The new(s) face of Propaganda
by Massimo Ragnedda    Znet
Entered into the database on Sunday, June 26th, 2005 @ 22:37:04 MST


Untitled Document

Defining propaganda It is really no more than the organization of method designed to persuade people to think and behave in a certain way

(Taylor, 1990: 11)

The word “propaganda” has been used in several way over time, and its definition has often been debated. In spite of this debate, it is possible to find a point of agreement about its meaning. Propaganda is persuasive communication. Using Taylor’s words, it is possible to say that:

“Propaganda is essentially an organized process of persuasion” (Taylor, 1990: 11) and also “it is a 'dirty trick' utilized by 'hidden persuaders', 'mind manipulators' and 'brainwashers' – Orwellian 'Big Brothers' who somehow subliminally control our thoughts in order to control our behavior to serve their interest rather than our own” (Taylor, 1995: 1).

In spite of its respectable derivation, after World War Two it became an epithet. Indeed, the word comes from Latin and means “to propagate” and was used for the first time by Gregorio Pope, who founded the Santa Congregation of Propaganda in 1622. Its aim was to fight, with preaching, the pagan faith. This congregation intended to lever on the fear of hell and above all on illiteracy and people’s innocence to discipline them and to improve its power (Jackall, 1995: 2). Originally this notion was used to define the propagation of a faith, without any other implication. Indeed, according with this model of propaganda elaborated by Santa Congregation, propaganda has been applied to any group or organization set up to spread a doctrine however before it was a neutral word. For many people now, propaganda is synonymous with dictatorships or lies, and this word has a negative connotation. As Doob wrote:

An effective way in Anglo-Saxon society to insult, belittle, or expose a man is to call him a propagandist. […] what was called propaganda acquired such unpleasant connotation during the 1920’s and 1930’s that the word was avoided whenever possible when war began again in 1939. Both in United States and Great Britain, consequently, the home front, allies, and neutral countries were provided not with “propaganda” but with information. (Doob, 1948: 231)

What the First World War has showed is that public opinion could not be ignored by government approach because it is a important issue. It is also determining for the military strategy. So after that war, the propaganda began to emerge as the principal instrument of control over public opinion, but above all, it is with the dictatorship and the repression before and within the Second War World, that Propaganda became a “controversial word”. Indeed in dictatorial states, propaganda is an instrument of state power, to increase its power and authority.

Propaganda in authoritarian and democratic state

My personal feeling is that citizen of the democratic capitalist societies should undertake a course of intellectual of intellectual self-defense to protect themselves form manipulation and mind control

(Chomsky, 1982: vii)

When most think about propaganda, they usually think about Dr. Goebbels, the 'the Evil Genius' of Nazi thought, Stalin’s regime, or other experiences of this organized process of persuasion. In these regimes, propaganda was a scientific and rational method to delete the subjective truth, imposing the objective truth which is the choice of the Party. The propagandist was an individual who tried to influence other persons.

The function of propaganda, the Nazi leader argued, was to bring the attention of the masses to certain facts, processes and necessities `whose significance is thus for the first time placed within their field of vision'. Accordingly, propaganda had to be simple, concentrate on as few points as possible, and be repeated frequently, with emphasis on such emotional elements as love and hatred. Through the continuity and sustained uniformity of its application, propaganda would, Hitler concluded, lead to results that are `almost beyond our understanding'. (Welch, 1988)

Nothing should exist outside the State’s decision. In fact, only the State can say the truth, and only the State has right or reason.

In this kind of society, propaganda is everywhere. It is possible to see it at school, in the media, in public manifestations, in sporting events, in the street, et cetera. Propaganda’s aim is to create uniform public speech and standardized public comportment. In a public place, it is not permitted to contradict the official doctrine, or according to Orwell, the “official truth”. If someone tries to show or manifest dissent of power, the police arrest him. In this kind of society the most important thing is the homologation of public comportment. This does not mean homologation of mind. Nobody can standardize the mind; only what people say they are thinking. Indeed, the State cannot know what you are thinking or your mind - only how you express it.

