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Jamestown Schools Libraries: Melrose and Lawn: Propaganda

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What is Propaganda?

What is Propaganda?

Neil Postman once wrote that of all the words we use to talk about talk, the word “propaganda” is the most mischievous. That’s because the word has a wide variety of definitions. Consider the definitions below to identify common features of propaganda and notice how the definition has developed and changed over time: 


1. Propaganda is one means by which large numbers of people are induced to act together.
-Bruce Lannes Smith and Harold Lasswell, authors of Propaganda, Communication and Public Opinion, 1946

2. Propaganda is a form of information that panders to our insecurities and anxieties.
-Jacques Ellul, author of Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 1962

3. Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.
-Garth Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell, authors of Propaganda and Persuasion, 1986

4. Propaganda is intentionally-designed communication that invites us to respond emotionally, immediately, and in an either-or manner.
-Neil Postman, author of Technopoly, 1994

5. Propaganda is a form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.
-Richard Alan Nelson, author of A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States, 1996

6. Propaganda is indifferent to truth and truthfulness, knowledge and understanding; it is a form of strategic communication that uses any means to accomplish its ends.
-Walter Cunningham, author of The Idea of Propaganda, 2002

7. Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of a population toward some cause or position.
-Wikipedia, entry on propaganda, 2008

8. Propaganda appears in a variety of forms. It is strategic and intentional as it aims to influence attitudes, opinions and behaviors. Propaganda can be beneficial or harmful. It may use truth, half-truths or lies. To be successful, propaganda taps into our deepest values, fears, hopes, and dreams.
-Steven Luckert and Susan Bachrach, authors of The State of Deception, 2009

Propaganda Characteristics

Three things all propaganda has in common:

1. An agenda

Propaganda makers are working to promote a specific cause, ideology, group or individual. That’s what sets propaganda apart from expressing a personal opinion or even a divisive idea. Propaganda is powered by the desire to make a bigger impact.

2. A targeted audience

The creators of propaganda think carefully about who will see their messages. Even if the audience they identify is large and varied, propaganda makers know who they want to see their work and design their content to resonate with these targets.

3. A massaged message

Propaganda makers use persuasive techniques to shape their content, making it more memorable and convincing. Sometimes, these techniques may be rooted in the truth, but other times, they may omit or alter the facts to better serve the ultimate agenda.

Extra credit: Disguise the delivery

To make a message even more effective, propaganda creators can cover their tracks, making it easier to earn your trust. Would you be more likely to believe information about a new health supplement from the company that sells it or from a seemingly “neutral” YouTube review? Using fake people, sites or pre-programmed bots, propaganda makers can hide their agenda from their audience.

Taken from Newseum Disinformation Nation:

Recognizing Propaganda Techniques

How Propaganda Profiles You

Propaganda Quiz

To Share or Not to Share

Rate It: Beneficial to Harmful

Fake News in the 1890's - Yellow Journalism

The Yellow Press, illustration from 1910 depicting William Randolph Hearst as a jester tossing newspapers with headlines such as “Appeals to Passion, Venom, Sensationalism, Attacks on Honest Officials, Strife, Distorted News, Personal Grievance, [and] Misrepresentation” to a crowd of eager readers — Source.