Just What is Propaganda?

Many people think they “sort of” know what the word “propaganda” means but it can be somewhat elusive to define and give concert examples. So first let’s look at some basic propaganda definitions.

Propaganda Definition #1 (Wordbook)

Information that is spread for the purpose of promoting some cause

ORIGIN: 1718, Modern Latin, short for Congregatio de Propaganda Fide “congregation for propagating the faith,” established 1622 by Gregory XV to supervise foreign missions, from abl. fem. gerundive of Latinpropagare (see propagation). Modern political sense dates from World War I, not originally pejorative.

Can a definition of propaganda be propaganda itself? Spreading information to promote a cause, carries no connotation of potential harm. Yet, the last sentence of the definition reveals that,”Modern political sense dates from World War I, not originally pejorative, clearly indicating that the term is now considered pejorative, meaning the practice of it is generally considered a negative thing.

Why does Wordbook spin the meaning of propaganda as a benign practice so as to make it indistinguishable from the word “persuasion”. And if the underlying meaning of propaganda that includes a sinister motive behind some form of communication is lost, what word is there left to describe that reality?

Propaganda Definition #2 (Merriam Webster Online dictionary)

Ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.

Propaganda Definition #3 (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion. 

Propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs,  attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth). Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas. The propagandist has a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these he deliberately selects facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and presents them in ways he thinks will have the most effect. To maximize effect, he may omit pertinent facts or distort them, and he may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people whom he is trying to sway) from everything but his own propaganda.

And if you absolutely have to have the WIKI version Go Here

Propaganda Definition #4

Propaganda As The Destruction of Words and Alteration of Language

Propaganda is not a simple topic that lends itself to a pat definition. It’s tentacles reach down as far as the modification of language and very idea and concept of “thought” itself.  This rather lengthy passage from George Orwell’s Book, 1984 will help you to understand.

‘How is the Dictionary getting on?’ said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise. ‘Slowly,’ said Syme. ‘I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.’ He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.
‘The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,’ he said. ‘We’re getting the language into its final shape — the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’
He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.
‘It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like “good”, what need is there for a word like “bad”? “Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of “good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? “Plusgood” covers the meaning, or ” doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use these forms already,  but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,’ he added as an afterthought.
A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm. ‘You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,’ he said almost sadly. ‘Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in The Times occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?’
Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:
‘Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,’ he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you,  Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?’ ‘Except-‘ began Winston doubtfully, and he stopped.
It had been on the tip of his tongue to say  ‘Except the proles,’ but he checked himself, not feeling fully certain that this remark was not in some way unorthodox. Syme, however, had divined what he was about to say.
‘The proles are not human beings,’ he said carelessly. ‘ By 2050 earlier, probably — all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron — they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be.  Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking — not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.’

― George Orwell1984

Propaganda Characteristics:

The following are notes taken from Jacques Ellul ’s book, Propaganda

The Individual Lost In The Masses

Any propaganda will, first of all address itself at one and the same time to the individual and to the masses. It cannot separate the two elements. For propaganda to address itself to the individual in his isolation, apart from the crowd is impossible. The individual is of no interest to the propagandist, as an isolated unit he presents too much resistance to external action. To be effective, propaganda cannot be concerned with detail not only because to create certain convictions in an isolated individual is much too difficult. Propaganda ceases where dialogue begins.

Total Propaganda

Propaganda is a matter of reaching and encircling the whole man and all men. Propaganda tries to surround man by all possible routes, in the realm of feelings as well as ideas, by playing on his will or on his needs, through his conscious and his unconscious, assailing him in both his private an chis public life through the use of the press, radio, TV, movies, posters,meetings, internet etc..

It furnishes him with a complete system for explaining the world, and provides immediate incentives to action. We are here in the presence of an organized myth that tries to take hold of the entire person.

Thorough the myth it creates propaganda imposes a complete range of intuitive knowledge susceptible of only one interpretation, unique and one-sided and precluding any divergence. This myth becomes so powerful that is invades every area of consciousness leaving no faculty or motivation intact.

…by its very nature, it excludes contradiction and discussion.

…it cannot leave any segment of opinion outside its sphere; it cannot tolerate any sort of independence.

….will take over education and literature which must be rewritten according to propagandas needs.

Alongside the mass media of communication propaganda employs censorship, legal texts, proposed legislation, international conferences and so forth-thus introducing elements seemingly alien to propaganda.

Need For Pre-Propaganda

Direct propaganda, aimed at modifying opinions and attitudes must be preceded by propaganda that is sociologic in character slow, general, seeking to create a climate, an atmosphere of favorable preliminary attitudes. No direct propaganda can be effective without pre-propaganda, which, without direct or noticeable aggression is limited to creating ambiguities, reducing prejudices, and spreading images apparently without purpose.

Continuity and Duration

…must be continuous and lasting.  It is based on slow, constant impregnation.

Propaganda Books:


C.S Lewis,  The Abolition of Man

Jacques Ellul,  Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

George Orwell, “All Art is Propaganda’ All Art Is Propaganda

Noam Chomsky,  Media Control, Second Edition: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda (Open Media Series)

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman,  Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media

Edward Bernays,  Propaganda

Edward Bernays,  Crystallizing Public Opinion

Walter Lippmann,  Public Opinion

Joseph Goebbels, Goebbels on the Power of Propaganda

Ronald Rychiak and Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacapa, Disinformation: Former Spy Chief Reveals Secret Strategies for Undermining Freedom, Attacking Religion, and Promoting Terrorism

Richard Weaver,  The Ethics of Rhetoric

Joseph Pieper, Abuse of Language Abuse of Power

John Holt,  Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Things Better

John Gatto,   Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling

Plato,  Sophist

Saul Alinsky,  Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals

Mark Levin,  Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

George Orwell, 1984 (Signet Classics)

From Word book (WordBook includes contents from WordNet 3.0 © 2006 Princeton University, Wiktionary.com and Wikipedia.com)