In a democratic country, on the other hand, it is possible to express one’s own mind. The State must to listen to what the people say, because democracy is based on people (Demos) power (Cratos). Furthermore, in democratic society propaganda is repudiated by people because they feel and wish that their choices should be made by themselves without any influences. Therefore the people, in democratic society, like to think that their decisions were born independently in their mind and not by somebody else. This is a clear sign of freedom. Indeed in a despotic society, the propaganda:

Attempt to effect the personalities and to control the behavior of individual toward ends considered unscientific or of doubtful value in a society in a particular time. (Doob, 1948: 240).

So, in democratic society the people are free to think and nobody attempts to affect their personalities, unlike an authoritarian society. This is the great conquest of free society. The situation, however, is not quite so simple. Not all intellectuals’ concord with this notion. Chomsky, for example, believes that paradoxically, in a closed society, there is more freedom of mind than in democratic society. Why? First of all, because under oppression and control, the human mind is more active, attempting to maintain individuality. Secondly, the State does not care what you think, but only what you say or do. Manifestation of freedom is forbidden. Expressing these feelings or beliefs is not allowed, but it is permissible think, only because it is difficult to stop thought.

In accordance with Chomsky’s belief, in democratic society the State must listen to the people’s opinions, and then try to homologate the mind. It is forbidden to use force against the free mind, but is possible to try to unify it. The new propaganda is completely different from the official, or old propaganda..

Our system works much differently and much more effectively. It’s a privatized system of propaganda, including the media, the journals of opinion and in general including the broad participation of the articulate intelligentsia, the educated part of the population. (Chomsky in Bersamian, 1992: 68-69)

In democratic society propaganda is more sophisticated and more elaborate. Primarily because it is invisible (Ramonet 2000a). In fact, in contrast with old propaganda, the new is not visible or easily identifiable. It does not need cudgels, army or police on the street to try to stop the mind. Above all it does not need a coordinator like Goebbels, because it is a self sustaining system, without the need for a director.

The general picture is of a media machine acting as a self-regulation system where propaganda is produced voluntarily and in a decentralized way by media personnel who censor themselves on the basis of internalized sense of political correctness (Rai, 1995: 46).

This is an important point. It is difficult in a democratic society to find a censorship like in regime state (except for Italy where Berlusconi, who is the owner of the three biggest private televisions and controls the public television, had censured some critical journalists). It is now easier to find a new form of censure: self-censure.

This propaganda service is provided without government censorship or coercion, by self-censorship alone, with the truth of the propaganda line internalized by the numerous media participants. This internalization of belief makes it possible for media personnel to be enthusiastic spokespersons in pushing the party line, thereby giving it a naturalness that is lacking in crude systems of government-enforced propaganda. (Herman 2003: 15)

Censorship is the most evident form of state control over the freedom of information. All dictatorships control the mass media. This is one of the main instruments of the propaganda system, where some things are banned and others are emphasized. Censorship can take a variety of forms, and it does not necessarily need direct involvement of the State. In certain situations, intervene a new form of censorship called “systems of self-censorship” which required journalist and the press to have a severe code of conduct that include the “command” not to damage national unity and patriotic sense of state. This kind of voluntary censorship is much more pervasive and insidious form of control. Usually nobody tries to directly stop an article or report, but frequently in war time some news is preemptive cut and other is censorship for several reasons. More critical is Fisk’s opinion, which says that journalists are “free to report what we are told” (Fisk, The Independent, 4 February 1991).

Censorship in the market system

Private censorship serves to suppress ideas as thoroughly and as rigidly as the worst government censor

(Barron 1973: 321)

As we have seen, the censorship does not only come from governments or other political institutions. In occidental democratic society, the censorship, also comes from the market system and media corporations. Indeed it is the market’s system who gives us the “direction”, which tells us what we have to do and what we have to buy. This system choices the new fashion, the new movies, the new way of live. The market system, is like any regimes, organizations, or political party, which believes itself custodian of unconditional truth. This truth must be defended. It is for this that they believe that they have not only a right but also the duty to exercise a censorship and promote a propaganda to control opinion (Catlin, 1936: 127). Those who believe that they are right, inevitably feel the need to censorship any other ideas contrary to theirs.

