MASS COMMUNICATION THEORY Foundations, Ferment, and Future (Book)


Muckraker Crusading journalist, typically challenging the powerful on behalf of those less so.

Propaganda No-holds-barred use of communication to propagate specific beliefs and expectations.

White propaganda Intentional suppression of potentially harmful information and ideas, combined with deliberate promotion of positive information or ideas to distract attention from problematic events.

Propaganda theorists abandoned idealism in favor of strategies they regarded as realistic and scientific. Propaganda must be resisted by whatever means possible. Even though the threat of propaganda was great, there might be a silver lining to this cloud. If we could find a way to harness the power of propaganda to promote good and just ideals, then we would not only survive its threat but have a tool to help build a better social order. This was the promise of what came to be called white propaganda—a strategy that used propaganda techniques to fight “bad” propaganda and promote objectives that elites considered good. After World War II ended, these white propaganda techniques provided a basis for the development of strategic (promotional) communication methods that are widely used today in advertising and public relations. In fact, propaganda theory is experiencing a resurgence of interest precisely for this reason: the techniques used in these modern promotional efforts appear to many observers to be even more effective in the contemporary world of corporate media ownership


The Propaganda Fide was originally founded in an effort to suppress the Protestant Reformation. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the meaning of propaganda was debated. Was propaganda necessarily bad or was it a good form of communication that could be corrupted? Many forms of communication seek to persuade people—were all of them propaganda? Gradually, the term propaganda came to refer to a certain type of communication strategy. It involves the no-holds-barred use of communication to propagate specific beliefs and expectations. The ultimate goal of propagandists is to change the way people act and to leave them believing that those actions are voluntary, that the newly adopted behaviors—and the opinions underlying them—are their own. To accomplish this, though, propagandists must first change the way people conceive of themselves and their social world. A variety of communication techniques is used to guide and transform those beliefs.

Disinformation: False information spread about the opposition to discredit it

Black propaganda: Deliberate and strategic transmission of lies

Gray propaganda: Transmission of information or ideas that might or might not be false. No effort is made to determine their validity

Engineering of consent: Official use of communication campaigns to reach “good” ends


Watson’s theory became known as Behaviorism: The notion that all human action is a conditioned response to external environmental stimuli

One of the central notions in behaviorism was the idea of conditioning. Behaviorists argued that most human behavior is the result of conditioning by the external environment. We are conditioned to act in certain ways by positive and negative stimuli—we act to gain rewards or avoid punishments.

Magic bullet theory: Idea that propaganda is powerful enough to penetrate most people’s defenses and condition them to act in ways that are useful to the propagandist


Freudianism: Freud’s notion that human behavior is the product of the conflict between an individual’s Id, Ego, and Superego. To explain hysteria, Freud reasoned that the self that guides action must be fragmented into conflicting parts. Normally one part, the rational mind, or Ego, is in control, but sometimes other parts become dominant. Freud speculated that human action is often the product of another, darker side of the self—the Id. This is the egocentric pleasure-seeking part of ourselves that the Ego must struggle to keep under control. The Ego relies on an internalized set of cultural rules (the Superego) for guidance. Caught between the primitive Id and the overly restrictive Superego, the Ego fights a losing battle. When the Ego loses control to the Id, hysteria or worse results. When the Superego becomes dominant and the Id is completely suppressed, people turn into unemotional, depressed social automatons that simply do what others demand.


He argued that propaganda was more than merely using media to lie to people in order to gain temporary control over them. People need to be slowly prepared to accept radically different ideas and actions. Communicators need a well-developed, long-term campaign strategy (“multiplication of those stimuli”) in which new ideas and images are carefully introduced and then cultivated. Symbols must be created, and people must be gradually taught to associate specific emotions such as love or hate with these symbols. If these cultivation strategies are successful, they create what Lasswell referred to as master (or collective) symbols (Lasswell, 1934). Master symbols are associated with strong emotions and possess the power to stimulate beneficial large-scale mass action if they are used wisely. In contrast to behaviorist notions, Lasswell’s theory envisioned a long and quite sophisticated conditioning process. Exposure to one or two extremist messages would not likely have significant effects. And propaganda messages can be delivered through many different media, not just radio or newspapers.

Scientific technocracy: An educated social science–based elite charged with protecting vulnerable average people from harmful propaganda.


Lippmann shared Lasswell’s skepticism about the ability of average people to make sense of their social world and to make rational decisions about their actions. In Public Opinion (1922), he pointed out the discrepancies that necessarily exist between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” Because these discrepancies were inevitable, Lippmann doubted that average people could govern themselves as classic democratic theory assumed they could. The world of the 1930s was an especially complex place, and the political forces were very dangerous. People simply couldn’t learn enough from media to help them understand it all. Even if journalists took their responsibility seriously, they couldn’t overcome the psychological and social barriers that prevented average people from developing useful pictures in their heads.

Pragmatism: School of philosophical theory emphasizing the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it.

A scientific technocracy could be developed to ensure the dissemination of good propaganda. Others, despite their fear of propaganda, believed that propaganda analysis, like that undertaken at the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, was the only truly democratic way to deal with propaganda. That is, rather than use “good” propaganda, teach average people how propaganda operates so they can defend themselves against it. John Dewey’s solution to propaganda’s threat relied on traditional notions of democracy. Because people were in fact good and rational, the counter to propaganda was not control of media by a technocratic elite, but more education of the public. Contemporary propaganda theory, centered in critical theory, argues that public discourse is shaped and limited by powerful elites to serve their own ends. Advertising’s underlying theme that consumption and capitalism are beneficial is another area of interest to propaganda theorists.

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