About Propaganda

It may seem strange to suggest that the study of propaganda has relevance to contemporary politics. After all, when most people think about propaganda, they think of the enormous campaigns that were waged by Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s. Since nothing comparable is disseminated in our society today, many believe that propaganda is no longer an issue.

But propaganda can be as blatant as a swastika or as subtle as a joke. Politicians, advertisers, journalists, radio personalities, and others who are interested in influencing human behavior regularly apply its persuasive techniques. Propagandistic messages can be used to accomplish positive social ends, as in campaigns to reduce drunk driving, but they are also used to win elections and to sell sports utility vehicles.

As Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson point out, “every day we are bombarded with one persuasive communication after another. These appeals persuade not through the give-and-take of argument and debate, but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions. For better or worse, ours is an age of propaganda.” (Pratkanis and Aronson, 1991)

But what, really, is propaganda? This term is used widely – usually to discredit ideas that one finds objectionable – but there is little clarity about its meaning.

In this class, we take a closer look at the phenomenon of political propaganda. Paying particular attention to persuasive techniques embedded in film, television, videogames, and the latest smart-phone apps, we will develop a shared vocabulary for understanding how propaganda techniques might influence audiences. Moving briskly through the previous century, we will consider classic examples of fascist and democratic propaganda. We will also discuss anti-communist propaganda of the Cold War, the evolution of pro-war films since Vietnam, conspiracy theories, and the broader “war against terrorism.”