The Media’s Role in Political Propaganda

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Date: 2022
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 1,115 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1210L

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Propaganda is the use of media to spread ideas, rumors, allegations, or lies in an attempt to further one’s own cause or to do damage to that of another. Its purpose is to elicit an emotional response, rather than a rational response, in the minds of the public, thus increasing the likelihood of gaining support and followers. In essence, propaganda is very similar to what companies do when they advertise a product. Advertising is made up of messages that companies hope will prompt the public to react in certain ways. Historically, the most effective ways to spread propagandistic messages has been through mediums such as radio, newspapers, films, books, and more. Propaganda has been used throughout history, most commonly during times of war. In wartime propaganda, governments usually spread messages that portray enemy nations as evil and unprincipled and that portray their own nations as superior and heroic. Nations around the world—such as China, North and South Korea, and even the United States—use propaganda today.

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Critical Thinking Questions

  • Why might some nations consider it a priority to control their domestic media?
  • Why might governments invest in the development of propaganda networks?
  • In what ways might a free media reduce the spread of propaganda?

Historical Uses of Propaganda in World War II

Propaganda has been used throughout history during armed conflicts. During World War II, many nations involved in the conflict used propaganda to gain the support and trust of their citizens. One of the countries that used propagandistic messages during the war was Italy. Italy’s then leader, Benito Mussolini, and his followers used propaganda to persuade Italians to support Mussolini and his political party. To achieve this end, the fascists used every media outlet available to them, including radio, print, film, literature, and even sports. Sports were an interesting, yet appropriate and effective medium to use since the fascists promoted athleticism in their attempt to create a militaristic Italian state.

The United States also made use of the media outlets available to them during World War II. They used advertisements in newspapers and posters to prompt the public to buy war bonds, to work longer hours, and to ration goods. The U.S. government also used films to achieve emotional responses from the public. These films portrayed the evils of their enemies and the heroic actions of the U.S. soldiers fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

Nazi Germany was the greatest purveyor of propaganda during World War II, and perhaps in all of history. The Nazis used propaganda to control the emotions of the German people and to deepen citizens’ prejudices. The Nazis primarily used printed materials and the radio to spread their messages. Their propaganda messages were so powerful that Adolph Hitler and his followers enjoyed the support of the German public throughout the war, even when it was clear to the rest of the world that Germany would lose.

Contemporary Uses of Political Propaganda

Just as countries used propaganda in World War II, countries involved in modern military conflicts often use propaganda to gain support. Starting in 2005, the U.S. military paid Baghdad newspapers to publish articles written by U.S. troops stationed in Iraq. These articles were meant to promote U.S. operations in Iraq and a pro-American mindset throughout the country. After the U.S. troops wrote the articles, an American company called the Lincoln Group inserted the stories in Baghdad papers. The Lincoln Group employed local Iraqis to pose as independent journalists and advertising agents who had created the articles. These articles were biased, and they consistently presented an American perspective. The Lincoln Group designed these deceptive publications to sway public support away from the Iraqi insurgents and toward the U.S. forces.

The United States also undertook a counter-propaganda campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan to combat the many propagandistic messages that the Taliban spread over the radio. The Taliban is an Islamic fundamentalist group that ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and returned to power in 2021. Since so few media outlets exist in these two countries—especially in the remote villages where the Taliban thrived—the United States hoped that by increasing communication they could weaken the isolating power the Taliban and their messages had on the inhabitants. To improve communication in the region, the United States gave citizens FM radios and cell phones.

Communist and totalitarian states use propaganda more so than democratic nations. China, for example, has state-controlled media. Since the government can control nearly all the information citizens learn, it routinely omits certain facts, falsifies stories, and tells outright lies in the media. For example, the Chinese media reported that the country’s first manned space flight was a complete success. In reality, the space flight was plagued with problems and it nearly ended in tragedy. Similarly, when ethnic riots broke out in western China in 2010, the government suppressed the information. Members of the government feel that their censorship is justified, however, because they believe it helps keep the country stable.

North Korea and South Korea are two other countries that frequently use propaganda. North Korea uses propaganda and strict media control to keep control over citizens. Since North Koreans are restricted to learning new information only from the state-run media, they do not have accurate knowledge of the outside world.

Both North and South Korea use propaganda to send messages about their governments. Both countries use large loudspeakers located along border areas to send signals to citizens of that country. In addition, North and South Korea launch leaflets into each other’s countries to try to influence citizens and soldiers.

The Future of Media in Political Propaganda

Throughout history, governments and other groups have used propaganda to convince people of certain details. People continue to use propaganda because it is effective. Its effectiveness lies in eliciting emotional, rather than rational, responses in people. These emotional responses often cause people to support the cause, person, or movement advertised in the propaganda. Because propaganda works best when it is disseminated to large groups of people, the media help make propaganda effective.

Many governments now use the internet and social media to covertly sway readers to their viewpoints. They may create numerous fake accounts on social media websites, creating the appearance of vocal support or opposition to important issues. They may also create viral videos or articles intended to be spread by real people. These convincing pieces of propaganda commonly portray important issues from a false or biased viewpoint. Because it is often difficult to tell truth from lies on the internet, governments have found that people may be susceptible to manipulation through digital media.

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Fast Facts

  • In the past, some governments used planes to air drop millions or billions of leaflets to spread propaganda.
  • Many modern governments use the internet and social media to rapidly spread propaganda.
  • In many cases, the most believable propaganda is partially based in fact.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2181500138