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Introduction to Propaganda

The following is a transcript of this video.

The American historian Howard Zinn wrote:

“If those in charge of our society – politicians, corporate executives, and owners of press and television can dominate our ideas, they will be secure in their power. They will not need soldiers patrolling the streets. We will control ourselves.”

In this day and age we are exposed to enormous amounts of propaganda. Some of which is used for the purpose of manipulating us into thinking and acting in ways which only further the interests of small minorities. The purpose of this lecture is to examine propaganda and communicate information which will hopefully enable individuals to arm themselves against the dangerous effects of propaganda. It should be noted that we will draw largely from the classic work by Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.

Propaganda, can be defined as a type of persuasion tactic which displays 3 general characteristics:

Firstly, propaganda is deliberately made by an individual or group of individuals, called the propagandist, for the purpose of manipulating individuals into adopting certain ideas and behaviors which the propagandist believes will assist them in the attainment of a goal.

Secondly, propaganda never presents an issue in a clear and unbiased manner. Instead, propaganda attempts to present one side of an issue as if it were an absolute truth. Adolf Hitler, who with the help of his Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels implemented one of the most massive propaganda campaigns of the 20th century, captured this characteristic with these words:

The function of propaganda is…not to make an objective study of the truth… and then set it before the masses with academic fairness; its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”

Finally, propaganda tends to use psychological manipulation tactics and to play on the emotions and prejudices of individuals so as to convince them that the idea, action, or attitude they adopted was one they chose through their own personal volition. This last feature of propaganda is what can make it especially dangerous.

Jacques Ellul provided a chilling description of the individual whose personality has been thoroughly molded by propaganda:

“When he recites his propaganda lesson and says that he is thinking for himself, when his eyes see nothing and his mouth only produces sounds previously stenciled into his brain, when he says that he is indeed expressing his judgment – then he really demonstrates that he no longer thinks at all, ever, and that he does not exist as a person.” (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

It should be noted that as a persuasion tactic, propaganda is value neutral, or in other words neither good nor bad. The 20th century Propaganda theorist Harold Lasswell wrote that “propaganda as a tool is no more moral or immoral than a pump handle.” While propaganda is merely a tool, moral judgments can be made regarding the ends for which propaganda is used. And it is because propaganda has so often been used for nefarious purposes that today it is widely considered as evil, in and of itself.

Propaganda, according to Philip Taylor, author of Munitions of the Mind, can be distinguished from education in that while propaganda tells people what to think, education teaches people how to think. However, as educational systems have long been used as vehicles to disseminate propaganda, the distinction between education and propaganda is often blurry.

As a persuasion tactic, propaganda, in one form or another, has been used for virtually the entire course of human history. Yet the word propaganda was first used 1622. In that year Pope Gregory the XV established the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Sacra Cogregatio de Propaganda Fide). The main function of the congregation was to defend the doctrines of Catholicism against challenges arising from the Protestant Reformation.

The early 20th century is usually identified as an important turning point in the history of propaganda, as it was during this period that so-called modern propaganda emerged. What differentiates modern propaganda from all earlier forms of propaganda is the use of mass media, such as radio and television, as a medium to disseminate propaganda. Britain and the United States were the first countries to utilize mass media in this manner and thus the countries where modern propaganda originated. The utilization of mass media allowed propagandists to reach audiences on a scale never before imagined.

The American George Creel, author of the book “How We Advertised America”, is considered one of the forefathers of modern propaganda. Creel was a friend of Woodrow Wilson, who was the president during America’s entry into World War 1. Wilson called on George Creel to organize a committee which came to be known as the Committee on Public Information or the Creel Commission, whose purpose was to create propaganda in order to transform the attitude of the American population into one of war-hungry patriotic excitement.

As Noam Chomsky explained, such a propaganda campaign was highly successful:

“The Creel Commission…succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world. (Noam Chomsky, Media Control)

Britain also made extensive use of propaganda during World War 1, and Hitler, who once famously stated “Propaganda, propaganda, propaganda. All that matters is propaganda”, was intrigued by the success of the allied war propaganda. Explaining the effect such propaganda had on him, Hitler wrote:

“But it was not until the war that it became evident what immense results can be obtained by a correct application of propaganda. Here again, unfortunately, all our study had to be done on the enemy side, for the activity on our side was modest, to say the least… For what we failed to do, the enemy did, with amazing skill and really brilliant calculation. I, myself, learned enormously from this enemy war propaganda.” (Adolf Hitler)

