Thursday, December 14, 2023

Can We Stop Whistling in the Wind?

Le Coup de vent [The Gust of Wind] 
Artist: Jean-Jules-Antoine Lecomte du Nouÿ (1842-1923)
Photo by Sotheby's. This work is in the Public Domain {{PD-USGov}}

"...propaganda only seems to succeed when it coincides with what people are inclined to do in any case."[1]

 George Orwell, 1944

Propagandists are largely parasitic. A parasite lives and feeds on or in another organism of another species, causing harm to its host. As if we are another species,[2] propagandists exploit us as they obsess with self-advancement. More than offensive or demeaning, continuous streams of manufactured, outrageous talk cause serious harm. We delude ourselves by paying too little attention to the extent of the harm done to us.

Great Harm

Most obviously, much political propaganda now incites hate, violence, or government overthrow. Propagandists routinely use fear, vanity, greed, or other basic emotions to cause social divisions and chaos, or damage to reputation, along with individual and larger scale fraud in financial, health, or electoral decision-making. Propaganda is a much used cover-up of corrupt practices or behavior in institutions, harming individuals  within or outside an institution.

Viewed through the lens of the parasite analogy, the propagandist draws on our culture, beliefs, and emotions to weaken the quality of life that we value. These agents of Newspeak[3] are so present that friends, family, and neighbors tire of hearing about them in the media or just about anywhere else.

In the United States, mass media have frequently broadcast entire political rallies of a candidate, again and again and again, for months on end. This was acknowledged at the time by the occasional broadcast media executive as not good for America, but "damn good" for the broadcaster.[4]

Entranced with fourth-rate celebrity, if that's all that's available, many in the mass media still regurgitate trite outrage or worn-out quotable quotes as breaking news. Perhaps it's a pious wish that broadcasters will ever recognize that many of us have had enough rehashes of the latest doings of a propagandist being paraded before us. We are continuing our shift to streaming platforms.

Is There Good Propaganda?

Propaganda is not new. But it is not well understood. Some folks sincerely suggest there is good propaganda. One widely available definition of propaganda considers it as "helping or injuring ...deliberately to further one's cause or to damage an opposing cause."[5] According to this view, propaganda might advance whatever is either negative or positive.

Propaganda principles, processes, and techniques certainly seem agnostic to political or moral positions or "-isms." But the reality is that any propaganda is fully effective when the independent will and the capacity for choice by "targeted" individuals are denied. Can a propagandist with good intent somehow purify propaganda when pursuing a common good?[6] Both good and bad actors use propaganda processes to secure their results by creating "pseudo-needs."[7]

Commonly these days, political propagandists sow chaos, confusion, and false crises to exploit our limited attention to the consequences of what they say and do. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul explains in his landmark study that propaganda is an ongoing process constantly shaping expectations through:

...continuous agitation... [creating] ...a climate first, and then prevent[ing] the individual from noticing a particular propaganda operation in contrast to daily events.[8]

Ironically and sadly, our own preoccupation with what we call propaganda helps ensure that public policies or action to address the real needs and wants of people take a back seat to the endless microanalyses of the propagandist, or are simply ignored. Propagandists confidently rely on daily regurgitation of their public talk in news reports, social media, and elsewhere. This control of the public agenda significantly reframes our thinking.

Even as we disdain spin merchants, they tell us what we want to hear, wrapped in cultural myths that pander to our deepest feelings. Savvy propagandists are adept at incorporating myths in this way, frequently promising a better future. And what people believe about the future is what shapes response to present events.[9] 

Images of a lifestyle or a national identity might be valuable for an individual or for social cohesion, but propagandists value such beliefs in us as tools of control.

What Is Propaganda?

