The Propagandizing of Propaganda

Propaganda is about manipulation. But over the past century, the concept itself has been manipulated. Do you still recognize it when you see it?

Propaganda is not what you probably think it is. Most associate it with the political messaging of the 20th century’s two world wars. In the first, the unforgettable stare of Lord Kitchener in the “Your Country Needs You” posters (imitated by many, including the United States with the Uncle Sam character) is widely recalled as a relatively straightforward method of army recruitment. Propaganda later turned more complex and sinister when, in the Second World War, the Nazis began to spread their party’s messages.

It was, of course, the astounding success of propaganda during the war that opened the eyes of the intelligent few in all departments of life to the possibilities of regimenting the public mind.”

Edward Bernays, Propaganda 

Decades later the term is used solely as a pejorative, synonymous with bias, deceit and corruption. It aligns with a general distrust of authority that is endemic among conspiracy theorists and ordinary voters alike. The Italians have a term for this: dietrologia, meaning that any official explanation is viewed as propaganda and a cover for the truth.

In reality, though, propaganda is much more than this. Though it feels like a modern phenomenon, the term is actually significantly older and also, crucially, covers a broader range of meaning. Because of its historic associations, the term has itself been propagandized, and these days its methods often appear in different guises. There is plenty of propaganda around today that is not called propaganda, which makes it especially important to understand its nature and to be wary.

Propagating Ideas

The word propaganda’s origins lie, perhaps surprisingly, in Catholicism. In 1622 Pope Gregory XV founded a committee of cardinals who were responsible for spreading Roman Catholic beliefs in foreign lands. The Latin word propagare means to extend, increase or propagate. The cardinals wished to enlarge and increase Catholicism around the world, and the term propaganda was coined to describe that endeavor.

A recent guide by historian David Welch, produced in conjunction with the British Library, defined propaganda as “the dissemination of ideas intended to convince people to think and act in a particular way and for a particular persuasive purpose.” This is broad and is by no means restricted to politics or religion. All sorts of people, in a multitude of arenas, have practiced persuasion through the marshaling and distribution of ideas, from the Crusades to public health to the Garden of Eden.

“‘Propaganda’ has never been a static term, especially at a time of rapidly changing methods of spreading messages.”

David Welch, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion

Yes, the words of the serpent to Eve (Genesis 3:1–7) were textbook propaganda. He questioned God’s instruction not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “lest you die,” first denying that they would die, and then claiming that the prohibition existed merely to prevent humans from becoming “like God.” The serpent propagated ideas—in this case, false ones—to undercut God’s authority for his own purposes; and he wanted to start these first humans thinking in a way that furthered those purposes. Eve and Adam (who followed her in eating the fruit) suffered for believing him.

Though propaganda is as old as humanity, it undoubtedly matured in the early years of the 20th century. The conditions were ideal. Media, in the form of radio and newspapers, made simultaneous communication with the masses feasible, and the general broadening of political suffrage meant that the opinions of ordinary people were more important than ever. Leaders in politics and industry, having witnessed the success of propaganda during the war, sought ways of controlling and using it.

To our ears this might sound sinister, but deliberate shaping of public opinion did not always have such a dark reputation. Spurred by the horror of the Great War, there was a determination to reshape the world along democratic lines (most famously exemplified geopolitically by the League of Nations). Author H.G. Wells wrote at the time, “Our business is to kill ideas. The ultimate purpose of this war is propaganda, the destruction of certain beliefs, and the creation of others. It is to this propaganda that reasonable men must address themselves.” In this he meant nothing sinister; it was pure pragmatism alloyed with hope. Propaganda, as scholar and media critic Mark Crispin Miller notes, seemed “a wondrous new progressive force, capable of brightening every life and every home.”

Edward L. Bernays, later heralded as “the father of public relations,” was one of its leading proponents. In an influential short book titled Propaganda (1928), Bernays defended and promoted the practice, describing it in terms that might seem to us unexpectedly extensive. He labeled actions that we would recognize as advertising, branding, spin, public relations, or merely presenting our good side, as propaganda.

Whatever of social importance is done today, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda.”

Edward Bernays, Propaganda

If we can look past the term’s historic associations, it’s easy to understand Bernays’s point. When we consider toothpaste ads, or party political broadcasts, or job-interviewee technique, it’s difficult to distinguish their principles from that of the most uncomplicated war propaganda. The basic message is the same: we are good, the other is bad (or inferior); therefore choose us.

