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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

Counter-Propaganda is the practice of taking measures to portray an opposing piece of Propaganda as false, instructing the target audience to think or act in a manner that counters the original Propaganda. To be effective, Counter-Propaganda must target the same audience as the original Propaganda message and may often employ the same methods. Counter-Propaganda is different to Propaganda in that it is a completely reactionary concept. Because it intends to counter previously stated Propaganda messages, Counter-Propaganda initiatives cannot be employed preemptively[1].

Counter-Propaganda is still, however, based on the same principles as Propaganda, and consists of deliberate, systematic attempts to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist[2].

It has also been noted that a key feature of Counter-Propaganda is to undermine the credibility of the original Propagandists themselves, portraying their arguments as inherently false and a product of Disinformation, so that audiences will be more likely to discredit their efforts in the future[3].

The Counter-Propaganda Process

Effective Counter-Propaganda begins by fully collecting and analysing the Propaganda to be countered; it is necessary to fully understand the opposing message, its target audience and its objectives in order to combat it. Success in countering Propaganda requires a comprehensive Propaganda monitoring and collection effort that identifies and catalogues examples of all types of adversarial Propaganda. When analysing Propaganda, the opinions of experts in a range of different professions are sought, including Psychological Operations, social science, anthropology, semantics and linguistics. In order to provide an effective countermeasure, the following questions regarding the original Propaganda need to be addressed:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • What effects do the Propagandists aim to produce?
  • What effects have they actually achieved and why have they achieved them?
  • What other audiences have come into contact with this message?
  • What does the Propaganda indicate about an adversary's perceptions, capabilities, and vulnerabilities?
  • Are there any inaccuracies, inconsistencies, or deceits in the messages that could be exploited?
  • What counter arguments can be deployed, to whom, and how?

Elements of Counter-Propaganda

A Basis in Truth

Whilst both Counter-Propaganda and regular Propaganda can contain true or false information, it has been argued that the most successful Counter-Propaganda campaigns generally only broadcast the truth[4]. Counter-Propaganda is commonly understood to be the "truthful, honest opposition" to an adversary's Propaganda initiatives, for both moral and practical reasons[5].

In practice a Counter-Propaganda message that is deliberately or accidentally false could be revealed to be as biased as the Propaganda it sought to oppose. If a Counter-Propaganda message is publicly discovered to be Misinformation or Disinformation, this could also harm the broadcaster's reputation and reduce their ability to effectively produce Counter-Propaganda in the future. Thus, telling the truth (or a version of it) strengthens the effectiveness of a Counter-Propaganda campaign and weakens the Propaganda of those revealed to be biased[3].

Clarity of Expression

Counter-Propaganda campaigns must relay information in a universally comprehensible manor in order to effectively communicate with the target audience and counter rival Propaganda initiatives. Using widely recognisable words and concepts to clearly convey the Counter-Propaganda message is more likely to lead to an effective outcome. If the Counter-Propaganda is confusing and the message is misunderstood by the target audience, a further clarification will only serve to reduce its effectiveness[6].

Knowledge of Target Audience

Like regular Propaganda, Counter-Propaganda requires the creation of messages that resonate with the target audience in a culturally relevant narrative. Developing messages that are effective in a target audience entails identifying the existing sentiments, stereotypes and opinions that influence the audience's perspectives, beliefs and actions. Since the objective of Counter-Propaganda is to influence an audience to reject a Propaganda message, it must touch upon the elements of culture, belief and emotion that will result in such action. These elements will vary among audiences, meaning that the messages must be tailored specifically to the individual target audience[1].

Rapid Response

Counter-Propaganda is a reactive method that must be employed rapidly in order to effectively contradict a Propaganda message. The longer that Propaganda is perceived as the truth the harder it is to contradict, even when the target audience is exposed to the truth[7].

Psychology provides additional reasons to rapidly employ Counter-Propaganda. If a target audience has based their beliefs or actions upon an original Propaganda message they were exposed to over a long period of time it becomes increasingly hard to alter their viewpoint. The audience in such a scenario might be hesitant to assimilate any new information from a Counter-Propaganda message that contradicted the information they had already internalised[8].

Counter-Propaganda Techniques

Direct Refutation

This technique is a point-for-point rebuttal of opponent Propaganda charges. It should be used when an opponent’s message can be proved completely wrong. The refutation should be credible to the target audience. It should be circulated as widely and quickly as possible while getting the true information to the target audience before the original message has a chance to do any lasting damage. One drawback of this method is that it may give added publicity, strength, and possible credibility to opponent messages by repeating them[9].

Indirect Refutation

This technique involves the introduction of a new set of relevant themes that refute opponent propaganda by indirect means. These indirect means include implication and insinuation. Indirect refutation challenges the credibility of opponent propaganda. The advantage of this technique is that it does not reinforce or spread opponent propaganda as readily as direct refutation. An example of this method would be to discredit the integrity of the sponsor or a prominent member of the opposition by damaging his credibility. This method serves to weaken the sponsor’s message[9].


