized for centuries, the term was first used in 1622 when Pope Gregory XV issued the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide to counter the growing Protestant threat in order "to reconquer by spiritual arms" those areas "lost to the Church in the debacle of the sixteenth century."[2] Propaganda has become a common element of politics and war. As new communications technologies have developed, propagandists have developed new methods to reach increasingly large audiences in order to shape their views. The shift to targeting mass audiences and not just elite publics has been called by some as "new propaganda."[3] This essay aims to provide a brief overview of the concept of propaganda, various propaganda techniques, and related topics.

In a nutshell, propaganda is designed to manipulate others' beliefs and induce action in the interest of the propagator by drilling the message into the listeners' heads. It involves the use of images, slogans and symbols to play on prejudices and emotions. The ultimate goal of propaganda is to entice the recipient of the message to come to 'voluntarily' accept the propagandist's position as if it was one's own. Propaganda may be aimed at one's own people or at members of other groups. It can be designed to agitate the population or to pacify it. We often think of propaganda as false information that is meant to reassure those who already believe. Believing what is false can create cognitive dissonance, which people are eager to eliminate. Therefore, propaganda is often directed at those who are already sympathetic to the message in order to help overcome this discomfort. One the one hand, then, propaganda generally aims to construct the self as a noble, strong persona to which individuals in the domestic population can feel connected. At the same time, propaganda often attempts to rally the domestic public to action creating fear, confusion, and hatred by portraying the antagonist as an abominable figure.[4] Typically, the Other is demonized or dehumanized.[5] Stereotyping and scapegoating are common tactics in this regard. At its most extreme, propaganda is intended to overcome a reluctance to kill. In its modern usage, propaganda also tends to be characterized by some degree of institutionalization, mass distribution, and repetition of the message. [6]

Propagandists often conceal their purpose, even their identity, in order to distract the public. White propaganda, for instance, is from a correctly identified source and is not intentionally deceptive. Black propaganda, by contrast, is purposefully deceptive in giving the impression that the source is friendly.[7] Finally, the term gray propaganda has been used to describe propaganda that falls somewhere in between.

Although the range of propaganda techniques is seemingly limitless, space permits only an abbreviated discussion.[8] One common technique is bandwagoning, in other words appealing to people's desire to belong especially to the winning side, rather than the rightness of the position. Doublespeak involves the use of language that is deliberately constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning. Examples might include downsizing, extraordinary rendition, or the coalition of the willing. These may take the form of euphemisms, which are used to make something sound better than it is such as the term collateral damage. Another strategy is to appeal to authority. For instance, the World War II-era series This is War! emphasized how FDR's leadership qualities were similar to greats like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.[9] At other times, testimonials may be effective. Propaganda is also often heavily laced with rationalization and oversimplification. On the latter point, glittering generalities are words that, while they may have different positive meaning for individual, are linked to concepts that are highly valued by the group. Therefore, when these words are invoked, they demand approval without thinking, simply because such an important concept is involved. For example, when a person is asked to do something in 'defense of democracy' they are more likely to agree. The concept of democracy has a positive connotation to them because it is linked to a concept that they value. Propagandists sometimes use simple name-calling to draw a vague equivalence between a concept and a person, group, or idea. At other times, they may use "plain folks rhetoric" in order to convince the audience that they, and their ideas, are "of the people." Finally, propaganda often tries to at least implicitly gain the approval of respected and revered social institutions such as church or nation in order to transfer its authority and prestige to the propagandist's program.

Overall, many have pointed out that the most effective propaganda campaigns rely heavily on selective truth-telling, the confusion of means and ends, and the presentation of a simple idyllic vision that glosses over uncomfortable realities.[10] Psychologists Pratkanis and Aronson recommend four strategies for a successful propaganda campaign.[11] The first point is the importance of pre-persuasion. The propagandist should attempt to create a climate in which the message is more likely to be believed. Second is the credibility of the source. He/she should be a likable or authoritative communicator. Third, the message should be focused on simple, achievable goals. Finally, the message should arouse the emotions of the recipient and provide a targeted response.

It is unclear whether technological developments are making propaganda efforts easier or not. On the one hand, advances in communications technologies may be reducing government control over information.[12] Through the internet and satellite television, people need no longer rely solely on their governments for information. On the other hand, technology may make propaganda more effective. For example, it can make the experience of war more superficial and distort the lessons of prior conflict.[13] In addition, one can get overwhelmed with the amount of information on the internet, making it difficult to determine whether a particular source is credible. What is more, there appears to be significant 'virtual Balkanization' in which like-minded individuals form closed communities in which other viewpoints are not sought after.

