Friday, December 29, 2023

Understanding Propaganda

Brainwashing-A Propagandist's Dream

"...the continual effort and alarm attendant on a state of continual danger will compel nations the most attached to liberty to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be safe... [people] length become willing to run the risk of being less free."[1]

 Alexander Hamilton, 1787

What Alexander Hamilton observes about the debilitating effect of continuous chaos in war also applies to how we are targeted in the propaganda war. Manufactured outrage is a weapon in the war on democracy. Aspiring autocrats worldwide copy-cat mirages of chaos, calamity, or carnage. Their fake news, disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy conjectures use pseudo-populist appeals to construct a disturbing kaleidoscope.

The frequently discordant or contradictory claims acquire consistency by resonating with what we value in the presuppositions of society.[2] Jacques Ellul names the persistence of some myths, such as nation, youth, hero, work, and the belief in progress. These myths "evoke the future."[3] He suggests propagandists tap into such myths to help drive automatic behavior by a social force that deprives us of our core being.[4]

How We "Hear" Propaganda

Even though presuppositions of a society may be expressed in myths, metaphors, or national narratives, these are not necessarily uniformly understood by people. Different people perceive different connotations in words and phrases–and may differently assign denotation in what we "hear."

Our point of view is central to how we understand propaganda. It's no more than a convenient illusion to think and act as if meaning is fixed in a word, phrase, image, or action and that everyone uniformly "gets it," much less that they should, or that it is the same it. Exposing what any propaganda means requires more than restating some meme or slogan, as if there is a single discoverable meaning that we all uniformly get.

As the linguist Noam Chomsky remarks "communication is a more-or-less matter, seeking a fair estimate of what the other person said and has in mind."[5] David Sless and Ruth Shrensky point out that we each perceive words, images, music, actions, or events etc. differently–with each of us playing " active part in the making of the meaning."[6] They offer that signs have meaning that we project onto them, suggesting we make meaning by projecting our "prior knowledge...seamlessly."[7] 

While Sless and Shrensky do recognize public language or common meaning, they observe that generally "it's hard to decide what may be shared."[8] Authentic analysis of propaganda will appreciate there are a wide variety of points of view in audiences, with many contexts in play to influence understanding or action. 

Aligning Meanings

Acknowledging that each of us brings different projections and accommodations to what we perceive requires that we change how to think about communication and therefore how to interpret propaganda. Additionally, a specialty of propagandists is to assert certainties while stimulating ambiguity. Savvy propagandists are especially adept at infecting their public discourse with words of certainty and ambiguity that resonate with myths or presuppositions. 

News reports were not so long ago infiltrated with words like celebrity president, fake news, deep state, tremendous success, or many others. Such verbal combinations claim attention and touch off presuppositions. Each spotlights the propagandist's own perspective and is designed to elicit desired responses in us. The term semantic infiltration was coined by Fred Iklé to describe the use for which these words are designed:

Simply put, semantic infiltration is the process whereby we come to adopt the language of our adversaries in describing political reality.[9]

When we repeat such words, we assist the propagandist's efforts. And we encourage others to do the same. The mass media assist the propagandist's efforts by headlining much of this word-salad in reports of current events. This is complicated further by propagandists infiltrating false dichotomies, narrow-casting, or otherwise reframing words we commonly use, most notably freedom and democracy. At worst, we can become megaphones for the propagandist's worldview, to reach audiences well beyond what the propagandist might accomplish unassisted.[10]

Claims and Ambiguities

It is many repetitions, especially with variation, that powerfully reinforce. For example, in the United States all the way to January 6 of 2021 and beyond, all media persistently regurgitated verbatim propagandist slogans like "Stop the Steal"–which disseminated insurrectionist claims widely. Whether or not media reports are perceived as neutral or slanted positively or negatively, the continuous repetition of this verbiage reinforces the propagandist's "certainties." So much repetition of rants and ramblings inevitably increases their significance. 

The repeated parroting of a big lie, even though we might oppose the claims of a propagandist, should be viewed as one form of advancing permission to control the public agenda, as well as our lives.[11] And such claims land resoundingly in the disinformation land of the suburbs, where feelings of safety and security may be easily disturbed. In many countries, it's here that elections are often decided. 

Journalists, pundits, and social media users continuously take the bait of propagandists' outlandish claims and name-calling. They even respond in kind, with characterizations of a propagandist as "bully," "infantile," "racist," or "unhinged." Persistent repetition of even what's grossly negative about a propagandist will nonetheless help advance the propagandist's name, identity, and style. 

On the flipside, a propagandist can benefit when words are so over-used that they no longer register with us. For example, it's likely that after a time the frequent repetition of a propagandist's threats to destroy democracy may become meaningless to listeners–like a weird version of Aesop's tale about the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Meanwhile, these repetitions serve a dual role of providing the media hungry propagandist with additional coverage through the propagandist's own follow-up denial of the media's parroting.

We see decay already in the meaning of words for which the use-by dates are well passed, thanks largely to their frequent occurrence in the mass media–like "existential," "untruth," and "unprecedented." This process is analogous to what's known as semantic satiation. Although psychology researchers still debate how the process occurs, high repetition appears to cause a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for a listener.[12] 

And a savvy propagandist will also powerfully exploit varieties of ambiguity among the certainties. Randal Marlin describes how the ambiguity of some verbs or nouns can promote intention. For example, the ordinarily positive verb help accentuates a negative intention in the sentence "James helped John lose." Marlin illustrates how the use of such verbs as "brought about" or "ensured" or "engineered" may impute an intention that the "doer" did not have. He elaborates how "a skillful propagandist can exploit this kind of ambiguity," by implying an intention to bring about a consequence.[13]

Within the continuous drumbeat of invented conspiracies, ambiguity is common too. Philip Collins notes this in the frequently propagated supposed conspiracy of some unnamed elite against people, which claims "utopia [is] just around the corner, if only the corrupt elite had cared to venture there." He points out the propagandist's self-portrayal as leading efforts to "rise above the smears, and ludicrous slanders from ludicrous reporters."[14] Yet another example is the classic bandwagon device "a lot of people are saying," used as authority for some preposterous drivel. With a zealot's energy, such a propagandist will launch attacks on "enemies" and other "vermin." 

