Propaganda 101: What You Need to Know and Why or . . .

The Word


WWII Era American Propaganda


Originally, I drafted this article with a preface about the story Michael Hastings recently broke on BuzzFeed about an amendment to the latest defense authorization bill that would “legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences.” However, as I worked on it this morning, our very own poet laureate and research librarian extraordinaire Elaine Magliaro cut me off at the pass with her own excellent article on the subject.  So instead of repeating the points she makes which illustrate why understanding propaganda is important, I will refer you to her post at Res Ipsa Loquitur, “How about Some Government Propaganda for the People Paid for by the People Being Propagandized?

Now that the kid gloves have come off regarding the governmental efforts to control your mind by controlling both your information and how you receive it, let’s discuss the nature of propaganda. Now more than ever, it is important to know the basics of how propaganda works. Since words are the basic building block of the English language, we’ll start with asking what is propaganda, look at some general history of the practice, consider the importance of meaning of words, the ideas of connotation and denotation, and the process of selecting “value loaded” words.

What is propaganda? Webster’s defines the word as follows:

propaganda \ˌprä-pə-ˈgan-də, ˌprō-\, n.,

1 capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions (ed. note: Not relevant, but interesting.)

2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person

3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause; also : a public action having such an effect

But that’s not exactly what people feel when they hear the word, is it? Why do most people have a negative reaction to the word “propaganda”? After all, by definition, “propaganda” is much like the verb “to persuade” in meaning.

persuade \pər-ˈswād\, v., v.t.,

1: to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action

2: to plead with : urge

Etymologically speaking, the word “propaganda” is fairly new as a political science term. “Propaganda” didn’t come into common use as a political science term until World War I. Even then it was not a pejorative in use like it is today. The word originated (some would say unsurprisingly so) as shorthand referring to the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregatio de Propaganda Fide or the “congregation for propagating the faith”. This committee of cardinals was established in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV to supervise foreign missions. The word “propaganda” is the feminine gerund of the Italian verb “propagando” which in turn is derived from the Latin verb prōpāgō, meaning “to propagate”.

propagate \ˈprä-pə-ˌgāt\, v., v.t.,

3a : to cause to spread out and affect a greater number or greater area : extend b : to foster growing knowledge of, familiarity with, or acceptance of (as an idea or belief) : publicize c : to transmit (as sound or light) through a medium

Clearly the largest distinction between persuasion and propaganda is that propaganda is a form of large scale persuasion. Persuasion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Changing someone’s mind is a better tactic than violence. Persuasion is at the heart of society’s pillar and replacement for self-help justice and dispute resolution, the adversarial court system. Persuasion is an alternative to coercion.

So what is propaganda? It’s a tool to change people’s minds. Like any tool, it is capable of beneficial use and horrific misuse. This makes understanding how the tool works critical if you want to recognize (and possibly work to prevent) its misuse.

If that is the case the word originally had no pejorative use, then why do most people have an automatic negative reaction to the word “propaganda”? This brings us to the ideas of connotation and denotation. Plainly put, denotation is a direct specific meaning; the literal meaning of a word and nothing more. Connotation is a “something” suggested by a word or thing; an implied meaning. I suggest the negative connotation for the word “propaganda” comes from both the negative denotation built in to the word itself (part of the definition is “for the purpose of helping or injuring” and injury carries the negative notion of harm to self and/or others) and the recent historical use of propaganda to dastardly ends culminating to create an implied negative meaning beyond the definition. The denotation of a word is not the direct province of the propagandist. They have to know what the words actually mean, but that is of limited value to them. The edge of the propagandist’s knife so to speak lies in the connotation of words. More on that topic as we move along. In the 20th Century, we have seen what truly evil injury propaganda is capable of inflicting on a society. To know how we got to today, it is important to have a bit of historical perspective.


Ramses II: Conqueror or Big Fibber?

Historically, the idea of propaganda has been around as long as there have been society and governments. For example, in ancient Egypt, the Pharaoh Ramses II claimed a great victory over the Hittites in the Battles of Kadesh (possibly the largest chariot battle in history). The two most common forms of Egyptian records of the battles are known as “The Poem” and “The Bulletin”. Both are found carved into multiple sites in Egypt, all built or expanded upon by Ramses II – one of the greatest builders of ancient Egypt. “The Bulletin” is found on seven different temples or monuments and eight total sites have “The Poem”. When you add numerous other references on papyrus and in tangentially related carvings, this makes the Battles of Kadesh one of the best recorded battles of antiquity. The tale told is of an overwhelming victory for Ramses II and Egypt.

There’s only one problem with that depiction.

It is most certainly a lie at worst and an exaggeration at best.

