Understanding the Mechanisms of Propaganda
At its most basic, propaganda is biased or misleading information circulated via some form of mass media with the intent of promoting a political agenda or viewpoint. Propaganda is deliberately not objective and is usually part of a larger psychological campaign to influence people toward a specific opinion. It may include outright lies or more subtle misinformation and censorship.
Propaganda works by tapping into emotions through images, slogans, and a selective use of information or control and censorship of the facts. This is especially true if propaganda is being utilized by a government that is controlling the media by censorship or one that owns and runs media outlets, as was the case in the former Soviet Union.
The difference between propaganda and plain old rumors is that propaganda has intent behind it, usually with an organized, funded campaign. Modern-day political advertising, especially attack ads that create a negative impression about a candidate, can fall under the category of propaganda (although such ads are generally viewed as less sinister that state-sponsored propaganda).
Famous Examples of Propaganda
The most obvious examples of propaganda happen during wars when governments try to rally their people against a common enemy. During World War I and World War II, posters depicting the enemy as evil were commonly used.
This technique was considered important not just to win public opinion, but to convince soldiers to fight in often bloody battles. Whether such propaganda had long-term negative effects is still up for debate. Derogatory nicknames were given to enemies in both World Wars, and posters showed the Japanese and German soldiers resembling rats or monsters.
During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States used propaganda against each other, to try to persuade both their own people and those on the other side of who was right and who was wrong. In Fidel Castro's Cuba, propaganda was commonplace as he rallied Cubans to embrace Communism.
Non-Government Uses of Propaganda
It's not always a state or institution that uses propaganda, however.
Corporations, non-profits, and political campaigns will use techniques very similar to propaganda to affect stock prices or market conditions, to further a piece of legislation, or to make a rival candidate look bad.
It can be as simple as circulating a rumor about a rival company or suggesting some misdeed by a political candidate. Even if the information is untrue, if a news outlet gets wind of a rumor and begins to ask questions, it can be hard to unring the bell, as the saying goes.
If a leader or politician, especially the president, makes a misleading or negative remark about a company or a person, that too can have the effect of swaying public opinion in a certain direction.
Propaganda and Fake News
Propaganda has taken on a whole new twist with the rise of so-called fake news sites. Publishers seeking advertising revenue through page views will create misleading or flat-out incorrect "news" articles with sensational or controversial headlines. Once these articles begin circulating on social media platforms, it can be very difficult to verify or disprove them.