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How Propaganda Works

WHAT IS PROPAGANDA?

The definition of propaganda can be slippery, and even the experts like to debate the details. What one person sees as propaganda, another might see as a public education campaign.
But there are 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.

Perpetually Problematic?

Describing something as propaganda is not generally seen as a compliment. But does that mean all propaganda makes the world a worse place?

Is propaganda good or evil?

Propaganda and its techniques are neutral. What makes it “good” or “bad” is the agenda it serves.

For example, groups or governments might create propaganda in order to persuade people to adopt healthier habits. But then they might employ the same propaganda playbook to attack an opposing group or government.

Whether you think a piece of propaganda is good or bad usually depends on your perspective. Take this Cold War-era pro-capitalism cartoon. Whether you view it as a patriotic perspective or a twisted version of the truth might depend on where you live or your economic outlook.

Is propaganda illegal?

In short, no. In the United States, the First Amendment protects a broad array of speech and press, including the inflammatory, misleading or downright fake content that makes up most propaganda.

There are some limits to these protections. For example, content that measurably damages an individual’s life or reputation, that incites people immediately to commit a crime or that is clearly obscene is not protected. Federal agencies are also prohibited from engaging in “covert propaganda”, meaning they are required to take clear responsibility for the messages that communicate their policies to the public.

But for the vast majority of cases in the U.S., the First Amendment allows information — real or fake, objective or manipulative, honest or deceptive — to circulate freely.

Is advertising a form of propaganda?

Sometimes. Some ads are just ads, pushing a product based on its own (often exaggerated) merits. If advertising is not just peddling a product but also trying to sell a larger set of values, then it starts to look like propaganda. For example, an ad campaign for body lotion that makes the case for valuing all individuals equally, regardless of shape, size or color, edges toward propaganda because it promotes an ideal or worldview. But even when ad campaigns bring in a bigger vision, that vision is secondary to the primary goal of advertising: selling something, not only an idea or cause.

EXPLORE THE PROPAGANDA MASTER’S TOOLBOX

The methods propaganda uses to worm its way into our brains stem from four universal techniques for manipulating human emotions. These techniques try to short circuit your logic and reason. But if you can learn to spot these techniques in action, you’ll be less likely to fall for propaganda.

Take our quiz to learn which technique you’re most likely to fall for

WHO’S TO BLAME?

Propaganda is not new, and neither is the game of trying to pin blame on “the other guy.” There’s no one group or nation to blame for the continuing proliferation of propaganda. New examples pop up all the time from every corner of the globe, using the techniques above to serve all types of agendas.

A few recent examples of publicly revealed propaganda campaigns:

Instead of looking where to place the blame, learn to spot propaganda’s manipulative techniques so you can recognize when you’re being played, no matter who’s pulling the strings.


Now you know how propaganda works. Next up: Why should you care?

Part 2

Simplification

Introduction

Propaganda reduces complicated issues to basic ideas and packages them with catchy slogans and images. Check out these real-world examples of simplification at work.

Go to extremes!

Here, Nazi Germany’s press is bloody-dagger-level bad. The U.S. press, on the other hand, is all good: free and filling papers with hard news. But the reality for the American side was a bit more complicated, as the military controlled the publication of war news and newspapers were expected to promote an encouraging view of the fighting.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

A little bit of logic leads to an enormous leap!

This Facebook post, created by Russian operatives, attempts to create a connection between two tragic situations in order to stoke outrage. But just because two things have something in common — in this case, suffering children — doesn’t mean they’re linked.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Who needs lies?!

Propaganda doesn’t have to include outright lies to be misleading; ignoring facts and counterarguments that contradict its message can also skew its representation of reality. The left-wing activist page Occupy Democrats makes the economic performance of President Donald Trump and other Republican presidents look bad, but it only paints part of the picture.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Who could support that!?

Propagandists know it’s easier for people to hate the other side when opponents’ positions are twisted into something nobody could realistically stand behind. Of course people are more likely to oppose U.S. involvement in Syria if the alternative means “killing the innocent” and opposing peace.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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Exaggeration

Introduction

Propaganda paints its cause as unbeatable, without flaws or weaknesses. Check out these real-world examples of exaggeration at work.

Need a miracle?

Propagandists want you to think they can help solve all your problems if you support their cause or change your behavior the way they want. Here, a bestselling author promises outlandish health outcomes can come from drinking 16 ounces of celery juice daily … and joining his bandwagon of supporters.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Need trust and respect? Borrow it!

Propagandists often hitch their cause to popular ideas to help build support for their own message. This civil-rights-era, anti-communist paper piggybacks off patriotism, with an American flag and rugged Revolutionary-era fighter in its masthead, and a name that harkens back to the famous pamphlet that convinced many colonists to support the fight for independence.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Who doesn’t want success?

Propagandists know this, and will use the promise of positive consequences to attract support for their cause, whether it’s dastardly or beneficial. Here a U.S. government agency publicizes low-cost or no-cost health insurance by showing the kids are all smiles when their dental visits are covered.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Make a power play!

Propagandists like to portray their cause as popular, well-respected, and powerful. Here the Communist Party of America emphasizes how “invincible” it is despite a recent government crackdown. It claims that most U.S. workers already support the movement … so why not you, too?

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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Exploitation

Introduction

Propaganda uses emotional messages to play on universal weaknesses, fears and desires. Check out these real-world examples of exploitation at work.

Be very afraid!

Propaganda often uses fear to grab a reader’s attention. This graphic “warns” of dangers lurking inside the “swine flu” vaccine, from toxins to the risk of serious illness or even death. But its claims are taken out of context, exaggerated, or just plain false.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Flattery will get you everywhere!

Propagandists know that a positive message has its place. In this case, honoring the bravery of servicemen and women helps open the door for other Russian-created messages designed to sow political discord in the U.S.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Lady Liberty weeps for dead children!

Propagandists use shocking content to override reason with emotion. The Iraqi army hoped to turn American troops against the Gulf War by claiming their actions would kill innocent women and children and make “Liberty Stadium” cry.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Don’t get left behind!

Whether the cause is secular or sacred, using deadlines and peer pressure can compel people to make decisions. Would you want to be stuck on earth after all the true believers entered heaven? This imitation newspaper makes it sound like a pretty rotten fate.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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Division

Introduction

Propaganda works to separate “us” versus “them,” broadening divisions between different people, groups and ideas. Check out these real-world examples of division at work.

It’s a massacre!

Propagandists like to depict opposing groups as heroes and villains. In this engraving, American colonists are depicted as innocent victims, and the redcoats are merciless killers. The Boston Massacre was not actually so simple, but this story is far more likely to gin up support for revolution!

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

Would you side with Satan?

Propagandists push us to take sides by creating scenarios where there is only one correct choice. This Facebook post depicts Satan and Jesus arm wrestling, with Satan supporting Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. The choice is clear!

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

I want to be on their side!

Propagandists use celebrities and respected figures to connect people to their message. Here, they highlight a police officer who derides Black Lives Matter, borrowing his sway as an authority figure to build support for their own goal: sowing division and discord.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

That sounds dangerous!

Propagandists stereotype entire groups of people to devalue and dehumanize them. This makes it easier to write them off as dangerous and unworthy of aid or understanding. Here, undocumented migrants are “invaders” threatening the United States.

Learn more about this example at NewseumED.org.

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