In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.


- Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism)



(Not sure who wrote this, if you know, please email me.)

Roots of Propaganda

Plato was probably the first to describe a theory of rhetoric. He was concerned with the nature of truth and how man's quest for truth can be either foiled or enhanced through the power of rhetoric and persuasion. To warn of this danger, he wrote a series of dialogues, three of which, the Gorgias, the Phaedrus, and the Menexenus, were concerned with the principles of rhetoric. These dialogues took the form of conversations between Socrates, a seeker of truth, and a sophist, who is concerned with the appearance of truth rather than the reality. The Sophists were itinerant teachers who gave lectures and wrote books on persuasion. These books contained "commonplaces," general arguments and techniques that could be adapted for a variety of persuasive purposes. The Sophists were known for their dangerous views of the role of persuasion, hence the negative connotation of the word sophistry-meaning trickery or fallacious argument.


For the sophist there is no absolute truth and no means, whether through divine inspiration or human intervention, for finding the truth. They believed that persuasion is necessary to discover the best course of action. Arguing and debating can show all sides of an issue whereby the advantages and disadvantages of a situation can be more plainly seen. Plato saw the sophist position as dangerous because they used word tricks to win their arguments. He believed that men who use the power of speech unjustly could do great harm. The sophist tradition of arguing both sides of an issue could further cloud the understanding of truth rather than enhance it. Plato strove to achieve his goals by logical means and by appealing to the audience's emotions. Emotional appeals were often applied during funeral orations, moving the audience by appealing to the listeners' pride in their country and past glories while looking to the future for the purpose of promoting nationalism or other 'isms (Marlin 46).



Aristotle, Plato's pupil, said the function of rhetoric "is not simply to succeed in persuading, but rather to discover the means of coming as near such success as the circumstances of each particular case allow." In Rhetoric, he wrote that persuasion is based on three elements: ethos, the personal character of the speaker; pathos, appealing to your audience's values; and logos, appealing to the evidence of the reasoning process. To persuade an audience the spokesperson must be credible, someone the audience can trust and look up to, and he must be able to speak directly to the audience's feelings or values in a positive way in order to have an emotional impact. The Sophists believed that persuasion was needed to discover important facts where Aristotle believed knowledge could be gained only by logic and reason. Aristotle did agree that persuasion was necessary for less literate individuals in order to communicate truth to them so they might come to the right conclusion.


The Romans continued the Greek rhetorical tradition in the courts of law, the Senate, and during funeral orations. Cicero was one of the most famous statesman-philosophers of his era. He established what he called the official oratoris, the duties of the orator, to charm or to influence the audience by establishing the credibility of the orator, to teach by presenting a message with sound arguments, and to move by appealing to the audience's emotions. He believed that a statesman-philosopher should speak on all topics persuasively and must be thoroughly knowledgeable in literature, philosophy, law, and logic.


In his first rhetorical work, De Inventione, he began with the remark that "Aristotle proposes expedience as the end of this species of oratory; we prefer to consider its ends as being the expedient and the honorable" (Cox 1113). Cicero was infamous for defending some of Rome's most notorious criminals, and he did his utmost to achieve an acquittal even though he knew the defendant was guilty. He believed that in a court of law the defender must appeal to the jury by using entertaining digressions and arousing their emotions to the point where they would disregard unfavorable evidence. Like his classical counterparts, Cicero was a man of principle and ostensibly spoke for truth and honor. He was, however, capable of using his rhetorical powers to sway an audience for his own purpose when necessary, for instance by defending a criminal he knew was guilty, thereby violating his own moral principles. The difference between classical period rhetors and modern day propagandists is that the former theoretically spoke for truth and honor, while the latter use persuasive rhetoric for their own ends.

The Purpose of Propaganda

Propaganda is the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person. The early Greeks and Romans used discourse to clarify a position. This persuasion could come in the form of an argument, debate, or discussion with a goal of trying to discover the truth that would impart wisdom and knowledge to all parties involved. Persuasion in this sense refers to winning or conquering with the use of emotional or logical reasoning. Aristotle recognized that an appeal to emotion was useful in persuasive rhetoric. Rhetoric, as Aristotle noted, is "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion. The available "means" of persuasion for Aristotle are called: ethos: the perceived trustworthiness, credibility, and reliability of the speaker; pathos: the appeal to the audience's most basic and deeply held beliefs; logos: the appeal of evidence; finding compelling reason for your audience to accept your argument or solution.