In this technique, the Counter-Propaganda campaign tries to overshadow the content of the opponent message by presenting a theme that draws more attention or creates greater concern from the audience. This diverts the audience’s attention from the opponent message and focuses its attention on the friendly message[9]


This technique implies that no response is necessary to counter the opposing Propaganda. It denies feedback since the opponent message is not further publicised. Before selecting this method, the effect of silence on the target audience must be analysed. This technique is often used in counteraction because it avoids giving the opponent message publicity and supplying the opponent with feedback. A statement made when using this technique is, "The charges are so absurd they don’t warrant a response"[9].

Restrictive Measures

This technique uses measures that deny the target audience access to opposing Propaganda. These actions, however, may call attention to the Propaganda and encourage the target audience to engage with the information covertly. Restrictive measures are never completely effective because enforced isolation of the target audience is impossible. Restrictive measures are not normally recommended. This technique has been used extensively in repressive governments restricting the flow of news and information to the populace[9].

Imitative Deception

This technique involves changing enemy Propaganda to decrease its impact and effect. Imitative deception is closely associated with Black Propaganda operations. Because this technique can cause the user to lose credibility, it is exploited infrequently. The technique usually involves physically altering the Propaganda product, such as physically altering a leaflet or radio broadcast[9].

Promoting Transparency

Propaganda measures are often classified by the degree to which the true nature of their author is transparent. The source of White Propaganda is freely disclosed, the source of Grey Propaganda is hidden or obscured, and the source of Black Propaganda is falsely attributed[10]. Often, as with Grey and Black Propaganda, the credibility of a message depends on masking the true origin of the message to ensure the audience accepts it as an unbiased communication. When a Counter-Propaganda initiative reveals the Grey or Black Propaganda's true origin, the target audience quickly loses faith in the message as a biased communication and the Propagandist who employed a deceitful manipulation[11].

Disseminating Exposed Propaganda

Because effective Propaganda is tailored to a very specific target audience, when it is shared to another group for identification purposes the message is easily recognisable as Propaganda. When a Counter-Propaganda campaign shares Propaganda intended for a specific audience with another audience the original Propagandists' true intentions are revealed. The sharing of Propaganda messages between audiences also enables the second audience to reveal the Propaganda messages targeting them. Countering opposing Propaganda campaigns by improving the target audience's ability to recognise them reduces their effects and outreach in the future[3].


This technique is used whenever an organisation cannot refute, discredit, or remain silent on a matter that enemy Propaganda has brought to light or when they want to preserve their credibility. It can emphasise aspects of the Propaganda material that are favorable to the target audience (if there are any). It can insinuate that the whole story cannot be told now, suggesting that the full facts will prove the opposing Propaganda false or at least inaccurate. Minimisation can also be used to give brief attention to the subject to maintain credibility, and then drop the subject[9].

Modern Uses

European Union

An informal paper recently endorsed by Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom has called for plans to combat Russian Propaganda. The non-paper calls on EU states’ media regulators to hold Russian broadcasters accountable if they “manipulate, deceive, incite hatred, or propagate war”. To raise awareness, the four states call for “regular political discussions on the issue of Russia’s disinformation campaign” by EU ambassadors and foreign ministers in Brussels and “a permanent platform, where the EU and Nato could exchange views on strategic communication”.

It wants the EU foreign service to draw up an “action plan” for 2015 and 2016 on how to “actively de-construct … hostile propaganda”. The four states also call for EU support for independent or alternative Russian language media in Europe. The paper also notes that the anti-Russian Propaganda measures can also be used against Islamist radicalisation[12].



  1. 1.0 1.1 Jacques Ellul, "Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes", New York, NY: Vintage Books, pp.33-36.
  2. Garth Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell, "Propaganda and Persuasion", 4th ed. Sage Publications, p.7.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Herbert Romerstein (2008), "Counterpropaganda: We Can't Do Without It". In Waller, ed., Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda and Political Warfare, IWP Press, p.135.
  4. Paul Smith (1989), "On Political War". Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, p.7.
  5. WC Garrison (1999), Information Operations and Counter-Propaganda: Making a Weapon of Public Affairs, Strategy Research Project, U.S. Army War College, p.5. Defense Technical Information Center website, accessed 26 March 2015
  6. Andrew Garfield (2008), "Recovering the Lost Art of Counterpropaganda: An Assessment of the War of Ideas in Iraq". In Waller, ed., Strategic Influence: Public Diplomacy, Counterpropaganda and Political Warfare, IWP Press, pp.184-185.
  7. Oliver Carlson 1953, "Handbook on Propaganda: For The Alert Citizen", Studies of the Foundation for Social Research, 2 (1), Winter
  8. Scott Plous (1993), The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, McGraw Hill, p.233.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Department of the Army (1994), Field Manual 33-1-1: Psychological Operations Techniques and Procedures, 05 May 1994, Washington, DC: Department of the Army. National Coalition For Men website, accessed 26 March 2015
  10. Debra Kelly, The Difference Between Gray, White And Black Propaganda, KnowledgeNuts website, 12 February 2014, accessed 26 March 2015
  11. Anthony Rhodes (1976), Propaganda: The Art of Persuasion World War II. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publications, p.287.
  12. Andrew Rettman (2015), UK, Denmark back EU counter-propaganda plan, 09 January 2015, EU Observer website, accessed 26 March 2015