It is a dangerous innocence to imagine that only governments impose censorship, and that therefore a free-market system, limiting the range of government activities, liberates us from the fear of censorship. The position of many in the media reflects the old liberal view that the only censorship to be feared is that imposed by a government. Censorship imposed by the media owners themselves is declared to be an exercise in freedom of the press (Qualter, 1985: 149).

Qualter introduced another important aspect concerning censorship: it is not only the state or government that impose restriction and information control, but also the free market system does it. First of all, the media corporations are largely privately owned and more and more concentrated by few proprietors, which come from the same social class. The consequence is that: “The control of one social class ensures that they will impose a censorship in the interest of that class” (Ibidem).

It is also important to underline that excessive media concentration, inevitably has a negative effect with the information pluralism. Usually the presence of competing newspapers, magazines or television in a market, is taken as proof of diversity. But do different daily newspapers or different covers of magazines mean different opinions? We must examine more seriously the structure of ownership, to understand if a different cover coincides with a different opinion. McCombs from Department of Journalism at University of Texas, conclude his research saying that “Competition does not insure diversity (in AA.VV., 1988: 137). The problem now is more and more complicate, because of the concentration of the media. William Safire on the New York Times (February 16, 2004), asked himself, in a article which analyzes the risk of media concentration, “If one huge corporation controlled both the production and the dissemination of most of our news and entertainment, couldn't it rule the world?” In the USA they are now “Five Sisters”, like the famous seven brothers of petroleum, which control almost all the panorama of the media, as news, views and entertainment.

This divided concentration is a dangerous problem for democratic society. Indeed when only a few voices are able to speak, and only a few points of view are given in the media system, the democratic system is ruined.

Individuals and societies have a need for diverse and pluralistic media provision. Concentration of media ownership narrow the range of voices that predominate in the media and consequently pose a threat to the interests of society. (Doyle, 2002: 6)

It is not only a social class problem. Furthermore media corporations are business societies which largely rely on sponsorship. The largest source of media advertising comes from multinational corporations and this influences the subject matter, promoting a consumer society. According to Herman it is possible say that media is decisively imbedded in the market system.

They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media are also dependent on government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and frequently overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses. (Herman)

We have to remember that the mass media are huge corporations whose main aims, are to maximize their profit, typical of any capitalist enterprise. However this is not fair, because we have the right to have a correct and variegate information, and this fundamental right is violated by the oligopoly of the mass media by these giant corporations.

Another problem with the media is that it is not accessible to everyone. In reality only the government and the principal corporations have access to the media because only they the resources, to utilize the media. Indeed only they – the two major institutions of power – have enough authority, money and power to occupy the media efficiently. Gramsci, an Italian Marxist theorist, argued that, unlike the military and police who use force to preserve social control, ideology wins consent for the public order without physical oppression. Hegemonic ideology tries to legitimate the current society, with its institutions and its model of life. The ideology which led society, and is imposed on it, become hegemonic when it is absolutely accepted and it is not imposed by force, but it exists by virtue of undisputed consent (Gramsci 1948). Furthermore, quoting Gramsci, mass media does not define a new reality but rather allow those in power of society to represent themselves. Chomsky also underlines, how the media reflect the consensus of powerful elites. Chomsky wrote

The propaganda model does not assert that the media parrot the line of the current state managers in the manner of a totalitarian regime; rather, that the media reflect the consensus of powerful elites of the state-corporate […]. The model argues, from its foundations, that the media will protect the interests of the powerful, not that it will protect state managers from their criticisms; the persistent failure to see this point may reflect more general illusions about our democratic system. (Chomsky, 1989: 149)

Understanding mass media’s role

The media are at the heart of our capacity or incapacity to make sense of the world in which we live

(Silverstone, 1999: preface)

Mass media play a crucial role in our society. First of all, the media are an agency of social integration and it has salient parallels with the role that church had in the Middle Age (Curran, 2002: 77). In addition, they help us to understand the world because they are involved in every aspect of our everyday lives (Silverston, 1999), and supply not only information but also 'conceptual frameworks within which information and opinions are ordered, not just fact but a worldview' (Lichehtenberg, 1990: 68).

