The term “propaganda” is of Latin origin, meaning spreading, extending, or propagating with the help of the laity. It was first used by the Catholic church to denominate its mission. In 1622, the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, a council of cardinals responsible for the spread of the Catholic faith, was established in Rome under Pope Gregory XV. During the Age of Enlightenment the term assumed a polemic connotation. In the course of the French Revolution “propaganda” lost its ecclesiastic meaning in favor of a political one. The term then stood for the proclamation of an ideological expansion program hitherto unknown. Propaganda was adapted in a positive sense by the European labor movement in the nineteenth century and consequently also became a central concept of communist ideology. Lenin adopted propaganda, agitation, and organization as core terms of his press theory. The term also gained ground in commerce and became partly a synonym for advertising. While the latter term, however, referred to economic goods, propaganda took on a more psychological meaning. It was also taken on favorably in the twentieth century by the National Socialist (Nazi) movement in Germany and the fascist movement in Italy. This has always been typical of totalitarian and authoritarian states. As a consequence, the term aroused highly negative associations in western democracies and was replaced there by the term public relations.
There are numerous definitions of the term propaganda in the literature. It is variably interpreted in a narrow or broad sense and as rather neutral or connoted. One of the earliest scientific definitions was introduced by Harold D. Lasswell, who wrote: “Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols” (1927a, 627). Edward L. Bernays, one of the fathers of public relations (PR), wrote at around the same time: “Modern propaganda is a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to the enterprise, idea or group” (1928, 25). Jacques Ellul, a French sociologist, defined propaganda even more broadly, as the pervasive process of influencing social values (1973).
Although the term propaganda was only shaped ideologically and institutionally in the early seventeenth century, the phenomena it refers to are much older and may be traced back to antiquity. Thus the Athenian statesmen Solon and Pericles were characterized as early protagonists of propaganda (Sturminger 1960). Propaganda was also used in the medieval conflicts between state and church. Propaganda also flourished during the schism of the different Christian confessions of the Reformation and the subsequent political conflicts in central Europe. Propaganda was no longer limited to the religious sphere but encroached upon the state sphere too.
World War I (1914–1918) led to a hitherto unprecedented expansion especially of military propaganda. All parties were convinced that the fight by psychological means was as important as the one with military weapons. All belligerent parties created their own institutions for this purpose: Wellington House and Crewe House in the UK, the Maison de la Presse in France, the Central Office for Foreign Services in Germany, the Committee on Public Information (CPI) in the USA. Therefore, it is justified to speak of a major propaganda campaign in which even drastic means were used (“atrocity propaganda”).
After World War I, the western democratic states at first demobilized their propaganda, while twentieth-century totalitarian movements drew upon massive propaganda to enforce their ideologies and claims to power. This was first the case in the Soviet Union, where a department of agitation and propaganda of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was established in 1920. The other communist countries followed this example later. In the rightist ideologies, propaganda played a no less important role. In the 1920s, the National Socialists in Germany created a propaganda apparatus at party level, which they applied to state level after 1933. Adolf Hitler was convinced that Germany’s defeat in World War I had to be assigned to deficient propaganda. He followed an eclectic propaganda theory, taking up elements of mass psychology (e.g., the work of Le Bon and McDougall). A propaganda ministry under the direction of Joseph Goebbels was responsible for central control. In fascist Italy, propaganda was pursued in a similar way.
Even more than in World War I, national and international propaganda reached a climax in World War II (1939–1945). This was again true of all warring countries. While the totalitarian regimes abused propaganda to mislead their peoples, the western democracies, bound to the ideals of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press, wanted to abstain from such propaganda after the war. Instead, they tended to speak of information or educational work. In military contexts, the term “psychological warfare” had been introduced. The western countries believed it necessary to defend themselves against the threat of Soviet totalitarianism even by informing and undeceiving attempts at manipulation. Therefore, the means of propaganda ruled again during the Cold War. Even after the end of the east/west conflict, propaganda has been revived in recent conflicts such as the Gulf War, Afghanistan, the Balkans, and Iraq (MacArthur 1993). Propagandists, such as groups of Islamic terrorists, now even use the Internet.
Forms And Means Of Propaganda
There are three different forms of propaganda: (1) white propaganda, i.e., the open distribution of information regarded as truth; (2) gray propaganda, consisting of statements of doubtful quality, which systematically avoid identification of the source of the information; and (3) black propaganda, consisting of lies whose source is concealed, with the aim of embarking upon deception.
Propaganda may be directed inwards (national propaganda) or outwards (foreign propaganda). In the first case, the national population or parts of it are addressed by the propaganda. In the second case, propaganda is directed toward people in other countries. The form and content of such propaganda depends on whether these countries are neutral, allied, or adversary.
