Propaganda: Do You Know It When You See It?

July 2024

The Mirror of Society

Ibrahim Al-Assil

It is crucial to understand what modern propaganda looks like. Often, it comes under the guise of advocacy. By definition, advocacy embraces bias. Advocates usually push for specific policy options, and debates around social policy are not hard science issues like math or physics. Advocacy typically promotes one idea over others without fairly presenting the merits of alternative perspectives. An advocate might argue that presenting different scenarios and deliberating options would alienate audiences from desired views, and that might be true. But in service to pushing a viewpoint the line between advocacy and propaganda all but disappears. In Russian, the terms propaganda and advocacy are the same word. They aren’t the only ones who don’t see a distinction.

Like so much of human life, propaganda has evolved with the advent of digital media and social networks. In the past, propaganda was disseminated through state-controlled media, posters, and public speeches. Today, it spreads through viral social media campaigns, influencer endorsements, and targeted ads that leverage big data to manipulate public opinion. This modern form of propaganda can be subtle and insidious, often blurring the lines between genuine advocacy and manipulation.


“Advocacy” is one of the guises propaganda assumes. Another is “Art.” Regarding the intersection of art and propaganda: In the 1990s, declassified documents revealed that the CIA promoted abstract art to showcase American individualism during the Cold War. They created programs to support and promote artists like Pollock and de Kooning. The CIA’s involvement in the art world was part of a broader strategy to win the cultural Cold War against the Soviet Union, promoting the idea that the United States was a land of freedom and creativity, in contrast to the repressive Soviet regime.

CIA support in no way diminished the worth of Pollack’s work. On the contrary, it underscores the capacity for art to shape the societal, political, and historical context of its time. Art serves as a mirror to society, capturing the zeitgeist and prompting reflection. Whether it is used for propaganda or not, art remains a powerful tool for communication and expression, capable of influencing public perception and inspiring change. 

Both propaganda and art play pivotal roles in shaping societal narratives. While propaganda seeks to influence and control, art aims to provoke thought and evoke emotion. That they are sometimes difficult to disentangle is a testament to the fact that culture and politics are bound up with one another. The mediums we use to express ideas can be as impactful as the ideas themselves. 

“Consummately American and Vulgar”

Diana Brown

One of my first assignments during my master’s program in Public Relations was to listen to an audio clip from NPR profiling Edward Bernays — author of the 1928 book Propaganda. Bernays became famous for adapting his Uncle Sigmund Freud’s ideas “to help convince the public, among other things, that bacon and eggs was the true all-American breakfast” when in reality, few Americans could afford bacon for their morning meal. Although I knew better than to expect scrupulous morals from a professional master’s program, it was jarring that shifting public perception to link bacon with patriotism and well-being was glorified as the seminal accomplishment of my field without a single alarm bell going off in my class. There wasn’t even a maniacal laugh.

The NPR clip was appropriately wary of Bernays, noting that as the field of advertising changed its focus from persuading consumers to stimulating their unconscious appetites, Bernay’s ideas were used to sell “anything from soap to presidents, cigarettes to foreign policy, and possibly even genocide.” No need to worry, in other words, if you couldn’t rationally persuade a person to buy your product or program; for shrewd advertisers, the sludge of moral reasoning could be bypassed by striking the consumer’s latent desires for aggression, self-preservation, and sex, instead. No longer treated as rational, the propaganda framework reinforced a social division between the gullible, pliable, non-rational consumer masses and the distanced knower, calling the shots and pulling the strings, for who knows what cause. 

Freud was repulsed by the commercialization of his theory of the psyche; the NPR clip reported that he found his nephew’s line of work to be “consummately American and vulgar.” 

In awkward juxtaposition to this critique, my Public Relations course unflinchingly praised Bernays as a “PR Trailblazer,” and next linked us to video clips of Bernays himself describing his most famous PR campaigns. The first detailed how he increased bacon sales for the Beech-Nut Packing company. The second extolled his win for the American Tobacco Company in convincing women, largely non-smokers at the time, that cigarettes were “torches of freedom to protest man’s inhumanity against women” that could also “stimulate the erogenous zones of the lips.” 

Not skipping a beat, the web page immediately following these videos asked me to reflect on how I might build trust with consumers as a professional communicator.

I hoped that the ethics course I took later on in my program might address the unease. After all, I was attending a proudly Jesuit university in Washington DC. What other PR program would be better equipped to treat our professional moral hazards? But the only major admission of concern was around the eventual linkage of smoking to cancer — which, it was implied, our trailblazer Bernays could not have known when he was out promoting it. Ultimately, my public relations ethics training amounted to guidance on how to circumvent conflicts of interest and other legal hassles, with a gentle nudge to consider whether the companies I work for are up to date on the latest health and nutritional science.

What exactly did I expect, I wonder? Did I think they would have us reflect on the difference between building and exploiting public trust? Or consider where the line is between logical persuasion and the strategic simplifications of propaganda? Did I think we would read Freud himself and consider our own perversity in translating human vulnerabilities into profit? It feels impossible to imagine my program having such courage, and yet the level of collective avoidance it took to ignore the herd of ethical elephants in the room is remarkable.


Dwelling on Bernays’ legacy, I find myself sympathizing with the anti-intellectualism which sometimes  characterizes religious communities. That impulse is certainly fraught,  but it stands opposed to the social dynamic where a clever few whip around the unwitting masses for power, sport, or profit, which the propaganda framework depends on. When we speak of religion as anti-intellectual, we usually mean it resists scientific facts that contradict its truth claims, or that it forbids critical inquiry about its own texts and historical origins. There is, however, another way in which religion can be anti-intellectual: it refuses to treat an educated person as an exception to the rule of being human, and thereby guards against the conceits of intellectual voyeurism by snatching them at their roots.

One such conceit is presuming to predict or control the future. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells people they should not only avoid oaths and promises they can’t keep, but avoid speech with presumptuous speculation altogether. “Let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” The reasoning goes:

Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

Be honest, in other words, about the scope of your purview. God rules the heavens, the King rules Jerusalem, and you can’t even control the color of your own hair (except temporarily, anyway — and even then: it is merely a mask, a thin coating). No matter how confident you are in what each day may bring — and you might have access to knowledge that makes you very confident — what actually happens is not up to you. Don’t speak in a way that presumes otherwise.

Groups that take this imperative seriously can exhibit a frustrating learned helplessness. I admit I felt a familiar frustration with that helplessness when I first heard the term Inshallah explained. I have since grown appreciative of Muslim culture for building into daily speech a reminder that, despite us having many incentives to forget it: we don’t ultimately foresee or control the future.  Even non-Muslims are saying Inshallah these days; I suspect this is because our irony-loving culture enjoys the latent irony of the phrase; tossed around in conversation like a leftover party balloon, Inshallah negates the presumption of all our human affairs even as we go about them.

But the conceit goes deeper than presumptuous speculation. There’s a pleasure the intellectual voyeur takes in their distance from others, forever held at arm’s length as “the masses.” The masses are always out there but not here; human troubles are always theirs, but not shared. This distance offers the satisfying illusion that one has escaped the constraints of being human. In the same sermon, Jesus speaks adamantly against the impulse to assert ontological distance between oneself and others, with virtually no exceptions. He wouldn’t even permit the pleasure of having enemies:

Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.

Why? Because beneath the story of your innocence is a story that holds you and your enemy both, where God makes the sun “rise on the evil and on the good, and [sends] rain on the just and on the unjust.” Elsewhere you might be rewarded for distinguishing yourself as superior relative to the masses; religion insists you encounter the gruesome truth of your sameness.

It’s not easy to see what type of speech is available with these shared, fundamental conditions of life in full view, but that type of speech is religion’s aim. Jesus saying (no doubt with some humor) that we should pare down our talk to a simple yes or no suggests how deep we might need to dig to uproot the presumption and sense of exceptionalism that cause us to temporarily forget these conditions. It’s likely that sincere efforts to eradicate them will always feel tinged with ironic awareness, like when we say Inshallah, that the task is impossible. But where intellectualism tempts us to use language to artificially extract ourselves from and even to manipulate reality for others, perhaps irony—which refuses responsibility for the link between language and reality altogether — offers a return to the truth.

Propaganda for Liberalism

Elena Kagan

I came to this salon’s prompt backwards. When I saw No Regrets for Our Youth, the first film Akira Kurosawa made after World War II, I knew it was propaganda. The only question was how and why it came to be. I kept asking myself, “Did we do this?” By “we,” I meant the United States government.

The film starts in 1933, with a group of students at Kyoto University discussing the government’s burgeoning campaign of repression and aggression. The hero, Noge, declares within the first ten minutes that the Japanese “militarists, backed by industry” have invaded Manchuria hoping to “resolve Japan’s internal contradictions through foreign conquest.” Our heroine, Yukie, assures us that her brave father, who has just been dismissed from Kyoto University by the education minister as part of the government’s crackdown on academic freedom, is “a liberal, not a Red” and that right (liberalism) will prevail in the end. 

