Is propaganda always unreliable?

This article is part of Propaganda

Ever since World War I, the term ‘propaganda’ has been tainted with a sour aftertaste. Many associate it with outright lies. And yet, the source and contents of propaganda aren’t by definition unreliable. Discover the details here.

White, black and grey propaganda

Based on the source and accuracy of the information, researchers discern 3 types of propaganda:

White propaganda is the most common form of propaganda. It comes from a source that is easily verifiable by the public. The information contained is usually accurate and not based on lies. The aim of white propaganda is to build trust and credibility, because this could be useful in the future. Note that white propaganda isn’t always necessarily ‘good’ propaganda. The creators can still have malicious intentions (see example below).

In the case of black propaganda, its creators try to hide the source or ascribe it to the enemy. The aim is to spread lies or fabrications in order to incriminate the enemy. By hiding or falsifying the source, the creators hope to increase the message’s credibility. This type of propaganda is usually hit and miss: the creators need to correctly judge their audience and adapt the message to their social, cultural and political frameworks.

Grey propaganda holds the middle ground between black and white propaganda. Sometimes the term refers to the reliability of the source, in other cases to the contents of the message. The source may or may not be identifiable and the accuracy of the information may be uncertain.

Black or white? An example

In April of 2015, a man named Abu Ward Al-Raqqawi posted a photo on Twitter of a newborn baby with an IS-issued birth certificate next to it. The tweet read: “This child will be a risk to you, not just to us.”

For a while, confusion reigned about whether the man was a supporter or opponent of IS. That would have major implications for the type of propaganda involved:

  • If the man was an IS supporter, the message would be white propaganda. The photo would then be a clear threat from IS, carrying the message that a future terrorist was born.
  • If the man was an opponent of IS, there was a chance that the message was black propaganda. The photo could have been doctored to create the impression that it came from IS. That way, the man would be able to draw international attention with a shocking photo to remind everyone that IS was still a threat.

In the end, it turned out that Abu Ward Al-Raqqawi was an opponent of IS, but the photo was not doctored: it had been shared on Twitter a few days earlier by an actual IS member. It turned out to be white propaganda after all.

Published on 16 October 2023