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Uses of Propaganda


Defining Propaganda

Unbeknownst to many, propaganda is at work every day of the week. In advertisements, a catchy jingle, or a motivational poster propaganda silently influences people’s opinions, sometimes without them realizing it (Lasswell, 1927). Propaganda is used by most organizations, including the church and the government, to influence the minds of millions of people as they go about their daily lives using many different modes of communication (Lasswell, 1927). These organizations learned over time that by manipulating their message, they could be more of an influence. Events like the World wars and the rise of capitalism spurred the research of propaganda. As it is used more often, people are discovering the benefits of having a trained eye when it comes to propaganda.

But first, to help highlight how propaganda works, it will be explained in short. Propaganda is often categorized into three different camps: white propaganda, black propaganda, and grey propaganda (Heibert, 2003). White propaganda is entirely truthful, black propaganda is filled with lies, deceit, and disinformation, and grey propaganda is the muddy line in between the two as half-truths and half-lies comes into play (Heibert, 2003). Researchers have found that it is often hard to tell what kind of propaganda is being used until the consequences of the message have been revealed.

The propagandist’ goal is to convince the consumer that the propagandist and the organization they work for is good and the enemy is bad (White, 1949). This is often done through exaggerated ideas of persecution, much like the case of Nazi Germany (White 1949). Propaganda is highly respected and feared because it can influence the opinion of someone with great efficiency and can be manipulated by anyone (Murphy & White, 2007). However, this does not stop many organizations from using it.

The purpose of propaganda changes as it is used in different contexts. When used by the government, its objective is to gain the support of the citizens and to shape their opinions, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors to benefit the nation (Murphy & White, 2007). When used by the average person, it is simply to influence a larger pattern of thoughts and opinions (McGarry, 1858). In marketing, according to Goebells, propaganda has many different tools used to convince the consumer that they need a particular item (Costello & Costello, 2015). If told that they were exposed to propaganda, however, most people would react in horror and disgust, due to its negative connotation (O’Shaughnessy, 1996). Propaganda is often painted as an unethical and immoral tool to use, but it can also be educational and informative (Murphy & White, 2007).



Propaganda has its roots in the early philosophers, who were the first to theorize about it. Aristotle believed that emotions were central and vital to influence the opinions of a group of people (O’Shaugnessy, 1996). On the other hand, his mentor Plato believed the voicing of opinions should only be allowed by people who are wise, which is reflected in the Athenian system of democracy (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015). He believed, and later researchers proved to be true, that emotions do indeed play a significant role in influencing public opinion and that people who are not as wise are more easily influenced by emotions. Plato was also the first to define the difference between good persuasion and bad persuasion, what he called propaganda. He said that if there was logic and reasoning behind the person’s opinion, then it was good. If it was based on emotions, then it was bad and viewed it as manipulation.

Propaganda was not used in a formal way until the Roman Catholic Church, dating back to 1622 and Pope Gregory XV. He began distributing and creating propaganda in support of the Catholic Church after the Counter Reformation (McGarry, 1958). This was one of the first, documented instances where persuasion was used to promote one person’s self-interest (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015). The Pope realized that the other non-Catholic religions were utilizing techniques that appealed to the individual, rather than their own fearmongering techniques. Protestant religions often focus on the individual on a personal level and gives them more control in their own religion. The Catholic Church had to fight the power of the bandwagon affect on the people who were leaving the Church for the new and exciting religion. Though this concept was unknown, it can be identified, and the Church did its best to fight it by reframing their message to the people.



It was then picked up by the military and national governments to bring people together voluntarily for one cause, a purposeful bandwagon affect (O’Shaugnessy, 1996). Propaganda was used extensively in war, not only by the United States, but every nation. Posters depicting men happily signing up for the draft pushed other men to want to sign up by making them think everyone was doing it. Often the propagandists were tasked to come up with new ways to encourage people to support the war, which could take the form of art or language. Words stemming from other enemy languages were encouraged to change to something more patriotic. In the United States during wartime, people were encouraged to grow liberty gardens to help save food for the troops. Because researchers were discovering that people did not like that propaganda was being used to influence them, nations had to be very careful. Propagandists began to use framing to combat this, essentially hiding the propaganda message within the propaganda campaign. These techniques proved to be astonishingly affective and influenced the war and late research on propaganda.

