Propaganda, as form of persuasion, has been used far and wide since humankind was in the business of persuading each other of their desired viewpoint. Propaganda has long been both a understood, as well as misunderstood, way of persuading people. It has been used for towards positive outcomes that inspire the populace to act in a productive way, exemplified in the days of abolition in the 1800s, just as it has been used by nefarious entities as a call to action to get people to adapt harmful beliefs that can be then used to secure power, shown by many violent dictatorial regimes, including Nazi Germany during World War 2.
The goal of this paper is to break down propaganda, as a theory of persuasion, in four distinct ways. First, I will give a brief overview of the theory, followed by contemporary research done on the topic. Next, I will be discussing limitations that encompass propaganda as a persuasive theory. Finally, I will give real world examples of propaganda that we have seen historically, as well as ones that we are still seeing today.
To properly explain what propaganda is, and how it functions as a persuasive method, It’s important to first breakdown the historical origins of the term, followed by how it functions in today’s society. The term “propaganda” first originated in 1622 when Pope Gregory XV established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the Congregation for Propagating the Faith, for the purpose of promoting the faith in non-Catholic countries, as well as attempting to suppress the protestant reformation.
Despite this, the modern way we understand and recognize propaganda didn’t begin until the nineteenth century, with heavy implementation starting with World War 1 and continuing into modern times. During the nineteenth and even twentieth century, print as an avenue of propaganda was abundant, but radio, and later television, became the most effective way to get a message out to the largest amount of people. Propaganda, as defined by Johnnie Manzaria and Johnathon Bruck in their journal article “War & Peace: Media and War” is a form of persuasion used to influence people’s attitudes beliefs, and behaviors.
A working definition of propaganda, used in their work, is “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” In addition to the definitions that have been set forth, propaganda usually displays three general characteristics in real world application. First, propaganda is intentionally made by a propagandist with the sole purpose of manipulating individuals into adopting certain ideas and behaviors.
Next, propaganda always presents its desired view as the one which is absolutely true. Nazi Germany, who is credited with having one of the largest and most vigorous propaganda campaigns of the twentieth century, captured this with the quote: “The function of propaganda is not…to make an objective study of the truth…and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; it’s task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.” Lastly, propaganda attempts to manipulate people to convince them that the desired action or idea set forth by the propagandist was a choice that was actually made through their own free will.
There have been many modern advancements made to the theory since propaganda first became a regular instrument of persuasion, but two advancements in particular are most notable in the context of how western society functions. First, the largest and most notable advancement towards propaganda, as a theory of persuasion, is from Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman with their book “Manufacturing Consent: The political economy and mass media” where they developed a conceptual model in political economy which was coined as the propaganda model.
As described by Chomsky and Herman in the book, the model seeks to explain how populations of people are manipulated and how consent for economic, social, and political policies is “manufactured” in the public mind due to this propaganda that is set forth. The theory explains that the way in which corporate media is structured, creates an innate conflict of interest that acts as propaganda for undemocratic forces.
Chomsky and Herman break down the model into five distinct filters: ownership, advertising, sourcing, flak, and anti-communism or the war on terror, or more broadly, fear. The first filter, ownership, is explained by the relationship corporate media has with other sectors of the economy. These media firms, as a result, have a real stake in maintaining an economic and political climate that maintains their revenue streams.
This causes the major players in media to be less likely to be critical of economic or political entities that they directly benefit from. Next, Chomsky and Herman identify advertising as the following filter. Advertising as a source of income is something all major news network do to remain profitable, and as a result, it is against their best interest to have any content that may upset advertisers. The following filter is sourcing or reliance on information provided by an expert official source.
Those in the highest positions in politics and business have the resources to regularly facilitate the process of news gathering by providing press releases, think tank reports, photo ops, news conferences, and “canned” news pieces, which manipulates corporate media’s need for a steady stream of cheap news content. These “elites” are usually considered credible and even unbiased sources of information, which allows the information to pass without being properly vetted.
The example used is the run up to the Iraq War, when major outlets of US media took official assertions at face value, while not investigating their accuracy, whatsoever. The next filter is flak, or the way the media is disciplined. Flak is the negative feedback to a news story that often works to police and discipline corporate news outlets that stray too far out of bounds. The final filter in the model is fear, which was manifested as anti-communism in the past, and the war on terror today. Fear has the ability to mobilize the population against a perceived common enemy, while also subjugates people who oppose state policy as unpatriotic or siding with the enemy.
