What is Propaganda?

Neil Postman once wrote that of all the words we use to talk about talk, the word “propaganda” is the most mischievous. That’s because the word has a wide variety of definitions. Consider the definitions below to identify common features of propaganda and notice how the definition has developed and changed over time: 


1. Propaganda is one means by which large numbers of people are induced to act together.
-Bruce Lannes Smith and Harold Lasswell, authors of Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion, 1946

2. Propaganda is a form of information that panders to our insecurities and anxieties.
-Jacques Ellul, author of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1962

3. Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.
-Garth Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell, authors of Propaganda and Persuasion, 1986

4. Propaganda is intentionally-designed communication that invites us to respond emotionally, immediately, and in a either-or manner.
-Neil Postman, author of Technopoly, 1994

5. Propaganda is a 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.
-Richard Alan Nelson, author of A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States, 1996

6. Propaganda is indifferent to truth and truthfulness, knowledge and understanding; it is a form of strategic communication that uses any means to accomplish its ends.
-Walter Cunningham, author of The Idea of Propaganda, 2002

7. Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position.
-Wikipedia, entry on propaganda, 2008

8. Propaganda appears in a variety of forms. It is strategic and intentional as it aims to influence attitudes, opinions and behaviors. Propaganda can be beneficial or harmful. It may use truth, half-truths or lies. To be successful, propaganda taps into our deepest values, fears, hopes and dreams.
-Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach, authors of The State of Deception, 2009

Social Responsibilities of Creators & Consumers

Everyone participates in the process of persuasion, which is the use of words and other symbols to influence people. People use persuasion to gain social power. But the term propaganda is generally used when someone is aiming to reach a large group of people, not just a few.

If you are an activist, you may have created propaganda yourself. People who create propaganda have a specific goal and design a communication message that is intended to circulate among a large group of people and create a reaction. Propaganda involves reinforcing existing beliefs, changing perceptions, activating an emotional response or provoking a behavior.

Today, social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter make it easy for ordinary individuals to create or disseminate propaganda. Of course, communication is always oriented to a specific goal or purpose, as people use symbols to build relationships, convey information, entertain, inspire or teach. But the propagandist does not aim to encourage deliberation or reflection. The propagandist does not encourage independent judgement by presenting a variety of viewpoints and allowing the audience to determine which perspective is correct. Instead, the propagandist uses facts and information selectively, transmitting only those ideas that help accomplish the goal.

Recognizing Propaganda

Propaganda appears in a variety of forms and uses common techniques to successfully influence people, including:

  1. Activating strong emotions
  2. Responding to audience needs & values
  3. Simplifying information & ideas
  4. Attacking opponents

Use the Propaganda Techniques button in the upper right to learn more about these techniques in the items you find as you browse the gallery. 

Propaganda is not the same as brainwashing or mind control. These terms refer to psychological tactics, sometimes used in warfare, that are designed to subvert an individual’s sense of control over their own thinking. Brainwashing usually requires isolation of the individual from his or her social group. By contrast, propaganda is often so ordinary that it becomes enmeshed with “common sense.”

Although propaganda sometimes involves deception, most forms of propaganda use well-verified, factual information. Propagandists may use partially true or incomplete information that comes from a source that looks authentic, but is controlled by sources that are disguised. These disguises come in many forms. Businesses often provide funding to sources (like researchers and other professional communicators) to create information and transmit messages that align directly with their interests and goals. For example, in 2014, the government of Norway paid $5 million to a non-profit organization to produce information designed to influence top officials in the White House. Online, the term sockpuppet refers to the use of online sources that are specifically created to praise, defend or support a person or organization. When such efforts mislead the public, they can be called propaganda.

Beneficial or Harmful? Analyzing the Impact of Propaganda

Symbols are powerful. They shape our perception of ourselves, our communities and of possibilities for the future. For thousands of years, people all over the world have understood that control over symbolic expression – storytelling, art, music, news and information – can change the world, for better or for worse.