Whether for scholars or the average person, Jowett and O'Donnell offer a 10 point checklist for analyzing propaganda:[14]

  1. The ideology and purpose of the propaganda campaign,
  2. The context in which the campaign occurs (for example, history or the ideological and social mileu),
  3. Identification of the propagandist,
  4. The structure of the propaganda organization (for example, identifying the leadership, organizational goals, and the form of media utilized),
  5. The target audience,
  6. Media utilization techniques,
  7. Special techniques to maximize effect (which include creating resonance with the audience, establishing the credibility of the source, using opinion leaders, using face-to-face contact, drawing upon group norms, using rewards and punishment, employing visual symbols of power, language usage, music usage, and arousing emotions),
  8. Audience reaction to various techniques,
  9. Counterpropaganda (if present),
  10. Effects and evaluation.

Psychological Operations (PSYOPs)

PSYOPs are a military tactic that also involves the use of propaganda. Rather than build support amongst one's citizenry, the goal is to demoralize one's opponent and create confusion. Since World War II, most wars have seen the creation of radio stations that broadcast music and news meant to hurt morale of the opposition. Dropping leaflets over enemy lines and even amongst the civilian population of one's opponents is also common. These techniques are designed to promote dissension and defections from enemy combat units as well as emboldening dissident groups within the country. PSYOPs can also provide cover and deception for one's own operations. Finally, PSYOPs may have the added benefit boosting the morale of one's own troops as well as amongst resistance groups behind enemy lines.

Public Diplomacy

More generally, public diplomacy involves the attempt to influence foreign publics without the use of force. The now-defunct U.S. Information Agency defined public diplomacy as "promoting the national interest and the national security of the United States through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign publics and broadening dialogue between American citizens and institutions and their counterparts abroad."[15] The areas of public diplomacy used to influence foreign target audiences are media diplomacy, public information, internal broadcasting, education and cultural programs, and political action. The idea of public diplomacy emerged from the Office of War Information, which existed during WWII. During the early part of the Cold War, a succession of offices within the U.S. Department of State had responsibility for the dissemination of information abroad. During the Eisenhower Administration, an independent agency was created for the purpose. The agency was later abolished by President Carter and its functions folded into the newly created International Communication Agency (ICA) in 1978 (later redesignated US Information Agency, or USIA, in 1982 during the Reagan Administration). In the 1990s, USIA and the Voice of America (VOA) were incorporated back into the State Department. Most recently, the White House established its own Office of Global Communications in 2001 to formulate and coordinate messages to foreign audiences. Other significant agencies include the International Broadcasting Bureau and the National Endowment for Democracy.

One observer has suggested a list of best practices in the conduct of public diplomacy, at least from the perspective of the United States.[16]

  • First, the primary goal is policy advocacy, in other words, to ensure that foreign publics understand US policies and motivations. As such, public diplomacy must be incorporated into foreign policy and it should involve coordination amongst a number of government agencies.
  • Second, public diplomacy must be rooted in American culture and values.
  • Third, the messages conveyed need to be consistent, truthful, and credible.
  • Fourth, it is important to tailor messages to a particular audience.
  • Fifth, a strategy needs to reach not only to opinion leaders, but also the mass public through national and global media outlets.
  • Sixth, there are a number of nonstate actors such as MNCs, the expatriot community, and humanitarian organizations that can serve as partners to help deliver the message accurately.
  • Finally, the US needs to recognize public diplomacy is a dialogue and to also listen to sentiment in other countries.

The Internet has become a major tool for information dissemination and interactive communication between the US government and their target populations as well as developing links with civil society actors around the world. Arquilla and Ronfeldt have described the strategy as 'noopolitik' as opposed to state-centered realpolitik. The former involves the use of soft power to shape ideas, values, norms, laws, and ethics.[17]

Cultural and educational programs, such as the Fulbright program, seek to provide a deeper understanding of a country's society, values, institutions and motives for forming the positions it takes. While funding of arts and cultural exchange was a prominent part of the ideological battle between the US and USSR, support has declined since the end of the Cold War.[18]

