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Propaganda as a Social Phenomenon Essay

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Updated: Jun 17th, 2020

Although the term “propaganda” has been in the public domain for several centuries now, its use increased substantially during World War 1 and World War 2 when nations attempted to disseminate ideas, information, and rumors in an organized and deliberate endeavor to influence the public opinion.1 In contemporary times, various players continue to use propaganda in a multiplicity of contexts with the view to influencing the public discourse through an organized and deliberate transmission of ideas and values. The present paper presents evidence and documentation to demonstrate that propaganda is indeed a social phenomenon.

The debate on whether propaganda is a technique or a phenomenon has been ongoing in many scholarly and practitioner-oriented forums, with the outcomes showing little probability of achieving a middle ground. It is important to note that this paper uses Randal Marlin’s definition, which describes the concept as “the organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed, rational, reflective judgment.”2

This definition not only shows that propaganda is essentially a social phenomenon which is in large part experienced in social contexts3 but also demonstrates particular characteristics (e.g., organization, ideological underpinnings, use of communication, mass uniformity of belief or behavior, circumvention of the reasoning process through heavy reliance to emotional appeals) that qualify propaganda as a social phenomenon.4

Available literature demonstrates that “propaganda is a way of mediating our response to social phenomena and our relationship with society.”5 Unlike a technique which denotes a way or methodology of carrying out a particular task or procedure, propaganda is a far more diversified and multifaceted phenomenon that can never be viewed or analyzed in the absence of the larger society and its people.

Propaganda may qualify as a technique if it is evaluated in terms of a way or methodology which is often used to generate certain psychological effects (e.g. crystallization, alienation, dissociation, mithridatization, and sensibilization) or sociopolitical effects (e.g., ideology, public opinion, grouping, in a democracy) among a particular group of the population.6 However, propaganda is deeper in context and scope than being a mere technique as it is interpreted by individuals within the social context and also exploits social grievances to get the message across.

Of course some scholars have preferred to perceive propaganda primarily as a technique not only due to its deliberate and systematic nature, but also because of the widespread understanding that a technique, rather than a social phenomenon, is largely responsible in qualifying propagandists as instrumental and intentional actors.7 Jacques Ellul, comprehensively cited in propaganda literature, buys into this debate and argues that propaganda is itself a technique resulting from the application of the social sciences to the technology domain with the view to promoting acceptance to other techniques.8

However, such a predisposition is only valid to the extent that various technological inventions being experienced today are requiring the adaptation of human beings to the requirements of such inventions rather than adapting the inventions to human needs, practices and capacities. Furthermore, a technique may be unable to shape the perceptions or manipulate the cognitions of the targeted population in the absence of a social context, hence the need to view propaganda as a social phenomenon.

Without the social context, it is increasingly difficult for any propagandist to distribute certain cognitions and sensitivities with the view to generating behavior that the propagandist views as desirable, or to develop and reinforce certain messages whose effects are much more long-lasting over decades, if not longer.9 For example, a firm may employ advertisement to replace an effective automobile gearbox with a new product that appears to accomplish the same effectiveness with minimal investment, but actually it does not.

This example may use visual propaganda (advertisement) as a technique to pass the message on to the customers with the intention of creating a particular human need for the new product. However, the visual propaganda will definitely fail if it is not located within the social context and if it does not make use of the various tenets of propaganda as described in the beginning of this paper, implying that propaganda is much more deeper than a mere technique.

Lastly, the many elements contained in the term “propaganda” qualify it as a social phenomenon rather than merely a technique. Edgar Henderson, also comprehensively in propaganda scholarship, argues that propaganda is basically a social phenomenon owing to its objectivity and capacity to appeal to the psychological or sociopsychological dispositions of individuals.10 As demonstrated in the literature, propaganda covers more than a technique, particularly in terms of the central role it plays in society to the extent that no meaningful economic or political development can be achieved without the influence of its immense power.11

Overall, this paper has used facts and documentation to demonstrate that propaganda is a phenomenon rather than a technique, and that the social context must be taken into consideration for various experiences to be termed as propaganda. Although several scholars have evaluated and analyzed propaganda as a technique, it is evident that the concept is much deeper in scope and nature than what could be explained in simple terms as a technique.

Bibliography

Black, Jay. Journal of Mass Media Ethics 16 (2001): 121-137. Web.

Class Notes, n.d.

Larson, Charles. Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility, 13th ed. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2012.

Marlin, Randal. Propaganda and Ethics of Persuasion, 2nd ed. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2013.

O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas J. Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Romarheim, Anders G. Definition of Strategic Political Communication, 2005. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Randal Marlin, Propaganda and Ethics of Persuasion (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2013), 17-19.
  2. Randal Marlin, Propaganda and Ethics of Persuasion, 22.
  3. Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy, Politics and Propaganda: Weapons of Mass Seduction (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005), 55.
  4. Charles Larson, Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility (Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2012), 54.
  5. Nicholas J. O’Shaughnessy, Politics and Propaganda, 62.
  6. Class Notes.
  7. Anders G. Romarheim, Definition of Strategic Political Communication, 2005, 7, Web.
  8. Randal Marlin, Propaganda and Ethics of Persuasion, 32-33.
  9. Class Notes.
  10. Jay Black, “Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics 16(2001): 123.
  11. Jay Black, “Semantics and Ethics of Propaganda,” 125.
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