Hittite records, although not as numerous, all tell the tale of a Hittite victory. Archaeological evidence is inconclusive. One of the two parties is lying and possibly both. Most modern historians have come to the conclusion that the battle likely ended in a draw. Given that, why did Ramses II carve his non-existent victory into stone? Propaganda is the answer. Ramses II wanted the reputation as a strong military leader even if the reality wasn’t so glorious. So he fluffed the details and spread the word that “Ramses II Kicks Ass!” Unless you were at the Battles of Kadesh, who were you to argue with a Living God? Then realizing that his chances for immediate military exploits were practically nil, Ramses II did what any respectable Pharaoh would do and a secondary exercise in propaganda: he returned to the building spree he started as a young man. Some would say the greatest building spree in the history of the ancient Egypt. Just like the Romans after him, Ramses knew that impressive buildings were a kind of psychological warfare – non-verbal propaganda geared at projecting the power of the throne to the masses, but more on this at a later date. The focus here is language and the basics of propaganda.

In the beginning, there was the word. Those with the word were limited. If they could not speak directly, they were limited by how many manual physical copies they could get out to the masses and how many of the masses could read. Then came the printing press in the 15th Century. When Guttenberg invented it, one of the early adopters of the technology was the Holy Roman Empire. By the end of the Renaissance, book making was industrialized to the point that printer/binders could produce between three and four thousand pages per day: a hundred fold increase in production compared to the most prolific of scribes. Books and written material went from rare treasures to common items. As knowledge became democratized, the use of printed propaganda grew in unison: public notices, political flyers and proto-newspapers became cheap and abundant.

broadcast-tower-2The 20th Century was in some ways a Golden Age for deploying propaganda. Unlike any previous age, the 20th Century was the age of mass communications. Industrial mass printing of newspapers, radio, television, telephones and the Internet radically changed the way humans communicate. The word became King and the picture became Queen. Even illiteracy wasn’t the barrier it had posed to the ancient world as the spoken word supplemented the written and the truism that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a truism for a reason. Even physical handicap was less of a barrier to getting the message out as those blind to the printed word and picture and deaf to the spoken word now had the channel of communication created by the 19th Century invention of Braille. As propaganda is large scale persuasion, mass media provided a natural accelerant. What had previously been a candle of propaganda became a bonfire necessarily becoming a political science term in common usage. The 20th Century saw probably the most devastating use of propaganda to date on any population. Propaganda was instrumental to both the Nazi war effort and their social engineering that allowed them to industrially murder six million Jews, Roma, homosexuals and handicapped. Propaganda was key to the crimes of the Khemer Rouge. Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. The wrongful, misguided and likely illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq. These are a few of many examples where propaganda has been used to either garner public support for ethically wrong actions by government or obfuscate the truth to aid the guilty from being brought to justice. This point will be addressed further in a later column, but it goes a long way to explaining how a word of neutral value became a word of negative value due to recent history.

We are still left with the word. As far as the word “propaganda” proper, we know what it means. We know where it comes from. We know the goal of propaganda in general. That leaves us with word choice and the idea of “value loaded” word and how it relates to propaganda. What are words loaded with? They are loaded with implication. This is why connotation is the edge of the propagandist’s knife. Word choice is critical. As I noted earlier, the denotation of a word is not the direct province of the propagandist. The edge of the propagandist’s knife so to speak lies in the connotation of words. However, knowing the proper denotation of words – i.e. having a large vocabulary – puts one at a tactical advantage against the propagandist. If one knows the actual meaning of words, it becomes more difficult for the propagandist to use connotation against you.

For example, consider the use of media outlets like NPR that made a public and conscious decision to refrain from reporting on “torture” – a word with extremely negative denotation and connotation – and instead choosing to use the euphemistic language “enhanced interrogation”. Everyone with a conscience thinks torture is a bad thing and torturers are ethically abhorrent people. It’s not only a Federal crime, cruel and unusual punishment is specifically barred by the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The word choice here is designed to clearly shift public attitudes from “those guys need to be prosecuted as criminals” to “maybe they aren’t so bad after all”. NPR (aided by the Bush Administration no doubt)  chose words with a neutral/positive value load compared to the word “torture”.  Connotation plays to your emotional response over your rational response.  When the word choice becomes more subtle, the damage of connotations can be even more insidious. Compare:

  • war – limited police action
  • conquest – liberation
  • famine – widespread hunger
  • pestilence – outbreak
  • death – casualties

Be aware and suspicious of word choice, certainly.  Especially when dealing with adjectives as they have by their nature a great capacity to carry connotation. However, it is equally important to consider the speaker. When evaluating something you suspect is propaganda, ask these questions:

  • Who is the speaker?
  • What does the speaker want from me?
  • What advantage does the speaker gain from my agreement or lose from my disagreement? And vice-versa?
  • Does the speaker represent other interests that may not be obvious?
  • Why is the speaker giving this message now?

What is your first line of defense against propaganda?

Be aware of the meaning and choice of words. To that end, work to strengthen your vocabulary. Buy a “Word A Day” calender or download an app for your phone, use a website or download a tickler program for your computer.

Always question the message and the messenger as well as any who may have sent the messenger. Practice reading with emotional detachment and a critical eye to not only what is said, but how it is said and by whom.