The next advancement done to this theory was by Johnnie Manzaria and Johnathon Bruck in their article “War & Peace: Media and War.” This article goes hand in hand with Manufacturing Consent, due to it’s focus on how the press shapes peoples opinions. Manzaria and Bruck explain in the article that modern propaganda uses every available form of media to spread it’s message. Propaganda is so rife in our society that it often goes unnoticed in media forms like award shows, children cartoons, comic strips, plays, and many more outlets that the average citizen encounters daily.
A large emphasis in their paper is on more traditional outlets that people go to specifically for information, like print, television and radio news outlets. To emphasis how propaganda plays out and who is able to control it, Manzaria and Bruck coined the term “The Dune affect”, which explains that those who control and have access to the news, are the same people who have the potential to control and shape public opinion.
While propaganda, which uses the tools of suggestion and persuasion, can gain important and significant objectives, it is a common mistake to overvalue it’s real power. Men and women are not so easily swayed as many who fear the application of propaganda seem to think. There must first be a fertile field to water the propagandist’s seed before it can ever be expected to flourish into real world attitudes and opinions. As has been pointed out, if the propaganda set forth is not in harmony with the individual and his desire, It is likely to be met with cynical skepticism.
For example, the propaganda of Nazi Germany and Hitler fit perfectly with the German desire for supremacy after the defeat in World War 1. Additionally, the propaganda of diets and medicines harmonize with everyday people’s desire for good health. Forces quite apart from propaganda usually play a large part in preparing the ground for the seeds to grow. As a result, its often hard to discern between opinions that have been created from propaganda and opinions that are created by events that occur.
Additionally, where one grows up and who their parents are very large factors in what shapes political and social beliefs. Experts on polling public opinion believe that age, sex, place of residence, race, religion, and income are all important in influencing attitudes. Simply put, ones own information and knowledge may cause them to hold opinions no matter how heavy the assault of propaganda is. Propaganda is not kryptonite of the people like many believe—it is just simply one tool used in the formation of the general publics opinion.
The public sphere is rife with countless examples of propaganda both historic, and modern day. However, one phenomena has stuck out to me and absolutely fascinated me over the many weeks of following it, which was the use of Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica is essentially a data collecting agency that uses metadata to help political campaigners micro-target populations based on their political beliefs and affiliations so they can more effectively hold rallies, focus on certain states, communicate messages with supporters, and also allows them to discern who may be neutral or opposition voters.
This was used during Brexit, Trump’s campaign, and the 2015 Nigerian election, to great affect. In all three cases, this meta data that was collected via Facebook, was directly used by pollical campaigners to establish a close loop of propaganda towards people who were more susceptible to take It in. In the case of Brexit, there was a fear on many people that being involved with the EU would not only harm the British Pound, but also mean that they would be forced to take in more Syrian migrants, due to the migrant crisis.
A large talking point that was circulated my right wings outlets in the UK is that these new migrants would bring a rise of sexual assaults and a changing of British culture. It made it easy for pro-Brexit campaigners to unite against a common enemy. This was additionally true with the campaign of Donald Trump. Targeted ads on social media began circulating the message “Make America Great Again” and propagating fake news about Black Lives Matter, drumming up support for a wall, and uniting against a common enemy of Syrian migrants coming to attack America.
Finally, in the Nigerian Election of 2015, Cambridge Analytica was used to circulate a video with graphically violent imagery, which portrayed the candidate as a supporter of Sharia law, who violently suppresses dissenters and negotiates with militant Islamists. In all three of these cases, Cambridge Analytica made it easy for campaigners to effectively establish a network of people to distribute propaganda to.
In closing, propaganda is a tool of persuasion that has been around since the beginning of our evolutionary journey as humans, and will continue to play a part for many years to come. It has been used by some of worst bad actors we have seen in this world, to attempt to control the population establish a dominant narrative. Propaganda has also been used by many forces of good to spread a well intended message of change. In and of itself, propaganda is neither benevolent nor malevolent—it is simply a tool of persuasion that is one piece of shaping the general consciousness.