Propaganda Theory

Thomas M Steinfatt. Encyclopedia of Communication Theory. Editor: Stephen W Littlejohn & Karen A Foss. 2009. Sage Publication.

Propaganda is a form of persuasion involving a mass message campaign designed to discourage rational thought and to suppress evidence. The term is also used to refer to individual messages as in a piece of propaganda, often as a pejorative term used to attack a message in disagreement with the source of the pejorative. This entry considers definitions and theories of propaganda and its history, distinguishing propaganda from other persuasive forms.

Defining Propaganda

Persuasion refers to a subset of communication involving the intent to support or change people’s beliefs and behaviors. In its most common current usage, propaganda refers to a form of persuasion distinguished by a mass persuasion campaign, often one sided and fear based, that distorts or attempts to hide or discredit relevant evidence, disguises sources, and discourages rational thought. Often considered a tool of government formation and policy, propaganda also may be found in advertising, religion, education, and other institutional settings.

The term propaganda may also be used neutrally through definitions such as the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause, communication’s role in social struggle, or mass suggestion of influence through the manipulation of symbols and psychology. Some definitions suggest propaganda requires total control of the media, an unlikely event. The more neutral definitions do not distinguish clearly between education, advertising, and propaganda. They suggest that the education-propaganda distinction may simply be based on one’s viewpoint: What another does is propaganda; what I do is education. In some cases, then, education and propaganda as practiced may be the same. But a theoretical distinction between them as ideally practiced is important to maintain. Rather than seeking to hide evidence, subvert reasoning, and promote the propagation of belief through fear-based emotions, in theory, education should seek to promote the search for and evaluation of all available evidence and to promote logical thought, separating it from emotion for the purpose of creating a rational understanding of the subject matter.

Definitions dependent on the use of specific message techniques or on the channels and media used for transmission have not proved useful in distinguishing propaganda from other mass persuasion campaigns. Propaganda may or may not involve the use of specific media or the employment of specific techniques such as the seven devices of propaganda articulated by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis: name-calling, glittering generality, transfer, testimonial, plain folks, card stacking, and band wagon. The existence of such characteristics is neither necessary nor sufficient evidence of the existence of propaganda. Information dissemination strategies are propagandistic only when the attempted subversion of evidence and/or reasoning processes occurs, by whatever means.

Propaganda is referred to as white, grey, or black, according to properties of the attributed source. In white propaganda, the actual source is attributed to the message. In grey propaganda, no source is attributed or an actual source is difficult to discern. In black propaganda, the attributed source is not the actual source.

Propaganda Theory

Propaganda may have a single audience, perhaps the American voter, or two or more basic target audiences, perhaps a home audience and an enemy audience. Home and enemy targets are often approached through different campaigns, with different message sets for each. Within each such audience are some who are initially in favor and others who are initially opposed to the policy of the propaganda source, as well as those who are neutral. A principal strategy is to move those in each of the basic audiences who are opposed to the propagandist’s position toward neutrality or to uncertainty, thus moving them to inaction; to move some who are neutral toward favorableness; and to keep those who are in favor within the fold by creating within them a readiness and willingness to act.

This may be done by creating doubt about the position to be attacked concerning its validity, practicality, potential financial and security costs, and its compatibility with dearly held principles of the target position, along with reassurance of these factors with respect to the proffered position. The simplest method of accomplishing this is usually through the use of fear, often by associating the policies of the opposition with great perceived harm and disaster for the target individual and/or the relevant others for that individual, while supporting the desired alternative policy or group. Notably, these strategies may also be used in a persuasion or advertising campaign, claiming failure to use a particular mouthwash will result in bad breath and loss of sexual experiences. The distinction between persuasion and propaganda occurs if, when, and to the extent that a persuasive campaign uses messages designed to hide or subvert evidence, and/or to remove rationality and substitute emotional responses for reasoned discourse. This line may be crossed in advertising, education, or any other application of persuasion.

Common propaganda tactics are those of persuasion. They often include misdirection or distraction of the audience’s attention away from issues important to the opposition and toward irrelevant issues associated with fear and loathing by the target audience. If there are a substantial number of single-issue members of the target audience who favor a position X on the issue, and X is opposed by group A, repeated messages from group B concentrating on the connection of A with X will often be effective in moving the single-issue voters away from A. Given two sides to an issue, X and Y, grey propaganda claiming X to be true, later followed by information showing X to be untrue, can lead toward belief in Y. If an event occurs that affects the credibility or the nature of the connection or of that issue, the message set may require change. Existence of such a change may be suggestive of the existence of propaganda, but is not proof.

Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky propose a theory of propaganda alleging a systemic bias in the mass media and explaining the existence of the bias through structural economic causes. They suggest that the growth of democracy and corporate power has led to the growth of corporate propaganda to protect corporate power from democracy. In their model, the product of the media is an audience that is produced through messages such as TV shows and news.

Modern History of the Study of Propaganda

Although propaganda has long been a tool of governments, the term originated in the Latin title of the Council of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. The Congregation de Propaganda Fide, or Congregation for Propagation of the Faith, was created in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV, seeking ways of convincing people to convert without the sword. For the church, propaganda involved conversion without coercion, intending a neutral definition. The term maintains this connotation within the church and within communist agitprop strategies, where propaganda is advocated for use with the educated classes, and agitation—repetition of slogans without reasoning—for the masses.

An infamous example of propaganda concerns a work possibly created in the mid-1890s by the Head of the Okhrana, the Czar’s secret police, to convince the Czar to act forcefully against the Bolsheviks. Attempting to discredit Bolshevism by tying it to Judaism, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion was largely plagiarized from Hermann Goedsche’s 1868 novel Biarritz, which itself borrowed from an 1864 French novel titled Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. In the protocols, the names of Jewish leaders attending the first Zionist Congress in Basil, Switzerland, were substituted for the original characters. Bound in a manner appearing to suggest notes of a secret meeting of Jews who were bent on world economic domination, it was exposed as a forgery in 1920 by a Jewish committee and by a 1921 Times of London article by Philip Graves. Apparently spread by Loyalists fleeing Russia following the Bolshevik Revolution, copies reached most Western countries by 1920. Henry Ford placed excerpts from the protocols in his showrooms, and his purchase of the Dearborn Independent was intended to serve as a vehicle for disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda based on the protocols. A set of leather-bound volumes containing portions of the protocols and Ford’s editorials for the independent was available in Berlin. It may have been the copy initially seen by Adolph Hitler and referred to in Mein Kampf. Julius Streicher relied on the protocols while producing issues of Der Stuermer. Though denounced as a forgery by each of many investigations, beginning with a Czarist committee after it became publicly available in 1903 to the U.S. Senate investigation in 1964, the protocols still appears on many Internet hate sites represented as truth.

During World War I, George Creel employed Walter Lippman and Edward Bernays as the best known members of the Creel Commission, the Committee on Public Information of the U.S. Government. This committee relied on fear in a poster campaign and on personal contact in the speeches of the volunteer 4-minute men. Their topics covered reasons for America’s role in the fight and the need for press censorship, to be conducted by a president who had promised peace. Creel’s committee worked on reducing morale on the German home front and produced massive anti-German sentiment in America. Few records remain, as Congress provided no funds for archiving its work due to a public backlash. In the 1930s groups such as the Institute for Propaganda Analysis attempted to sensitize the public to propaganda techniques through lists such as its seven devices, yet employed these very devices in arguments against propaganda. Funding for the antipropaganda movement dried up as the United States prepared for World War II. German, British, and American propaganda efforts in World War II drew on ideas from the Creel commission.

In 1935, Leonard Doob was among the first to state clearly that propaganda works through its effects on the individual human mind. The movement from the study of propaganda toward the study of persuasion did not begin in earnest until the 1950s. It became increasingly clear that though public opinion was a useful concept, it was a convenient fiction, implying the existence of a group mind. Three elements worked together to produce the change in scholarship from public opinion and propaganda to persuasion: the shift of emphasis from changing public opinion to the persuasion of individuals, the movement from a hypodermic effect to a two-step flow model, and the government desire to be associated with funding of research on persuasion, not propaganda.

As advertising agencies spent freely on proprietary persuasive research, the modern era of academic persuasion research began with Wilbur Schramm’s work as Educational Director of the U.S. Office of War Information during World War II. Using funding from multiple government contracts following the war, Schramm founded the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois in 1947. Similar institutes formed at Stanford and Hawaii, encouraging movement from a study of propaganda as sociology, to the persuasion of the individual. Doctoral graduates from these programs established similar departments at other major universities. During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency operated the Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty, supported in part by government funding including the intelligence community. Wars from Vietnam to Iraq continued to employ the results of this research on message and channel strategies. These included encouraging the wearing of American Flag lapel pins that became a symbol of support for America’s wars rather than of America and equating patriotism with support of the current government rather than of the Constitution.