Poster for Canadian fundraising during the First World War depicts three French women pulling a plow.
The word propaganda comes from the Latin word propagare, which described how plants reproduce and expand their territory. In the 1600s, the word took on the metaphorical meaning of spreading or “propagating” an ideology or practice — typically concerning religion — as widely as possible. This history of propaganda got its start in the 1600s when Pope Gregory XV borrowed its biological sense, meaning to reproduce and spread, to refer to spreading the Christian message. He set up a group to do that and called it the Congregatio de propaganda fide (“the congregation for propagating the faith”), meaning to spread the faith.
By the 1800s, people used propaganda in a political context, trying to convince other people that a certain political position was best. In both cases, “propaganda” described the practice by which people try to convince others of things they believe in or that serve their interests.
First World War Propaganda
During the First World War, the meaning of the word changed significantly. It began to suggest something that was full of exaggerations or even outright lies.
Governments needed millions of men to fight in the war and the support of millions of people in the general population to keep it going. In Canada, the government and other organizations often used posters with emotionally charged words and descriptive images to promote the war effort. The Canadian Patriotic Fund, a private group that raised money for soldiers’ families, printed a poster saying: “If you cannot join him, you should help her.” The first half of the sentence ran beside an image of a soldier at war, while the second went next to a mother with two children. A poster for the Canada Food Board urged teenaged boys to take over the work of the men who were at war. It used SOS — the international call for help — to mean “Soldiers of the Soil” and urged both younger and older boys to work on farms to avoid a food shortage.
The US Army produced a now-iconic propaganda poster showing “Uncle Sam” pointing at the viewer and the words, “I want YOU for U.S. Army.” An Australian propaganda poster promised men who signed up to fight in Europe a “free trip to Europe,” plus food, clothes and adventure on “the greatest event of their lives.” Germany warned of the dangers of losing the war with posters featuring slogans like “What England Wants!” and an image of a blindfolded man carrying a heavy bag off a cliff. It warned that an English victory would send Germans “down into the abyss.”
A Psychological Definition of Propaganda
In 1931, American social scientist William W. Biddle published an extensive study of propaganda used during the First World War in the Journal of Abnormal & Social Psychology. His paper, “A psychological definition of propaganda,” concluded that “propaganda, as a means of social control, is relying less upon techniques which help the individual to come into intelligent control of his conduct, [and] is relying more on techniques which induce the individual to follow non-rational emotional drives.” Biddle also identified four main principles that successful propaganda adheres to: “1) rely on emotions, never argue; 2) cast propaganda into the pattern of ‘we’ versus an ‘enemy’; 3) reach groups as well as individuals; 4) hide the propagandist as much as possible.”
Second World War Propaganda
During the Second World War, governments used propaganda in a more planned, deliberate way. Technology had advanced rapidly by the outbreak of the war in 1939. Canada now had national radio broadcasting with the CBC (founded in 1936) and a government-funded film production entity with the National Film Board (founded in 1939). Beginning in 1940, the NFB worked with the Department of National War Services to produce Canada Carries On, a series of short propaganda films celebrating Canada’s role in the war, at home and in Europe. The films were shown in cinemas before feature films.
The NFB made about 500 films during the Second World War. Its founding commissioner, John Grierson, who coined the term “documentary,” called the propaganda films “a hammer to shape society.” One such movie, Churchill’s Island (1941), portrayed Britain as a noble, tranquil island facing Nazi invasions. It was so well made and effective in its messaging that it won the inaugural Academy Award for best short documentary. The NFB used these types of films to shape the national identity and persuade Canadians to support the war effort however they could.
But it was Nazi Germany who most powerfully used propaganda to carry out war crimes, including the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler wrote that propaganda should be “aimed at the emotions” and should feature a few simple slogans repeated over and over. Hitler used propaganda not to tell the truth, but “to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly.”
In 1933, Hitler created the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels. It controlled most films, radio, theatre and the press in Germany. Racist films portrayed Jewish people as evil and subhuman to persuade Germans that anti-Semitic laws were necessary. German newspapers ran racist cartoons showing Jewish people as bent on destroying Germany. Pro-Nazi propaganda, such as Leni Riefenstahl’s The Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938), depicted Hitler and the Nazis as heroic saviours of the nation.