Because people are responding to your message, the role of the responsible rhetor is to create a persona that is persuasive but reliable, trustworthy, and credible to the audience (Lay et al.107). Propagandists misrepresent credibility for their own ends. "Credibility is a condition of persuasion. Before you can make a man do what you say, you must make him believe what you say. A necessary condition for gaining his credence is that you do not permit him to catch you in a lie. Hence the constraint on all propagandists to accurate reporting of matters which are subject to verification by the audience"

(Rhodes 287).

Propagandists try to influence by deliberately manipulating logic to promote their cause. Used appropriately, logical reasoning enhances the effectiveness of an argument and the ethos of the speaker or writer. Errors in argument, or rhetorical fallacies, indicate that your thinking is not well reasoned and entirely trustworthy. Propagandists deliberately use errors in argument to appeal to the emotions of their audience. Look at the following example to see how propagandists can twist logic for their purpose (Propaganda Critic>Logical Fallacies):

Premise 1:         All Christians believe in God

Premise 2:         All Muslims believe in God

Conclusion:        All Christians are Muslims

Test the logic of an argument like this is to see if the conclusion makes sense. The premise may be correct, but the conclusion is false.

The Rise of Modern Propaganda

One difference between past and present societies is how we view persuasion and rhetoric. Our modern society is untrained in persuasive techniques. In contrast to earlier cultures that were schooled in the principles of rhetoric, our society knows little about the techniques of persuasion and understanding how they work. Modern media constantly assails us with information. "Everyday we are bombarded with one persuasive communication after another. These appeals persuade not through the give-and-take of argument and debate but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions. For better or worse, ours is an age of propaganda" (Pratkanis and Aronson 9).


Modern propaganda is distinguished from other forms of communication by its deliberate and conscious use of false or misleading information to sway public opinion. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century gradually made it possible to reach large numbers of people. But it was not until the nineteenth century that state governments began to employ propaganda for political purposes to any wide degree deliberately aimed at influencing the masses. The invention of radio and television in the twentieth century made it possible to reach even more people. The development of modern media, global warfare, and the rise of extremist political parties provided growing importance to the use of propaganda.


The term propaganda began to be widely used to describe the persuasive tactics used by both sides during the world wars and by later tyrannical political regimes of the twentieth century. Propaganda was used as a psychological weapon against the enemy and to bolster morale at home. The British were the first to develop an extensive system of war propaganda. In the later part of World War One, the Department of Information was formed to coordinate the government's propaganda efforts. Articles were written and distributed both at home and abroad. Important members of the press and various foreign governments received advance press releases and special treatment in the hope that they would write and report favorably on the British war efforts and bolster morale at home. At a time when most news was transmitted by telegraph, advance access to news was advantageous to those who received it first; they were more likely to influence their audiences before those that received the news later. It is not surprising that the word "propaganda" appeared as a separate entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica for the first in 1922 right after the end of the World War One.


President Wilson was among the first world leaders to use government sponsored propaganda on a wide scale. When the United States declared war against Germany in 1917, he created the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which represented for the first time that a modern government disseminated propaganda on such a large scale (d'Aymery). The CPI implemented voluntary guidelines for the news media, and while it did not have direct enforcement powers, its guidelines almost extended to censorship powers. Its tactics were so effective that Hitler and Goebbels modeled their system of propaganda in the 1930's on CPI's policies. Adolph Hitler bluntly discussed the use of propaganda in his book, Mein Kampf, in which he shared Machiavelli's low regard for his audience's intellectual capabilities:

"All propaganda must be popular and its intellectual level must be adjusted to the most limited intelligence among those it is addressed to. Consequently, the greater the mass it is intended to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be."(qtd. in Smith 38).


Another passage, also from Mein Kampf, repeated Hitler's contempt for the masses:

"Its [propaganda's] effect for the most part must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.  We must avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public.  The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous." (qtd. in Pratkanis 250).


The Nazi propaganda machine relied heavily on symbolism. The swastika, a very ancient ideogram and which is now permanently associated with the Nazis, was once a positive symbol used in many different cultures. When Adolph Hitler was made chief of propaganda for the National Socialist party he chose this commanding symbol to distinguish the Nazi Party from all other rival political groups. Joseph Goebbels succeeded Hitler to become the master propagandist for the Nazi regime. With great skill Goebbels began building the myth of Aryan supremacy. He always maintained that some element of truth was necessary in propaganda to provide a means of escape if his statements were questioned. In Propaganda. The Art of War,

Rhodes said: "Goebbels openly admitted that propaganda had little to do with the truth. 'Historical truth may be discovered by a professor of history. We, however, are serving historical necessity. It is not the task of art to be objectively true. The sole aim of propaganda is success" (qtd. in Rhodes 19).