One of the most prevalent types of propaganda, and the type which will concern us for the remainder of the lecture, is ‘political propaganda’. Political propaganda is propaganda used by a government, state, or political party, for the purpose of altering the ideas and behavior of individuals in order to achieve certain political or economic ends. All political propaganda is vertical propaganda, in the sense that it is made by a propagandist who creates and implements propaganda while standing over and above the ignorant population:

“Classic propaganda, as one usually thinks of it, is a vertical propaganda – in the sense that it is made by a leader, a technician, a political or religious head who acts from the superior position of his authority and seeks to influence the crowd below. Such propaganda comes from above. It is conceived in the secret recesses of political enclaves; it uses all technical methods of centralized mass communication; it envelops a mass of individuals; but those who practice it are on the outside. (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

People often assume that political propaganda mainly consists of lies, fabrications, and extreme distortions of reality. Hitler is famous for claiming the bigger the lie the more likely it will be believed, while Arthur Ponsonby, the author of the book Falsehood in Wartime, once wrote: “When war is declared truth is the first victim.” Yet as Ellul pointed out, although political propaganda sometimes consists of ‘big lies’, modern political propagandists more often than not are committed to the use of true facts. In other words, true facts are chosen and presented to the public, yet only for the purpose of supporting and substantiating false and distorted interpretations of events. The reasoning behind this tactic is that if one questions the interpretation put forth by the propagandist, the propagandist can provide evidence that the facts they presented were true, and therefore fool the public into thinking that their interpretations must also be true.

“Propaganda is necessarily false when it…interprets and colors facts and imputes meaning to them. It is true when it serves up the plain fact, but does so only for the sake of establishing a pretense and only as an example of the interpretation that it supports with that fact.” (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

Another common misconception about political propaganda is the belief that the masses would be better off without it. While such a view seems fairly sensible, Ellul thoroughly disagreed with it. Rather, Ellul believed that political propaganda imposes meaning and intelligibility on the often chaotic course of world events. While individuals of centuries past would often look to the church to provide such explanations, now, more often than not, people look to politicians. And it is political propagandists who impose order and coherence on history through the creation of stories which place the state in an almost deified position.

” . . .propaganda . . .eliminates anxiety stemming from irrational and disproportionate fears, for it gives man assurances equivalent to those formerly given him by religion. It offers him a simple and clear explanation of the world in which he lives – to be sure, a false explanation far removed from reality, but one that is obvious and satisfying. It hands him a key with which he can open all doors; there is no more mystery; everything can be explained, thanks to propaganda. It gives some special glasses through which he can look at present-day history and clearly understand what it means. It hands him a guideline with which he can recover the general line running through all incoherent events. Now the world ceases to be hostile and menacing.” (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

To conclude this lecture we will consider the role of propaganda in modern day democracies.  A democracy is based on the notion that the voting population has influence on the policies which a government implements. However, Ellul proposed that modern propaganda has given democratic governments the power to desecrate the democratic process by increasingly deciding on policies independent of the voting population. After policies have been created by those in positions of power, propaganda is then used to shape public opinion and manipulate the voting population into desiring exactly what the government has already decided to do:

“The point is to make the masses demand of the government what the government has already decided to do. If it follows this procedure, the government can no longer be called authoritarian, because the will of the people demands what is being done.” (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

As Ellul warned, when a democratic government uses propaganda to convince the masses to want what it has already decided to do, in reality a democracy no longer exists:

Once democracy becomes the object of propaganda, it also becomes as totalitarian, authoritarian, and exclusive as dictatorship.” (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

With his critique of modern democracy, Ellul was in no way attacking it solely for the sake of discrediting it. Nor, in his analysis of propaganda, was he belittling the modern individual who he thought to be a willing victim of propaganda. On the contrary, as he explains in the following passage, Ellul thought that to warn one of the dangers which propaganda poses both to society and the individual is of the greatest service to mankind. For it is only when a danger is recognized as a danger can mankind fight against it:

“To warn a political system of the menace hanging over it does not imply an attack against it, but is the greatest service one can render the system. The same goes for man: to warn him of his weakness is not to attempt to destroy him, but rather to encourage him to strengthen himself…I insist that to give such warning is an act in the defense of man, that I am not judging propaganda with Olympian detachment, and that having suffered, felt, and analyzed the impact of the power of propaganda on myself, having been time and again, and still being, the object of propaganda, I want to speak of it as a menace which threatens the total personality.” (Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes)

Further Readings