Definition of Propaganda

Propaganda is a form of communication which carries a biased message and is intended to influence others to accept or reject certain views or agendas. Propaganda involves spreading ideas or information—whether true or false—to the general populace such that popular opinion sways in a certain way. This can lead to people thinking, feeling, or acting in certain ways that otherwise they might not. Thus, even if propaganda has a positive goal, the word generally has a negative connotation due to its intention to manipulate.

The term propaganda originally was created by the Catholic Church in the 1600s as a way to spread, or “propagate,” the faith. The definition of propaganda obtained a more negative connotation in the 1800s when it was used to refer to the ways that politicians tried to influence thought and behavior of the general populace.

Common Examples of Propaganda

There are many different areas in which propaganda examples can be found, such as advertising, religion, public service announcements, and politics, especially during wartime. Here are some different examples from history:

  • Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica”: Pablo Picasso painted his famous “Guernica” after Germany and Italy bombed a small town in northern Spain in 1937. Many people around the world did not realize the severity of the Spanish Civil War, and Picasso’s piece spread information via art about the horrors of what was going on in Spain.
  • “Daisy” advertisement for President Lyndon B. Johnson: Aired only once, an ad for incumbent president Johnson featured a small girl in a field picking petals off a daisy followed by a nuclear explosion. The tagline was “The stakes are too high,” which strongly implied that a vote for opponent Barry Goldwater could lead to the immolation of the human race.
  • “Triumph of the Will” by Leni Riefenstahl for Hitler: Hitler was convinced of the power of propaganda and emotional appeal to people. Thus, he hired popular actress Leni Riefenstahl to film a documentary about a Nazi Party Congress in 1934 and asked her to focus on the emotional and aesthetic aspects of the gathering so as to sway more Germans to align themselves with the Nazis. Though the resulting film is controversial for obvious reasons, “Triumph of the Will” is considered one of the most effective pieces of propaganda ever made.

Significance of Propaganda in Literature

There are three significant ways in which propaganda is relevant to literature. The first one is perhaps the easiest to understand, which is when an author is writing about an oppressive regime and shows clear examples of the propaganda therein. The majority of the examples below are of this sort; many futuristic dystopian novels include both a perversion of the society we are accustomed to, and the sort of propaganda that was necessary to convince the society in the novel to accept these different norms.

The second way that propaganda and literature are related is when literature is expressly used as propaganda. The author might want to point out the ills of society in a certain way, and write in such a persuasive way as to convince his or her readership of these ills. Propaganda in this way can be positive—promoting peaceful action and progress in the name of justice—or negative.

The third connection between propaganda and literature is that some have posited that indeed ALL literature is a form of propaganda. There is a reason that an author feels compelled to write a certain book, and in so doing he or she shares his or her worldview. The message is always biased in the case of an author writing a novel; the author has no need to conceal this fact. This type of connection between literature and propaganda is one of the main reasons that certain books get banned: those in power worry that reading the books will promote a certain viewpoint, whether one of violence or of peace, that is antithetical to what those in power stand for. The power of books is often shown by those who try to suppress them.

Examples of Propaganda in Literature

Example #1

And the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programs, plays, novels – with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling-book to a Newspeak dictionary.

(1984 by George Orwell)

George Orwell had direct experience with the function and harm of propaganda in wartime, as he joined troops in the Spanish Civil War fighting fascism. He experiences there led him to several of his ideas in 1984, especially the way in which the past was reconstructed in media to support a certain current narrative.

Example #1

“We won’t talk about losing. There is enough talk about losing. What has been done this summer cannot have been done in vain.” I did not say anything. I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

(A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway was another foreign author who chose to take part in the Spanish Civil War, and who fictionalized his experiences. In this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms, the narrator expresses his exhaustion with empty, vague terms such as “sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.” He sees these word as a large part of propaganda meant to influence ordinary civilians to join the fight, and argues that this ends of making those particular words “obscene.”

Example #3

No, no it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type or receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.

(Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury)

Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 is an interesting example of propaganda in that it focuses on a society which burns books and yet Fahrenheit 451 itself has often been banned. Thus, real-life people have decided the message inside is too dangerous to spread to the public at large, and yet the message is simply that books are important for remembering things, and knowing about other people’s ways of life.

Example #4

We are fascinated, but also repelled. They seem undressed. It has taken so little time to change our minds, about things like this.

Then I think: I used to dress like that. That was freedom.

Westernized, they used to call it.

(The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood)

The narrator of Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred, realizes how her mind has been changed about something that seems as simple as clothing. She sees tourists from Japan who look “undressed” in her opinion. Propaganda in this dystopian society has led the women in it to believe that a certain way to dress was correct and all others are improper.

Test Your Knowledge of Propaganda

1. Which of the following statements is the best propaganda definition?
A. Inherently evil messaging that means to distort people’s opinions from good to bad.
B. An incorrect word used accidentally in place of another word with a similar sound.
C. A message or material distributed to win people over to a particular doctrine.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following materials could be a piece of propaganda?
I. Books
II. Movies
III. Political speeches

A. Only III
B. I and III
C. I, II, and III

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider the following quote from George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

‘Comrades!’ cried Squealer, making little nervous skips… ‘We had thought Snowball’s rebellion was caused simply by his vanity and ambition. But we were wrong, comrades. Do you know what the real reason was? Snowball was in league with Jones from the very start! He was Jones’s secret agent all the time. It has been proved by documents which he left behind him and which we have only just discovered. To my mind this explains a great deal, comrades. Did we not see for ourselves how he attempted — fortunately without success — to get us defeated and destroyed at the Battle of the Cowshed?’

Is this an example of propaganda?
A. Yes—Squealer is spreading misinformation to get the other animals to believe a certain view.
B. Yes—Squealer is telling the truth that the animals had been too dumb to realize.
C. No—Squealer is lying and thus this can’t be propaganda.

Answer to Question #3 Show