Three types of propaganda were developed during World War Two and put to effective use on both sides. Black propaganda was designed to tell anything but the truth and was directed against the enemy.White propaganda was addressed more openly and contained mostly true facts. Gray propaganda omitted all mentions of its source and was designed to not tell the whole truth. Black propaganda was used to disseminate "false information in the enemy camp, military and civilian [...] aimed at undermining moral and generally sowing doubt, disquiet, and depression."  White propaganda "aspires to uplift home morale with eyewitness accounts of military successes [...] it is based on truth, even if the truth is twisted a little" (Rhodes 111).


Winston Churchill emerged as one of the greatest orators of World War Two. He is the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature whose oratorical gifts were specifically mentioned when the prize was announced. His wartime speeches are prime examples of white propaganda used to bolster morale at home. In his speech delivered on June 4, 1940 Churchill said:

"Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be [...] we shall never surrender" (qtd. in Jenkins 611).


Just a few days later, on June 18, 1940, Churchill spoke again to his countrymen:

"The battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin.  Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization [...] Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour.'" (qtd. in Jenkins 621).


For the people of countries that have just been overrun by enemy forces or who felt that they were the next nation to be defeated, inspiring words like these helped lift up their spirits and exhorted them to go on. Here we see propaganda being used for the best of purposes.


Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, used propaganda in the negative sense. In his rebuttal to Winston Churchill's attack on his totalitarian regime, Stalin responded to Churchill's complaints about the lack of freedom and the narrow political basis of governments in the Eastern bloc:

"In England today, the government of one party is ruling, the Labour Party, and the Opposition is deprived of the right to take part in the government.  That is what Mr. Churchill calls 'true democracy'. In Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Hungary, the government is made up of a bloc of several parties [...] while the opposition, if it is more or less loyal, is assured ofthe right to take part in the government. That is what Mr. Churchill calls 'totalitarianism, tyranny, [and a] police state'" (Jenkins 812).


This passage shows how Stalin used propaganda that contained some elements of the truth, but the language is twisted and corrupted for political ends and hides the real facts.


In order to use propaganda effectively, one has to have great command of language and recognize the power of persuasive speech. George Orwell, the author of the postwar novel, 1984, realized the dangers of propaganda and the power of persuasion. In his essay "Politics and the English language," Orwell maintained that fighting propaganda meant fighting mental laziness. In "Why I Write," written in 1946, Orwell commented: "To write in plain vigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox." One of the themes that run through 1984 is how the State uses language for political control over the people who speak it. Orwell clearly outlined what might happen in a totalitarian state in which everything the state published was propaganda. The government used a complicated doublespeak language to convey contradictory meanings in order to obscure the truth. The population was taught the language of Newspeak where every concept was expressed in only one word in order to hide nuances and prevent the people from thinking discriminately. The political party in power rewrote the past in order to control the present. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."



Orwell wrote numerous essays on the topic of propaganda, which he extended in his novel, Animal Farm, where he discussed how ideas could be packaged, manipulated, and reformulated in order to change people's beliefs.  The animals on the farm take on different roles the way people do in a society. The plot started with a revolution on the farm when the animals took over under the leadership of the pig Napoleon. Another pig, appropriately named Squealer, became minister of propaganda. His job was to make Napoleon's policies seem legitimate and just. As minister of propaganda he could twist language to explain why some animals are more equal than others or why food production was down when the animals have been told it was up.


Animal Farm was written in the late 1940's just before the beginning of the Cold War when the threat of communism began to be taken seriously. One name that has become synonymous with anti-communist propaganda in the United States is Joseph McCarthy. He was a freshman senator from Wisconsin who burst on the scene on February 9, 1950 when he gave a speech at the Republican Women's Club of Wheeling, West Virginia. In it, he claimed to have a list of 205 Communists in the State Department. No one saw the names on the list, but the announcement made the evening news. No transcript was kept, and there was not even an agreement to the number of people he mentioned, but the impact was instantaneous.


