5 minute read


Defining Propaganda

With rapidly changing technology, definitions of propaganda have also undergone changes. Propaganda has meant different things at different times, although clearly the scale on which it has been practiced has increased in the twentieth century. What are the characteristic features of propaganda, and how can it be defined? Propaganda (and deliberately excluded here are purely religious propaganda and the commercial propaganda we call advertising) is a distinct political activity, one that can be distinguished from cognate activities like information and education. The distinction lies in the purpose of the instigator. Put simply, propaganda is the dissemination of ideas or images intended to convince people to think and act in a particular way and for a particular purpose. Although propaganda can be unconscious, this entry is concerned with the conscious, deliberate attempts to employ the techniques of persuasion for specific goals. Propaganda can be defined as the deliberate attempt to influence public opinion through the transmission of ideas and values for reasons consciously thought out, and designed to serve the interest of the propagandist, either directly or indirectly. Whereas information presents its audience with a straightforward statement of facts, propaganda packages those facts in order to evoke a certain response. Whereas education (at least in the liberal notion of education) teaches the recipient how to think, so as to make up his or her own mind, propaganda tries to tell people what to think. Information and education aim to broaden the audience's perspectives and to open their minds, but propaganda strives to narrow and preferably close them. The distinction lies in the purpose.

The importance of propaganda in the politics of the twentieth century should not be underestimated. When we speak of propaganda we think of the media as conventionally conceived—press, radio, cinema, television—but propaganda as an agent of reinforcement is not confined to these. Propaganda can manifest itself in the form of a building, a flag, a coin, a painting, even a government health warning on a cigarette pack. The role of commemoration in reinforcement propaganda is often overlooked; yet what better way of reinforcing the present and determining the future than commemorating the past? It is no coincidence that London has its Waterloo Station and Paris its Gare d'Austerlitz!

Propaganda may be overt or covert, good or bad, truthful or mendacious, serious or humorous, rational or emotional. Propagandists assess the context and the audience and use whatever methods and whatever means they consider to be the most appropriate and most effective. We need, therefore, to think of propaganda in much wider terms: wherever public opinion is deemed important, there we shall find an attempt to influence it. The most obvious reason for the increasing attention given to propaganda and its assumed power over opinion is the broadening base that has dramatically transformed the nature of political participation. The means of communication have correspondingly broadened, and the growth of education and technological advances have proved contributory factors. The early twenty-first century is witnessing the proliferation of "information superhighways" and digital data networks, and legitimate concerns have been expressed about the nature of media proprietorship and access and the extent to which information flows freely (the question of what Noam Chomsky has referred to as the "manufacture of consent"). Propagandists have been forced to respond to these changes; they must, as before, assess their audience and use whatever methods they consider most effective. If we can widen our terms of reference and divest propaganda of its pejorative associations, the study of propaganda will reveal its significance as intrinsic to the political process in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Carr, Edward H. The Twenty Years' Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations. London: Macmillan, 1946.

Connelly, M., and David Welch, eds. The Management of Perception: Propaganda, the Media and Warfare, 1900–2002. London: I. B. Tauris, 2003.

Creel, George. How We Advertised America. New York and London: Harper, 1920.

Cull, Nicholas J., David Culbert, and David Welch. Propaganda and Mass Persuasion, 1500 to the Present. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2003.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes. New York: Knopf, 1965.

Garnett, David. The Secret History of PWE: The Political Warfare Executive, 1939–1945. London: St Ermin's Press, 2002.

Held, David, Anthony G. McGrew, David Goldblatt, et al, eds. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics, and Culture. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Herman, Edward S., and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy and the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988.

Hixson, Walter L. Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961. New York: St. Martin's, 1996.

Horten, Gerd. Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda during World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O'Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1999.

Kenez, Peter. The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917–1929. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Koppes, Clayton R., and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Lasmar, Paul, and James Oliver. Britain's Secret Propaganda War. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1998.

Lasswell, Harold D., Daniel Lerner, and Hans Speier, eds. Propaganda and Communication in World History. Vol. 1: The Symbolic Instrument in Early Times. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1979.

——Propaganda and Communication in World History. Vol. 2: The Emergence of Public Opinion in the West. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1980.

Marlin, Randal. Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Peterborough, Ont. and Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 2002.

Messinger, Gary S. British Propaganda and the State in the First World War. Manchester, U.K., and New York: Manchester University Press, 1992.

Pratkanis, Anthony R., and Elliot Aronson. Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W. H. Freeman, 1992.

Reeves, Nicholas. The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? London and New York: Cassell, 1999.

Saunders, Frances S. Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War. London: Granta, 1999.

Taithe, B., and T. Thornton, eds. Propaganda: Political Rhetoric and Identity 1300–2000. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

Taylor, Philip M. The Munitions of the Mind: A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Era. 2nd ed. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2003.

Thomson, Oliver. Easily Led: A History of Propaganda. Stroud, U.K.: Sutton, 1999.

Welch, David. Germany, Propaganda and Total War, 1914-18: The Sins of Omission. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.

——. The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda. 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.

Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society: A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.

David Welch

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Positive Number to Propaganda - World War IiPropaganda - World War Ii, Defining Propaganda, Bibliography