Do We Still Need the Concept of “Propaganda”?

March 29, 2013

In the past week or so Joel Harding and Gary Rawnsley have both posted thoughts about propaganda.    I have to say that I’m not a big fan of the term.  I think that it’s a concept that carries too much cultural weight relative to its ability to clarify things.  I think that it’s best treated as a historical term rather than one that is useful for analysing contemporary practices of influence.

I think that the problem is that when people talk about  propaganda they are talking about three things.

Firstly, the rise of organized communications campaigns as a feature of urbanized industrial societies in both peace and war in the early part of the 20th century. Historically,  some of these efforts were labelled by their orchestrators as propaganda. Secondly,  emerging from the appearance of these practices were discussions about propaganda. In the 1920s through to the 1940s there was a tendency for this discussion to treat propaganda as being enormously powerful and to use it as an explanation for various political and social developments (eg the rise of Hitler, the collapse of Germany in 1918, the defeat of France in 1940).  Thirdly,  associated with this discussion was a more philosophical line of argument that sought to define propaganda as an illegitimate mode of communications.

The result of is an image of propaganda as something that is widespread, powerful and illegitimate. I have reservations about all three of these claims.

Clearly, we live in a world with lots of  strategic communication aiming to influence us.  But we now have all kinds of concepts to apply to these efforts; political campaigning, advertising, public diplomacy, marketing, public relations, branding, lobbying, IO,  etc.  What these distinctions do is relate influential communication to their context and to particular types of actors and situations.  Does lumping all this together as a single thing really help us to make sense of it?

Secondly,  many of the claims made in the early 20th century literature about the power of propaganda are based on arguments of the form: there was propaganda, something happened therefore propaganda caused whatever happened therefore propaganda is powerful.*   The most notorious example of this is in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Of course mass communications was relatively new, social scientific research was limited and the social theories of the time tended to assume that  urbanized individuals were isolated and easily influenced.  The result was a systematic tendency to abstract strategic communications activities from their social contexts and attribute results to that communication activity when in fact the outcomes had emerged from the combination of multiple factors.

Finally, as Gary Sproule shows the argument about the legitimacy of propaganda as a mode of communication depends on idea of undistorted, objective, impartial communication.  In late 19th century America this concept of communication as transfer of information supplanted ideas of rhetoric.  In a rhetorical understanding of communication self-interested, persuasive communication is normal.  The fate of the Institute for Propaganda Analysis provides a wonderful case study. Created by American liberals in 1937 it sought to reveal the use of propaganda in American society.  By the early 1940s its supporters were abandoning it because they felt that focusing on the persuasive methods of British and German propaganda was missing the fundamental ethical and political issues at stake in confronting fascism.  This showed that for many of the critics what was objectionable was not propaganda as a communications technique but the people who were doing the propaganda and the purposes for which it was being used.

So you won’t be finding me using the term ‘propaganda’ other than in a historical context any time soon.

Sproule, J.M. (1997) Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

*Try replacing propaganda with twitter!

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