Why think about propaganda?

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Why think 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 being 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. Its persuasive techniques are regularly applied by politicians, advertisers, journalists, radio personalities, and others who are interested in influencing human behavior. 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 malt liquor.

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)

With the growth of communication tools like the Internet, the flow of persuasive messages has been dramatically accelerated. For the first time ever, citizens around the world are participating in uncensored conversations about their collective future. This is a wonderful development, but there is a cost.

The information revolution has led to information overload, and people are confronted with hundreds of messages each day. Although few studies have looked at this topic, it seems fair to suggest that many people respond to this pressure by processing messages more quickly and, when possible, by taking mental short-cuts.

Propagandists love short-cuts -- particularly those which short-circuit rational thought. They encourage this by agitating emotions, by exploiting insecurities, by capitalizing on the ambiguity of language, and by bending the rules of logic. As history shows, they can be quite successful.

Propaganda analysis exposes the tricks that propagandists use and suggests ways of resisting the short-cuts that they promote. This web-site discusses various propaganda techniques, provides contemporary examples of their use, and proposes strategies of mental self-defense.

Propaganda analysis is an antidote to the excesses of the Information Age.