Understandings of the word propaganda range widely, including from what someone disagrees with[10] through to puffery or hyperbole for promotion. Whether or not we like a cause, product, or person promoted can affect what we call propaganda, or what we feel about a propagandist's claim.[11]

Even reaching agreement among scholars on a useful definition of the word[12] remains difficult. Some efforts seek to distinguish rhetoric, persuasion, and propaganda based on whether intentions are revealed or hidden, how much interaction or participation seems possible, whether discourse is truthful,[13] or whether rational decision-making is respected. A definition that Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell offer focuses on the purpose of propaganda:

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.[14]

Control of Thought

Alone or in collusion with collaborators, propagandists continuously attack both free thought and, by extension, freedoms of speech and association. Ellul observes "to be effective, propaganda must constantly short-circuit all thought and decision."[15] He alerts to propaganda being "a menace that threatens the total personality,"[16] warning that any fully effective propaganda provokes "action without prior thought."[17] And this "action makes propaganda's effect irreversible."[18]

Once we are sufficiently prepared to make automatic response, we the propagandized increasingly give ourselves over to what the propagandist says about everyday events. Commercial, political, and cult-promoting propagandists all seek automatic response[19] to further their interests. Seriously examining propaganda requires a definition that embraces this driving effect.

After reviewing a wide variety of definitions, Randal Marlin offers a workably clear description, which is the framework stipulated here:

PROPAGANDA = 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.[20]

This aptly infers that a propagandist's effectiveness depends on the extent to which audiences surrender free choice. This most substantial harm to individuals and society is not easily addressed. Such commandeering of people's thinking and actions continuously corrupts the freedoms on which democracy is based. As will be explored in a later blog post, the processes of propaganda and democracy are at odds,[21] through the impact on each of us and on democratic processes.

Although propaganda has an inevitable presence in society and can serve to unify the beliefs of a community, talking about "harmful propaganda,"[22] as if there is any that is not, should not sit well with anyone committed to freedom.

Not to Be Fooled

Continuous immersion in nonsense wrapped in deeply felt myths really messes with otherwise sensible pundits, politicians, academics, and each of us. In daily life, we all accept bursts of verbiage, image, or deeds designed to grab our attention washing over us from an early age. 

Even before we reach teen years, the electronic babysitter of television delivers countless, unfiltered stimulations of dopamine in the brain. Its effects are much like a narcotic causing addiction. This engagement helps tech platforms soon afterwards to fulfill their goal for more of us to spend more time on social media.

Are we whistling in the wind to expect civic leaders, neighbors, friends, family, or any of us to outwit propagandists? Productively unmasking propagandists or redirecting their efforts requires some agreement about what's going on.

Ellul suggests that the "endless repetition of formulas, explanations, and simple stimuli" erodes "scorn and disbelief."[23] However foolish we might initially believe some nonsense to be, its repetitive use focuses both conversation and actions. Accordingly, the most educated, intelligent people in the community remain the most propagandized because each

* Absorbs the largest amount of second-hand information.
* Feels compelled to have an opinion
* Takes pride in thinking clearly and "judging."[24]

Thanks to George Orwell's short essay "Politics and the English Language," we can be more alert to public figures who use words to obscure or deliberately hide realities. Orwell tried to help with simple advice to catch and push back on language that is "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable."[25] Together with his description of Newspeak in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four,[26] we have an early warning and basic ways to deal with this verbal abuse.

Orwell also presented us with a further warning about the consequence and effect of a propagandist's language distortions. His fairy story Animal Farm[27] darkly illustrates how autocratic pigs take over the farm. They use the other animals' fuzziness of memory and limited reasoning ability to confuse collective memories about previous practices and norms. 

The pigs secure obedience to their new regime largely because their fellow animals continuously ponder ambiguities, without taking any action. By giving permission in advance,[28] the animals cede control of the farm to the pigs, increasing the speed with which all are controlled.[29]

The most effective antidotes to propaganda remain truth and the ability to distinguish "fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible"[30]to differentiate the light from the dark and the many shades between.


1. Orwell, George (2009), “Propaganda and Demotic Speech,” in Packer, George (Ed.), All Art is Propaganda, New York: Mariner, p. 231 [1st published in Persuasion, Summer Quarter, 1944, 2, No.2]

2. Alekseev, Andrey, Oleg Gurov, Alexander Segal, and Andrey Sheludyakov (2023), "Ideas as Infections: Introduction to the Problematics of Cognitive Metaparasitism," Epistema, 1, [explores the dynamics of metaparasites, defined as information designed to manipulate or deceive],

3. Orwell, George (1972), “The Principles of Newspeak,” Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 241-251 [1st published 1949]

