The power of language as a propaganda tool

This article is part of Propaganda

The way a message is worded partially determines how persuasive it is. Therefore, language is a propaganda tool that shouldn’t be underestimated: the choice of certain words and expressions can have a major impact on the image formed by the public.

4 ways language makes a difference

Glittering generalities

Glittering generalities are vague words or expressions that everyone associates with something positive, but that no one really knows the definition or content of. Because there is no clear standard, the users of these words cannot be blamed when it turns out the audience interpreted them differently.


Glittering generalities are often found in advertising and politics. Take for example ‘artisanal’ or ‘inspired by natural ingredients’ in food advertisements. Political campaigns, on the other hand, are rife with words like ‘freedom’ and ‘change’.


Another common technique where language is used for propaganda is the use of insults to describe the opponent. This can take the form of openly aggressive profanities, but also the more subtle form of emphasising negative characteristics.


This technique is also regularly used in politics. Opponents of feminism might refer to ‘feminazis’, while leftist thinkers may be referred to as ‘immigrant huggers’. But the opponent can also quite simply be called selfish, or a liar.

Metaphors and euphemisms

Metaphors and euphemisms are clever ways to break into someone’s head and direct their thoughts. They can carry positive or negative connotations, or present things as better or worse than they really are.


Some politicians use the words ‘illegal immigrants’ to refer to refugees, which evokes negative feelings. Metaphors like ‘we are being flooded by a tsunami of immigrants’ are also highly effective: a tsunami sounds violent and dangerous, implying a major threat.


Framing means using carefully selected words and/or images to make certain aspects of the truth stand out more than others. That way, the audience is given a figurative set of frames to see the message through. Some details of the story may stay hidden beyond those proverbial frames.


When youngsters started the School Strikes for Climate in 2018, several media put forward the term ‘climate truancy’. Opponents of the campaign gladly adopted the terminology, because truancy carries a negative connotation. That way, the youngsters are framed as truants, rather than focussing on their climate cause.


The use of language as a tool for propaganda was referred to as ‘doublespeak’ by the British writer George Orwell: language that is meant to mislead. In other words: words and expressions that evoke certain emotions towards the opponent. 

In the US there is a yearly Doublespeak Award, given to people who use language that is ‘grossly misleading, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered’. Not a prize to be proud of, in other words. Former winners include Amazon, as well as Trump-adviser Kellyanne Conway for coining the term ‘alternative facts’ and defending former President Trump’s lies.

Published on 16 October 2023