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What is it, how to spot it, propaganda today & propaganda in history.

What is Propaganda?

""Propaganda is the dissemination of information—facts, arguments, rumors, half-truths, or lies—to influence public opinion.

"Propaganda is the more or less systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth). Deliberateness and a relatively heavy emphasis on manipulation distinguish propaganda from casual conversation or the free and easy exchange of ideas. The propagandist has a specified goal or set of goals. To achieve these he deliberately selects facts, arguments, and displays of symbols and presents them in ways he thinks will have the most effect. To maximize effect, he may omit pertinent facts or distort them, and he may try to divert the attention of the reactors (the people whom he is trying to sway) from everything but his own propaganda."

~ From Britannica Academic, Propaganda

Fake News & Propaganda

Some fake news is propaganda, depending on motive. Many of those putting out fake news just want clicks which equals money. Others putting out fake news are putting out information strategically to influence public opinion. Find out more in our Fake News guide.

Propaganda is Easy

We are all bombarded by an incredible amount of information every day--there is no way to take it all in. This is called information overload.

Since we can't pay attention to everything, we tend to tune out what we don't want to here, paying attention to the things that support what we already think or feel about any given topic. This tendency is called confirmation bias. You can out our more about confirmation bias in our Media Bias guide.

The Internet and Social media have made propaganda easier to disseminate than ever before. Information overload and confirmation bias make it easier for us not to notice when we are being exposed to propaganda. 

Information Overload + Confirmation Bias + Social media = Easy Propaganda

Why Should You Care?

Propaganda goes beyond media bias. Propaganda is a deliberate attempt to change the outcome of events in real life. Those employing it target specific groups and try to get them to behave in predetermined ways.

Propaganda is also psychological warfare, though it is not used exclusively in actual wars. Propaganda is used by our own politicians and special interest groups as well as external forces.

Propaganda Examples from WWII

Looking at how propaganda can be used in real life can help us understand the impact it can have. Propaganda was used heavily during World War II. All uses had a specific desired outcome, but some goals were more benign than others. There are some great examples at National Geographic's Inside America’s Shocking WWII Propaganda Machine. Here are a few examples of how propaganda was used during WWII.

WWII Propaganda to Discourage the Enemy

World powers spread information to discourage the enemy into thinking that losing was inevitable so that continuing to fight would become harder. Radio broadcasts were made to give negative news to the enemy on both sides of the war; news stories were printed with information favorable to the side printing it; leaflets were spread to show the enemy how futile there efforts were. The leaflet below targeted to Japanese troops to induce surrender showing Japanese prisoners of war with cigarettes.

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WWII Propaganda to Encourage Citizens & Allies

Propaganda was also used on citizens and allies to encourage them to support the war effort and to keep going. With so many men away at war there were not enough workers left in the country. Prior to this, women had been only a very small part of the labor force, most being housewives. In order to keep the troops supplied women had to be put to work. The news story below shows women working to supply the war effort. The famous We Can Do It! poster (shown in the banner above) is another example.

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WWII Nazi Propaganda

One of the most extreme examples of propaganda was Hitler's campaign to foment the hate of anyone that was not the Aryan ideal, particularly Jews. The result was the massive genocide known as the Holocaust, during which over 6 million Jews were killed. In the end many others deemed undesirable were included, such as gypsies, homosexuals, and the disabled.

This image translates to "Whoever wears this symbol is an enemy of our people." It was used by the Nazis to justify Jews wearing the Star of David; all Jews were made to wear this star in Nazi Germany.

Nazi propaganda leaflet: “Whoever bears this sign is an enemy of our people”.

How to Spot Propaganda

This is our new normal. Fake news, bias and propaganda have never been so easy to spread. We now know that this can have real life consequences. So how do we deal with it? How can we spot when we are being exposed to propaganda?

From 1937-1942 there was actually an Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The founders thought propaganda was becoming so prevalent in the US that it was a threat to democracy. How can citizens vote in an informed manner if they don't know what the truth is? The list of common propaganda tricks that they developed can still be used today. Most propaganda techniques invoke strong emotion in those hearing, seeing or reading it.

  1. Name-calling
    Abusive or insulting names applied to a group is a tactic in propaganda.
  2. Glittering generalities
    This is frequently used by politicians who terms and phrases that most people agree with to convince people to vote for them or their issue. For America, for the children, and so on.
  3. Transfer
    This technique uses a commonly perceived positive or negative quality and transfers it to an individual or group. For instance, an image of a political candidate standing in front the American flag. It's used so often that it's a cliché. The image of the flag makes us feel a certain way and we transfer those feelings to the person standing in front of it.
  4. Testimonial
    Very simply, a testimonial is when someone says that they support this idea, candidate or even product. There are sometimes emotional examples of why they support it.
  5. Plain folks
    In this example, the technique is to say "I'm just like you." For instance, political candidates who may be very wealthy don't want voters to feel that they have totally different interests because of the wealth. It is human nature to favor those more lke ourselves, and they want voters to feel that they are essentially the same, with the same interests.
  6. Card stacking
    This is essentially bias, arguing for or against an issue by only using those facts that support a specific point of view. When this technique is used you are being told how to feel about an issue, not being asked to think about it. 
  7. Bandwagon
    This is when you are told that everybody else does it or thinks it and you should too.

Propaganda Today Example

Parkland "Crisis Actors"

The Claims

The individuals that are calling for stricter gun control laws as a result of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida are "Crisis Actors" that are paid to go from protest to protest.

The Facts

The individuals accused of being crisis actors are in fact real Stoneman Douglas High School survivors of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida expressing a desire to see changes in gun control laws based on what they experienced.

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