Propaganda is a systematic propagation of a doctrine, ideology, or idea of
value to the speaker. I think the key word in that definition is "systematic."
Merely stating an ideology or doctrine does not constitute propaganda. The
ideology or doctrine must be spread through a system of communication events
with the long-term goal of getting the audience to adopt a new way of
The term is often used pejoratively to describe attempts to move public
opinion in a way, or to a position, that the critic doesn't like. One person's
propaganda is another's cogent discourse. We should, however, put a finer point
on the definition. We may evaluate a messages as propaganda when we detect that
the speaker is trying to deceive more than to persuade (understanding that
this, too, is a judgment call)..
One of the ways propaganda may be identified is through the systematic use of
these common fallacies:
- Ad Hominem: This is argument "against the person," also known as
"name-calling." This fallacy signals propaganda when it is used to label
people in order to box them off into categories. For example, always using
the adjective "arch" before the noun "conservative" is often a sign of a
systematic intent to stereotype the individual so described.
- Either/or: This is the fallacy that there are only two positions
in a given argument or only two approaches to a given situation. Life is more
complicated than such simplistic dichotomies lead us to believe.
- Ad Populum: This is argument "to the people," in which the speaker
appeals to mass emotions. This fallacy often requires the use of
generalized or abstract terms that have more emotional appeal than substance,
e.g. patriotism, socialism, motherhood, radical, public-spirited. A related
fallacy is called the "bandwagon," in which the speaker appeals to the
audience's desire to be part of a particular group.
- Transference: The speaker uses the thoughts of a venerable or
symbolic figure to bolster a contemporary position, e.g. claiming that George
Washington would have approved of a certain "bipartisan" maneuver because he
warned against the dangers of faction (party).
- Stacking the Deck: One stacks the deck when he/she leaves out
relevant information, tells half-truths, exaggerates, or otherwise tampers
with the facts. We often see this technique used in the presenting of
statistics and polling results.
- Opinion as Fact: The danger of stating opinion as fact is most
acute when the propagandist is making a report of an observed event and using
adjectives or adverbs to spin the observations, e.g. "The candidate spoke
convincingly about his tax program."
For more information about Propaganda, try the