For the next four years, McCarthy kept up a barrage of attacks against so-called communists or people with communist or leftist leanings. No one was safe from his accusations, which were often based on false information, hearsay, and rumor. He quickly became a master manipulator of the press and was always in the headlines. A simple unfounded statement from him could ruin a person's reputation or cause them to lose their job. Many companies and industries blacklisted people and denied them work based on their rumored affiliation with communism. Measures that were instituted to protect national security became witch-hunts designed to ferret out non-conformists, and thousands of innocent people lost their livelihoods. In 1954 the vicious cycle came to an end when McCarthy's baseless hunt for alleged communists and spies was challenged in a series of televised hearings (Blum et al. 801). After thirty-five days of hearings full of unsupported allegations, unfounded interruptions, and condescending remarks, McCarthy's spell was finally broken. Few managed to personify all the negative aspects of propaganda to such a degree as Joseph McCarthy whose name personified the era.

Propaganda Techniques

Edward Filene helped establish the Institute of Propaganda Analysis in 1937 to educate the American public about the nature of propaganda and how to recognize propaganda techniques. Filene and his colleagues identified the seven most common "tricks of the trade" used by successful propagandists (Marlin 102-106: Propaganda Critic: Introduction). These seven techniques are called:


Name Calling

  • Glittering Generalities
  • Transfer
  • Testimonial
  • Plain Folks
  • Card Stacking
  • Band Wagon

These techniques are designed to fool us because the appeal to our emotions rather than to our reason.The techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis are further refined by Aaron Delwich in his website. Propaganda where he "discusses various propaganda techniques, provides contemporary examples of their use, and proposes strategies of mental self-defense." By pointing out these techniques, we hope to join with others who have written on this topic to create awareness and encourage serious consideration of the influence of contemporary propaganda directed at us through the various media and suggest ways to guard against its influence on our lives.

Name Calling: Propagandists use this technique to create fear and arouse prejudice by using negative words (bad names) to create an unfavorable opinion or hatred against a group, beliefs, ideas or institutions they would have us denounce. This method calls for a conclusion without examining the evidence. Name Calling is used as a substitute for arguing the merits of an idea, belief, or proposal. It is often employed using sarcasm and ridicule in political cartoons and writing. When confronted with this technique the Institute for Propaganda Analysis suggests we ask ourselves the following questions: What does the name mean? Is there a real connection between the idea and the name being used? What are the merits of the idea if I leave the name out of consideration? When examining this technique try to separate your feelings about the name and the actual idea or proposal (Propaganda Critic: Common Techniques 1).

Glittering Generalities: Propagandists employ vague, sweeping statements (often slogans or simple catchphrases) using language associated with values and beliefs deeply held by the audience without providing supporting information or reason. They appeal to such notions as honor, glory, love of country, desire for peace, freedom, and family values. The words and phrases are vague and suggest different things to different people but the implication is always favorable. It cannot be proved true or false because it really says little or nothing at all. The Institute of Propaganda Analysis suggests a number of questions we should ask ourselves if we are confronted with this technique: What do the slogans or phrases really mean? Is there a legitimate connection between the idea being discussed and the true meaning of the slogan or phrase being used? What are the merits of the idea itself if it is separated from the slogans or phrases?

Transfer: Transfer is a technique used to carry over the authority and approval of something we respect and revere to something the propagandist would have us accept. Propagandists often employ symbols (e.g., waving the flag) to stir our emotions and win our approval. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis suggests we ask ourselves these questions when confronted with this technique. What is the speaker trying to pitch? What is the meaning of the thing the propagandist is trying to impart? Is there a legitimate connection between the suggestion made by the propagandist and the person or product? Is there merit in the proposal by itself? When confronted with this technique, question the merits of the idea or proposal independently of the convictions about other persons, ideas, or proposals.

Testimonial: Propagandists use this technique to associate a respected person or someone with experience to endorse a product or cause by giving it their stamp of approval hoping that the intended audience will follow their example. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis suggests we ask ourselves the following question when confronted with this technique. Who is quoted in the testimonial?  Why should we regard this person as an expert or trust their testimony? Is there merit to the idea or product without the testimony? You can guard yourself against this technique by demonstrating that the person giving the testimonial is not a recognized authority, prove they have an agenda or vested interest, or show there is disagreement by other experts.

Plain Folks: Propagandists use this approach to convince the audience that the spokesperson is from humble origins, someone they can trust and who has their interests at heart. Propagandists have the speaker use ordinary language and mannerisms to reach the audience and identify with their point of view. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis suggests we ask ourselves the following questions before deciding on any issue when confronted with this technique. Is the person credible and trustworthy when they are removed from the situation being discussed? Is the person trying to cover up anything? What are the facts of the situation? When confronted with this type of propaganda consider the ideas and proposals separately from the personality of the presenter.

