The Fourth Component of Propaganda

April 15, 2007

According to Sheryl Tuttle Ross, propaganda has three different components:(1) the Sender, “the one who is persuading”; (2) the Receiver, who is the “target for such persuasion”, and; (3) the Message, the “means of reaching that target.”

This definition of propaganda is surely a good starting place, but seems to be insufficiently narrow. Could one not add a potential fourth component, namely outside contrary influences, like the free press or opposing political parties?

If one accepts this new addition, then we end up with two basic types of propaganda: that which exists in free societies, and that which that exists in closed ones. This suggests that there is a big difference between the propaganda promoted by totalitarian governments in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Communist countries throughout Europe and Asia—government police states that controlled everything from the political process to the media to education—not to say anything of the horrors that would be exacted upon dissenters. Compare that to the United States and Britain’s propaganda, which, even with the full-throttled support of the government and the large swaths of the media nonetheless had to compete in a comparatively free marketplace of ideas.

The differing environments, in turn, has a great affect on the nature of the propaganda itself; if a government in a free society is going to be persuasive and trusted by its people, it must strive to be considered honest and trustworthy, while in a closed society the government more often looks to “persuade” through force. Surely, if one were to study the propaganda of the US and the USSR during the Cold War, the US’s would prove to be relatively more truthful and accurate (though this is not to say that there were no exaggerations, if not out-and-out lies.)

Also, something that should be considered in looking at propaganda is the culture in which the Sender and Receiver live. This is, of course, a sensitive subject, but are their certain parts of the world where the power structures and social myths make a people more prone to receiving messages without questioning?

Posted by Adam B and Carole Chen


20 Responses to “The Fourth Component of Propaganda”

  1. Philip Poon Says:

    I suppose there maybe another component, i.e. the ease of modern means of communication and the advance in technology of communication. In the sixties, people in China hardly had a radio at home, and TV sets in Hong Kong homes were rare. Now, we live in a world where computer is everywhere, people are linked by the web, youtube and everything. You can have almost instant access to almost everyone, everywhere. It’s really a different world, and it’s hard to imagine any country can control the flow of information as in the old days.
    In that sense, propaganda to brain wash people so that they would accept anything told by the state is not that easy.

  2. Adam Blinick Says:

    That is a great point, Philip, although I wouldn’t say that it is divorced from the “fourth component” mentioned in the post. Instead, what can be said is that with the advent of modern communication technology, totalitarian governments are having a more difficult time controlling the amount of voices its peoples can access, while free societies simply have more voices. Still, closed societies (or relatively closed societies) look to control the media–look at China with the restrictions it places on Google to operate in China, and the general state (pun intended) of news in North Korea.

    Thus, I’d say–and I think in accordance with you, Philip–that technology has made it harder for states to control the information, but that doesn’t mean that governments have stopped trying.

  3. Shermann Says:

    I think it is necessary to distinguish the quantity and the quality of information accessible by the public too. There was a study to show that although there are more news articles floating around due to proliferation of news media, many of these articles are just repetition of the news from a single source. This may result in a situation that a lie is told thousand times to become the truth. Therefore, the information available to the public is still possibly be manipulated by state or non-state actors. This situation happens to authoritarian and democratic states alike as what you can tell from the “restrain” imposed on CNN reporting during the Gulf War.

  4. carole12 Says:

    I quite agree that modern technology has made it easier for people to access to info, but some states are also using the hi-tech to prevent people from accessing.

    I have the experience that: watching or listengin the news originating from other countries or areas, when something ‘sensitive’ came out, the news would be replaced by ads. Some states are using trying all methods to prevent the people from the ‘unsuitable’ news. Does the people from the government know that the more they want to restrict the news, the more curious the people will be and they just want to know more. Does it make it more difficult for the government to control the state?

  5. Ronny Chan Says:

    I fully support Philip’s point of view on the means of communication and the advance in technology in communication as the fourth component of propaganda. The Message itself, as a means of reaching the target as stated in the original post is not so appropriate, I think it should be the message content itself. In broader sense, if it includes the way the message passing from the sender to the receiver, then it can be classified as the Message itself.

    But anyway, it is more appropriate in terms of the internal component of the propaganda. The outside contray influence as it says, is the outside environment in which the propaganda is working, and this could affect the effectiveness of the propaganda.

    But what is free press and what is closed one? Which one is better? An information overflow with lies? A news media dominated by some MNCs? How about if the Cold War was won by USSR? Will it be at that time, closed system is better?

  6. Adam Says:

    Shermann, I’m not sure what restraint you speak of, with regards to CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War. If you are talking of the most recent Gulf War, CNN and other major news outlets have been quite free to criticize the US and its policies. Some reporters, namely Dan Rathers, even visited with Saddam Hussein just before the conflict began. There may have been some instances where-rightly or wrongly-the US government tried to stop CNN or others from going to the public with a story that could potentially pose a threat to national security, but these cases are few and far between. If, indeed, the Bush administration has any control over the US media, it appears completely unable to excert its influence.