Bernays’s most striking argument is that propaganda is a necessary component of democratic society: “We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way our democratic society is organized.”

Miller, in his introduction to the 2004 re-release of Propaganda, points out how much Bernays relied on his contemporary Walter Lippmann and his 1922 work, Public Opinion to inform his own views on the subject. According to Lippmann, Miller writes, democracy “requires a supra-governmental body of detached professionals to sift the data, think things through. . . . The major issues must be framed, the crucial choices made, by ‘the responsible administrator.’”

The mediators Lippman and Bernays described are arguably more necessary today than ever. In this Information Age, we encounter masses of data every hour of every day, and it’s difficult to discern what we should heed and what is worth our time. Some form of systematic administration of options seems necessary.

These administrators certainly exist today. Advertisers, spin doctors and internet gatekeepers play prominent roles in forming public opinion. It’s clearest in advertising, especially that of the most powerful brands. Their propaganda is to attach to themselves a set of ideas that convince people that they are the best, the coolest, the market leader or the most desirable. Their claims are deliberately difficult to measure, and they reach beyond the quality of their product. Many of the most successful brands present themselves as a lifestyle, a personality, an all-embracing system of existence to which customers should aspire (or so their advertising claims). Apple, for instance, has created complex systems of interconnected gadgets designed to envelop consumers in a sort of iWorld. Google promotes its own web of intersecting programs. It also, through filter bubbles and targeted advertising, winnows and customizes information designed for the individual user, which inevitably—because certain websites and information types suit their algorithms best—promotes a Google-fied perspective of the world. Even “top reviewers” on consumer sites such as Yelp and Amazon, which some say are the antidote to corporate advertising, are acting as opinion-formers: in search of “likes” and “useful” votes, they promote their view of what companies ought to offer customers. These are all, in the dictionary sense of the word, forms of propaganda.

Propaganda is still prevalent in the classic sense too, of course. Political speechwriters and strategists use various methods to “position” their candidate. Public health organizations promote their messages through traditional advertisements. Public transit systems encourage codes of behavior via posters and signs. In the first few years of this century, Western audiences heard a great deal about “the War on Terror” as a means to garner support for the Iraq War. Charities promote the bravery of soldiers in the Middle East, separating their efforts from the ethics of the war itself in order to encourage donations. In periodic clashes between the West and former Soviet states, it is always very clear who the good and bad guys are—though the answer will vary depending on whose news outlet you’re tuned in to.

A Question of Motivation

Propaganda can promote good ideas as well as bad. Welch asserted that it is, of itself, “ethically and morally neutral,” while Bernays wrote that “whether, in any instance, propaganda is good or bad depends upon the merit of the cause urged, and the correctness of the information published.” As nefarious as, for instance, the Nazis’ messages undoubtedly were, there has been plenty of beneficial propaganda; the public health notices that urged people to prevent the spread of germs (a selected catchphrase: “coughs and sneezes spread diseases”) and, later, the AIDS virus, were certainly benevolent. But when the purpose is less clear, how is one to discern between the two?

In itself, the word propaganda has certain technical meanings which, like most things in this world, are ‘neither good nor bad but custom makes them so.’”

Edward Bernays, Propaganda 

Bernays’s propaganda was altruistic and paternal. For the propagandist, he wrote, “the ideal of the profession is to eliminate the waste and the friction of that result when industry does things or makes things which its public does not want, or when the public does not understand what is being offered it.” It’s a sort of selection process for popular consumption, where the propagandist is motivated to select and present what the public wants or needs, or to inform them. This seems, with even a passing knowledge of history, extraordinarily idealistic. Bernays put a great deal of trust in his proposed administrators and therefore in human nature, a trust that has been disappointed countless times.

There are, of course, checks in place that discourage modern propagandists from acting badly. Feedback—sales for advertisers, votes for politicians—motivates the propagandist to work for the good of its targets, but history proves that people will find ways to look good and extract the maximum profit.

Other safeguards exist. News services scrutinize politicians’ every act, and there are independent standards agencies to curb the excesses of advertisers and public relations officers. Further, as a public we are aware. We know that advertisers will exaggerate, that politicians will hide, that press releases are biased, and most of us make judgments accordingly. It might therefore seem unlikely that we’d ever be persuaded in the way the masses were in 1930s Germany or Eve was in Eden. Welch writes that citizens simply “need to be more informed and must arm themselves with a greater understanding of the nature and process of the Information Age.”

