Is it “propaganda” if it advocates for something you want?

Guest post by Jonathan Auerbach

auerbachBecause I recently coedited a collection of essays on the subject of propaganda, I sometimes get approached by journalists asking me to weigh in on current events. How effective is Putin’s “propaganda” against the West in promoting the separatist movement in Ukraine? How best to counteract gruesome ISIS videos, aimed to entice recruits to jihad, but often described in shorthand as “propaganda”? And lately my inbox has been bombarded with emails urging me to “keep the pressure on” by fighting against the vile “propaganda” of warmongers in Congress who would reject the international deal to curb Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

In all of these cases, “propaganda” is assumed to be a self-evident concept, inherently false and sinister, against which urgent countermeasures and messages (but certainly nothing we would want to call propaganda!) need to be taken. If we step back a minute and try to put this matter in historical perspective, certain insights come into focus.

A century ago, right at the start of World War I, the term was frequently use to refer to any sort of mass advocacy, such as “propaganda” for suffrage or “propaganda” for conservation. In these instances, propaganda in both meaning and practice simply referred to efforts designed to sway public opinions and feelings on a large scale. During and immediately following the war, the meaning and practice of such mass persuasion took on an increasingly negative cast, leading Progressive political commentator Walter Lippmann in 1919 to ominously announce a crisis in democracy triggered by this unregulated “manufacture of consent.”

But what’s the difference between coercion and persuasion, especially in a democracy that relies on a vibrant public sphere and the free flow of information to debate and contest policies and ideas? Who is in charge of such information dissemination? What’s the difference between educating citizens, directing them, and indoctrinating them? How to distinguish among teaching, preaching, and selling, especially when your nation is at war and seeks to boost patriotic morale? Left to their own devices, how can citizens be trusted to sort through such an overwhelming avalanche of factoids and truthiness (as Stephen Colbert put it) to arrive at some rational conclusions about the world we live in? These are the key questions Progressive intellectuals, reformers, and politicians such as Lippmann, John Dewey, Julia Lathrop, and Woodrow Wilson grappled with a century ago, not to mention public relations gurus like Edward Bernays who were intent on engineering and managing the tastes and spending habits of citizen-consumers.

Clearly, these troubling questions remain very much with us today. My new Johns Hopkins University book, Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion, seeks to shed light on our current state of affairs by tracing the changing face and fate of American public opinion in the early decades of the twentieth century as they unfolded before, during, and soon after World War I. By closely looking at Progressive era propaganda in thought and practice, including the inevitable entanglements between social reform and social control that emerged during this period, we put ourselves in a better position to understand how the United States continues to deploy its current weapons of democracy at home and around the globe.

Jonathan Auerbach is a professor of English at the University of Maryland–College Park. He is the author of Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion and the coeditor of The Oxford Handbook of Propaganda Studies.

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