What it is: Organised spreading of ideas, information, opinions and beliefs, using various techniques to persuade, deceive or otherwise manipulate people into accepting them.

What it means: Propaganda has been around since the beginning of civilisation, but it was not until printing became cheaper and easier, and other forms of mass communication were invented, that it became the powerful tool (or weapon) it is now. In the First World War the British government created a Ministry of Information: 'Propaganda is the task of creating and directing public opinion. In other wars this work has not been the function of government, but in a struggle not of armies but of nations, which tended to affect every people on the globe, this aloofness could not be maintained.' Via the Ministry, only selected information was made public. As prime minister Lloyd George said, 'If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don't know and can't know.' As a result, much of public opinion and the press eagerly supported the war, to the amazement of soldiers on leave: 'We couldn't understand the war madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a pseudo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language: it was newspaper language.'  In 1933 in Germany Hitler appointed Joseph Goebbels (whose huge organised rallies had brought Hitler to power) as Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, and gave him control of the press, radio, and all aspects of culture. Later dictators, too, discovered how state control of the media could make propaganda work for them. Propaganda means simplifying ideas of opposition - Good/Bad, Black/White, Friend/Enemy, Us/Them - and constantly repeating them. It means portraying opponents as weak and foolish or sinister and frightening. It means telling people what they want to hear in order to make them behave as the propagandists want them to. It means playing on people's emotions, it means exaggerating, twisting or 'spinning' stories. It means withholding truths, and telling deliberate lies. It means presenting falsehoods as true (disinformation) or relating facts inaccurately (misinformation). But unwelcome news from enemy sources is dismissed as 'enemy propaganda'. Promotion of 'the Message' or 'the Big Lie' also makes full use of techniques regularly used in marketing and advertising. Skilfully slanted arguments at carefully chosen times and places can win people's support, too. The troubling thing is that although everyone now knows that propaganda exists and freely refers to it, people are still its victims: it still works. However, there are still journalists and others who persist in trying to get at the truth - and there are citizens who want to know it.

Think about it:
1914: The First World War was barely a month old before atrocity stories - apparently eyewitness accounts - began to appear in English newspapers and pamphlets. On the German advance into Belgium, it was said that civilians were shot, hanged, tortured, burned, buried alive; women were bayoneted, children were beaten, babies' brains were dashed out against the ground; entire villages were destroyed and their inhabitants murdered. But these stories weren't authentic. Democratic, civilised nations were being mobilised for a very uncivilised war: hatred of Germans had to be generated among both the troops and the civilian population, and a propaganda of atrocities would fuel it. The plan seemed to work. Around the same time, a letter by the Poet Laureate (Robert Bridges) was printed in the Times: 'I hope our people will see that this is a holy war. It is manifestly a war between Christ and the Devil....There was never anything in the world worthier of extermination.' Think about the power of false rumours, unsupported anecdotes and blatant lies in stirring up anger and hatred.
(2) 1964-75: During the Vietnam War people in America who opposed the war were angrily attacked and taunted as unpatriotic. A journalist who accurately reported US attacks on civilian targets was called a traitor. Reports of atrocities carried out by US soldiers against civilians were at first suppressed. Think about the way people's patriotism and nationalism influence their responses to events.  Think about how war has often been 'sanitised' for people at home.
(3) Official propaganda, fed to people ready to believe it, distorts their judgement and weakens their powers of criticism. In 1991 prejudiced stories about Croatians had begun to appear in Serbian newspapers, a campaign orchestrated by the Serb leadership; the state controlled many of the Serb media. Croats were increasingly referred to as 'criminals', there were stories of past atrocities they had committed, and hints of a 'genocide' they were planning against the Serbs. Then the Croatian press hit back with horror stories about Serbs - 'the reaction the Serbian leader wanted', said a citizen who was there. 'Preparations were laid for war. The media have succeeded in legalising lies. Lies have developed into a war strategy, and as such have become morally acceptable.' A ferocious civil war followed. Think about it: look at the way different newspapers report conflict, and try to spot the difference between propaganda and (attempts at) fair reporting.
(4) The war in Iraq, 2003: 'This was history's first mega high-tech war, but the hunkered-down 'embedded' reporters gave very little sense of the weaponry, the place, the conflict. The total access and constant coverage were in fact a carefully constructed illusion. These days the journalists won't get the story unless they're close to the sources of power and the only way to be close to the sources of power is to agree with them, to repeat what they say, to broadcast what the powerful feed to the press.' The writer is an American. Think about it: how much of what you are told do you trust? How much truth do you really want?
One of the reasons propaganda can be successful is that it often hides behind the natural order of things so that its 'message' is taken for granted. Political activist Professor Noam Chomsky reminds us: 'People have to understand that there's a major effort to manipulate them. But that doesn't mean the facts aren't out there.' And it doesn't mean we can't be on our guard against propaganda. It does mean we can constantly demand the facts. Public opinion sometimes really can change the way things are.

 | Bias | Enemy image | Prejudice |