Interesting exposition. Seems like an excerpt from the middle of an on-going conversation, though. Like there's an argument between two sides about "Is this propaganda?"

Not really sure how useful or helpful such a discussion is.

The key to having a discussion about influence and persuasion is to understand that pretty much everything said or written has some intent to influence or persuade.

Once you accept that premise, then the important distinction/dichotomy of attempts to persuade/influence is: overt or covert.

Overt persuasive/influence communication is probably the best use of the term "propaganda."

Ex: "Huns kill babies! Uncle Sam wants you!"; "Coke adds life!"; "Putin is a genocidal maniac intent on recreating the USSR! Stop him now, or stop him later!" Those are propaganda: calls to action with clear and overt intentions.

Covert influence or persuasion is still intended to affect the target audience's emotions/attitudes or beliefs/knowledge. But that intent is cloaked, hidden.

Ex: "American white people are irredeemably racist."; "The little man is struggling under Hoover's economic policies."; "The Soviet experiment is a noble attempt to help all classes."; "All the cool kids got Covid vaccines."

Examining government, or non-government attempts to influence various audiences is most useful when the overt/covert influence is acknowledged and studied.

A great example of both covert and overt influence is the CPI's bumbling around in Russia. Creel sent Sisson to do what the CPI thought was right in Russia. He was overt--a bull in a china shop; spewing Wilson's 14 point plan for peace in all directions. A classic overt (propaganda) operation.

At the same time, Sisson (as well as many other American officials and semi-officials in Russia 1917-1918) were targeted by expert Bolshevik COVERT influence (NOT propaganda) operations.

Alexander Gumberg was Sisson's interpreter/guide (as he played the same role for the Red Cross mission, all the important American journalists, and others). Gumberg was a Bolshevik covert influence agent. He fed the Americans what the Bolsheviks wanted them to have.

In Sisson's case, Gumberg fed him the forged documents that became known as the Sisson papers.

Gumberg's covert influence operations were not widely known or acknowledged (then or now). But his covert operations were vastly more effective (for the Bolsheviks) than the CPI's ham-fisted overt propaganda, printing and distributing millions of copies of Wilson's 14 points.

All communications are intended to influence--the interesting distinction is whether the influence, or intended result, is overt or covert.


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Dec 21, 2022Liked by Matt Armstrong

Thank you for the enjoyable essay, Matt. This is the first time I've come across your writing. Substack told me to read you (note to self - the machines already have taken over, now we just need to hope they are benign).

As a USG Strategic Communications Officer (Ret.), I smiled at your base example, having worked a similar op here in the UK.

As you amply demonstrate, the negative affect attached to 'propaganda' is unhelpful baggage in our current geopolitical situation. 'Strategic Communications' is now the USG term of choice to attempt analysis with a non-normative analytic stance.

Now, can we just get rid of those annoying twins, 'dis' and 'mis' information? They carry the same unhelpful normative, hall-of-mirrors baggage as their sibling, propaganda.

We need to focus on the narratives in non-normative terms to survey the battlefield and scope the opponents accurately.

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Hello, Matt:

I believe I've commented on this definition in the past either at MountainRunner or another military oriented website. Like any word, propaganda can be defined differently over time or across different audiences. While you pursued dictionaries in your essay, you did not investigate etymology. Propaganda derives from the Latin root, propagare, which means to spread. For 1500 years the word was used to describe the natural action of life forms in biology that propagate themselves. In the 1500s, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned a group, de propaganda fide, to determine the best way to propagate the Catholic faith. This appears to be the first time anyone changed the meaning of the root word, propaganda, from one meaning, biological propagation, to another, spreading the true faith. Once the Pope let the cat out of the bag, it become permissible for others to maneuver the word in whatever direction they proposed.

You note that since the 20th century, propaganda has become rammed with the meaning of an odious category of influence, or as I prefer, persuasion, using communication to change the way freely choosing Other Guys think, feel, or act. If you are MAGA, you are spreading the true faith. If you are not MAGA it is propaganda. Thus, the contemporary meaning of propaganda says nothing about persuasion, what it is, or how to do it. Instead, propaganda is a negatively charged evaluation about the communication from a despised source. As a fun contrast, in the oldest sense of the term, for example, Putin is spreading the true faith in Russia with his communication about his special military operation in Ukraine. He is a propagandist in the original sense of the word. He is a propagandist, however, to most Westerners because they despise Putin and his actions. Please see the difference.

I believed in the past and continue to believe that propaganda is best understood as a class of persuasion from a source that controls virtually all forms of communication within a Local (nation, region, state, neighborhood). If yours is the only voice in the information marketplace, it is by my definition propaganda because it is spreading the true faith of the dominant source. I think this distinction allows a more careful consideration of what propaganda is and how it is done without having to resort to a food fight over who is good or bad. It is interesting to study how persuasion is effectively executed when a single source effectively controls all the means of communication compared to a Local where there are multiple sources of communication. You can attempt persuasion in either situation, but you have to work very differently.

I agree with your general conclusion about carefulness in using the term, but I disagree with how you get there. You are correct to note the connotative baggage that now accompanies the word, but you don't think about how to use the word in a way that is useful in theory or practice. I would argue that my definition permits such thinking without need for mudslinging.

Of course, this is a Quixotic task. Propaganda has become a useless word in public discussion. It tends to terminate thoughtful consideration of persuasion with a dismissive wave of the mouth or fingers - it's only propaganda, tah!

Putin is a propagandist by my meaning in Russia, but he is communicating internationally and has to compete with multiple independent sources of communication. He is persuading internationally while doing propaganda Locally because he controls the primary sources of information in Russia. I think the value of my distinction is apparent. Studying what Putin communicates to international audiences should reveal very different Plays than when he communicates to Russians.

Since I have long ago explained this and no one agrees to employ my line of definition, analysis, and action, so I am confident I remain tilting at windmills. Use words however you will. If you can get a crowd to follow you, huzzah. That's the effect of persuasion. It's not the study of persuasion however.

Steve Booth-Butterfield

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