TOP 10 INSIGHTS ON LEARNING ABOUT PROPAGANDA

By: Anna Hawkins

1. One Concept, Many Definitions

The first thing we learned in this class was the definition of propaganda. After being exposed to many definitions for the same concept, I was determined to find all of the similarities between the definitions in order to really grasp the concept of propaganda. When I am struggling to understand an idea or concept, the method that works best for me is to have multiple people explain the idea to me in their own, unique way. If one definition is not getting through to me, then I must seek another version of the explanation. As I examine more and more definitions, the pieces start to come together and I begin to be able to synthesize my own definition in my head. I take fragments of all of the definitions and piece them together until I have a concrete definition that makes sense to me. One way that helps me solidify my newly formed definition is to explain it to somebody else or to transcribe my definition. This lesson was highly beneficial to me because what it asked us to do catered exactly to how I make sense of a concept that is new to me. As I tried to make sense of all of the definitions from the lesson, my first step was to find similarities among the different definitions. If any information appeared to repeat throughout the definitions, then I knew it was important and had to be part of my definition. The common themes I found throughout these definitions included the act of persuasion to a degree that everyone comes to share one common opinion. I gleaned that propaganda aims to gain and manage followers, as well as the fact that propaganda is an art of persuasion that aims to warrant immediate action. I related this concept to social media usage, because that is something that is highly relevant to me. When hearing the terms “persuasion” and “influence” I immediately thought about the social media influencers, celebrities, and everything else that surfaces on the feeds of my social media platforms. These people are in a position to potentially have great influence over social media users such as myself. “Propaganda is a deliberate attempt to persuade people to think and then behave in a manner desired by the source; public relations, a branch of propaganda, is a related process intended to enhance the relationship between the organization and the public. Both in turn are related to advertising.” Bill Backer, in The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York: Crown, 1993), suggests that advertising and propaganda are half brothers. An advertisement connects something with human desires; propaganda shapes the infinite into concrete images.” David Culbert. “Government, Propaganda and Public Relations.” In The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford, 1999, 571–572. Being able to identify the strategies behind social media influence and understanding why I find myself sharing these common opinions and falling victim to this influence, will allow me to stay aware of propaganda influence and have more control over how I am persuaded and affected by the media.


2. The Man Who Invented Propaganda

In order to better understand the field of propaganda, we were instructed to read Edward Bernays’ 1928 book Propaganda. Edward Bernays understood the effect that propaganda can have on business. For this reason, I decided to focus on Bernays’ fifth chapter, Business And The Public. When defining propaganda during the previous week, I related the concept of public influence to social media influence. The notion that supply no longer creates demand really resonated with me. There are multiple reasons why people may want to gain social media followers and why they may desire to build a platform from which they can pose influence over an audience. However, when it comes down to it, all media is a business. Social media is a business and social media influencers make money from their platform. The fact that companies have to create demand for their product paves way for social media influencers to do their job. The job I am referring to is creating demand for products and services. Many social media influencers aim to spark interest in a product or a service, and convince their followers to make the purchase. The marketing strategy of native advertising falls into this realm and is very interesting to me. I was able to make sense of the concept of propaganda through relating it to social media marketing. Social media influencers “Whether they realize it or not, they call upon propaganda to organize and effectuate their demand.”(Bernays 31).  Going forward, I am glad I am able to understand the business model behind the influence I am exposed to on social media.


