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Propaganda – then and now

by on November 28, 2013

Over centuries, various political and non political institutions and groups have had tried to establish their control over people’s minds to gain their support and manipulate their behaviour. The first known examples are dating back as far as Ancient Rome and can be tracked all the way until modern era. But what is this thing called “Propaganda”, how does it relate to senators who lived in Rome with 20th century dictators and in what ways did it manage to affect population’s minds? Does it still have same scale influence today in modern democracies?

m-and-m-red-propaganda-poster1 In a modern society we can define “Propaganda” as “a communication that is deliberately designed by one group in society to influence the attitudes and behaviour of others. It often uses symbolism and rhetoric and appeals to the emotional and irrational aspects of our sensibility”[1].


One of the famous examples of it is the establishment of the Creel Commission in the USA in 1917 during Woodrow Wilson’s administration. The purpose of this commission was to try to change public opinion of the Americans and encourage their support of the US participation in the Great War and the commission used all methods of delivering their words at their disposal. They propagated using radio, newspapers, newly emerged film industry and posters, some of which are well known today. Moreover, the commission hired volunteers famous as “Four minute men” to make speeches at social events. As a result of using a variety of ways to influence the public, Wilson’s administration managed to substitute isolationist views in the heads of the Americans with warlike ideas. Noam Chomsky points out the general success of the Creel Commission: “…. succeeded, within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population, which wanted to destroy everything German, tear the Germans limb from limb, go to war and save the world”[2]

Nowadays term “propaganda” is associated with undermining democratic principles of free speech and freedom of information by constructing ideological values of the public. The main reason for it was a heavy use of propaganda in totalitarian states in 20th century, like Nazi Germany, USSR and Italy, where it had been used for mass mind control and ensuring obedience. Nazi propaganda in fact turned out to be extremely effective in uniting the whole nation under one leader and one ideology after disastrous years of a Post Bellum period.

long live germany

Hitler’s genius of propaganda was Joseph Goebbels, who managed to fill all aspects of society and politics with propaganda in Nazi Germany. Blaming the Jews for WW1 defeat, Arian race promotion, types of architecture that Nazis used, film industry created to oppose Hollywood, a variety of famous posters on many sorts of topics, all of it was under strict control of Nazi propaganda machine. The methods that Goebbels used were to create a God-like image of Fuehrer, of a strong leader who was leading the Reich to growth and prosperity at the same time heavily criticising Western Democracies for being weak.

However, today we can still see tracks of propaganda in use and what’s more important, it is being used by the states that are associated with democracy, capitalism, individual freedoms and other principles that seem to contradict the term “propaganda”. Terms that bring the principle of propaganda in action today are nowadays called spin or news management, which imply amendments to minimise the flow of negative information flow and attempts to maximise its positive effects before it reaches the public. “Spin is often used with reference to the manipulation of political information; therefore, press secretaries and public relations officers are referred to as spin doctors when they attempt to launder the news”[4]. Propaganda in politics today is also referred as planned persuasion.


This in fact is being argued by Sproule: “Propaganda represents the work of large organizations or groups to win over the public for special interests through a massive orchestration of attractive conclusions packaged to conceal both their persuasive purpose and lack of sound supporting reasons”[5]. This ultimately means that it is becoming very complicated to determine where one ends and the other one starts and quite often governments use this confusion at their advantage, introducing propaganda programmes and shaping it as persuasion. One of most recent significant examples would be the Iraq War preparation. «The Iraq War became a theatre of propaganda….”[6]. The media started creating a vision of Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), showing the photos of “those” taken by an American spy plane. At the same time media was trying to accuse Saddam of links with various terrorist organisations, particularly Al-Kaeda, therefore linking him with the ones responsible for 9/11 which was arguably aimed at creation of a symbolic meaning of this campaign, as well as playing on emotional part of people conscience in order to gain support.

The ones who put extreme emphasis on visual rhetoric were such large TV broadcasters as CNN and Fox News, which started a new propaganda theme on War on terror, against the ones responsible or partially responsible for organising various terrorist attacks around the globe. They did a lot to create awareness of what the war was being fought for, yet again putting large emphasis on symbolism. “The visualities of war had attained new levels of immediacy and vividness. The public record had never before captured the sense of actually being in a war with such a degree of accuracy before”[8].

The Iraq war was surely not the last attempt to create a vision of a “just action” in the eyes of international community, these actions are still going on with regards of Syria, Iran, continuous war on terror etc. Nowadays in democratic states the media can only be influenced in a certain way, as it is practically impossible to get a full control over mass media, but nevertheless the government can deny any accusations of propaganda use and argue that it is simply a use of harmless political persuasion to get people’s attention to this problem, that there were no attempts to construct any sort of ideological or political controls over the public.

So, are we talking here about constant governmental bias, not as strong as propaganda and slightly more covert but still not less brainwashing through softer ways of affecting people today? The world of media has never been as complicated as it is now.


[1] Darren Lilleker “Key Concepts in Political Communication” (p162)

[2] Noam Chomsky “Media control” (p11-12)
[3] (video on nazi propaganda)
[4] Howard Kurtz “Spin cycle: inside the Clinton propaganda machine” 1998
[5]  J. Michael Sproule “Channels of propaganda” 1994 p 8
[6]  Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy “Politics of mass Seduction” p 210
[8] Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy “Politics of mass Seduction” p 211

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One Comment
  1. themanisred permalink

    I think the time has already come where we just have to accept political propaganda for what it is, it happens in all aspects of life and we can’t expect it to no be present at the highest level. what surprises me however is how easy the masses are giving into to it – with all the new 21st century avenues for the elite to throw propaganda our way, also comes with it opportunities for us to open our eyes a little more.

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