All sorts of communication means may be employed for propaganda. In the time before modern mass media were available, symbols, coins, heraldic signs, architecture, sculptures, and paintings were used. Speeches and the theatre have also been applied. The invention of printing offered greater possibilities for distribution in more recent times. This applied especially to propaganda writings (leaflets, pamphlets). With the help of new graphic techniques visual propaganda became more diverse. With the help of lithography, caricatures as well as posters became means of propaganda. Photography and film were also very soon adopted for purposes of propaganda. The radio, which appeared in the 1920s, served the warring parties in World War II to broadcast messages across country borders and front lines. Because of this advantage, radio transmissions were also a favored medium during the Cold War and still are established where free distribution of information within a country is not possible: Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcast their programs to the Soviet Union and eastern Europe until 1989, and Radio Martí addresses the Cuban population from the US. In this case, television is also used (TV Martí). During recent years, terrorist groups have been trying to conduct propaganda to promote their aims with the help of video tapes; for this purpose the same groups make use of the Internet. Beyond the propaganda communicated through the media, it is common to speak of “propaganda of action” (demonstrations, hunger strikes, terrorist attacks).
The effect of the massive impact of propaganda during World War I stimulated an intensive preoccupation with the subject. The beginning of scientific research about propaganda in the field of communication was marked by Harold D. Lasswell’s study Propaganda technique in the World War (1927b). Lasswell not only described the organization of propaganda, but also distinguished four major aims: “(1) To mobilize hatred against the enemy; (2) To preserve the friendship of allies; (3) To preserve the friendship and, if possible, to procure the co-operation of neutrals; (4) To demoralize the enemy” (1927b, 195). Important elements of propaganda were the war objectives, the question of war guilt, the demonization of the enemy (above all by “atrocity propaganda”), and the belief in victory.
The necessity for research on and countering of propaganda increased in the US again in the late 1930s. In 1937 the Institute for Propaganda Analysis was founded, with the communication scientist Hadley Cantril as the first president. The institute was designed to detect National Socialist propaganda in the United States and to counteract it. The most important publication of the institute laid down and illustrated seven general rules of propaganda: (1) name calling, i.e., giving an idea a bad label; (2) glittering generality, i.e., associating something with a “virtue” word; (3) transfer of authority, sanction, and prestige; (4) testimonial, i.e., having someone respected say that something is good or bad; (5) plain folks, i.e., convincing by referring to other people or the majority; (6) card stacking, i.e., giving the best or worst possible case; (7) bandwagon, i.e., following the majority (Lee & Lee 1939).
Apart from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis, which above all wished to serve education, further institutions for propaganda research were founded in the US. They became the basis of empirical communication science. It was again Harold D. Lasswell who conducted a research project on National Socialist and allied propaganda, financed by the Rockefeller Foundation (Rogers 1994, 203ff.). This project became a laboratory of method development, where Lasswell systematically refined the process of quantitative content analysis. By using this method – in quasi-diagnostic investigations – undisclosed intentions and plans of the adversary side were to be uncovered. This was based on the assumption that verbal statements were “representational” of attitudes and intentions. Several other scientists who established empirical communication research were involved in the US war propaganda research: emigrants such as Hans Speier and Paul F. Lazarsfeld at the Columbia Bureau for Applied Social Research (New York), but also the group of researchers conducting the “American soldier” studies, including Carl I. Hovland, who had a significant influence on the social psychological analysis of persuasion (Rogers 1994, 362ff.).
Lasswell expanded his propaganda studies after World War II in comprehensive, broadly based historical panoramas (Lasswell et al. 1979/1980). On the other hand, however, propaganda research lost its significance. The experiences with propaganda had fostered a belief in the great power of mass media. However, this conviction seemed to be jeopardized by the survey-based studies of Paul F. Lazarsfeld and his colleagues. On the basis of these studies, the minimal effects theory in fact became accepted. The effects of propaganda seemed to have been overrated. This was the reason for criticizing propaganda research (Lazarsfeld & Merton 1943). Propaganda research almost disappeared from the scientific stage.
Historical and scientific reasons have again caused a revival of propaganda research. The age of propaganda by no means ended with World War II. In the east/west confrontation, propaganda remained a proven agent on both sides, all the more so as the balance of the atomic threat could avoid a “hot” war between the great powers. Above all, within the confrontation of these powers, further propaganda campaigns were launched. And also the new local wars in the world are supported by propaganda. On the other hand, the boom in public relations has led to a rediscovery of propaganda as a phenomenon representing, to a certain extent, a precursor. Additionally, the minimal effects theory has been questioned, if not abandoned. With the return of the assumption of more powerful mass media, propaganda has in turn regained attention. As a result, interest in historical propaganda research has been revived too.
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