Media and the history of political rhetoric

Do you know propaganda?

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Defining propaganda is complex. How do you understand the differences between propaganda and persuasion? Where do you draw the line between information and propaganda? Which perspective should you use approaching the concept? Sproule reasons “Propaganda represents the work of large organizations or groups to win over the public for special interests through massive orchestration of attractive conclusions packaged to conceal both their persuasive purpose and lack of sound supporting reasons” (1994, p. 8, in Jowett & O’Donnell 2012, p. 3). Sproule’s main points are 1) the source being an organized group, 2) the audience is the general public, 3) the source has a specific purpose based on special interests, 4) the arrangement of message is major, appealing and planned, 5) presented to hide its intentions and absence of reasoning. Jowett and O’Donnell approach propaganda as a type of communication process and as a subcategory of persuasion and information: “Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Jowett & O’Donnell 2012, p. 7). Their main points are 1) the carefully pre-planned, methodical effort, 2) achieving a certain reading, performance and reaction, 3) that advances the purpose of the source.

Both definitions highlight the intent as key in understanding what propaganda entails, underlining the specific interests behind the message that may not always correspond with the audience’s. They both emphasize the well thought-out framework and content of the message which is methodically dispersed to obtain a by the source anticipated reaction with the audience, a perception or behavior which is likely to maintain a balance of power beneficial to the source. Jowett and O’Donnell however do not define propaganda as being the outcome of a group as Sproule does, nor do they mention that it is targeted at the public or mass communicated. Sproule more than Jowett and O’Donnell seem to regard propaganda from a negative view, with the value-laden description of it as being packaged to hide intention while having a lack of reasoning behind. Sproule hints an idea of a powerful few aiming manipulation at an unknowing public, seeing the public as a mass not being able to critically analyze the message themselves. The latter concept is more sensitive to the different levels of propaganda in their breakdown of white, gray and black propaganda (Jowett & O’Donnell 2012, p. 17), where the white dimension exposes the possibility of information being used as propaganda with a visible source and purpose, as well as reasoning behind being possibly sound, in contrast to Sproule’s explanation, for instance in a campaign against smoking to prevent lung cancer. The information about the health risks of smoking may be correct and sound, an organization as the source could be articulated and their purpose explicit, but it can still be labeled as propaganda since the information is angled in a certain way to achieve a specific reaction with the audience desired by the propagandist. Sproule’s concept does not display these dimensions. However none of the two definitions take into consideration the agency of the audience, something that might give the indication of a recipient guardless to these powerful messages, which of course they are not. As Thompson among others have pointed out, there are no passive audiences, only agents whom “can use these materials, rework and elaborate them in ways that are quite alien to the aims and intentions of the producers.” (Thompson 1995, p. 39).

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