Propaganda and the War on Terror

The United States' War on Terror is but one of the most recent iterations of the use of propaganda in conflict. Since 9/11, the Bush administration has used fundamentalist discourse dominated by the binaries of good-evil and security-peril as well as appealing to a missionary obligation to spread freedom, while at the same time not broaching dissent.[19] This has had some resonance with segments of the American population. However, in this era of globalization, bad news in Iraq have obstructed the message and it has also been received very differently abroad. The US military has also utilized the practice of embedding journalists, which the British first learned during the Falklands war could be an effective government strategy because it creates sympathy for the troops on the part of the journalist.[20]

Despite gaffs of referring to the War on Terror as a crusade, the administration quickly recognized the importance of shoring up its image around the world, and the Middle East in particular. Within a month of 9/11, Charlotte Beers, a pioneer of branding strategies who had previously led Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter Thompson, two of the largest advertising firms in the world, was named to the post of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Beers was later replaced by Karen Hughes. Upon Beers' appointment, Secretary of State Colin Powell described her role in these terms: "We are selling a product. There is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something. We need someone who can rebrand American policy"[21] The administration did just that, undertaking a "brand America" campaign in the Middle East. Amongst Beers' initiatives were a glossy brochure depicting the carnage of 9/11 and the "Shared Values" campaign that consisted of a series of short videos of Muslims describing their lives in the US. The latter portrayed an American egalitarian culture, that the US was wronged and a victim. The videos showed successful Muslims. They tried to enhance their authenticity by showing Muslims doing 'traditional' things. The US made a particularly concerted effort to reach young Arabs. Many argue that the use of public diplomacy can be an important tool to offer desperate youth, particularly in the Arab world, a compelling ideological alternative to extremism.[22] To the present, however, the American propaganda campaign has failed in Iraq on all four of Pratkanis and Aronson's counts.[23] To be effective, some argue for the importance of a greater recognition amongst policymakers and politicians that public diplomacy is a long-term effort. In addition, some have called for a strengthened agency that has independent reporting, an increased budget, as well as greater training.[24] There is also a need for better organization and a better articulation of an overarching strategy in the conduct of public diplomacy.[25]

Political Communication

Propaganda itself is a subcategory of political communication, which encompasses a wide range of communicative behaviors that have political ends. One element encompasses the conduct of an effective election campaign, to disseminate the candidate's message and to counter the message of one's opponents. Governments, too, employ various techniques, including as we have seen propaganda, to build support for policies and stifle dissent. Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model of the media[26] "depicts the media system as having a series of five successive filters through which the "raw material of news" must pass, leaving a "cleansed residue" of what "news is fit to print, marginaliz[ing] dissent, and allow[ing] the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public." In brief paraphrase, these filters are (a) a focus on profitability by an increasingly concentrated industry that has close ties to the government and is in a position by sheer volume to overwhelm dissenting media voices, (b) the dependence of these media organizations on funding through advertising, leading them to favor content likely to appeal to the affluent and making concessions to commercial sponsors, (c) the dependence of journalists who work for the media on information from sources that constitute, collectively, a powerful and prestigious establishment; (d) commercial interests that make the media vulnerable to "flak" and criticism from groups and institutions with the power to generate criticism and protest to which they respond with caution; and, finally, (e) "anticommunism" (or some ideological equivalent) that those who produce content have internalized, thus conjoining them to frame the news in a dichotomous fashion, applying one standard to those on "our" side and a quite different one to "enemies." Most recently, the "war against terrorism" has served as a non-ideological substitute…. The propaganda model assigns to the media system just one major function to which everything else is subordinate. That function is the "manufacture of consent" for government policies that advance the goals of corporations and preserve the capitalist system."[27]

Some argue that evolving communications technologies and advertising and marketing techniques are damaging democratic practice by replacing thoughtful discussion with simplistic soundbites and manipulative messages.[28] Campaigns play on our deepest fears and most irrational hopes with the result being that we have a skewed view of the world. That said, media effects on politics are not uniform around the world. Rather, they are the product of the types of media technologies, the structure of the media market, the legal and regulatory framework, the nature of political institutions, and the characteristics of individual citizens.[29] What is more, others argue, by contrast, that "blaming the messenger" overlooks deep-rooted flaws in the systems of representative democracy that are responsible for the sorry condition of political discussion.[30] There is also much discussion about whether the internet is a positive for American democracy.[31] With respect to often delicate peace processes, the role of the media in the Rwandan genocide has given the news media a tarnished reputation. However, in some instances, the news media has sometimes played a constructive role in sustaining peace efforts.[32]

[1] Lippmann, W. A Preface to Morals. New York: Macmillan, 1929. 281.