Of course, “we” did do this. During the 1945–1952 U.S. occupation of Japan, occupation forces oversaw the Japanese film industry. As I learned from Kyoko Hirano’s excellent book Mr. Smith Goes to Tokyo, the occupiers, with a particularly American style of brutal idealism, hoped to use film to root out the causes of Japanese militarism and inculcate the Japanese people with democratic and liberal values. The American censors had their pet theories about what aspects of Japanese traditional culture had led to the war, and they assiduously forbade any such portrayals in Japanese film under their reign. Gone were allusions to feudalism and to the subjugation of women (particularly arranged marriages), and to the glorification of revenge and suicide. It was practically impossible to make a period picture under the occupation, partly because the Americans were convinced that swords — but not guns, go figure — were inextricably linked to militarism.

But perhaps stranger than what the censors feared was what they hoped to encourage. Hirano includes excerpts from occupation government documents which list desired subjects such as:

“Developing political consciousness and responsibility among the people,”

“Demonstrating individual initiative and enterprise solving the post-war problems of Japan in industry, agriculture, and all phases of the national life,” and

“Approval of free discussion of political issues.”

This was the bizarre project, a censorship regime to encourage “free discussion of political ideas”; propaganda to encourage “individual initiative” and “developing of political consciousness!”

All the inherent contradictions are there in Kurosawa’s No Regrets for Our Youth. We know our heroes are against the government, but it’s impossible to fix on exactly what they are for. The reason for this is obvious: the occupation government was extremely concerned about the possible rise of Communism in Japan, and so certain leftist ideas were banned. The hero Noge is based on a real person: Hotsumi Ozaki, a journalist and China expert who was involved with the Japanese Communist Party and who was executed as a Soviet spy in 1944. In the film, though, we never find out exactly what Noge’s antigovernment activities are or who he is working with, just that he is working for peace. When it came to combatting militarism, communists were useful except for the whole communism part.

Even what exactly the heroes were fighting against had to be censored to meet the post-war political reality. Ichiro Hatoyama, the real education minister who had cracked down on academic freedom at Kyoto University, was named in the movie’s original titles. Kurosawa was forced to remove it because Hatoyama was still active in postwar Japanese politics as a member of the Liberal Party which had received the highest share of votes in the first postwar general election. Hatoyama went on to become prime minister in 1955.

For all this, the film is thrilling and beautiful. The energy of the students, resisting their government by the very act of sitting around and talking, agitating for peace and freedom by making posters and speeches and going on strike, is intoxicating. It moves and inspires me — as propaganda for free discourse and political responsibility. Setsuko Hara, in her powerful performance as Yukie, has the aura of true heroism that shines through whatever is condescending and false. It is good art and good liberal propaganda — even if we know it when we see it.

Convinced by the Dead

Carlo Massimo

May the bright flame of our enthusiasm never be extinguished. It alone gives the creative art of modern political propaganda its light and warmth. From the depths of the people it rose up, and into the depths of the people it must descend.

The words are Joseph Goebbel’s, delivered in the smoky light of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. The film won Best Foreign Documentary at the Venice Biennale, was acquired by MoMA for a tour of the US, and was shown at the Paris Exposition of 1937, where viewers could walk from the theater to the pavilion next door and see Picasso’s Guernica and Mirò’s mural of the Catalan Peasant in Revolt.

I had to look at Guernica again, writing this, to remember that it’s in the same haunted, unnerving black and white as Triumph of the Will. It’s a photomontage of the human heart, with its pageants of mangled body parts and animals in pain. Each of these marvels of modern art contains the other; they were commissioned by competing governments, the Third Reich and the Spanish Republic, to influence a global audience. 

As works of propaganda, their utility is over. Good. There is no longer a Spanish Republic to defend, or a murderous army to defeat, and Guernica can descend, in Goebbels’ words, into the depths of the people, blackening the edges of our conscience in the year of grace 2024. Picasso’s Massacre in Korea, more obviously expedient for the 1950s, is still a splendid picture, but it doesn’t haunt us. Triumph of the Will is no longer useful to anyone. It is worth rewatching as a human study, like a novel. Everyone is smiling, even the orators, even Hitler; and all around them is an air of nightmare and witchcraft. It’s a detailed cross section of a dark and very specific emotion. There may be moments, watching it, when you realize you know that emotion somewhat better than you’d like. But no one is convinced either way; that’s not the point. In that sense there’s no longer a message. 

