What is propaganda?

This article is part of Propaganda

The American communication researcher Neil Postman once described the word ‘propaganda’ as one of the least useful words in our vocabulary, because every expert comes up with a different definition. So what exactly does propaganda mean?

Information for persuasion

The term ‘propaganda’ was coined in 1622 by the Catholic church, taking inspiration from Latin. In the Latin language, ‘propaganda’ means something like ‘planting’ or ‘sowing’. Those who create or spread propaganda try to ‘sow’ a certain idea in the minds of others, with the aim to influence their thinking and behaviour. Therefore, propaganda is a form of information aimed at persuasion. 
Propaganda can take several shapes, so it’s not always a poster or an image. Songs, radio programmes, artworks, magazines, videos and even memes can be propaganda.

Propaganda: for the masses

An important feature of propaganda is that it is a form of mass communication. Propaganda is not about convincing a single individual, but about manipulating a large group of people. If that’s not the case, we would label it ‘persuasive communication’.

“Propaganda is anchored in reaching a wide audience. The spectator is the one who determines what is propaganda.”
Prof. dr. Renee Hobbs
University of Rhode Island

Is propaganda always bad?

Although many will immediately link propaganda to totalitarian or fascist regimes, it isn’t by definition negative. There is such a thing as useful propaganda. In that case, it is used to convince people to make an effort towards a socially beneficial goal. Think for example about public service announcements in commercial blocks on television, in which the government urges you not to drink and drive. 

The posters you see in public buildings urging you to wash your hands are also a form of useful propaganda: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/372461831679631032/

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Published on 16 October 2023