Top 10 Insights on Learning about Propaganda
1. The Not so Specific Definition of Propaganda
Within this course, one main concept that we learned was that there are many definitions to the term, propaganda. This was a recurring theme that plays a large role in how propaganda is seen and understood throughout the world today. In this course, some of the following are what I learned that propaganda is:
- Propaganda appears in a variety of forms
- Propaganda is strategic and intentional, and can be beneficial or harmful
- Propaganda may use truth, half-truths or lies
- Propaganda uses any means to accomplish its goal
There is no right or wrong definition for propaganda, and the majority of the time today, propaganda is viewed in a negatively light with negative connotations. As restated by Welch in Propaganda and mass persuasion: a historical encyclopedia, 1500 to the present, and in the Penguin Political Dictionary (1957), propaganda is the “statements of policy or facts, usually of a political nature, the real purpose of which is different from their apparent purpose…a statement by a government or political party which is believed to be insincere or untrue, and designed to impress the public at large rather than to reach the truth or to bring about a genuine understanding between opposing governments or parties” (Welch, 2003). From this, we’ve learned that propaganda is usually influenced through opinion and bias, leading to conflict with little resolution. This insight is important to me as I learned more about the definitions of propaganda and how it cannot be defined solely with one sentence.
2. The Most Important Dad of Propaganda and Public Relations
Edward Bernays was a pioneer for his time and is credited for his profound use of social science as a way to dissect different markets and public relationships. Bernays used his unique ability to understand social sciences to create particular responses from a general audience or what we would call today a target audience. I learned all this about Bernays because his methods are still very important and applicable today. The reason his ideology can still be used today is because it was the stepping stone to propaganda and a lot of marketing strategies used frequently today. Two of the most impactful quotes for me made my Bernays were:
- “The great enemy of any attempt to change men’s habits is inertia. Civilization is limited by inertia” (Bernays, 1928).
- “There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes” (Bernays, 1928).
I have been learning about Edward Bernays for a few years now as a communications major here at URI. He has been a recurring person that is highlighted in discussions on public relations topics and his importance in the areas of rebranding propaganda, with one his most noticeable accomplishments being that of campaigning for the appropriateness of women smoking cigarettes, with one of the campaigns revolving around the term, “Torches of Freedom”.
3. 10 Steps for Understanding Manipulation That Is, Physically, in Your Face
- The ideology and purpose of the propaganda campaign
- The context in which the propaganda occurs
- Identification of the propagandist
- The structure of the propaganda organization
- The target audience
- Media utilization techniques
- Special techniques to maximize effect
- Audience reaction to various techniques
- Counter-propaganda, if present
- Effects and evaluation
(Jowett & O’Donnell, 2012)
The list above is the ten steps for understanding propaganda and the reason that they are so important is because of the lesson they teach. These steps are meant to teach the untrained eye how to detect and navigate around different types of propaganda. I had personal ideas of what to look for when you expect something is propaganda, but these steps are the foolproof method to understanding all forms of propaganda and how to pick up on the various implied meanings of different messages. From taking these steps and putting them into place and practice, I can now easily pick up on in-your-face propaganda and all I have to do is think back to these steps and apply them to the potential propaganda I am curious about or ones that I am forced to see through advertisements.
4. What the Meme!?
This insight is about how memes were important and helped me learn a lot about propaganda as the course went on. With the incorporation of learning about propagandist memes and how to interpret them, I was able to become educated about the significant role they play, without ever noticing it in the first place. When truly understanding what a meme is, you begin to realize that these cultural descriptors in the form of offensive and/or funny pictures with taglines are the epitome of what ads are in modern society. These memes reach a vast audience of people who are then inclined to follow the beliefs within them and agree, or refute their claims and disagree. Throughout my personal life, I have probably seen thousands of memes, whether they be of political context, or just making a funny joke. The memes below are some that have stuck in my mind as I went through Week 3 of COM 416:
I believe that memes really do matter today in the world of propaganda because they are able to influence attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of those encountering them, just through a picture and a well-written tagline. I know that I learn a decent amount from memes, and I find myself searching for the topics that they are written on if I am not familiar with them. From this, I feel as if I am expanding my knowledge without fully realizing it.
5. ThAt’S fAkE nEwS
Fake news plays an absolutely massive role in our society today, and I personally have experienced the effects of it. When the 2016 election was going on, everyone, including me, experienced first hand fake news. I would be on social media and see something extremely outrageous on a decently reputable site and not be able to help myself but ask others about it or even potentially spread the madness. However, after taking this course and obtaining an understanding for fake news, I no longer have this problem. It’s quite simple, you just can’t believe everything you see on the internet, you actually can only believe very little. Using the skills I learned in this course, I can now detect fake news and also understand what is a valid source vs what is a source with zero logical backing. Fake news helped Trump win the 2016 election and moving forward with the skills I’ve obtained in this course, I will never fall for a fake news scheme again and I will do my best to educate other people on the sources that you can actually depend on to get legitimate news. Some terms that I became educated about in this course were the following, and I plan on spreading awareness of these terms so more people can also learn the difference between them and all about fake news like I have:
- Misinformation: Information whose inaccuracy is unintentional
- Disinformation: Information that is deliberately false or misleading
- White propaganda: Uses accurate, albeit selectively presented, information, fom accurately identified sources
- Black propaganda: Uses inaccurate or deceptive information, in which the source of the information is obscured or misrepresented
- Gray propaganda: Combines accurate and inaccurate content and sourcing information
6. OMG, This is Totally Gonna Go Viral
It seems that everyone on the internet is looking for their own piece of the famous pie. Becoming famous is now something that almost anyone can obtain with the right amount of shares, retweets, and likes. The reason this is such a problem is the cost and effect it has on others, not just the person who is trying to go “viral”. Something that can go viral can range from a person running across a sport field with a sign to someone creating a six second unique video that people can’t seem to stop looking at. The obsession to get social media famous can not only endanger others but the person trying to go viral in the first place. I’ve seen countless stories about daredevils or selfie obsessed people that take it one step to far and lose their life or harm others. I still see many things that are on my different social media platforms because someone did something stupid in hopes of going viral, however after learning about the consequences and the effect this fad has on others I will no longer be sharing or liking post that are meant strictly to reel in as much attention as possible.