Perhaps we can trust ourselves to be savvy, to be skeptical. Doing so presumes that humans can discern the truth when facts are presented to them, and that, once recognized, they will make appropriate decisions. It’s a positive, Socratic perspective.

Such a perspective, however, underestimates the cleverness of the propagandist, and the complexity and weight of information that is ever before us. When interpreting any statement, advertisement or promotion, we are required to peer through layers of motivation and meaning. When a politician says something, why does he or she say it? Is it naked vote-getting, or internal positioning, or personal branding, or to further an ambition we know nothing about? And that’s the easy kind. Frankly, it’s often difficult even to discern the identity of the propagandist(s), never mind his or her or their motives. It’s surprising if something is ever quite what it seems. As French social philosopher Guy Debord wrote in the 1960s, “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

More than that, this presumption misjudges human nature. We are not as clear-sighted and rational as we’d like to think we are. From the Nazis to Nixon to luxurious smoking ads, people have time and again shown a propensity for believing lies.

The example in the Garden of Eden is emblematic. Eve believed the serpent not because she came to a decision rationally (Why on earth would she trust a talking snake?) but because she fell for the appeal of three classic ploys of propaganda: first, that she could in one step be instantaneously better; second, that the authority over her was concealing something; and last, the appeal of the new. The serpent’s ploys flattered her ego, and she fell for the deception. Adam’s motives were more complex; later Scripture says that he acted with eyes wide open. But the fact is that they both heeded the serpent’s persuasive words.

The Bible shows that this was not a one-off experience. It talks on numerous occasions of people who “seek,” “trust in” or “listen to” falsehood and lies (Psalm 4:2; Jeremiah 13:25; Ezekiel 13:19). It speaks of the same irrational and self-seeking nature that scientific research is currently uncovering. History supports this: as an example, psychological analyses of the Nazi mindset in 1930s Germany have found something much less than “clear-headed” and “rational.” Our nature will believe what it wishes for its own reasons, with motives that are rarely logical and that we do not always fully understand (Jeremiah 17:9; 1 Corinthians 2:11).

Propaganda is successful because of this weakness in human nature. Its practitioners exploit it, and have done so for millennia; but the issue is today slipperier than it ever was. It raises the question of whether propaganda as a system—leaving aside the question of the benevolence of its message—is too much for humanity to handle.

Bernays drew a simplistic distinction, rather sarcastically, between the old ways (when power was more dictatorial) and the new: “It might be better to have, instead of propaganda and special pleading, committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat. But we have chosen the opposite method, that of open competition.”

His sniffiness about “committees of wise men” was, no doubt, born of frustrated experience and the history of failed human action. But it might have been prudent on his part to apply the same separation between cause and method as he did in defending propaganda. If an administrator is wise, then surely that wisdom would benefit the population, no matter whether it is dictated or not. The difference between the two systems (dictatorial old and democratic new) is the identity of the decision maker, and that appears to be the focus of his objection. This, again using his method of separation, has nothing to do with the truth of the matter. He appears to have fallen for the appeal—indeed, the propaganda—of human liberty.

Again we come back to the Garden of Eden. In believing the serpent, Eve and Adam rejected the instruction of their Creator (who might be represented by Bernays’s “wise men”) and plumped for the appeal of free choice, of choosing what seemed right to them. They snubbed God, who had created them and set rules designed to benefit them. The liberty to make one’s own mistakes trumped obedience to their Creator, without any consideration of the question of whether it was good to eat the fruit or not. They chose a way in which propaganda could thrive.

The Bible speaks of a future time when humanity will be governed by its Creator under a benevolent set of rules and code of living (Isaiah 51:4–5; Jeremiah 31:31–34; 32:38–41), conditions under which propaganda will not be so prevalent. That time, however, is not yet.

Where does this leave us in our modern world? Propaganda is probably to be distrusted by default. Because we have, in Bernays’s phrase, chosen “open competition,” we must deal with it. This is not simple, because it is everywhere. Indeed, we create our own propaganda whenever we marshal facts and arguments to persuade someone of a point of view. The key, as Bernays wrote, is in the “merit” and “correctness” of the cause.

For now we must be, as much as is possible, alert and savvy to discern truth from falsity. In a slippery and convoluted world, it is no easy task. But the answer lies with the same Creator that Adam and Eve rejected. It begins with seeking truth from that uncorrupted source. The psalmist David wrote, “Show me Your ways, O Lord; teach me Your paths. Lead me in Your truth and teach me, for You are the God of my salvation; on You I wait all the day” (Psalm 25:4–5).