Bandwagon: Propagandists use this technique to persuade the audience to follow the crowd. This device creates the impression of widespread support. It reinforces the human desire to be on the winning side. It also plays on feelings of loneliness and isolation. Propagandists use this technique to convince people not already on the bandwagon to join in a mass movement while simultaneously reassuring that those on or partially on should stay aboard. Bandwagon propaganda has taken on a new twist. Propagandists are now trying to convince the target audience that if they don't join in they will be left out. The implication is that if you don't jump on the bandwagon the parade will pass you by. While this is contrary to the other method, it has the same effect: getting the audience to join in with the crowd. The Institute of Propaganda Analysis suggests we ask ourselves the following questions when confronted with this technique. What is the propagandist's program?  What is the evidence for and against the program? Even though others are supporting it, why should I? As with most propaganda techniques, getting more information is the best defense.  When confronted with Bandwagon propaganda, consider the pros and cons before joining in.

Card Stacking: Propagandist uses this technique to make the best case possible for his side and the worst for the opposing viewpoint by carefully using only those facts that support his or her side of the argument while attempting to lead the audience into accepting the facts as a conclusion. In other words, the propagandist stacks the cards against the truth. Card stacking is the most difficult technique to detect because it does not provide all of the information necessary for the audience to make an informed decision. The audience must decide what is missing. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis suggests we ask ourselves the following question when confronted with this technique: Are facts being distorted or omitted? What other arguments exist to support these assertions? As with any other propaganda technique, the best defense against Card Stacking is to get as much information that is possible before making a decision.

Other Techniques

Modern communication constantly assails us with thirty to sixty second messages and images designed to catch our attention and influence us. Catchy slogans and phrases are substituted for well-reasoned arguments. Audiences become so overwhelmed with these messages that they begin to automatically accept the explanation offered without taking the time or good judgment to notice what is being directed towards them or how it might be influencing them. Propagandists employ these other techniques, including them logical fallacies, to influence our opinion and behavior (Hacker 44).


Fear: Propagandists play on an audience's fear that something bad will happen to them unless they do what has been suggested to them.


Humor: Humor is another powerful tool of persuasion. If you can make people laugh you can persuade them.


Repetition: Propagandists use this technique to drum the message into the target audience's subconscious by repeating keywords or phrases over and over until resistance to the message weakens. The target audience eventually accepts the message often without even realizing it. Adolph Hitler emphasized the need for repetition in propaganda. "Now the purpose of propaganda is not continually to produce interesting changes for the few blasé little masters, but to convince; that is, to convince the masses. The masses, however, with their inertia, always need a certain time before they are ready even to notice a thing, and they will lend their memories only to the thousand fold repetition of the most simple ideas" (qtd. in Rhodes 139).


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Red Herring: Propagandists use this diversionary tactic to draw one's attention away from the real subject. Guard against this technique by showing how the argument has gotten off track and bring it back to the issue at hand.


Symbols: Propagandists use words, designs, place, ideas and music to symbolize ideas and concepts with emotional content.


Faulty Cause and Effect: Propagandists claim that the use of a product creates a positive result without providing any supporting evidence.


Compare and Contrast: Propagandists lead the audience to believe that one product is better than another without offering real proof. This technique is similar to Faulty Cause and Effect.


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Loaded Words: Propagandists use powerful words like peace and patriotism because they arouse a strong emotional response.


Hyperbole: Propagandists use exaggeration or "hype" to create impressive sounding words that are nonetheless meaningless and vague.


Slogans: Propagandists use catchy slogans or phrases that are easily remembered in place of a complicated and perhaps more accurate explanation.


Simple Solution:  Propagandists use this technique to provide simple solutions for complex answers. Facts are reduced to right and wrong, good or evil. Propagandists attempt to get people to accept information because it appears to be concise and goes straight to the heart of the matter. This makes it easy for people to make a decision without having to have to think about important issues or verify the facts.


In both techniques pages, we have outlined the most common methods used by propagandists to influence their audience. We believe that the best way to guard against persuasive techniques is to be aware of these methods and how they work. In other words, information is the best defense. The more we know about propaganda techniques and how they work the better we can resist its influence. To paraphrase, if it sounds too simplistic, too one-sided, or too slanted to be true, it probably is.




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