Propaganda was not an American invention. The term originated with the Roman Catholic Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Committee for the Propagation of the Faith), an order of the church established by a papal bull in 1622. 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 (Pratkanis and Aronson, 1992, p. 9). 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. During the 1930s, the new media of radio and movies provided propagandists with powerful new tools.
Fritz Hippler, head of Nazi Germany’s film propaganda division, said that the secret to effective propaganda is to (a) simplify a complex issue and (b) repeat that simplification over and over again (World War II, 1982). J. Michael Sproule (1994) argues that effective propaganda is covert: it “persuades people without seeming to do so” (p. 3); features “the massive orchestration of communication” (p. 4); and emphasizes “tricky language designed to discourage reflective thought” (p. 5). The propagandist believes that the end justifies the means. Therefore, it is not only right but necessary that half-truths and even outright lies be used to convince people to abandon ideas that are “wrong” and to adopt those favored by the propagandist. Propagandists also rely on disinformation to discredit their opposition. They spread false information about opposition groups and their objectives. Often the source of this false information is concealed so that it can’t be traced to the propagandist.
As U.S. theorists studied propaganda, they came to differentiate black, white, and gray propaganda, but definitions of these types of propaganda varied (Snowball, 1999; Becker, 1949). Black propaganda was usually defined as involving deliberate and strategic transmission of lies—its use was well illustrated by the Nazis. According to Howard Becker, a sociologist who worked as an Office of Strategic Services propagandist during World War II, black propaganda always misrepresented the source of the message so that it appeared to come from an “inside,” trustworthy source with whom its target had a close relationship. Deliberately propagated rumors or gossip would fit this definition. White propaganda
was, as we have seen, usually defined as involving intentional suppression of contradictory information and ideas, combined with deliberate promotion of highly consistent information or ideas that support the objectives of the propagandist. Sometimes white propaganda was used to draw attention away from problematic events or to provide interpretations of events that were useful for the propagandist. Becker asserts that to be white propaganda, it must be openly identified as coming from an “outside” source—one that doesn’t have a close relationship to the target of the propaganda.
Gray propaganda involved transmission of information or ideas that might or might not be false. The propagandist simply made no effort to determine their validity and actually avoided doing so—especially if dissemination of the content would serve his or her interest. Becker argues that the truth or falsity of propaganda is often hard to establish, so it isn’t practical to use veracity as a criterion for differentiating types of propaganda. He asserts that during World War II, the Office of War Information was restricted to transmitting white propaganda (intended for American and friendly overseas audiences), whereas the Office of Strategic Services could transmit only black propaganda (aimed at unfriendly foreign audiences). The work of these two agencies was loosely coordinated by Psychological Warfare, an armed services organization. Today we find the attribution of labels like “black” and “white” to the concepts of bad and good propaganda offensive. But remember one of this book’s constant themes: These ideas are products of their times.
Propagandists then and now live in an either/or, good/evil world. American propagandists in the 1930s had two clear alternatives. On one side were truth, justice, and freedom—in short, the American way—and on the other side were falsehood, evil, and slavery—totalitarianism. Of course, Communist and Nazi propagandists had their own versions of truth, justice, and freedom. For them the American vision of Utopia was at best naive and at worst likely to lead to racial pollution and cultural degradation. The Nazis used propaganda to cultivate extreme fear and hatred of minority groups. In Mein Kampf (1933), Hitler traced the problems of post–World War I Germany to the Jewish people and other ethnic or racial minorities. Unlike the American elites, he saw no reason to bother converting or deporting these groups—they were Evil Incarnate and therefore should be exterminated. Nazi propaganda films, of which director Hippler’s hate-filled The Eternal Jew is a noted example, used powerful negative imagery to equate Jews with rats and to associate mental illness with grotesque physical deformity, whereas positive images were associated with blond, blue-eyed people. Thus, for the totalitarian propagandist, mass media were a very practical means of mass manipulation—an effective mechanism for controlling large populations. If people came to share the views of the propagandist, they were said to be converted: they abandoned old views and took on those promoted by propaganda. Once consensus was created, elites could then take the actions that it permitted or dictated. They could carry out the “will of the people,” who have become, in the words of journalism and social critic Todd Gitlin, “cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement” (1991).
Propagandists typically held elitist and paternalistic views about their audiences. They believed that people needed to be converted for their “own good”—not just to serve the interest of the propagandist. Propagandists often
blamed the people for the necessity of engaging in lies and manipulation. They thought people so irrational, so illiterate, or so inattentive that it was necessary to coerce, seduce, or trick them into learning bits of misinformation. The propagandists’ argument was simple: If only people were more rational or intelligent, we could just sit down and explain things to them, person to person. But most aren’t—especially the ones who need the most help. Most people are children when it comes to important affairs like politics. How can we expect them to listen to reason? It’s just not possible. In the post–World War II United States, for example, this became known as the engineering of consent, a term coined by “the father of modern public relations,” Edward L. Bernays. Sproule quotes Bernays as wanting to expand freedom of press and speech to include the government’s “freedom to persuade…. Only by mastering the techniques of communication can leadership be exercised fruitfully in the vast complex that is modern democracy,” because in a democracy, results “do not just happen” (Sproule, 1997, p. 213).
The propagandist also uses similar reasoning for suppressing opposition messages: Average people are just too gullible. They will be taken in by the lies and tricks of others. If opponents are allowed to freely communicate their messages, a standoff will result in which no one wins. Propagandists are convinced of the validity of their cause, so they must stop opponents from blocking their actions. You can test your thinking about the engineering of consent in the box entitled “Engineering Consent: WMD and the War in Iraq.”