Can propaganda die and leave its art, like a peach that rots and leaves its pit? Or is its mission eternal, threatening and cajoling after its death? When I sat down to write this I thought I was going to be writing about Jacques-Louis David, the Jacobin Riefenstahl, who intended his portraits of Napoleon to be the spiritual equivalent of the emperor’s army bulletins, published on the march for public reading. (“To lie like a bulletin” was an everyday expression in the Grande Armée.) Two hundred and nine years have passed since Waterloo; there is no one left to convince. Or is there? I remember very clearly seeing, for the first time, a print of Napoleon Crossing the Alps as a small boy: the horse’s rolling eye, the complicated double bridle, the toe pointed uselessly in its stirrup, the hair in the wind, the careless imperial index finger flung at Europe; most of all that huge field of red, Napoleon’s scarlet cloak. It wasn’t kitsch yet — not for me. Nor was it low effort, moralizing public art that even children can see through: the Chinese posters of husky, smiling eunuchs in overalls and little girls playing jump rope with Mao. Napoleon Crossing the Alps was something different. It was the bright flame of our enthusiasm. The man was dead, and the message was dead; I was convinced. I remain convinced. Dr. Goebbels knew me well. Did he know you?

Decentralized Propaganda

Jomana Qaddour*

When people discuss propaganda in the West, they most often refer to top-down propaganda organized by state apparatuses. The word itself brings to mind the Soviet Union, the Nazi regime, or the United States. But in many parts of the world, propaganda is so decentralized, so uncontrolled, so interwoven into its society’s psyche, that there is no way to identify who is responsible for its perpetuation. Diffuse propaganda presents its own challenge: if you don’t know where it starts, how can you begin to stop it?

In his memoir When Magic Failed, the writer Fouad Ajami spends a good deal of time recounting the “rules of engagement” that his mother and grandmother believed in with an fervor redolent of religious faith. According to Ajami, the rules of the world from his perch in Lebanon were more or less determined according to a complex web of superstition, religion, grievance politics, and government-sponsored (or tribal sponsored) propaganda. Once a belief comes to be, these individuals become purveyors of this non-fact, passing it (at times even imposing it) on to future generations and those around them.

Ajami’s family is not alone in this regard: millions across the world structure their lives around an irrational set of beliefs that shapes anything from quotidian rituals to how a society approaches resolving centuries-long conflicts. At this point, the propaganda is both owned and used expertly by everyone, including the state itself, to justify irrational behavior or senseless pain; other times it is used to justify illegal behavior or violence. And of course, it is used by individuals and regimes alike to avoid the question of agency entirely. This worldview inculcates its adherents to believe that if one has a grievance, they should pray and wait, for surely, vengeance will come, wrongs will be righted. In such a world, whence introspection, proactive behavior, or course correction? By which I mean: whence progress?

Such thinking has become almost akin to “customary law” in certain parts of the world. Such “customary law” is not written, and no one person is responsible for its dissemination, but changing attitudes against it becomes close to impossible, because the origin of the ideas is unknown. Moreover, such laws do not have to be rational, so using reason to upend them becomes a futile exercise. This reminds me of the post-2005 custom in Iraq that the president must be Kurdish, the prime minister is Shi’a, and the speaker of parliament is Sunni. I remember during my doctoral studies trying to find the root of this — thinking surely it was codified in law somewhere — only to realize that it’s a “custom”: not written down anywhere but applied ever since 2005 as though it were. The only thing worse than a controversial law being enshrined in a constitution is when it is believed as though it is. The reality is that if a law is written, at least you have the option of amending the law. But how does a society change a custom — and the belief in the necessity of such a custom — if it is not written?

The question of how to counter propaganda and where it originates is more relevant today than ever, particularly in the Middle East, where it seems everyone knows what has gone wrong, but few know how to make it right. Attempting to right the wrong ultimately requires debates — but today’s debates, although they do include fact, are largely dominated by emotional sentiments: the irrational belief in inevitable victorious ends, the desire to see punishment of the powerful (even if it harms the person holding such a belief), and the faith in religious promises made by God or various prophets. Malign actors (again, foreign or local) can easily slip through any one of these openings; they do not need to impose top-down sponsored propaganda, because the fabric to work with is there — it is organic, self-perpetuating, and decentralized — and can be directed towards destructive goals if need be.

As I (and many others) think about how to find lasting solutions to the conflicts in the Middle East, I accept that it cannot be done without a deeper understanding of how decentralized propaganda animates culture and behavior and how it is weaponized. Without this, there is little opportunity for proponents of transparent, democratic, and accountable governance systems in the region to prevail.


*This article reflects only the author’s views and not that of her employer.


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