Preoccupied with self-advancement, by any means, at the expense of anyone else, propagandists routinely talk in authoritative-sounding imperatives to assert their often outrageous claims. They distract from reality, denying, destabilizing, and destroying our established norms, values, and even the operation of valued institutions.

How Propaganda Works

But it can be difficult at times to challenge what propagandists say, since they so often deal in ill-defined extremes. They stimulate uncertainty about core values, leaving confusion–even encouraging a belief that it is others who are propagandized. 

Linguists will tell us propagandists use imperatives heavily and a high proportion of vacuous content words with unclear referents. They use lots of function words to add ambiguity or emphasize extremes–like factive verbs and non-referential adverbs.[15] A propagandist's exaggerations include of course playing on the fear of "other" groups in society, or pandering to deep-seated desires... for recognition, for virility, for accomplishment, or for belonging, for example.

Because audience members perceive certainties and ambiguities differently, the propagandist is able to tap into a range of perceptions. Perhaps this helps with negotiating feelings of proximity[16] with a wide array of "propagandees," including among people with widely varying beliefs. It seems there are as many different propaganda as members of a large audience. Now there's a challenge for quantitative research!

The dynamic processes of propaganda are akin to how rumor works. As people project personal concerns into a rumor, this modifies and spreads it widely. Propagandists likewise fuel their reach through novelty, contrariness, exaggeration, and ambiguity resonant with our presuppositions. As Ellul noted about the empowering effect in rumor:

...the farther away the source and the greater the number of individuals who have passed it on, ...the more the objective fact loses importance and the more the rumor is believed by the multitudes who adhere to it.[17]

And propaganda distributed digitally, or even through mass media, will morph at least as readily and widely as village gossip. In addition to ease of dissemination, these media deliver on the prime purpose of propaganda to cause audience action.[18] Digital communications offer many options to engage audiences in using these media to further the propagandist's interests and chain these "doers" to the propagandist.

While propaganda is sometimes described as a top-down approach seeking exclusive control of all communication channels, a wide range of accessible media available today negates the need for control of all communication channels for propaganda to succeed. Grassroots or multi-headed campaigns in sympathy with each other need not align exactly for a propagandist to dominate the thought of others sufficiently to incite action–which makes especially urgent the need to neutralize this propaganda.


1. Hamilton, Alexander (1787), The Federalist, Number 8, November 20,

2. Ellul, Jacques (2016), "The Characteristics of Propaganda," in Jowett, Garth S. and Victoria O'Donnell (Eds.), Readings in Propaganda and Persuasion: New and Classic Essays, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, p. 22

3. Ellul (2006), p. 23

4. Ellul, Jacques (1965), Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes, New York: Knopf, p. 87

5. Chomsky, Noam (1993), Language and Thought, Kingston, RI: Moyer Bell, p. 21

6. Sless, David and Ruth Shrensky (2023), A New Semiotics: An Introductory Guide for Students, London and New York: Routledge, p. 46

7. Sless and Shrensky, p. 48

8. Sless and Shrensky, p. 144

9. _______ (1978), "Distortions of Political Language," Washington Post, November 21

10. Toler, Aric (2017), "Most Common Way that Fake News Spreads Is from Laziness," STOPFAKE.ORG,

11.  Ellul (1965), p. xvii; Snyder, Timothy (2017), On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, New York: Tim Duggan, p. 17

12. Esposito, Nicholas J. and Leroy H. Pelton (1971), "Review of the Measurement of Semantic Satiation," Psychological Bulletin, 75, pp. 330-346; Black, S.R. (2003), "Review of Semantic Satiation," in Shohov, S.P. (Ed.), Advances in Psychology Research, 26, Nova Science Publishers, pp. 63-74

13.  Marlin, Randal (1984), "The Rhetoric of Action Description: Ambiguity in Intentional Reference," Informal Logic, 6, 3, pp. 26-28,

14. Collins, Philip (2017), When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches that Shape the World and Why We Need Them, London: 4th Estate, p. 78

15. Miller, Rodney G. (2022), Australians Speak Out: Persuasive Language Styles, Albany, NY: Parula, p. 92

16. Turnbull, Nick (2017), "Political Rhetoric and Its Relationship to Context: A New Theory of the Rhetorical Situations, the Rhetorical and the Political," Critical Discourse Studies, XXX, p. 14

17. Ellul (1965), pp. 293-294

18. Wanless, Alicia and Michael Berk (2022), "Participatory Propaganda: The Engagement of Audiences in the Spread of Persuasive Communications," in Herbert, David and Stefan Fisher (Eds.), Social Media and Social Order, De Gruyter Open Poland,


  1. This article is the most cogent explanation of how populist propaganda has been effective in the U.S. lately. Thank you, Rod!
    Now I would like to read your thoughts on how to neutralize the propaganda without repeating it.

  2. Delighted you enjoyed this. Will make some suggestions in upcoming posts. Cheers, Rodney