The Nazis also used propaganda to hide their crimes. In 1944, the International Red Cross wanted to investigate growing concerns about anti-Jewish atrocities, so Germany let them into a Czechoslovakian ghetto. The German government had created the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1941 as propaganda to show concerned German citizens that Jewish people were being treated well. They cleaned it up before the Red Cross visit. Jewish residents were filmed at a concert to show they were safe. After the Red Cross left, the Germans sent many of those people to die in Auschwitz.
Cold War Propaganda
The end of the Second World War left much of the world divided into two camps: the US-led capitalist West and the Soviet-dominated East. The two sides in this new Cold War competed through propaganda to convince people that their way of life was good and righteous, and that the other way of life was wrong and evil.
In Canada, the Canadian-Soviet Friendship Society formed in 1949 to give a positive view of the Soviet Union. The group presented its members as ordinary Canadians wanting a more balanced account of life in the USSR. However, later research revealed that the group was a front for the Communist Party of Canada. The USSR gave them propaganda material to spread in Canada through public presentations and publications. Their propaganda materials presented Josef Stalin as the builder of the Soviet Union, not a mass murderer and dictator. It argued that Canadian authorities were in fact members of the ruling class who wanted to repress the rights of working-class Canadians.
Much of Soviet propaganda was aimed at its own citizens and featured strong, healthy workers living sunlit lives of plenty. This, despite famine causing widespread starvation in the countryside.
In 1955, the US government printed booklets portraying America as a country without a class system — a nation where people of all racial and national backgrounds lived happily together and had an equal chance at success. On radio, the Voice of America broadcast into the Soviet Union a similarly positive view of life for regular Americans.
The USSR, meanwhile, focused on the civil rights movement in the United States as proof that it was in fact a violently racist country. When the governor of Arkansas sent National Guard soldiers to keep Black students out of a high school, the Soviet newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda headlined the story, “Troops advance against children!” Soviet coverage said the efforts to stop the civil rights movement proved American democracy was a “facade” hiding an unfolding tragedy.
Herman and Chomsky’s Propaganda Model
In 1988, American thinkers Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky published Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In it, they argued that media companies try to “inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.” Or as York University professor Justin Podur put it, the book “described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.”
In their book, Herman and Chomsky discussed the “propaganda model,” which they felt showed how journalists “serve the ends of the dominant elite.” Herman and Chomsky created a list of five news “filters” they thought led to this propaganda model:
- The big size of the corporations that own private media outlets;
- The fact that many media outlets rely on advertising to make money;
- How journalists often rely on government, businesses and experts to get information;
- How “flak,” or negative responses to news stories, can change what stories journalists cover;
- How an anti-communism fear among property owners and elites leads journalists to see communism as “the ultimate evil” and report on it negatively.
Herman and Chomsky argued that the “five filters narrow the range of news that passes through the gates, and even more sharply limit what can become ‘big news.’” They also discussed at length the assessment of social scientist Alex Carey, who argued that “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy; the growth of corporate power; and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy.”
Contemporary Propaganda and a “Post-Truth World”
People today are more likely to encounter propaganda through advertising — which perfectly fits the textbook definition of propaganda as “manipulative persuasion in service of an agenda” — and social media, rather than just filtered through traditional media companies. As a result, York University’s Justin Podur has argued that the five filters of the propaganda model identified by Herman and Chomsky “have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.”
In 2018, a Canadian man who was a former employee with the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica said the company had harvested private information from up to 87 million Facebook accounts and used it to help Donald Trump win the 2016 US presidential election. The company helped Trump tailor his message to Americans. Voters in areas that showed strong support for Trump would see ads of the candidate looking triumphant, along with information on the nearest polling station. Voters in areas showing weak support for Trump would not see him, but instead his celebrity supporters.
In 2019, the office of Canada’s federal privacy commissioner said it would take Facebook to court for allegedly breaking numerous Canadian privacy laws and not protecting personal information. The commissioner said an app called This is Your Digital Life offered a personality quiz to Facebook users that recorded personal information about the users and their Facebook friends. That information was later used by the UK consulting firm for political purposes.
All of this, along with “fake news” and other contemporary forms of propaganda — such as “deepfake” videos that use artificial intelligence to make someone appear to say or do things they never actually said or did — has led many commentators to argue that we have entered a “post-truth world.” The coming years will likely see a battle between those who wish to gain and maintain power by harnessing propaganda filled with lies and manipulation, and those who offer a corrective by relying on valid, fact-based arguments to win public debates.