Propaganda: the art of persuasion

In nearly every aspect of our daily lives, we can encounter information that is meant to persuade, influence or manipulate us. In many cases, this can be classified as propaganda: a term many of us have heard, but not everyone knows exactly what it means. In this dossier you can discover what propaganda is, why it’s important to learn to recognise it, and how to steel yourself and others against it.

Questions about propaganda? Ask our experts Bert Pieters and Zara Momerency.

You can also take a look at our dossiers news en fake news.

What is propaganda?

Propaganda is a type of mass communication that aims to sway the public opinion or to influence people’s behaviour. There are many misconceptions about propaganda. Contrary to what many think, propaganda is not a nazi-German invention. And propaganda also isn’t bad by definition: some propaganda can have noble purposes!

  • The definition of propaganda

There are many definitions of the word propaganda. What do those definitions have in common? And why does propaganda have such a negative connotation? You’ll read all about it here.

What is propaganda?

  • Where does propaganda come from?

The word propaganda comes from Latin, but the Greeks were the real pioneers of propaganda. Discover this brief history of propaganda.

Read the history

5 frequently asked questions about propaganda

Propaganda is not just a thing of the past: propaganda still gets spread today by journalists, activists, politicians, and many others. Think for example of the propaganda of the terror group IS, the election battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, or even a simple press release from a company. You can find lots of other recent examples of propaganda on the Mind Over Media website.

The contents and sources of propaganda aren’t by definition unreliable. Based on the source and the accuracy of the information, experts distinguish between white, black and grey propaganda. It’s important to note that reliable propaganda isn’t the same as ‘good’ propaganda. Even when the source is easily identifiable and the contents of the message are correct, propagandists can still have malicious intentions.

Propaganda isn’t by definition dangerous, but there are situations where propaganda can be dangerous. Propaganda carries risk especially when it exacerbates polarisation: when propaganda is used to create an us-versus-them scenario that paints ‘them’ as the enemy, it can lead to serious conflicts, extremist thinking and segregation.

Propaganda is not the same as brainwashing. The latter is a psychological strategy meant to completely undermine independent thinking. Brainwashing requires the complete isolation of an individual from wider society in order to plant certain ideas in their head. Propaganda, by contrast, is aimed at a larger group of people - often without you as an individual noticing.

Advertising is not a type of propaganda. These types of information have different goals: where propaganda wants to influence the public opinion or people’s behaviour, the main goal of advertisement is to make money. However, you will often find propaganda techniques used in advertising, simply because these techniques are very effective at convincing people.

Recognising propaganda 

Because propaganda comes in many shapes and forms, it isn’t always easy to recognise. Especially when we agree with the information we read or hear, we’ll be less inclined to see it as propaganda. Nevertheless, there are ways to become aware of when you’re dealing with propaganda: discover how you can recognise propaganda and which techniques are often used.

The power of language in propaganda

Language as a tool for propaganda cannot be underestimated: carefully chosen words and expressions can carry a lot of persuasion. Discover 4 ways that language can make a difference.

How propaganda spreads

Many think that propaganda is only a political tool, but it can actually occur just about anywhere at any time - even where you don’t expect it. One place where you have definitely encountered it, possibly without realising, is the internet: propaganda today spreads faster than ever before via social media.

  • Where can you encounter propaganda?

Propaganda and politics go hand in hand, but you’ll also encounter propaganda in many other facets of society.

Where does propaganda occur?

  • Propaganda: the impact of the internet

The advent of the internet, social media and memes has heralded a new era for propaganda. Discover how propaganda can spread virally (yet often unnoticed) online.

Discover the impact of the internet

“The virality of propaganda is a danger on the internet. Sometimes we like and share terrible propaganda disguised as memes, simply because they make us laugh.”
Prof. dr. Renee Hobbs,
University of Rhode Island

Dealing with propaganda

When you encounter propaganda, your first reflex might be to comment on it. In principle it’s not a bad idea to ask pointed questions in order to take a well-reasoned stance. But on the internet it’s best to ignore propaganda. By giving it attention online, you may unintentionally be contributing to its spread.

How to critically assess propaganda

Teaching about propaganda

We have to make sure youngsters are resilient against propaganda. Not just because their age makes them easier to influence, but also because propaganda is an integral part of the democratic process in our society. As soon as youngsters are old enough to form political opinions, propaganda plays an important part in shaping these.

Videos on propaganda

Learn more

  • Kazerne Dossin

Kazerne Dossin offers tools, exhibitions, seminars and workshops on topics like polarisation and radicalisation.

  • Hannah Arendt Instituut

The Hannah Arendt Instituut offers workshops, seminars and other tools on various societal topics.

  • StampMedia

StampMedia is an organisation aimed at making youngsters ‘media-wise’ through various projects.