3. Identification and Analysis: Knowing Propaganda When You See It

In the third week of COM 416, we learned about how to analyze propaganda. According to Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, there are ten steps to the process of analyzing propaganda. Propaganda is a strange phenomenon because it holds so much power and potential for influence, and it can either be highly explicit or extremely discrete. Determining the degree of explicitness would depend on the degree of education on the subject. Before learning these ten steps for propaganda analysis, I would not quite be able to identify propaganda while influence is underway. I would probably only be able to understand that some influence is being controlled but I would not understand all the strategies and results they yield. Many questions can be answered when a person is aware of these ten steps for analyzing propaganda. The questions that are answered by these steps for analysis are as follows: “To what ends, in the context of the times, does a propaganda agent, working through an organization, reach an audience through the media while using special symbols to get a desired reaction? Furthermore, if there is opposition to the propaganda, what form does it take? Finally, how successful is the propaganda in achieving its purpose?” (Jowett, O’Donnell 270). Understanding the process for analyzing propaganda gives a person a better grasp on how to identify propaganda and to pinpoint when it is happening. I am glad I understand this process because I am more aware of when a person or business is trying to gain influence over me. Through understanding these steps I am also confident that I could use devices of propaganda in my life. I am strongly considering jobs in social media and marketing so I will be using these steps to try to weave propaganda practices into my work.


4. Conspiracy Theories… It’s Real!

Conspiracy theories are my absolute favorite part of media. Not because I love to learn about things that are not real, but because I love to learn about what people believe. I like to read about a popular conspiracy theory, and then observe people try to work through it. Some people do not believe them at all and chalk them up to people getting carried away for the sake of entertainment or gaining likes/views/followers. At the end of the day, media is a business. News material such as fake news and conspiracy theories generate internet traffic and gain circulation just as effectively if not more effectively than factual news. This is an area of the media that I enjoy for entertainment purposes. However, I understand that by subjecting myself to this type of media, I am subjecting myself to influence. After watching multiple people try to present factual evidence to support claims that said conspiracy theories are real, one starts to question falsity versus reality. Having a better understanding of fake news and conspiracy theories as propaganda devices will keep me grounded as far as what I consider to be news and will help me keep that information separate from information I expose myself to for entertainment purposes.


5. Lies Are The New Truth… Or Does Anybody Care?

The unit on sponsored content was very interesting to me because as I have previously expressed, I spend a lot of time using social media and I have a significant interest in social media marketing. Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions Of A Media Manipulator was very interesting and insightful regarding more ways to manipulate the public from a business standpoint. Ryan Holiday’s book details his nine tricks for manipulating the media for marketing purposes. Learning things in a list format helps me make sense of information. For this reason I enjoyed this unit. We were asked to choose three of the nine tricks to focus and elaborate on. The three tricks I chose were tactics three, six, and nine. Tactic three says to “Give them what spreads, not what’s good”(Holiday 72). This is the base idea that people believe lies in a marketing context. Marketing and sales can have a lot to do with lying, and people would rather know information that is interesting and easy to share and circulate, even if it is not the most factual of information. Tactic six says “Make it all about the headline”(Holiday 105) I related this tactic to a common internet and news phenomena of today: clickbait. People will click on what is interesting, catchy, controversial, and questionable in terms of truth or falsity. Ryan Holiday explains how catchy and less than true headlines result in clicks and sales and profits. Understanding all these tactics will allow to me navigate the media as a smart consumer, as well as utilize the media for professional gain.


6. Influencer or Regular Instagram User?

After reading the first half of this listicle, you probably have come to understand that I am extremely interested in social media, and more specifically, social media influencers. I have been watching content creators such as Jenna Marbles since she started building her platform about ten years ago. During that time, Youtube was an up and coming platform and not many people were making money from sponsored content. Presently, it seems that the amount of influencers that are creating and releasing sponsored content is infinite. I was fascinated to learn about the influencers that are using the strategy of “fake it til you make it”. In a time where sponsorships are offered to what seems like anyone and everyone, the influencers with even the smallest of platforms are jumping on the bandwagon. It makes sense really. When one watches videos and is exposed to so many examples of sponsored content and native advertising, one begins to understand how to make such content. This is something that is learned merely by exposure and observation. When everyone feels like they know how to create sponsored content, I think it is smart to start creating it in hopes of catching the eye of a company looking for another marketing platform. In an age where supply is greater than demand, everyone has to  compete to be creative and create their own demand. Showing a brand your ability to promote goods and services through native advertising is a legitimate tactic for landing real, paid sponsorships.