The use of propaganda escalated quickly between the two World Wars (Jewett, 1940), and quickly became associated with lies and corruptions due to the Germans (Murphy and White, 2007). Despite this negative connotation, it was still used by many countries and affected the way people saw each other via foreign and domestic information programs during World War II and the later wars, like Korea and Vietnam (Murphy & White, 2007). After World War II, psychologists were fascinated with the influence that Hitler was able to have and his rise to power. Upon studying the propaganda campaigns used by the Allies and the Axis powers, researchers found some surprising information. Propaganda efforts by the Allies were so effective that Hitler was blamed for many things he never said. For example, it was Rosenberg, one of Hitler’s officials, who was very outspoken and vehemently opposed to Christianity and the Jews (White, 1949). Another example lies in the similarities between Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s speeches. In many of his speeches, Hitler pushed for peace in Germany and never glorified the war (White, 1949). However, his words were taken out of context and the Allies construed some of his statements into making him appear like a warmongering individual (White, 1949). On the other hand, Roosevelt and Hitler did differ in their propaganda techniques in that Hitler relied more on the extreme emotions and reactions of his people than Roosevelt (White 1949). Researchers found this play on emotions used by Hitler is what caused the propaganda efforts to be so effective. Additionally, with the Nuremburg trials, came the famous studies on obedience and submission to authorities, of which propaganda played a vital role (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015).

War Propaganda was especially useful in creating a sense of panic and paranoia and enhancing the stereotypes about the enemy (White, 1949). Though Hitler did have many valid reasons for worrying about Germany’s safety, like the heavy war reparations they were forced to pay, he exaggerated this so much that it created an extreme paranoia and German nationality (White, 1949). Though people can look back and wonder why anyone would believe such gross exaggerations, when taken in context of the time, the collective mentality of the nation coupled with the fear and reality of the conflict that was happening, they were ready to believe anything that could help unite them against one person (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015). This shows the difference between presentism and historicism when researchers are studying the past. If the atrocities of World War II are viewed in a presentism viewpoint, then one cannot wrap their mind around why anyone would allow such a thing to happen. However, using historicism, one can place themselves in the timeline and understand why such a thing could happen.

After World War II, more neutral terms were used in place of the word propaganda to prevent tensions from arising, like the study of communication. Research on persuasion and the effect of emotions on opinions exploded at this time. Additionally, after World war II, because they had seen the power of propaganda in their own nations, nations began to be very careful about what news stations broadcasted, and they even went so far as to censor some of the information to not appear weak to others (Jewett, 1940). These nations closely monitored citizens’ reactions to the broadcasts and adjusted them as needed.



Whether people like it or not, propaganda will always have a hand in government, be it good or bad. Some critics claim that it should not exist in a democratic society because it changes people’s opinions and prevents them from voicing what they think without an outside influence, much like what Plato was afraid of earlier (Lasswell, 1927). On the other hand, others are for it because it can be used to convince people of tolerable viewpoints.

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In political elections, critics of propaganda claim that the propagandist just burns through money to expose people to information they already know just to reiterate it to make it easily remembered (Huang, 2015). Researchers have proved that simply by exposing people to something often, whether it is a positive experience or negative, they are more likely to remember it in the future (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015).

Huang studied the use of propaganda in China, Syria, and Korea. He found that Chinese citizens who were exposed to many state sponsored media reports, had less trust in their government because the reports were inconsistent with what was happening (2015). Additionally, Chinese citizens have access to some free media outlets, like cable and magazines, but the political discussions are still severely constricted, which further lowers government opinion. Syrian president Hafiz Al-Assad is not viewed like the powerful, omniscient ruler he is portrayed to be by the media. Syrian citizens simply do not believe exaggerated qualities. The Korean government has emphasized ideological and political education in schools.

His studies lead to what he called signaling theory, which states that a government can release mounds of propaganda that is largely ineffective, even though the citizens themselves may not believe it, but still make them loyal to the government (Huang, 2015). The ability of the government to fund a large amount of propaganda shows that they are powerful and have money, which can cause its citizens to follow it out of fear of their own safety. In other words, they believe that their government is strong, and this fact alone maintains political order. The citizens do not trust their government, but they fear it.



Propaganda has been used by businesses in the form of marketing and advertisements. Often, the purpose is to simply persuade consumers to purchase a good or service instead of presenting a rational argument as to why they should buy it (McGarry, 1958). However, for businesses to efficiently convince consumers to purchase their products, the businesses must first find out what consumers want, called social propaganda (O’Shaughnessy, 1996). Multiple advertisements that compete with one another is call counterpropaganda.

Researchers have been interested in studying the influence of multiple sources of propaganda on one person. Kriesberg conducted an early study in 1949 and found that the more one is exposed to conflicting sources of propaganda, the more likely they are to have a moderate opinion of a topic. At this same time, Jewett was studying why people were able to be influenced in this way. Termed the bandwagon effect, researchers discovered that people will alter their behavior and thoughts to be like others (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015) If people feel like many people believe in one thing or will do one thing, they will not want to believe otherwise because everyone has a fear of being neglected, after all, humans are social creatures (Jewett, 1940). Additionally, with Bandura’s studies of the power of modeling, psychologists discovered that people are heavily influenced by others around them (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2015).

Later, as more research was done, Davison studied the third person effect on propaganda, which is the tendency to overestimate the influence of other’s propaganda on other’s opinions (Davison, 1983). Researchers also believe that others who are exposed to the same form of propaganda will be more affected by it than they are (Davison, 1983).


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