Propaganda 101

A North Korean police officer stands amid propaganda posters in Pyongyang, 2008.

On June 22, U.S. State Department officials accused four Chinese media outlets of being propagandists for the People’s Republic of China. The United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been at odds over such issues as the origin of and response to the coronavirus outbreak, trade, and human rights for Hong Kong residents. “These aren’t journalists,” said David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. “These are members of the propaganda apparatus in the PRC.”

What is propaganda? How effective is it? Propaganda is defined as a manipulative message—such as spreading half-truths, rumors, or outright lies through such means as slogans, banners, or posters—to influence public opinion and change people’s beliefs. A propagandist gives a one-sided message, emphasizing positive points of a favored position and negative points of opponents’ views. Propaganda is different from legitimate political arguments because propaganda is essentially dishonest; it distorts facts in an attempt to persuade.

Overt propaganda occurs when the propagandist is known. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler is an example of an overt propagandist. To gain power in Germany in the 1930s, Hitler stirred fears of communism when talking to business owners while preaching socialism when talking to workers. Joseph Goebbels, who headed Hitler’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, controlled the press, radio, theater, films, music, literature, and fine arts. He built support for aggressive war by emphasizing Nazi concepts such as Germany’s destiny and (some) Germans’ racial superiority. Covert propaganda, which involves sources that are secret or disguised, is harder to identify. Governments have used overt propaganda in times of war to encourage patriotism, self-sacrifice, and solidarity among the populace. The goal is to get citizens to believe that their cause is just and that they can defeat the enemy. Meanwhile, governments also have used covert propaganda—also called psychological warfare—to demoralize or confuse enemy populations or troops.

Propaganda is often employed on behalf of political parties, special interest groups, or intelligence agencies to convince people to adopt a particular viewpoint or course of action. The propaganda tactic known as disinformation is the deliberate attempt to deceive by spreading a mixture of truth and falsehood. Disinformation campaigns include publishing a false news story or spreading rumors by word of mouth or social media. In the digital age, Americans are being exposed to the latest form of propaganda: bots (automated computer programs) that spread fake or biased news via social media. More than ever, news consumers need to carefully consider what they read, see, and believe.

Image credit: © Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

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