In democratic societies, based on elected representative candidates, mass media could be considered the connective tissue of democracy, because it is the main way through citizens and the elected, communicate and act upon each other, informing and influencing (Gunther and Mughan 2000: 1). Moreover the media invite public opinion to reflect on important events and views. This concept, founded on the theory of Agenda-setting (McCombs, Shaw 1977), presumes that mass media does not tell us what to think, but what to think about. Mass media established the agenda of important events and viewpoint, sometimes deleting the critical or different points of view, or not giving them enough importance. Indeed, Agenda-setting is paramount because it determines the agenda for public discussion including and excluding items. The primary issue, according to Oscar H. Gandy (1982):

We have to go beyond the agenda setting to determine who sets the media agenda, how and for what purposes it is set, and with what impact on the distribution of power and values in society. […] Knowledge and information are seen to have economic and political value through their relation to power or to control over the actions of others. […] Because information is at the heart to individual and collective decision making, control of information implies control over decision making. (Gandy, 1982: 7-8)

Entman argued, that if the media or anyone is able to affect what people think about, they are therefore able to affect their attitudes. This is because the public opinion is made by interaction with media messages and what spectators or readers decide to do with them (Entman, 1989: 77). The media, order the priorities on the agenda discussion and in this kind, can influence us. The main issue now is to understand what criteria is used to decide the news. To understand which events become news, which events are reported by media and which are cut, means to understand which side of society is represented by media. In fact not every event becomes news. Indeed before an event, or like Herman and Chomsky prefer to say, the 'raw material of news', becomes news, must pass through series of five filters, that constantly 'interact with and reinforce one other' , having a several effects on media performance. The five filters which of the authors speak are:

… (1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth, and profit orientation of dominant mass-media firms; (2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media; (3) the reliance of the media on information provide by government, business, and experts funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power; (4) flak as a means of disciplining the media; and (5) anti-communism as a national religion and control mechanism. (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: 2)

According to Herman and Chomsky’s model of propaganda, we can see that those five filters are the most dominant elements in the news process production system. Only when the raw material of news, is passed through them, can become news. This news in the mainstream media represents the side of society, which correspond to hegemonic ideology. “The values which inform the selection of news items usually serve to reinforce conventional opinions and established authority (Curran, Seaton, 1981: 336)”.

Moreover this model of propaganda, does not influence everybody directly. Sometimes it is enough for the new propagandists to influence the decision makers, the opinion leaders to create the illusion, in the public opinion and generally in democratic societies, that belief and thought are developed naturally. According to Carey (1997: chapter 6) it is possible to find two different kinds of propaganda depending on the aims: Grassroots Propaganda and Treetops Propaganda. The first has aim to influence the most people possible. The second kind of propaganda tries to influence the decision makers, the editors, journalists et cetera, who without any significant coercion, will influence the public opinion, which is more and more dependent from media to understand our specialist society.

The power of the U.S. propaganda system lies in its ability to mobilize an elite consensus, to give the appearance of democratic consent, and to create enough confusion, misunderstanding, and apathy in the general population to allow elite programs to go forward (Herman, 1996).

It is clear, looking at the structure of media ownership (Bagdikian, 1983) what is the main topic transmitted by the media: marketing. A relationship seems to exist between corporate power and ideology, where the media serve and reflect the interests of dominant elites. So the media, the main media, are playing a hegemonic task in democratic society to legitimate this political and ideological status. It is also for this reason, according to Herman and Chomsky (1988), that it can be said that media have a role in engineering consent, urging the people to love and to accept this life-style, as the only possible world.

Marketing has become so sophisticated that it aims to sell not just a brand name or social sign, but an identity. All based on the principle that having is being. (Ramonet 2000b: 1)

The free thinkers.

It is easier to dominate someone if they are unaware of being dominated. Colonized and colonizers both know that domination is not just based on physical supremacy. Control of hearts and minds follows military conquest.