7. Let’s Network! I Swear All of My Information is Truthful!
Network partisan propaganda was a big topic during our propaganda class this semester and I enjoyed discussing it with my fellow classmates and professor in the synchronous meeting we had once a week. I wasn’t aware of what network partisan propaganda was before this class, but I came to learn, through the book review of Network Propaganda: Manipulation , Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics, that it can be defined as, “the ways in which the architecture of a media ecosystem contributes to wider dissemination of propaganda” (Pyo, 2019). Throughout this book, it goes over some main points of:
- The asymmetry of the American news media ecosystem and how two fundamentally different ones came to exist
- The main actors, Breitbart, Fox News and the mainstream media, are those that spread disinformation and propaganda, and are done so through agenda setting, priming and framing
- The argument that the asymmetric architecture existed long before the Internet did and that there is a propaganda feedback loop in existence
I think that this book really matters in the discussion of network partisan propaganda, and it is meaningful to discuss these things as they are ever prevalent in the world and can be seen everywhere we look.
8. Social Media: One of The Most Dangerous Weapons
I have learned that social media is indeed a very deadly weapon. Ranging from small scare tactics about different pockets of our own culture to ISIS terror propaganda. The goal ISIS leaders have is to intimidate, scare, and be noticed. Without the platforms that allow for ISIS to post beheadings and other awful videos, terrorist groups like them would be thought about a lot less and hardly ever brought up in the news. However, because of social media allowing these videos to spread, they’re not only scaring their users, but they are actually allowing certain troubled users to be recruited by these terrorist organizations. So, the ability to grow a militant group through social media videos and intimidate others is certainly a form of a weapon that should be taken a lot more serious by the content controllers of different sites like Facebook and YouTube.
9. Are You Not Entertained?
It is well-known that entertainment propaganda is seen EVERYWHERE. Video games and television are the equivalent of checking to see if the sun rose again today. Not a day goes by that the internet or any entertainment platform takes a break to relax. There is a constant in your face attitude about what is next what is old and what you absolutely cannot live without. The funny thing is humans really only need very few things to thrive, but it seems that with entertainment, all we want is more and more, from a brand new i-Phone to a ninety-inch TV screen.
What is stopping us from plugging ourselves into a computer and never going outside again?
Experiencing entertainment is completely personal and changes with each individuals drastically different mindsets. I now know that to enjoy things, you don’t need to have the newest up to date i-Phone or the best surround sound system in the world; you must not compare yourself to how others choose to be entertained, but rather focus on what makes you happy and entertained. One crazy thought to think about is without technology, everything might be more entertaining because you would be experiencing it first hand and not through a foggy lens on a social media platform.
10. But It’s in The Public’s Interest…
Although propaganda is seen usually in such a negative light, I believe that it is important more now than ever. There are many beneficial aspects to propaganda that I have learned about in this course, some of which include, spreading awareness for a cause or situation, keeping the public updated and in the loop on the latest trends and things happening around the world, and constantly influencing their audience. I’ve learned that it is in the public’s interest to look into propaganda for its hidden, and also obvious, messages. Without propaganda, advertisements wouldn’t be as influential, and neither would the government or various other things. I feel that although propaganda tends to present many conflicts in current times, I also believe that it makes itself known and helps the spread of information, while also raising the following of many ideas and beliefs. This definitely matters to me, and I hope it matters to many other people out there, because without propaganda, we wouldn’t be the world we are today.
Bernays, E. (1928). Propaganda. http://www.whale.to/b/bernays.pdf
Pyo, Y. (2019). Review of Network Propaganda. International Journal of Communication 13, 462 –464.
Jack, Caroline (2017). Lexicon of Lies: Terms for Problematic Information. New York: Data and Society.
Jowett, Garth and O’Donnell, Victoria (2012). Chapter 6. How to Analyze Propaganda. Propaganda and Persuasion.5th Edition.Thousand Oaks: Sage. http://www.ffri.hr/~ibrdar/komunikacija/seminari/How%20to%20analyse%20propaganda%20(Chapter6).pdf
Welch, D. (2003). Propaganda, definitions of. In N. J. Cull, D. H. Culbert, D. Welch, Propaganda and mass persuasion: a historical encyclopedia, 1500 to the present. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.