Ansie Maritz

Pondering Propaganda

Ansie Maritz | 27 January 2021 | 10 min read

‘Propaganda’ is a well-known word, but as a concept it might still be a bit fuzzy in one’s mind. If this is so, you should not feel that you’re the only one struggling to understand its dimensions, as scholars have grappled with it for years. One of the things making propaganda such a hard concept to grasp is the semantic change the word has undergone. It started out as a more neutral term as it indicated any widespread sharing of information. For instance, if we understood propaganda in its more neutral sense, the active attempt to spread the Gospel at the time of the dissolution of the Roman Empire, could be labelled one of the most successful propaganda campaigns in history.[1] The term acquired a negative connotation during the 1800’s which was compounded by its association with the World Wars in the 1900’s.[2]

Another reason for the elusiveness of this concept is the number of fields in which the term ‘propaganda’ is relevant. The variety of mechanics working together to create successful propaganda comes from fields such as communication studies, linguistics, politics, and psychology. Its techniques overlap with different communication types which makes it harder to draw clear borders between propaganda, persuasion, and marketing strategies.

What is Propaganda?

We started by assuming that most of us have án idea of what propaganda is. If so, there must still be enough for us to go on when trying to understand propaganda. Focusing on the more prominent features of propaganda, I will use a definition which excludes the possibility of propaganda generating a positive outcome for its recipients. Accordingly, propaganda is the result of a deliberate and designed attempt by a propagandist to manipulate his or her target audience’s attitudes in a way that would result in favourable actions at the right time. These actions are subservient to the propagandist’s main aim of which the direct outcome is only or mainly beneficial to the propagandist and his or her associated parties.[3]

If this definition of propaganda is true, it has the ability to keep someone from accessing the truth about certain matters. As Josef Pieper explains, communication which is not true keeps someone from “participating in reality” and is not communication at all.[4]

Why Should I Care?

At the end of the successful Chernobyl TV-series, the character, based on scientist Valery Legasov, says the following:

“Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?”[5]

One of the main ways in which propaganda attains its goal is by twisting information in a way that perfectly fits its cause. The propagandist knows his or her target audience well enough to know which pieces of information to include or exclude and in which ways to present it, in order to make it sit perfectly with already existing stereotypes and ideologies.[6] A propagandist does not aim to inform you in a way that leaves you with the freedom to make up your mind about a certain person or event, but misuses true information and/or misinformation as it suits their aim. When misinformation is knowingly shared, and therefore with mal-intent, it is also called disinformation.[7]

We should care about this notion because if we regard the truth as something to hold in high esteem, it is worth protecting it and through protecting it, protecting ourselves and others from suffering the potential negative effects of propaganda. The effects of propaganda campaigns can easily be recognised in extreme examples such as having people buy into Hitler’s ideals giving rise to the Second World War, Mao Tse Tung’s suppression of the Chinese people, and Stalin’s tyrannical reign in Russia.

As it is often used to gain votes and implement a leader or a political party’s vision, propaganda is primarily associated with the political arena. It runs along the same lines as the way in which Plato and Aristotle described the Sophists’ rhetoric.[8] In a time when politics was exclusive to the elite, the Sophists taught rhetorical skills to the middle-class man in order to join the political world. This was done for compensation. However, the main emphasis of the Sophists’ rhetoric was placed on the way in which an argument was made and not on the validity and truth of its content.

It is always important to remember that a propagandist does not go blindly into producing material. He has a very good understanding of the social profile and typical beliefs of the potential target group. Take for example the way in which the twenty-first century seems to be all about the self. Humans have an inherent egocentric inclination, but in the last century, an active attempt was made by Edward Bernays to explore the power of this very inclination in marketing.[9] Instead of selling products for their durability, Bernays suggested products should rather be presented in a way that would emphasise what it can do for the individual’s image. Emotion becomes the focus as opposed to rationality.[10]

One of the reasons propaganda is often so effective, is that the propagandist structures propaganda in terms of the already present stereotypes of the target audience. Concocting a lie or framing information in a way that confirms the target group’s suspicions, which is often based on stereotypes, nudges them along a road they might not previously have had the confidence to previously travel.

Caring about the truth and the distortive effect propaganda has on the truth, should lead us to action. Our concern over the potential outcome of propaganda should urge us to equip ourselves to identify and expose it when we see it. The first stem is to identify a few propaganda techniques.