Like all forms of communication, specific examples of propaganda may be more or less effective. They may be beneficial, benign, or harmful. Perceptions of its impact will vary depending upon people’s individual identities, life experiences, and values. Propaganda can’t be successful without the active participation of audiences.

To assess whether a particular example of propaganda is beneficial, benign or harmful, consider these factors:

  • Message: The nature of the information and ideas being expressed
  • Techniques: The use of symbols and rhetorical strategies that attract attention and activate emotional response
  • Environment and Context: Where, when and how people encounter the message
  • Means of Communication & Format: How the message gets to people and what form it takes
  • Audience Receptivity: How people think and feel about the message and how free they are to accept or reject it

Where is Propaganda Found?

Propaganda can be found in news and journalism, advertising and public relations, and education – and in all aspects of daily life. It is present in information from government, business, religious and non-profit organizations, and in many forms of entertainment including music, TV shows, movies, videogames and social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Look for propaganda in these 6 locations: 

Journalism and Public Relations: Public relations is the term used for communication professionals who seek to shape perceptions and influence public opinion on behalf of a business client. In the U.S., there are four public relations professionals for every working journalist. PR people feed journalists based on their agenda. They may aim to get information and positive opinions about a business into the news media by using events, video news releases, blogging, newsletters, policy documents, and social media. In general, people are not aware of how public relations efforts have shaped the content of newspaper articles, blog posts or other online information.

Advertising: There is a big difference between advertising and propaganda. Advertising supports sales and marketing goals. For example, McDonald’s spent $998 million to buy advertising placements in television, outdoor advertising, radio and magazines in 2013. Advertisers want to generate increased consumption of their commercial products and services by using a variety of forms of mass media and digital media to persuade readers, viewers, users or listeners. The public is generally aware of advertising and recognizes its purpose. Many forms of free mass media, including broadcast television, radio and search engines depend on selling advertising, which enables businesses to sell products and services.

Government: Throughout the 20th century, the United States has generated war propaganda by defining battles as conflicts between good and evil. Propaganda is also used to help improve public health. You may be familiar with public service announcements (PSAs) that aim to alter your behavior. For example, when researchers found that college students overestimated how many of their peers were involved in binge drinking, they designed messages that showed that binge drinking is not as common as many people think. By reshaping perceptions of social norms, the campaign had a beneficial impact in helping lower the rate of binge drinking among college students. 

Education: From kindergarten to college, some forms of education are explicitly designed to lead people to accept a particular world view. Education can be a form of indoctrination when certain doctrines, ideas, information, values and beliefs are not permitted to be questioned. Propaganda enters the classroom in many ways. Many businesses and technology companies provide curriculum materials to educators which are explicitly designed to promote a particular point of view. For example, Monsanto and other biotechnology firms provide videos, lesson plans and other materials for science teachers. In Illinois, a state law mandates that schools promote a positive image for coal mining.

Entertainment: Some stories are just entertainment, but many stories are also a form of propaganda. Stories offer ideas and information about good and evil, right and wrong, thus embedding values and ideology into narrative form. For example, as early as the 1930s, Warner Bros. movies offered stories that interpreted contemporary life by presenting a specific point of view on current events, often indirectly through the lens of history. In many American movies and video games, violence is depicted as justified and morally courageous, which is a value message that is generally not questioned in society. Another way that propaganda is embedded in entertainment is through native advertising or sponsored content, where a company’s world view is presented as a form of entertainment. In 2014, the restaurant chain Chipotle launched an online comedy series about the agriculture industry on Hulu. Using comedy, the show reflected the company’s values about sustainable agriculture and the humane treatment of animals used for meat.

Advocacy: People who are trying to improve society or create social change use propaganda to influence public opinion. Activists try to promote social, political, economic or environmental change through using communication activities and public events that attract attention and influence people's knowledge, attitudes and opinions.