ThroughTheNews is dedicating a series of articles to propaganda. What is it and why are we concerned with it? We will try to explain in this opener. After that we will move on to covering both traditional and emerging means of influencing individuals. Make sure to stay with us for more content about the past, the present, and the future of propaganda.
Once upon a time, or in 1622 to be precise, the mighty Catholic Church awoke to the feeling of being threatened by a group of individuals, who called for the reformation of the church. To avoid this unpleasant state of affairs, Pope Gregory XV established the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide – the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. The aim of this institution was to battle the Reformists by distributing one true Catholic faith to the minds and hearts of believers.
Once upon a time, or in 1933 to be precise, the newly elected, chancellor of Germany and his trusted friend awoke to the feeling of being threatened by Communists, Marxists, Jews, Romanis, the elderly, the ill and literally anyone who failed to qualify as a true Aryan. To avoid this unpleasant state of affairs, the mustached chancellor appointed his friend Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The aim of the minister and his institution was to distribute one true National Socialist faith to the minds and hearts of the German Volk.
The two tales stand centuries apart and yet they illustrate exactly what we mean under the term Propaganda today and why, more often than not, the connotation is negative.
Propaganda is a unique persuasion tactic. It is deliberately made for the purpose of manipulating individuals into adopting certain beliefs and behaviours. One of its main characteristics is being biased – propaganda presents only one side of the topic as absolute and undebatable truth. To make people believe this truth, propaganda triggers emotions and prejudices of individuals, convincing them that the ideas fed to them were their own, to begin with. This last characteristic is the reason why propaganda is considered dangerous – it could actually brainwash individuals.
“When he recites his propaganda lesson and says that he is thinking for himself, his mouth only produces sounds previously stenciled into his brain, when he says that he is indeed expressing his judgment – then he really demonstrates that he no longer thinks at all, ever and that he does not exist as a person.”- Jacques Ellul writes in his influential work Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.
Harold Lasswell assumed that taken separately, propaganda is “no more moral or immoral than a pump handle”, but the question of morality enters the picture when we consider for what ends propaganda is used. If applied by leaders of questionable values, it can produce a land of Pavlik Morozovs – young people willing to report their parents to the police and send them to labour camps just because the party or the state told them to do so. Pavlik Morozov’s heroism was praised in Soviet poems, hymns, and stories as young children were encouraged to emulate him.
On the other hand, one might argue that propaganda can be used for better ends - to advocate for equality, end violence, or help the planet, for example. One can also argue that propagandizing education is the key to the success of a state – after all, education teaches us how to think for ourselves. But as propaganda and education are tightly intertwined, it is difficult to distinguish between what we think on our own accord and what we are very masterfully made to think.
Every state and institution uses propaganda to push its agenda forward. To avoid being affiliated with notorious propagandists of the past, these state or private institutions work on “public safety” or “public opinion.” They do not necessarily lie to us – modern propaganda does not necessarily rely on lies but distorts the interpretations of actual facts. This is how we, citizens of our countries are influenced on a daily basis. Propaganda helps us navigate our surroundings:
“Propaganda gives man assurances equivalent to those formally given him by religion. It gives him a simple and clear explanation of the world in which he lives. “ Jacques Ellul writes, “To be sure, a false explanation far removed from reality, but one that is obvious and satisfying. The world ceases to be hostile and menacing.”
The emergence of the Internet also played in the hands of modern propagandists. Keeping in mind how much was already achieved by the limited means of radio broadcasting, it is easy to let the imagination run wild and contemplate what they can do with social media, echo chambers and targeted ads which are able to identify our preferences and deliver the information we would like to consume.
Does this mean that we are doomed? Not really. Jacques Ellul worked with propaganda almost a century ago to warn democratic societies of its dangers. We, on our part, want to give him a helping hand: starting from this introduction, we will dedicate a series of articles to different forms of propaganda around the world. We will discuss the past, present, and future of this persuasion tactic and try to look at its significance in our lives. It might be true that grotesque posters of the First and Second World Wars are a thing of the past, but today’s world relies no less heavily on policymakers, influencers, and new digital tools to dictate what we are supposed to be feeling, doing or believing in. By acknowledging their presence, we might get a step nearer to the freedom to decide for ourselves.
Do you think you have something to share about the topic we selected? Let us know in the comments below.