7 Comments

Propaganda is something said “to persuade you that something you might otherwise believe is incorrect, and therefore propaganda.”

My definition. Fits with yours rather nicely.

Expand full comment

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.

Thanks.

Expand full comment
author

Thanks for reading and commenting. You wrote, "All communications are intended to influence--the interesting distinction is whether the influence, or intended result, is overt or covert." I disagree. Not all communications *intend* to influence. This is not the same as "all communications influence." A communicator may imagine they do not influence or believe their intent to not influence shields them from the influencer label. Second, your implication, and correct me if I'm wrong, is the applicability of the "propaganda" label relies on, or may rely on, whether the activity is overt or covert. I disagree with this as well. Propaganda may be covert or overt.

Expand full comment

Thanks, Matt. Sorry for the confusion. What I said was:

1. …pretty much everything said or written has some intent to influence or persuade.

2. …the important distinction/dichotomy of attempts to persuade/influence is: overt or covert.

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

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

These are terms of art in "Active Measures" or "Information Operations." The overt/covert distinction is crucial to understanding the operational side, and the target side of the interaction.

Overt attempts to influence (Propaganda) are relatively easy to spot and discern as propaganda: A TV commercial, run during the ad break of a late night talk show: "Be all you can be! Join the Army!" The source and intent are clear for all receivers to see and process.

It's obvious, to the audience, that this message is paid for by the Army, and is intended to motivate viewers to join.

Covert influence, on the other hand, cloaks the attempt to influence, obscuring the source and the intent: The late night talk show host's opening monologue reviewing the day's news, mocks people who don't take the covid vaccine, belittling them with insulting names and insinuations about their parentage and intelligence, while extolling those who get the vaccine as virtuous, community-minded, cool exemplars of social caring.

It's not obvious to the viewers that government entities have paid the producers of the show to insert covert influence messages, like the host's deriding non-vaccinated people, with the intent of motivating viewers to get vaccinated.

My book, Willing Accomplices, while focused on historic covert influence operations against the US, includes a section on Influence Operations/Active Measures and terminology.

www.willingaccomplices.com

I'd be happy to send you a copy.

kent@kentclizbe.com

Expand full comment
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.

Expand full comment

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

Expand full comment
author

Steve,

This is an excellent comment and contribution. The comment you're thinking of was to the question "What is Propaganda?" that I asked at my blog back in 2009: https://mountainrunner.us/2009/10/what_is_propaganda/

There you agreed with my point that propaganda is loaded negative term:

"I prefer a propaganda concept and definition that comes out of studies of totalitarian governments (boy, there’s a term you don’t see much any more) that controlled virtually all means of public communication and hence controlled public discussion and opinion. Thus, propaganda is more than disagreeable persuasion (i.e. what comes out of the Fox News channel), but is an instrument of total power and control."

This echoed other commenters to a question that elicited 22 responses (only two of which were replies from me).

Your point above that "propaganda is best understood as a class of persuasion from a source that controls virtually all forms of communication within a Local" is premised on, well, control of alternative persuasion sources. I don't think this constraint is helpful in the context of an open environment or forcibly permissive (ie penetrated the Local firewalls and other barriers), both of which seems to bar the use of the label propaganda. It certainly strays far from the etymological source.

By the way, I did not explicitly call out the etymological source as I think it's irrelevant to the lay or near-lay (ie outside academic parsing). However, I did intentionally refer to this definition with the posted image of the 1911 dictionary entry for propaganda. Limited access to alternative sources was not a criteria in the Pope's use, though arguably eliminating the desire and even the ability to access and consume competing sources was encouraged.

The task of differentiating rhetoric, propaganda, and persuasion, for example, is a challenging task. It is, as you note, Quixotic. The oft-cited Jowett and O'Donnell book, now in its **7th** edition, struggles with this. From the companion Readings in Propaganda Persuasion (2006) that I cited from, they argue rhetoric means and motive to be essential elements of propaganda. As you and I point out, if the information is "friendly" to you, then it's not perceived as propaganda, which goes back to SC Justice Stewart Potter's comment about a different topic.

The sheer amount of text here reinforces the troubling nature of the word propaganda.

Thanks for the comment.

Expand full comment