[2] Guilday, Peter. "The Sacred Congregation De Propaganda Fide." Catholic Historical Review 6. 480. See also: Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999. 72-73.

[3] Combs, J.E. and D. Nimmo. The New Propaganda: The Dictatorship of Palaver in Contemporary Politics. New York: Longman, 1993.

[4] Kimble, James J. "Whither Propaganda? Agonism and 'The Engineering of Consent'." Quarterly Journal of Speech 91.2 (May 2005).

[5] Link, Jurgen. "Fanatics, Fundamentalists, Lunatics, and Drug Traffickers: The New Southern Enemy Image." Cultural Critique 19 (Fall 1991): 33-53.

[6] Kimble, 203.

[7] Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion. 4th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2006.

[8] For further discussion, see: Center for Media and Democracy. "Propaganda Techniques." <>.

[9] Horten, Gerd. Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.

[10] Cunningham, S.B. The Idea of Propaganda: A Reconstruction. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.; Ellul, J. "The Ethics of Propaganda: Propaganda, Innocence and Amorality." Communication 6 (1981): 159-175.; Plaisance, Patrick Lee. 2005. "The Propaganda War on Terrorism: An Analysis of the United States' 'Shared Values' Public-Diplomacy Campaign After September 11, 2001." Journal of Mass Media Ethics 20.4 (2005): 250-268.

[11] Pratkanis, Anthony and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. Owl Books, 2001.

[12] Deibert, R. "International Plug 'n' Play: Citizen Activism, the Internet and Global Public Policy." International Studies Perspectives 1.3 (2000): 255-272.; Rothkopf, D. "The Disinformation Age." Foreign Policy 114 (1999): 82-96.; Volkmer, I. News in the Global Sphere. Luton: University of Luton Press, 1999.

[13] Hoskins, Andrew. Televising War: From Vietnam to Iraq. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

[14] Jowett and O'Donnell (2006), 270.

[15] U.S. Information Agency Alumni Association. "What is Public Diplomacy?" 1 Sep 2002. 2 Apr 2003. <>.

[16] Ross, Christopher. "Pillars of Public Diplomacy." Harvard Review Aug 2003. Available at: <>.

[17] Arquilla, J. and D. Ronfeldt. The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1999. w13. < 1033/ MR1033.pdf/MR1033.chap3.pdf>.

[18] Smith, Pamela. "What Is Public Diplomacy?" Address before the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomacy, Malta, 2000. <>.

[19] Domke, David. God Willing? Political Fundamentalism In The White House, The War On Terror And The Echoing Press. London: Pluto Press, 2004.

[20] Knightley, Philip. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Iraq. London: André Deutsch, 2003.; Miller, David (ed.) Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq. London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2004.

[21] Klein, N. "The Problem is the U.S. Product." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 28 Jan 2003: B5.

[22] Finn, Helena K. "The Case for Cultural Diplomacy: Engaging Foreign Audiences." Foreign Affairs 82.6 (Nov-Dec 2003): 15.

[23] McKay, Floyd. "Propaganda: America's Psychological Warriors." The Seattle Times, 19 Feb 2006. <>.

[24] Johnson, Stephen and Helle Dale. "How to Reinvigorate U.S. Public Diplomacy." The Heritage Foundation Backgrounder 1645 (23 Apr 2003). <

[25] GAO Report on Public Diplomacy. 2003. <>.

[26] Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 2002. Excepts of a previous edition available at <

[27] Lang, Kurt and Gladys Engel Lang. "Noam Chomsky and the Manufacture of Consent for American Foreign Policy." Political Communication 21.93 (2004): 94.

[28] Bennett, W. Lance and Robert Entman (eds.) 2000. Mediated Politics: Communication in the Future of Democracy. Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Pratkanis, Anthony and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. Owl Books, 2001.

[29] Gunther, Richard and Anthony Mughan (eds.) Democracy and the Media. Cambridge University Press, 2000.; Hallin, Daniel C. and Paolo Mancini. Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[30] Norris, Pippa. A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Post-Industrial Democracies. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[31] Bimber, Bruce. Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

[32] Wolfsfeld, Gadi. Media and the Path to Peace. Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Propaganda." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2006 <>.

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