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 thinking.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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 Propaganda Critic.

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