In its broadest sense, propaganda is simply “persuasion in bad faith.” That is, it is a species of persuasion, but one distinguishable from other varieties along several dimensions:
Accuracy. Propaganda is most commonly assumed to consist of willfully inaccurate communication. But while propaganda can and often does involve deception, this is not uniquely indicative of propaganda. The selective and strategic use of truth and half-truth is as characteristic of propaganda as is untruth, and likely much more effective. Indeed, a recurrent theme among successful practitioners is that messages must be as accurate as their goal allows.
Method. Of somewhat more diagnostic value is propaganda’s emphasis on bypassing its target’s reasoning and critical faculties. Accordingly, it typically presents one-sided arguments that rely on nonrational influences such as instinctive or conditioned emotional responses to stimuli. Witness the ever-enduring efficacy of the atrocity story as a propaganda technique. In this light, it bears emphasis that successful propaganda is less a matter of changing the targets’ beliefs than of invoking their extant prejudices and anxieties to evoke the desired action from them.
Intent. The most definitive but least observable aspect of propaganda is that it is intended to induce the target to act in ways that are in the interests of the source alone. It is not necessary that a message be exclusively in the source’s interests, but only that the source’s interests be motivationally sufficient to the creation of the propaganda.
Scale. Least distinctive but still relevant is the fact that propaganda is primarily associated with mass communication media, and thus mass audiences.
Within these parameters, it is often useful to further differentiate between various kinds of propagandas along at least two other dimensions: in terms of transparency, propaganda comes in shades of white (overtly disseminated, accurately sourced), black (covertly disseminated, unsourced, or deceptively sourced), or grey (some admixture of the two). In terms of purpose, it can be agitative (inducing targets to act in opposition to a perceived threat or power) or integrative (aligning, unifying, and reconciling targets with an extant power). Relatedly, one can further distinguish between propaganda itself and sub- or pre-propaganda (messages intended to lay the cognitive and emotional groundwork for future propaganda campaigns).
The most obvious examples of propaganda occur during wartime, when it is used domestically to foster support, recruitment, and production for war, and externally to enlist allies, deceive enemy combatants, or persuade them to surrender. In peacetime, its most salient form is advertising, but propaganda is ubiquitous and polymorphic in the modern world—from political spin, lobbying, and voter suppression to commercial public relations and marketing, religious proselytizing, and bureaucratic reports. More expansive conceptualizations further extend the term to encompass most forms of education, journalism, and mass communication in general.
Its pervasiveness may well be an inevitable feature of the modern world. Integral to the Western democratic ideal is the privileging of public opinion as the basis for public policy and collective judgment, along with a reliance upon persuasion as its modus operandi—as manifest in Western culture’s historical emphasis on rhetoric in education, and as institutionalized in its constitutional protections of the rights of speech and assembly, its adversarial legal systems, and its elected and divided government. Meanwhile, the Enlightenment ideal of rational individuals has produced a world in which information is the most valuable commodity and instrument of persuasion. The consequent sovereignty of public opinion and power inherent in informational control has led those parties with political, commercial, or other interests in public policy or behavior to see propaganda as a necessary means to their ends. Greatly abetting the efficacy of propaganda at securing these ends are three other characteristically modern factors: the explosion of mass media technologies and their subsequent penetration of culture; the application of scientific methodology to social research, especially with regard to attitude formation and persuasion; and the reliance on market-based systems of media financing, which amplifies the leverage that interested parties can wield via concentrated ownership, promises to provide (or threats to revoke) sponsorship, and actual or threatened legal action in civil court. Finally, modernity may also create a complementary demand for propaganda among target citizens whom it has deprived of the identities, certainties, and purposes of traditional social arrangements, and which propaganda may in part provide.
The inevitability of propaganda is by no means a warrant for complacency about it. While it may be a predictable by-product of Enlightenment rationalism and democratic faith in public opinion, it is in a real sense antithetical to both. In its dependence upon peripheral means of persuasion, it reveals and endorses a decidedly counter-Enlightenment assumption that individuals are cognitively incompetent and manipulatable. In their willingness to use such tools to sway public opinion to serve their interests at the expense of those of their targets, propagandists undermine the real and presumptive viability of public opinion as a basis of government, and thence of democracy itself. The defenses of abject cynicism or self-serving selective credulity that those subject to propaganda erect against it are no less ominous for democracy than is the obverse naïveté. To many observers, the prevalence of propaganda among a population that has developed a taste for the willful manipulation of its responses for entertainment purposes and that increasingly lacks the factual ammunition or theoretical footings to adequately challenge it presents a significant threat to democracy. The prominent role of propaganda in the debacles and horrors of the past century does little to assuage such concerns.
But the demonization of propaganda per se is as unproductive as is complacency toward it. Especially in its integrative forms, it is arguably not only inevitable but necessary to the creation and maintenance of the large, modern, and heterogeneous states that house, however imperfectly, the ideals of reason and democracy. Even in its agitative forms it has legitimate uses—it is likely better for all concerned that an enemy soldier peaceably surrender earlier rather than be killed later in a conflict. Furthermore, propaganda is a product of its environment. That is, it is as powerful as it is only because of the preeminent place of the individual and public opinion in modern society. History shows that in less “enlightened” environments, power and coercion take forms that are decidedly more direct, violent, and absolute. Indeed, modern abuses of propaganda have typically produced significant, albeit belated, counter-responses. Its pivotal role in WWI led to widespread public outcry and the establishment of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The Vietnam conflict led to a similar, if less institutionalized, response in the 1970s. Finally, the 1990s saw a reemergence of oppositional interest in commercial propaganda, and there are signs that a resurgence of interest in more political forms is presently underway.
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