Propaganda Techniques

The properties of propaganda can be better understood when its techniques are considered. At its core, propaganda is aiming for the heart… and the head. Nearly all propaganda techniques find their success in focusing on the target audience’s emotions, aiming at having recipients act before they think. From a language perspective, these emotive values are hidden in evaluative terms, terms which already reveal the author’s judgement about the case or person being discussed.

Another important propaganda approach has to do with presentation, packaging, and hiding inaccurate information or claims in academic-like discourse. Language-wise, more neutral terms and even quantifiers can be present in texts using this approach.[11]

Dysphemism

Dysphemism can best be explained as labelling: Propagandists have to make their cause seem attractive and viable in order for their target audience to accept it.[12] This is often done by making their opponents look bad by labelling them in negative ways. By calling an opponent names such as ‘pig’ or ‘fascist,’ they manage to discredit them without analysis. Labels can also be used in a positive sense as propagandists pick labels with a positive association in the target audience’s minds, clearly polarising their aims with those of the opponent’s.

One often sees racial slurs or ethnophaulisms being used in propagandistic texts. These terms already carry a negative connotation, and helps the propagandist to negatively label a different ethnic group to his or her own. An interesting sub-category of dysphemism is something I like to call ‘self-dysphemism’ in which case the propagandist uses dysphemistic labels to label his own group in negative ways and implies that those labels were given to them by the opponent. This instils negative emotions in the target audience towards the opponent, bringing them closer to going into action when the propagandist needs them to do so.[13]

Innuendo and Deflection

Innuendo is often associated with propaganda as it entails implying a party’s guilt without giving the implied party a chance to react.[14] By doing this, the propagandist creates a smoke screen, redirecting any attention away from themselves. Take for example an open letter written by Edward Zuma. In this letter, Edward Zuma called two of his father’s previous ministers in cabinet names which make them seem racist and imply that they are plotting to undermine his father. These two ministers, Derek Hanekom and Pravin Gordhan, were in fact whistle blowers when it came to revealing fraud and corruption as part of state capture in South Africa. But, in an effort to redirect negative attention from his father and from the Gupta’s, Edward Zuma tries to ignite questions about the true intent of those going against the afore mentioned. In order to achieve this, Edward Zuma for example uses dysphemistic terms to discredit them:

“I find it personally revulsive that the anti-majoritarian sell out minority in the ANC in the form of Derek Hanekom & Pravin Gordhan have brazenly and unabashedly spoke [sic] out against the majority elected ANC and South African President, Jacob Zuma, on various white monopoly capital media platforms.”[15]

Euphemism and Mystification

Sometimes, and often also as a part of trying to deflect attention, a propagandist has to choose terms which have a softer appearance than what they are truly denoting. For example, a propagandist, when having to confess to a lie, would rather call that lie a ‘misrepresentation of facts.’ By using a word or phrase with a less negative connotation than the word or phrase which is a more accurate representation of reality, the sting is taken from the term and potentially as an effect, even the action.

Mystification can closely be associated with euphemism and is used in an effort to mystify true meaning. Take for example former president Jacob Zuma’s swimming pool at Nkandla which was renamed a ‘fire pool’ in order for it to pass as a security feature, justifying any expenses in this regard.[16]

Newspeak

The aim of Newspeak is “not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting choice of words down to a minimum.”[17] This process can be executed in different ways. On the one hand, certain words are cancelled as terms are created which are comprehensive in themselves and can therefore contain the semantic value of a variety of words. On the other hand, new words can be created in order to provide a semantic structure according to, in Orwell’s case, the government’s needs.

During state capture, when South Africa’s state affairs and economic aspects were controlled by specific individuals to their own advantage, a discourse was created with the help of the British public relations company, Bell Pottinger. This was done in order to redirect negative attention away from former president Jacob Zuma and the Gupta’s implication in this matter during state capture. As a part of this discourse, phrases such as ‘White Monopoly Capitalism’ and ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ were incorporated. Although some of these terms have an older origin, they were used as they run along already sensitive racial divides existing in South Africa, ensuring potential success as this discussion is rooted in emotion.

Repeating terms such as these often enough and with the help of different resources, ensures its new semantic value. For example, key and neutral words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘economic’ are now associated with the larger phrases in which they are placed by those creating and spreading the discourse. On a semantic level, a person now recalls these new associations when hearing or using these words.

The techniques listed in the sections above has to do with the way in which language is chosen for the specific meaning it brings (or doesn’t bring) across to the receiver. Peter Kreeft refers to language with a “question begging”-nature as “slanted” language as it is “telling you whether to like or dislike the thing the word describes. Instead of proving that the thing it describes is good or bad, it assumes its value or disvalue in the very description of it…”[18] When propaganda techniques are repetitively used, specific semantic values are ingrained.

Repetition

The importance of repeating a propaganda message and keeping that message simple, is often mentioned in literature.[19] By doing this, the propagandist ensures familiarity and the memorability of the message. Repetition of certain messages or even different elements of a message can often be scattered throughout one text or it can be presented in different forms on different media and other platforms. Certain popular pieces of information that gain attention and traction, are often picked up by algorithms and are then repeated in different formats or versions. Credibility is added through this repetitive process. This larger information dynamic can be called “network propaganda.”[20]

It is not always easy to spot these techniques and to know where to expect them, or for that matter, where to expect certain forms of propaganda, in order to guard ourselves from undue influence.

Where to Expect Propaganda?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question is: everywhere. Rather over anticipate it, than under anticipate it. This does not mean you should cling onto conspiracy theories, on the contrary. Conspiracy theories are often part of fake news and can easily be integrated in propaganda. What I am suggesting is that you keep your critical thinking cap on in all circumstances. Before you just believe (or even disbelieve) and share, take a moment and consider.

As mentioned, a propagandist uses a variety of platforms and means to circulate propaganda most notably society’s beloved social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and even Whatsapp. Even these systems in themselves can be used to a propagandist’s advantage. For example, Facebook-accounts were used to create and send tailormade advertisements to potential voters during the 2016 American presidential election.[21] Social media platforms are often also used to spread fake news, even if it’s just through Whatsapp messages whether it was sent with the best intent or not.

Where Does Fake News Come in?

Nolan Higdon uses the following baseline definition of fake news: It is “false or misleading content presented as news and communicated in formats spanning spoken, written, printed, electronic, and digital communication.”[22]

Clearly fake news has the potential to be used as part of a propaganda campaign. Thinking, “what if this is indeed true?” or “what if something bad happens if I do not pass this on?”, people often share fake news. This feeling is due to the fact that the compiler of this message built in a sense of urgency, as the ‘survival’ of the message depends on people acting on their emotions and clicking the ‘send’-button.

Consider Covid-time examples. From 5G internet towers being blamed for spreading Covid to tea being a possible cure. The devastating effects of untruths, however sincerely meant, is once again confirmed as people tried to drink clean alcohol after being told that this would kill the Corona virus. This, of course, had fatal ramification for some of the persons consuming the product.

What Can I do?

If you want to gear yourself against propaganda, consider the following suggestions:

  1. Take a step back and think. Get your own emotions under control.
  2. How are the different parties portrayed in a communication piece? Usually, the propagandist’s associates are portrayed in a positive light and the opponents are portrayed in a negative light without providing any legitimate reasons for this portrayal.
  3. What type of words are used to describe different parties and even their actions? Emotive language? Why? Remember that even scientific language can be used to make you trust its message.
  4. Does the language used already indicate a value judgement, implying something about the author’s stance towards a specific matter? Take into consideration that there are different text types and genres in which evaluative language is more acceptable than in others. The importance of the aim of the text comes into play here.
  5. What is the main aim of the text? If the message of the text is believed and a specific action is to follow, is the outcome in service of the propagandist? If yes, what you are receiving might be propaganda.

A Christian’s Perspective – Truth Matters

The Bible requires Christians to value truth highly. Jesus Himself is equated to truth in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” If our task is to represent God and His kingdom, we have an obligation to call out falsehood and to produce truthful communication through which people can participate in reality. Os Guinness’ words remind us of this:

“If truth is truth, then differences make a difference – not just between truth and lies but between intimacy and alienation in relationships, between harmony and conflict in neighbourhoods, between efficiency and incompetence in business, between reliability and fraud in science and journalism, between trust and suspicion in leadership, between freedom and tyranny in government, and even between life and death. Certainly, the choices are ours, but so also are the consequences.”[23]

If propaganda (including fake news) is an enemy of truth, why accept or propagate? We have this choice.

