Other Religions Atheism and Agnosticism The Difference Between Propaganda and Persuasion Share Flipboard Email Print Vasiliki Varvaki/Moment Mobile/Getty Images Other Religions Belief Systems Atheism and Agnosticism Logic Ethics Key Figures in Atheism Evolution Atheism Myths and Misconceptions By Austin Cline Atheism Expert M.A., Princeton University B.A., University of Pennsylvania Austin Cline, a former regional director for the Council for Secular Humanism, writes and lectures extensively about atheism and agnosticism. our editorial process Austin Cline Updated March 30, 2019 When most people think of propaganda, they tend to think of the posters and songs created by or with the aid of a government during wartime, yet the truth of the matter is that propaganda has a much broader application. It refers not only to efforts by a government to get people to adopt certain beliefs or attitudes, but it can also be applied to the ways in which corporations try to get you to buy things. What Is it? What is propaganda? Broadly speaking, we can label as “propaganda” any organized effort to persuade large numbers of people about the truth of an idea, the value of a product, or the appropriateness of an attitude. Propaganda isn’t a form of communication which simply seeks to inform; instead, it is both directional (because it often seeks to get people to act in some fashion) and emotional (because it seeks to condition certain emotional reactions to specific situations). When the government uses the media in an organized and deliberate way to get people to believe that a war is necessary for their safety, that’s propaganda. When a corporation uses the media in an organized and deliberate way to get people to think that a new type of razor is better than the old one, that’s propaganda. Finally, if a private group uses the media in an organized and deliberate way to get people to adopt a negative attitude toward a certain group of people, that’s also propaganda. Purpose One might ask what the difference is between propaganda and arguments in general — after all, isn’t an argument designed to establish the truth of a proposition and thus, at least implicitly, get people to accept the truth of that proposition? The key difference here is that while an argument is designed to establish the truth of a proposition, propaganda is designed to spread the adoption of an idea, regardless of its truth and always in a one-sided manner. Please keep in mind, though, that simply labeling something as “propaganda” does not automatically say anything at all about the truth, value, or appropriateness of what is being “sold.” Using the above examples, perhaps it is true that the war is necessary, the new razor is better, and people shouldn’t have a positive attitude toward select groups. There is nothing about “propaganda” which requires that it be used for false or misleading purposes. Examples of propaganda tools being used for good might be the large-scale programs to discourage drunk-driving or to convince people to register to vote. Perception So why is there a general perception that propaganda is bad? Because since propaganda is concerned with spreading the adoption of an idea regardless of its truth, people are much more likely to look upon it skeptically. People care about the truth and think that others should as well. If they believe that some organization is pushing an agenda without regard for the truth, they’re going to have a negative reaction. In addition, we must keep in mind that propaganda is used for misleading purposes quite a lot. It is so common for propaganda to commit fallacies, engage in distortion, and be filled with lots of other errors that it is very difficult to imagine propaganda not ever being that way. As a matter of fact, propaganda often works best when we fail to reason about the message very carefully. In today’s world, we are all bombarded with so many messages and so much information that it is tempting to take mental shortcuts in order to process it all in any way. Yet, mental shortcuts that bypass critical reasoning are exactly those which allow propagandistic messages to influence our beliefs and attitudes without our realizing it. Still, because the connection is automatic, we can’t imagine that labeling something as propaganda, therefore, says anything about the conclusions it offers. Moreover, because the term “propaganda” is an emotionally loaded label, no critique of propaganda should start with that label. Instead, it is better to first provide a critique and then, after the arguments are refuted or dismantled, point out that it qualified as a form of propaganda.