Keep in mind that propaganda is a tool. It is inherently neutral. The good or evil is found in the intent of the speaker and their desired actions and/or reactions on your part.


What is your first line of defense against propaganda?  You are. And that is my unhidden message to you: Wake up.  Civilization calls. The world is what we make it.

The next article in this series will address methodology, strategy and tactics in deploying propaganda.

Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur ( on May 12, 2012.  It has been re-edited for presentation here.

About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
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17 Responses to Propaganda 101: What You Need to Know and Why or . . .

  1. Blouise says:

    This series is a marvelous teaching tool for highschoolers and young adults.

  2. An excellent way to start off your new blog, Gene. It always pays to focus first and foremost on the language people use in order to discern what they might want to accomplish in the way of influencing the largest possible number of persons to act in desired ways. It makes good expository sense to begin any analysis of spoken or written language with an exploration of denotion and connotation — what linguists call extension and intension — and I hope that as time goes on we have the opportunity to explore rhetoric and semantics in greater depth than what one usually encounters in contemporary journalism. As Alfred Korzybski wrote in Science and Sanity (1933): “We are a symbol-using class of life, and those who rule the symbols rule us.” Accepting the truth of this observation and not wishing to allow others to rule me without my knowledge or consent, I delveloped my own life’s motto for self-education: “You will learn for your own purposes, or other people will train you for theirs.”

    Again, a good start with some well-chosen food for thought.

  3. Gene H. says:

    Good motto, MM. I like it. Welcome aboard. I look forward to your future contributions and especially on this subject given your professional experience you have mentioned before elsewhere.

  4. Blouise says:

    “You will learn for your own purposes, or other people will train you for theirs.” (Michael Murry)

    I like that so much that I am going to adopt it.

  5. Apropos of your chosen focus on language and persuasion, I don’t know if you have ever commented upon the PBS Frontline series The Persuaders (November 9, 2004), but if not, I would appreciate your take on this valuable presentation, since commercial mass-marketing techniques have had such an enormous imact on economic, social, and political propaganda. As the hired-gun word-magician Dr Frank Luntz (one of the program’s participants) says in his book Words that Work(2007): “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

  6. Elaine M. says:


    This article brings to mind the work of pollster Frank Luntz who is a word meister for the Republicans. Here’s one example of his “language usage recommendations” for the party.:

    How Republicans are being taught to talk about Occupy Wall Street

    ORLANDO, Fla. — The Republican Governors Association met this week in Florida to give GOP state executives a chance to rejuvenate, strategize and team-build. But during a plenary session on Wednesday, one question kept coming up: How can Republicans do a better job of talking about Occupy Wall Street?

    “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”

    Luntz offered tips on how Republicans could discuss the grievances of the Occupiers, and help the governors better handle all these new questions from constituents about “income inequality” and “paying your fair share.”

    Yahoo News sat in on the session, and counted 10 do’s and don’ts from Luntz covering how Republicans should fight back by changing the way they discuss the movement.

    1. Don’t say ‘capitalism.’

    “I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. “The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

    2. Don’t say that the government ‘taxes the rich.’ Instead, tell them that the government ‘takes from the rich.’

    “If you talk about raising taxes on the rich,” the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But “if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes.”

    3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the ‘middle class.’ Call them ‘hardworking taxpayers.’

    “They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the ‘middle class’ and the public will say, I’m not sure about that. But defending ‘hardworking taxpayers’ and Republicans have the advantage.”

  7. Anonymously Yours says:

    I read that Elaine…. Lee Atwater was in touch with the pulse of America as he used whatever was in the gossip sheets as fodder…..

  8. Gene H. says:

    The power of the euphemism as misdirection stikes again, Elaine.

  9. First, Republicans were given lessons on how to talk to women while denying them reproductive services. Now, they’re learning how to talk to the long-term unemployed and their families while denying them benefits.

    As members of the Republican Party fight against extending unemployment insurance to those who have been out of work for more than 26 weeks, the party’s leadership is circulating talking points on the best language to use when discussing such opposition, the Washington Post reports. The goal is to show compassion, but some of the talking points come off as tone deaf.

    “Washington has lost its priorities,” reads one, “if it’s more focused on making unemployment easier to tolerate than it is getting people back to work and restoring independence all together.”

  10. Nice. Looking forward to reading the rest.

  11. Pingback: Propaganda 200: In Summation, Gist The Whitewashing Power Of Editing | Flowers For Socrates

  12. “You will learn for your own purposes, or other people will train you for theirs.” Excellent motto

  13. Glad to see this series revived. It is timely, given the current political and cultural climate.

  14. Terry Welshans says:

    Great article, Gene. Keep them coming.

  15. Russell says:

    If you say it until people believe its the truth, then it becomes the (subjective) truth.

    • Terry Welshans says:

      As we so well know. History is repeating itself with this Goebbels/Miller/Bannon mantra:
      Fake News
      Fake News
      Fake News

  16. Russell says:

    The more I learn about Bannon, I am more afraid of him than having 60 minutes show up to the office. That happened.

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