Understanding propaganda

Russia is protecting Ukraine

“Today Russia started a special military operation to protect people who have been subject to abuse and genocide by the Kyiv regime for the last eight years”. Thus the Russian state media reported the invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 (from The Washington Post). This is propaganda.

CBS quotes Nick Cull, a professor at the University of Southern California. “Propaganda rests on what people already believe, what people already think they feel, the things that they accept at their deepest level.”

“By alleging that Ukraine is dominated by Nazis and that it is necessary for [Putin] to repeat the historic mission of the … Soviet Union … is incredibly powerful stuff”.

He goes on to say that whenever you distort the truth someone has to pay the tab later on. In this case, it is the Russian soldiers who were expecting to be treated like liberators but instead civilians throw Molotov cocktails at them and the Ukrainian army is fighting back in a way that even Putin seems to have underestimated.

History of propaganda

Propaganda is not new. But to mobilise nations and their soldiers it had its invention in WWI. The use of highly dramatic posters with messages appealing to bravery, guilt, and social obligation were created. One of the most famous is Kitchener’s YOU COUNTRY NEEDS YOU with the general pointing his finger directly at you.

Propaganda gained a dark reputation in WWII after Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, in Nazi Germany used propaganda to mobilise the Germans into a heavily destructive war and to encourage the worst genocide in human history.

Word history of propaganda

“Propaganda” entered English as an abbreviation of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (the congregation for propagating the faith) a committee of Catholic cardinals established in 1622 by Gregory XV to supervise foreign missions. It derives from Latin propagare to set forward, extend, spread, increase.

By 1800 it had come to mean any movement or organisation that propagated a practice or ideology. By WWI it had come to mean the dissemination of information intended to promote a political point of view, although it had or sense of being negative or deliberately misleading. It was Goebbels and the nazis that brought the implication of deceit into the meaning of propaganda and it has never really recovered.

The misinformation age

In the Internet age, posters are replaced by social media. Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016 used social media platforms to spread false information that demonised his opponent and amplified voters fears. Consequently, Facebook and Twitter have been forced to improve their censorship.

How do you recognise propaganda?

So how do you know if information is propaganda? The solution is to use critical reading and thinking skills. Treat propaganda like advertising—question what is being exaggerated; differentiate between fact and opinion; compare the narrative against objective evidence; and most importantly constantly question your own bias.