4. Fallon, Peter K. (2022), Propaganda 2.1: Understanding Propaganda in the Digital Age, Eugene, OR: Cascade, p. 95

5. _________ (2020), “Propaganda,” Merriam-Webster Dictionary,

6. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, New York: Knopf, p. 256

7. Kellen, Konrad, “Introduction,” in Ellul (1965), p. vii

8. Ellul (1965), p. 20

9. Lerner, D. (1972), “Effective Propaganda,” in Lerner, D. (Ed.), Propaganda in War and Crisis, New York: Arno, p. 346

10. Baines, Paul, Nicholas O'Shaughnessy, and Nancy Snow (Eds.) (2020), The Sage Handbook of Propaganda, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. xxv

11. Taylor, P. M. (2002), “Strategic Communications or Democratic Propaganda?” Journalism Studies, 3, 3, pp. 437-441,, in Kiss, Peter A. Kiss (2023), “Russian Strategic Communication Operations in Support of Strategic Objectives in the Russo-Ukrainian War,” November 23 pport_of_Strategic_Objectives_in_the; Murphy, Dennis M. and James F. White (2007), “Propaganda: Can a Word Decide a War?,” The US Army War College Quarterly: Parameters 37, 3, pp. 15-27,

    [briefly reviews some limitations on countering propaganda in the United States.]

12. Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O’Donnell (2019), 7th edn, Propaganda and Persuasion, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 2-7; Marlin, Randal (2013), Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, Peterborough, ON: Broadview, pp. 4-13; Steinfatt, Thomas M. (1979), “Evaluating Approaches to Propaganda Analysis,” ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 36(2), Summer, pp.159-162

13. Bennett, Beth S. and Sean Patrick O’Rourke (2006), “A Prolegomenon to the Future Study of Rhetoric and Propaganda: Critical Foundations," in Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell (Eds.), Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 67; see also - Chomsky, Noam (1989) Necessary Illusions in Democratic Societies, Boston, MA: South End Press

14. Jowett and O’Donnell (2017), p. 6

15. Ellul (1965), p. 27

16. Ellul (1965), p. xvii

17. Ellul (1965), p. 240

18. Ellul (1965), p. 29

19. Ellul (1965), p. 208

20. Marlin (2013), p. 12

21. Ellul (1965), p. 26

22. Stanley, Jason (2015), How Propaganda Works, Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 5 

23. Ellul (1965), p. 312

24. Kellen, in Ellul (1965), pp. v-vi

25. Orwell, George (1981), “Politics and the English Language,” A Collection of Essays, Orlando, FL: Harcourt, p. 156-171 [1stpublished 1946]

26. Orwell (1972), “The Principles of Newspeak,” pp. 241-251

27. Orwell, George (1977), Animal Farm, New York: Signet [1st published 1945]

28. Snyder, Timothy (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan, p. 17

29. Snyder, p. 18

30. Sayers, Dorothy L. (1948), The Lost Tools of Learning: Paper Read at a Vacation Course in Education, Oxford, 1947, London: Methuen, p. 4


  1. Rod, this is very good analysis, and I just want to make a few supplementary observations. The title of Jacques Ellul's work, translated as "Propaganda," was in French "Propagandes." It's worth bearing in mind that there are many forms of propaganda, working at different levels and orders of consciousness. We can be thinking of world-scale issues, or quite local issues.
    It's with local issues that the ordinary citizen can act with more confidence about acting in the light of truthful information. Even there, it can be difficult to avoid being deceived by paid-for opinion polls, supported by developers and a compliant media that fails to investigate sources of possible bias in those polls. Your readers may find that two articles I published recently have analogues to be found in their own communities. Just Google "Glebe Report, Lansdowne, ownership," and you (they) should be led to those two articles, one published in August, the other this month (December).

  2. Thank you so much for your insights. Enjoyed your articles on the propaganda of polling [at:] and the use of ambiguity in a word [at:]. Great illustrations of distortion on a local and very significant matter. As well as illustrating how any of us can find ways to push back on propaganda. Appreciate your point about the various forms of propaganda also, which I'll be describing more fully later. Ellul is comprehensive and still remarkably current! Best wishes, Rodney