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

Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels[1]. Simply put, Propaganda can be considered the deliberate use of any form of communication designed to influence the minds, emotions, and actions of a given group for a specific purpose[2].

People avoid using the word Propaganda to describe their actions because it is often associated with Deception and Disinformation[3]. Although manipulative, Propaganda is not necessarily untruthful. Many theorists believe that the most effective Propaganda operates from a basis of truth[4].

The term propaganda carries a heavy negative ballast especially, but not exclusively, from its use in the 1914–18 and 1939–45 wars. It should be noted that as a result, even early in the twentieth century, there were those who aspired to create a profession out of Propaganda but who recognised the necessity of renaming it, in order to avoid the negative associations. Critics of Propaganda have argued that terms such as Perception Management, Psychological Warfare, Psychological Operations, Information Warfare, Public Diplomacy, Public Affairs, Public Relations and Spin are all just 'nice' ways of saying Propaganda, as they all involve a conscious manipulation of their audiences on behalf of their sponsors[5].

The advent of 20th century mass communication has enabled Propaganda to flourish, and it has been employed with increasing sophistication in all major conflicts since the beginning of World War I. Unlike other forms of warfare, the success or failure of Propaganda cannot be immediately known or measured. It is a continuous process that persuades without seeming to do so[6].


Propaganda is a modern Latin word, originating from the noun propagare; meaning to spread or propogate. Its first appearance was in relation to a new administrative body of the Catholic Church created in 1622, called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith). Its activity was aimed at propagating the Catholic faith in non-Catholic countries. A College of Propaganda was set up under Pope Urban VIII to train priests for these missions[7].

From the 1970s, the term Propaganda was also applied to secular activities outside of the Church. In the mid-19th century, the concept began to develop its trademark negative connotations, with an increasing use in the political sphere[8].

Some definitions of Propaganda only focus on the physical outcomes of the practice. However, focusing only on the content of what is produced misdirects attention from the institutional basis of Propaganda. Equally, Propaganda is more than a question of communication or ideas or discourses. It is a communicative practice, in that it requires and can only be enacted by humans in specific social relations. Propaganda is, therefore, not simply a matter of discourse but a matter of concrete material action by particular institutional interests.

It should be noted that definitions and characterisations of Propaganda are heavily contested, and are themselves subject to Propaganda initiatives. It has been argued that modern-day Propagandists are making constant and determined efforts to reshape popular understanding of the term and its contemporary counterparts. [9].

Classifying Propaganda


Propaganda is often classified into three separate genres - 'White', 'Grey' or 'Black' - depending on the degree of transparency with which it attributes its true authors. White Propaganda is correctly attributed to the sponsor and the source is truthfully identified. Grey Propaganda, on the other hand, is unattributed to the sponsor and conceals the real source of the Propaganda. The objective of Grey Propaganda is to advance viewpoints that are in the interest of the originator but that would be more acceptable to target audiences than official statements. Black Propaganda also camouflages the sponsor's participation. But while Grey Propaganda is unattributed, Black Propaganda is falsely attributed. Black Propaganda is subversive and provocative; it is usually designed to appear to have originated from a hostile source, in order to cause that source embarrassment, to damage its prestige, to undermine its credibility, or to get it to take actions that it might not otherwise[4].


Propaganda can also be classified as either 'Fast' or 'Slow' based on the type of media employed and the immediacy of the effect desired. Fast media are designed to exert a short-term impact on public opinion, while the use of slow media cultivates public opinion over the long haul. Fast media typically include radio, newspapers, speeches, television, film, e-mail and the Internet. These forms of communication are able to exert an almost instantaneous effect on target audiences. Books, cultural exhibitions, and educational exchanges and activities, on the other hand, are slow media that seek to foster ideas and attitudes over time[4].

Ethical Viewpoints


Propaganda is often viewed as intrinsically misleading and therefore morally reprehensible. Propaganda aims at domination, not instruction, and is therefore considered to be intellectually and morally unacceptable. Some philosophers arguing in the moralist vein have gone so far as to state that the force of Propaganda is a direct attack against man; a menace which threatens the total personality, feeding belief without knowledge.

As for the effects of Propaganda, the moralist school stresses the hypnotic, diabolical power of Propaganda, and tends to argue that it can control behavior and manipulate entire populations without their being aware of it[10].

Many theorists equate a wide variety of concepts to pure Propaganda, including; Psychological Warfare, Information Warfare, Psychological Operations and Public Diplomacy. For these theorists, Propaganda is far from simply a question of ideas but a matter of ‘political action’ that ties together practices of persuasion and coercion. They would conclude that modern forms of Propaganda such as Public Relations and Public Affairs are far from benevolent forms of political action or communication, but part of the ‘weaponization of information’[9].


Today the neutralist view is alive and well in Propaganda studies and many industries, with some scholars suggesting that it is a practical process of persuasion and, as a practical process, it is an inherently neutral concept. In this sense, Propaganda is viewed as a mere tool, and is no more moral or amoral than its user.

The best known 20th century representative of this neutralist school is the social scientist Harold Lasswell, who sought to look at Propaganda 'objectively' and 'scientifically' in the aftermath of World War I, when the public in former combatant countries expressed moral outrage at the lies and atrocity stories that had been perpetuated by governments in that bloody conflict, giving Propaganda the negative connotation it still has today.

The neutralist school of thought is more skeptical about what Propaganda can actually achieve and how its influence can be accurately measured. Actors in the Public Relations, Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy industries are staunch advocates of the neutralist viewpoint of their fields (which some equate to pure Propaganda)[10].



  1. Richard Nelson (1996), A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States, pp.232–233
  2. Paul Linebarger (1954), Psychological Warfare, Combat Forces Press: Washington, DC. p.39.
  3. William Levinson (1999), An Introduction to Propaganda, Stentorian website, accessed 02 April 2015
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Kenneth Osgood (2002), Propaganda, Encyclopedia of American Foreign Policy, accessed 02 April 2015
  5. John Brown (2008), Public Diplomacy & Propaganda: Their Differences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill website, September 2008, accessed 02 April 2015
  6. Caryn Neumann, Propaganda, Uses and Psychology, FAQS website, accessed 02 April 2015
  7. American Historical Association, The Story of Propaganda, American Historical Association website, accessed 07 April 2015
  8. Barbara Diggs-Brown (2011), Strategic Public Relations: Audience Focused Practice, Google Books website, accessed 07 April 2015. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. p. 48.
  9. 9.0 9.1 David Miller and Rizwaan Sabir (2011), Propaganda and Terrorism, David Miller website, 19 September 2011, accessed 10 April 2015
  10. 10.0 10.1 University of Southern California (2006), Two Ways of Looking At Propaganda, University of Southern California website, 29 June 2006, accessed 02 April 2015