Propaganda (Latin propaganda feminine ablative gerundive of propago I am spreading) is any idea, fact, rumor, or lie, or a wider body of same, which one circulates, publishes, or otherwise spreads by deliberate conscious effort in order to advance or hinder any given cause. This includes activity by a government to instill fear of that government's enemies, either in time of war or as a prelude to war, especially if the information that the government is promulgating is false.
History of the term
The first recorded use of the term, according to Merriam-Webster, was as a shortened name of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, literally, "The congregation for spreading the faith." This group, part of the Vatican staff, is in essence the missions board of the Roman Catholic Church. The founder of this board was Pope Gregory XV.
Thus, originally, the term propaganda was a neutral term. It meant simply the act of propagating a viewpoint, the process for doing the same, or a group specifically charged with such activity.
Today, propaganda is anything under the above headings employed to advance any religious or political cause, or to damage an opposing cause. But the word propaganda now has a decidedly negative connotation. Whatever is spread must not merely be in support of one cause or in opposition to another, but must also be false, misleading, and/or out of its proper context. Or, if what is spread is true, then it is spread in a manner unbecoming a truthful witness. As such, it includes logical fallacies, unsubstantiated rumors, and other sayings that the teller/spreader knows, or ought to know, are lies. It also includes modes of presentation that, through negligence, recklessness, knowledge, or intent, give offense, especially to the holders of contrary views.
Types of propaganda
The specific sayings or modes of presentation that constitute propaganda are legion. The common element in them is an appeal to emotion rather than to logic. Truth or fact, logically presented, might stir the emotions--but a presentation manifestly intended to stir the emotions demeans the information being presented. Of course, if the information is false to begin with, then propagandistic methods might be the only methods that would serve.
Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell.
Though all things foul would wear the look of grace,
Yet grace must still look so.
- Macbeth IV.iii.
Propaganda typically takes any of these forms, or a combination of them:
- Name calling. This is the crudest and least savory form of argumentum ad hominem. It consists of labeling the other cause, or a generic or particular adherent of that cause, with a noun or adjective having a decidedly negative "buzz" or "charge." Name-calling is also a part of the genetic fallacy of endorsing, or casting doubt upon, a proposition merely by calling attention to its source, when the nature of the source does not bear on the truth value of the propositions that come from that source.
- Half-truths, or lies of ommision, in which facts which support the distributor are spread while deliberately neglecting facts which would pose difficulty.
- Testimonials. This is a form of argumentum ab auctoritate. A "celebrity endorsement" is a prime example. So, too, is any speech or essay by one publicly celebrated as an athlete, actor in any form of theater, or other such person, on a subject in which the author has no legitimate expertise.
- Loaded questions.
- Distortions of fact.
- Extreme pronouncements, which are a form of over-generalizations.
- Intimidation. This may include arguing from the numbers or reminding an opponent of the power of the particular individual or group engaging in the intimidation--or of an individual or group for which one claims to speak.
- Using abridged or out-of-context quotes to give a false impression, aka Quote mining.
- Sayings that, however factual, fall outside the scope or even off the topic at hand. A lawyer would say that such facts are "incompetent, irrelevant and immaterial"--because they do not serve to advance a logical argument, are not properly related to the case at hand, and do not matter.
- Outright lies. Dr. Josef Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for Adolf Hitler, famously observed that if one tells a lie loudly enough and often enough, people will believe it rather than believe that anyone could lie so outrageously.
- Personal attacks. This method of propaganda often involves spreading malicious rumors and misinformation about other people. The goal of such attacks is to undermine the character of the person in order to gain the upper hand. Name-calling and intimidation are often used in concurrence with this.
Uses of propaganda in society today
Former president Woodrow Wilson is known his use of deceitful political propaganda in the United States, techniques first used during the progressive-era in the early 1900's. Today, propaganda has become the favorite method of politics. Both politicians and the commentators that support them routinely engage in it. The most egregious example of modern propaganda can probably be found in the films of Michael Moore, which present a classic combination of factual fabrication, distorted interpretation, and emotional dishonesty. On television, Countdown with Keith Olbermann provides a nightly dose of mean-spirited, irrational invective. The vicious and frivolous tone of so much modern propaganda has contributed, especially in the United States, to a coarsening of civil discourse and, some say, a severe weakening of civility.
In addition to civility, the idea of truth suffers from the habitual use of propaganda. Current-events organs that willfully publish propagandistic content not only contribute to the problem, but also demean themselves. In one famous example (Rathergate), a television broadcast network circulated for weeks certain memoranda, the contents of which were damaging to the incumbent President of the United States (George W. Bush), though those who obtained those memoranda knew, or ought to have known, that they were forgeries.
Theater has been an instrument of propaganda since before such things as current-events organs existed. Significantly, however, whenever theater has lent itself to propaganda, it has always demeaned itself. Even William Shakespeare was not immune to this. His play The Merchant of Venice is, as any objective observer must attest, a piece of anti-Semitic propaganda of a very crude sort. Critics have historically decried it as one of the least becoming of Shakespeare's works.
The best contrary testimony against propaganda is the truth. This typically means revealing the full, previously undisclosed context and exposing logical fallacies. Confusingly though, skillfully produced propaganda may itsself be masked as counter-propaganda.
Beyond this, it includes discernment of news organs that allow themselves to be utilized for propaganda purposes, discernment of propagandistic theater projects and refusal to patronize the same, and discernment of the content of political commentary, and its judgment, not merely on matters of fact, but also on the presentation of that fact. As has been said above, presentation even of perfectly relevant fact in a manner intended to manipulate the emotions, demeans the facts thus presented and also demeans the presenter. Above all, therefore, those who decry propaganda ought not engage in it themselves, nor give even the appearance of the same.
- Glenn talks with Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism, The Glenn Beck Program, January 15, 2008.
- Journolist Follows the Footsteps of Woodrow Wilson's Propagandists, Fox News, July 22, 2010.
- Glenn Beck: Obama Zombies, The Glenn Beck Program, February 4, 2010.
- Progressives' Fight for American Hearts and Minds, FOXNews.com, May 27, 2010.
- Propaganda in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
- Propaganda Tactics at "The Baloney Detector" at Creation-Evolution Headlines