Tuesday, September 21, 2004

What is Propaganda?

In an email discussion on TechRhet about propaganda, the issue of defining the term came up. One participant, CJ, offered her definition:
I simply operate from this (very broad) definition: "The promotion of specific ideas or views, often political in nature."
I asked:
That means any act of persuasion, any advocacy, is propaganda?

If the working definition is *that* broad, then doesn't that lead
toward an easy cyncism where any idea you don't like you can dismiss
as propaganda?
CJ gave a helpful reply:
Exactly. And we do. One group's "promotion" is always somebody's
"propaganda campaign." Propaganda comes from "propagate" -- it's not
just an argument, it's a battery of arguments: organized, systematized,
strategized into our lives. One operative saying "It looks like the
Iraqi's might have nuclear warfare capabilities" is an argument. The
president, vice president, secretary of state, press secretary, and
pentagon telling us in print, internet, radio, and television news media
that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we must go to
war, that's propaganda. And just because a message is propaganda,
doesn't mean it's either bad or good. It's just being thrown at us
repeatedly. Like those United Way envelopes they keep putting in my box
at work....I keep trying to remind them that working for such low wages
IS my way of "donating" to the community...."

And how they keep making people walk for cancer, muscular dystrophy,
cystic fibrosis, the american lung association....why do they have to
walk? Why not just collect money from people, and save the time & energy
of walking? (Answer: propaganda has established that we must do
something visible/tangible like walking to "earn" the money people are
giving to the cause).

It's all about the propagation. One argument is just one claim.
Repeated, organized, bombardment of The Message....that's propaganda.
All of which got me to thinking -- in this political campaign season, propaganda is a natural and useful lense for looking at how each campaign tries to frame the choice citizins will face when they vote. I think the key to CJ's response is in this sentence: "Propaganda comes from "propagate" -- it's not just an argument, it's a battery of arguments: organized, systematized, strategized into our lives."

What can one learn from the organized messages coming from each campaign? What in their propaganda is true, what exaggerated, what false?

To get started, here are some resources students can consult:

Defining Propaganda:

The Center for the Study of Political Graphics: