What Should We Do About Propaganda?

Strength and InfluenceFeatures
Artwork by: Arina Stetsiuk

What is propaganda? On the surface, this question might seem stupid. But ask anyone on the street, and while it’s likely you will receive countless examples of what he or she deems to be propaganda, it’s rather unlikely that you will get a concrete definition of what the word means.

This is not so much a failure of the public as it is the inevitable consequence of the word’s looseness. Propaganda, along with select other words, is now most commonly used as a pejorative response to any and all ideological material that one disagrees with. Any political media, whether fact or fiction, can be labeled propaganda confidently and without scrutiny. This “looseness” itself is due to the value-neutral nature of propaganda, which is neither good nor bad. Despite the negative connotation of the word, propaganda itself is merely a tool, and has no inherent morality attached to it. That being said, it is still beneficial to learn the nuances of propaganda: its structure, history, and common applications.

What are the characteristics of propaganda? Edward Bernays, in his 1928 book Propaganda, lays out a general definition, calling it “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.” Bernays himself was an incredibly successful propagandist, and was best known for his “Torches of Freedom” campaign in 1929, which successfully associated cigarettes with feminism and women's liberation. Modern propaganda, according to Bernays, is characterized by the relation of the propagandists to the public: a powerful few controlling a huddled, susceptible mass. These people, Bernays writes, constitute a secret government that controls the hearts and minds of the people, “invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

In naming the members of this “invisible government,” Bernays writes that it encompasses “the President of the United States and the members of his Cabinet; the Senators and Representatives in Congress; the Governors of our 48 states; the presidents of the chambers of commerce in our hundred largest cities” as well as countless other religious, cultural, and artistic leaders, whose names combined could fill a list comprising of “several thousand persons.” He then proceeds to give several examples of how such an “invisible government” has worked, first citing the case of senator and newspaper magnate Mark Hanna, who during his political career dictated all major aspects of domestic and foreign policy, as well as a hypothetical example of a clothier in London.

Throughout the book, it is surprising how positive Bernays is in his description of propaganda, given the terrifying cabbalistic nature of the mechanisms he is describing. Yet Bernays, along with many other propagandists, viewed propaganda as necessary for democracy. For them, the control of the people by the “invisible government” is a necessary symbiosis. They believed democracy would not be able to survive without the guiding influence of propaganda, as the average person is either too busy or not intelligent enough to understand or care about the inner workings of politics, foreign policy, and government. “We have voluntarily agreed,” Bernays writes, “to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issue so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.” In this way, Bernays argues against democracy, and asserts the need for an elite upper caste of people to guide the common masses of the public. This sentiment is elucidated by Noam Chomsky in his book Media Control, which lays out the viewpoint of the propagandist as that “the mass of the public are just too stupid to be able to understand things. If they try to participate in managing their own affairs, they’re just going to cause trouble. Therefore, it would be immoral and improper to permit them to do this. We have to tame the bewildered herd, not allow the bewildered herd to rage and trample and destroy things.” Unlike Bernays, Chomsky is incredibly critical of propaganda, and describes the way propagandists view society in an attempt to expose their twisted and misguided view of the world.

So what are the methods of propaganda, and how can we become less susceptible to it? This is a very difficult question to answer, as propaganda seems to have only grown in strength and precision. Adolf Hitler infamously stated that the larger a lie was, the easier it was to convince people. Hitler made great use of that statement; he and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, were some of the most effective propagandists of the 20th century. But nowadays propaganda often takes the form of a series of facts and statistics, which although true on their own, are framed to support ideologically or corporately motivated conclusions. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul describes this in his book Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, writing that propaganda “is true when it serves up a plain fact, but does so only for the sake of establishing pretense and only as an example of the interpretation that it supports with that fact.” It is very difficult to attack a piece of propaganda by the facts it is based on. Rather, one must challenge the conclusion, or more often, the wording or framing of such a conclusion, which is necessarily much more difficult.

Whether it be the propaganda that preys on belief, or the propaganda that distorts science, propaganda exists today in many forms. Often times, these two merge together to create horrifying ends, such as in the case of the Soviet Union, where the traditional propaganda of media, education, and artistic control was supplemented with the introduction of Lysenkoism, a politically motivated pseudoscience that aimed to suppress the development of new biological and agricultural practices. This one-two punch of techniques resulted in the USSR being one of the most successful and long-lasting propaganda states to date.

It is hard to become aware of these techniques, as they are so prevalent in all aspects of modern society that even if one was adept at recognizing propaganda from truth, it would be unlikely that one would even have the adequate time to carefully scrutinize the media he or she consumes. And if one, recognizing this, decided to treat everything as if it were untrue or framed in bad faith, one would have nothing to believe in at all. A dualistic approach may be somewhat effective in combating this. Know your core beliefs and expose them to scrutiny, and then attempt to consume media critically. While you may be lured into some falsehoods, the core of your being will not be compromised.

However, it is important to remember that propaganda, as a technique, is neither good nor bad. Oftentimes, propaganda can be a force for good. The great movements of our history (the American Revolution, Gandhi’s passive resistance campaign, the Civil Rights Movement, etc.) were all brought about through the effective use of propaganda. Propaganda is neither good nor evil. It is only in how it is used, and who it serves, that we can make a moral judgement about its effects.


Bernays, Edward L. 1928. Propaganda. New York: H. Liveright.

Chomsky, Noam. 1991. Media Control: the Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. Westfield, New Jersey: Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.

Ellul, Jacques. 1973. Propaganda: the Formation of Men's Attitudes. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Nathan Zhang is a 12th grader currently living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. He lived in China for about three years. His hobbies include reading, writing, gaming, computer hardware, and enjoying all kinds of food.

Arina Stetsiuk is a 12-year-old student from Kremenets, Ukraine, who lives with her parents, a dog, a cat, and her favorite blue parrot, Richy. Her house is next to the woods, so she enjoys the beauty of nature. Her little hometown, Kremenets, is located in the west of Ukraine and is surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, which is why Arina loves drawing and painting whenever she has free time. Her hobbies also include crafts and drawing.

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