What Is Propaganda?

A Soviet propaganda poster from World War II showing how Russia, Great Britain, and the U.S. will tie the enemy in knots. (Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

Propaganda is a form of psychological warfare that involves the spreading of information and ideas to advance a cause or discredit an opposing cause. 

In their book Propaganda and Persuasion (2011), Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell define propaganda as "the deliberate and systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognition, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist."

From the Latin, "to propagate"

Examples and Observations

  • "Every day we are bombarded with one persuasive communication after another. These appeals persuade not through the give-and-take of argument and debate but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions. For better or worse, ours is an age of propaganda."
    (Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, rev. ed. Owl Books, 2002)
  • Rhetoric and Propaganda
    "Rhetoric and propaganda, both in popular and academic commentary, are widely viewed as interchangeable forms of communication; and historical treatments of propaganda often include classical rhetoric (and sophistry) as early forms or antecedents of modern propaganda (e.g., Jowett and O'Donnell, 1992. pp. 27-31)."
    (Stanley B. Cunningham, The Idea of Propaganda: A Reconstruction. Praeger, 2002)
  • "Throughout the history of rhetoric, . . . critics have deliberately drawn distinctions between rhetoric and propaganda. On the other hand, evidence of the conflation of rhetoric and propaganda, under the general notion of persuasion, has become increasingly obvious, especially in the classroom, where students seem incapable of differentiating among the suasory forms of communication pervasive now in our heavily mediated society. . . .

    "In a society where the system of government is based, at least in part, on the full, robust, give-and-take of persuasion in the context of debate, this conflation is deeply troubling. To the extent that all persuasive activity was lumped together with 'propaganda' and given the 'evil connotation' (Hummel & Huntress 1949, p. 1) the label carried, persuasive speech (i.e. rhetoric) would never hold the central place in education or democratic civic life it was designed to."
    (Beth S. Bennett and Sean Patrick O'Rourke, "A Prolegomenon to the Future Study of Rhetoric and Propaganda." Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, ed by Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell. Sage, 2006)
  • Examples of Propaganda
    "A massive propaganda campaign by the South Korean military drew an ominous warning from North Korea on Sunday, with Pyongyang saying that it would fire across the border at anyone sending helium balloons carrying anti-North Korean messages into the country.

    "A statement carried by the North’s official news agency said the balloon-and-leaflet campaign 'by the puppet military in the frontline area is a treacherous deed and a wanton challenge' to peace on the Korean Peninsula."
    (Mark McDonald, "N. Korea Threatens South on Balloon Propaganda." The New York Times, Feb. 27, 2011)
  • "The US military is developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.

    "A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an 'online persona management service' that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world."
    (Nick Fielding and Ian Cobain, "Revealed: US Spy Operation That Manipulates Social Media." The Guardian, March 17, 2011)
  • ISIS Propaganda
    "Former US public diplomacy officials fear the sophisticated, social media borne propaganda of the Islamic State militant group (Isis) is outmatching American efforts at countering it.

    "Isis propaganda runs the gamut from the gruesome video-recorded beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff to Instagram photographs of cats with AK-47s, indicating a comfort Isis has with internet culture. A common theme, shown in euphoric images uploaded to YouTube of jihadi fighters parading in armored US-made vehicles captured from the Iraqi military, is Isis’s potency and success. . . .

    "Online, the most visible US attempt to counter to Isis comes from a social media campaign called Think Again Turn Away, run by a State Department office called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications."
    (Spencer Ackerman, "Isis's Online Propaganda Outpacing US Counter-Efforts." The Guardian, September 22, 2014)
  • The Aims of Propaganda
    "The characteristic that propaganda is a form of mass media argumentation should not, in itself, be regarded as sufficient for drawing the conclusion that all propaganda is irrational or illogical or that any argument used in propaganda is for that reason alone fallacious. . . .

    "[T]he aim of propaganda is not just to secure a respondent's assent to a proposition by persuading him that it is true or that it is supported by propositions he is already committed to. The aim of propaganda is to get the respondent to act, to adopt a certain course of action, or to go along with and assist in a particular policy. Merely securing assent or commitment to a proposition is not enough to make propaganda successful in securing its aim."
    (Douglas N. Walton, Media Argumentation: Dialectic, Persuasion, and Rhetoric. Cambridge University Press, 2007)
  • Recognizing Propaganda
    "The only truly serious attitude . . . is to show people the extreme effectiveness of the weapon used against them, to rouse them to defend themselves by making them aware of their frailty and their vulnerability instead of soothing them with the worst illusion, that of a security that neither man's nature nor the techniques of propaganda permit him to possess. It is merely convenient to realize that the side of freedom and truth for man has not yet lost, but that it may well lose--and that in this game, propaganda is undoubtedly the most formidable power, acting in only one direction (toward the destruction of truth and freedom), no matter what the good intentions or the good will may be of those who manipulate it."
    (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. Vintage Books, 1973)

Pronunciation: prop-eh-GAN-da

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Propaganda?" ThoughtCo, Oct. 3, 2017, thoughtco.com/propaganda-definition-1691544. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 3). What Is Propaganda? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/propaganda-definition-1691544 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Propaganda?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/propaganda-definition-1691544 (accessed March 23, 2018).