(Ramonet, 2000b)

The new propaganda has its power in the freedom (or apparent freedom) of press. It is for this reason it is possible to call it new(s) propaganda. The new(s) propaganda needs freedom of media, needs debate (only a small amount, and under control). Why? Because until someone can say without restraint what one is thinking, it is difficult to see this kind of propaganda which wants to homologate the mind. The intellectuals or writers who work against this system are, regardless, inside the system. Because paradoxically those who think that it is difficult to talk and write liberally are indeed talking or writing about this, and so are free to say everything. It is here a more interesting aspect of this propaganda appears. The reflections of an intellectual or writer are delivered to a small segment of the population, and usually someone who already knows these things beforehand. It rarely arrives to the general public.

Herman and Chomsky demonstrated in democratic system, it is possible to find five filters for information (Herman, Chomsky, 1988: 1-35). Only if the event or thing goes trough one of those filters could it arrive to public opinion.

A propaganda model suggests that the “societal purpose” of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issue, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises (Herman, Chomsky, 1988: 298).

A democratic society cares about public opinion not the former, because the democratic system listens to what the majority says. So those who talk about this new(s) face of propaganda are fewer and fewer, and give the pretext to say the propaganda does not exist. At the same time if nobody says this, even fewer and fewer people know that system exists, and those people waive their right to speak (nobody says it is forbidden to talk or write). Above all the intellectuals abandon their duty: to try to make the world more intelligible for everybody. Another problem is those who know this are creating a closed circuit that essentially isolates them from the rest of the world.



An independent mind must seek to separate itself from official doctrine, and from the criticism advanced by its alleged opponents; not just from the assertion of propaganda system, but from its tacit presuppositions as well, expressed by critic and defender.

(Chomsky, 1982: 81)

In summary, the old propaganda was used in totalitarian societies, without freedom of expressions, without freedom of speaking guaranteed by constitution. The new propaganda, in contrast, needs freedom from the media, needs freedom from the press. We have seen that if this freedom is also guaranteed by law, it is sometimes overwhelmed by the market system. Using one analogy, we can say that the system, and no one person, is the new dictator, which impose censorship, which control the information.

There is a structural contradiction between freedom of communication and unlimited freedom of the market, and that the market liberal ideology of freedom of individual choice in the marketplace of opinion is in fact a justification of the privileging of corporate speech and of giving more choice to investors than to citizens. It is an apology for the power of king-sized business to organize and determine and therefore to censor individuals’ choice concerning what they listen to or read and watch. (Kean, 1991: 89)

It is not enough to have a constitution which guarantees the right to the freedom press. This is a great conquest in our society, but it does not mean that everyone has equal opportunities to express themselves. This formal right does not mean democracy, where everyone has the same rights or duties. If we want to keep a real democracy we must protect the other rights that lie behind the right to the freedom of the press. These rights are the freedom of access to the press, that is not equal for everybody; the freedom of competition on the news market and above all the freedom from monopoly power. The latter it is not only not guaranteed, but is seriously damaged and injured by the new law, that gives to the big corporations the possibility and the right to concentrate the different voices of our society. Yet, it could be argued that the excessive freedom of market is against the real freedom of expression and the freedom to represent the different voices and points of view in a democratic society.

Freedom without social responsibility is called egoism and especially in a capitalist society, this leads to a defense of self-interest and the advancement of the interest of those who pay most. (van Dijk, 1988: 47)

The media concentration, the excessive freedom of market and the faith that people put in this, is the new enemy for a democratic society generating a barrier to entry, monopoly and restrictions upon choice. Just reflect on the past to understand how the concentration of media is deleting thousands of independent opinions. Yes, of course today the press is still legally free; but most of the smaller papers have disappeared and others find it increasingly difficult to reach the market and the public. In the totalitarian dictatorship there is political censorship where the media of mass communication is completely controlled by the State. Now it is not the party or the “big brother” that controls almost all the media, but it is the economy and therefore the power elite censorship.

Finally, as Huxley claims, it is possible to hold that the aim of a new dictatorship, and consequently the aim of a new propaganda, is to convince people to love their “slavery”, confusing it with freedom (Huxley, 1958). In this context it is difficult to open the eyes of people, because they have learned to love this way of life.


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