Suggested Readings

BBC. Documentary: The Century of the Self. https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=century+of+the+self

Benkler, Yochai; Faris, Benkler & Roberts, Hal. 2018. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics. Oxford University Press.

Ellul, Jacques. 1965. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. Vintage Books.

Guinness, Os. 2000. Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Jowett, Garth S. & O’Donnell, V. 2019. Propaganda & Persuasion 7th ed. California: SAGE Publications.

Pieper, Josef. 1988. Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power. Translated by Lothar Kraut in 1992. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.


[1] Garth S. Jowett & Victoria O’Donnell, Propaganda & Persuasion (London: SAGE Publications), 58.

[2] Jay Black, “Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 16(2&3), 2001:121-137.

[3] This definition for propaganda has been formulated by consulting the following resources:

  • Harold Lasswell, The Theory of Political Propaganda. The American Political Science Review, 21(3): 627-631, 1927:627.
  • Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. (New York: Vintage books), 61.
  • Ryan, D. Jenkins, The Thin Line Between Propaganda and Persuasion. (Carbondale: Southern), 1.
  • Nick Kolenda, Methods of Persuasion: How to Use Psychology to Influence Human Behavior. (USA: Kolenda entertainment), 2.
  • Clyde, R. Miller, How to Detect Propaganda.  Propaganda Analysis,1(2): 210-218, 1937:210.
  • Daniel, J. O’Keefe, Persuasion: Theory & Research. 2nd ed. (California: Sage), 4.
  • Terence, H. Qualter, Propaganda and Psychological Warfare. (Clinton: Random House), 27.

[4]  Josef Pieper, Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power (Translated by Lothar Kraut in 1992. San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 16-20.

[5] HBO. 2019. Chernobyl. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/73610690-chernobyl, accessed December 10, 2020.

[6] Phillips Boardman, “Beware the Semantic Trap”: Language and Propaganda, A Review of General Semantics 35(1), 1978: 78-85.

[7] Jowett & O’Donnell, Propaganda & Persuasion, p. 24, 31.

[8] See https://iep.utm.edu/sophists/#H4 for more information on the so-called Sophists.

[9] For more on this subject, consider the BBC-documentary The Century of the Self.

[10] “The manipulation of the American mind: Edward Bernays and the birth of public relations” by Richard Gunderman, available at https://theconversation.com/the-manipulation-of-the-american-mind-edward-bernays-and-the-birth-of-public-relations-44393, accessed January 20, 2021.

“Psychoanalysis shapes consumer culture” by Lisa Held, available at https://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/12/consumer, accessed January 20, 2021.

[11] Ansie Maritz, Linguistiese Eienskappe van Propaganda (Linguistic Properties of Propaganda), (Doctoral thesis completed at the North-West University, South Africa in 2018), 289.

[12] Dwight Bolinger, Language the Loaded Weapon: The Use & Abuse of Language Today (New York: Longman), 72-73.

[13] Maritz, Linguistic Properties, p. 296.

[14] Jowett & O’Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion, p. 203.

[15] Edward Zuma, Edward Zuma open letter to Derek Hanekom and Pravin Gordhan. Investide, 17 Jun. 2018, available at https://investide.co.za/2017/07/27/edward-zuma-open-letter-derek-hanekom-pravin-gordhan/  accessed August 2, 2018.

[16] Bolinger, Language the Loaded Weapon, p. 72-73; 118-119.

[17] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin Books), 313.

[18] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic edition 3.1 (Indiana: St. Augustine’s Press), 76-77.

[19] L.W. Doob, “Goebbels’ principles of propaganda.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, 14(3):419-442.

Goebbels as cited by H. Trevor-Roper, The Goebbels diaries: The last days (London: Pan Books), xx.

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf [Translated by R. Manheim with an introduction by Watt, D.C (London: Pimlico)], 15 & 165-167.

[20] Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris & Hal Roberts. 2018. Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics (Oxford University Press), 33.

[21] Benkler et al., Network Propaganda, p. 11.

“The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal, explained with a simple diagram” by Alvin Chang available at https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/3/23/17151916/facebook-cambridge-analytica-trump-diagram, accessed December 10, 2020.

[22] Nolan Higdon, The Anatomy of Fake News: a Critical News Literacy Education (California: University of California Press), 9.

[23] Os Guinness, Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype, & Spin (Grand Rapids: Baker Books), 18.

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