7. Trolls and Bots and Propagandists, Oh My!

Twitter is a platform I was honestly not too fond of before this semester. This is because I had never seen it used for anything professional or educational, before now. I have used Twitter a lot between COM 416 and another media class I took this semester. I have become aware of Twitter’s role in politics and as a media influence tool. I was really not sure what exactly bots and trolls were before learning about them in both of my classes this semester. Now I have learned that they make up the majority of Twitter accounts, and that they can be used for major influence. With the concept of trolls, the internet poses as a completely different way for people to practice propaganda and manipulate the public. Many people choose to hide behind a computer screen while using propaganda devices to gain influence over the public and change the opinions of the masses. This place of anonymity and perceived status is a breeding ground for influence and manipulation. I read this article in my other media class and was able to make sense of the phenomena of fake social media profiles.


8. Media Manipulation By Terrorists

Learning about how terrorists use internet propaganda to recruit terrorists did not come as a surprise to me. I have heard about these Jihadist videos created and circulated by ISIS. It is a more morbid version of military propaganda. Terrorist propaganda has to be highly persuasive, so it utilizes many propaganda devices. It is usually extremely graphic. The propaganda material created and spread by ISIS aims to depict ISIS fighters as holy warriors. This is the ideology behind the campaigns, and the target audience is typically young muslim men. This video from CBS News highlights the brutality on the inside of the ISIS extremist operations. The defector in the video explains how he fell for the influence of the propaganda and believed the blatant lies. ISIS is effectively using propaganda to deceive recruits who do not find out the truth about the operations until it is too late and they cannot get out.


9. First Amendment Rights… The Right to Discuss What is Government- Approved

The first amendment is a topic that has come up in both of my media classes this semester. Something we as a society need to remember is that our justice system was created before the media. The laws were written and rewritten before the internet came to be. Freedom of speech is supposed to be an undeniable right in our country. However, this line has become blurred with devices such as social media and internet journalism. If speech is supposed to be free, then why does censorship exist? This article helped me understand the controversy. I came to a breakthrough while considering this topic in both of my classes. If the government controls what is said on certain arguments, then they are interfering with the discussion and therefore the debate. It is not ethical to silence opinions on a matter because this is essentially silencing one side of the discussion, argument, or controversy. If people are going to be able to share their opinions online regarding matters such as politics and the government, then every voice should be heard. Where there is room for regulation is how this information is presented. There is an issue with differentiating factual news from biases and opinions. It is important to know the difference until it becomes more clear what media is fact bases versus what is opinion based.


10. PSA: Do Not Text And Drive!

Propaganda is not always ridden with deceit and lies. While propaganda always aims to gain influence over public opinion, this is not always for a personal gain or for marketing purposes. Sometimes it is solely for safety. This is something I forgot about. I was thinking that my earliest memories of propaganda would be commercials for Disney, or perhaps posters for movies. However, I failed to remember even earlier exposure to propaganda devices. Safety is something that I learned a lot about in school as well as in my community during my childhood. I was exposed to many films, presentations, and posters that were explicit instructions for being safe. Public service announcements and safety campaigns have no goal other than promoting safety and preventing tragedy. The video about texting and driving really hit home for me and reminded me that propaganda can be used for many outcomes. Persuasion is the device but the goal can be whatever the propagandist desires.



Works Cited

Bill Backer, in The Care and Feeding of Ideas (New York: Crown, 1993),


Bernays, Edward L., and Irina Bazon. Propaganda (1928). Alexandria Publishing House, 2012

Holiday, Ryan. Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Profile Books Ltd, 2018.


Jowett, Garth S., and Victoria O'Donnell. Propaganda and Persuasion. Sage Publications, 1986.

The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Ed. John Whiteclay Chambers II. New York: Oxford, 1999, 571–5