    And, I would agree with your point that much of the so-called “mainstream media” is rather uniform in its coverage of the news. That said, with the advent of blogs, left- and right-wing online magazines, and talk radio, there are is a greater plurality of voices and views than ever before. Stories are continually being broken by some random person surfing the net.

  7. carole12 Says:

    When writing the post, actually, I also have more ideas on culture.

    When we encounter propaganda and its influence, I wonder whether we really know we are being propagandizing. When I look back into the history and observe the situations in some other places, I find that propaganda works differently in different cultures and different ideations, that is, culture plays an important role in influencing the ‘receivers’.

    In some Asian countries, people could accept the politicians’ idea easily and the ideas spread like fire. In China during the ‘Culture Revolution’, people accepted the ridiculous idea of ‘learning is a bad deed and knowledge will only lead to rebellion’; in Japan, a royal samurai would commit seppuku to regain his honor if being disgraced. Why? I see it in the culture perspective. China was ruled by Feudalism for about 2000 years and the idea that one should obey the order of his/her parents/ leaders without second thought was rooted into people mind and it still shadow the contemporary society. When some politicians called for ‘Culrue Revolution’ during that period, of course that people would follow. In Japan, Confusianism is influencial from 12c to 19c which also characterized by compliance and royalty.

  8. Shermann Says:

    Adam, the American media embedded in the forces had been imposed constraints on reporting during the war in order not to harm the safety of American soliders on ground. I’m not sure how this has affected the quality of reporting and if this is isolated incidents. But this highlights the possibility that news reporting is not always unbiased or freed from interference. In some cases, they are tailored to achieve some specific purposes (in the name of national interests or the interests of the public are often cited in totalitarian and democratic states). Although there are pluarlity in the messages, are they received by the receipient equally is doubtful. This comes in the theory of communications that there exists selective listening / reception by the recipients because of recipients’ preconceptions towards the issues. For example, it is very likely that someone identified himself with certain school of thoughts seldom access websites from the alternatives because they are against their internal beliefs and the information from the identified school would only reinforce his own beliefs. I don’t mean that there should only be one voice in the information flow but pluarlity alone is not necessarily enough to ensure the best outcome (if there is such an outcome.)

  9. mark Says:

    There is also the point, whch i don’t think has been raised yet, that the word Propaganda itself – usually has a negative connotation.

    Propaganda is attached to the “enemy” or “the bad guy”.
    The word is used by opponants and not, as Tutle Ross said, “the sender”.

    It is also easy to discredit old news as propaganda in hindsight, when it was considered simple news as a current event. E.g Britain’s 45 minute weapons claim in the run up to the Iraq war in 2003. Today it is considered government propaganda to gain popular support.

  10. G. Daniel Says:

    I agree with mark point and would expand a bit.

    Propaganda is a word of the political realm, social science would rather talk of discourse. What is the difference between propaganda and information? The later is the truth while the former is a spin of it. Excepted that my vision of the world might be as justified, coherent and accurate as yours. So my truth is as valid as yours.

    Say good bye to propaganda and hello to discourses.

  11. eva Says:

    Firstly Mark is not completely correct when he says that propaganda usually has a negative connotation – it always has a negative connotation. The definition of propaganda is to spread false or misleading information. For example, the brain washing of the North Korean people to believe that their leader is perfect in every way may appear positive for Kim Jong-il and his government but obviously is of negative benefit to the people themselves who are denied knowledge of the truth, which is inherent in propaganda.

    Secondly I don’t really think that modern technological means of disseminating information can be added as a fourth component – it is merely a factor since there has always been a method of disseminating information – it has just become more efficient.

    In any event, this modern technology has enabled news reporting programmes on TV, such as CNN, BBC, etc. to examine and investigate claims made by governments. They can refute the information contained in any attempted propaganda statement. Therefore in democratic countries, where there is freedom of speech, it is more difficult for governments to hoodwink the public compared to countries where there is no such mechanism.

  12. Adam Says:

    Eva, I must respectfully disagree with your arguments. Propaganda could be lies, but not necessarily. It has more to do with the spreading of “information, ideas, or rumours” to help oneself or hurt another. (

    Also, I think life under certain totalitarian regimes, like that of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union and the current DPRK, have been almost absolutely capable of controlling the flow of information to its people.

    Lastly, a little correction: the fourth point is not about modern technology per se, but rather whether a message can be openly challenged by dissident forces in a given society. I believe that the openess and closeness of a society greatly affects the overall veracity of a government’s propaganda, and the degree to which it can be effective.

  13. meryamd Says:

    i am not comfortable with this stereotyping of the use of propaganda in communist versus capitalist societies or democratic versus authoritarian ones.

    edward said wrote numerous pieces on the american media (mainly CNN)’s biased (and at times false) portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. this relates to points made by sherman and others about the receptivity of the readers/listeners and the existing preconceptions of society.

    the same can be said of the bush administration’s “information” as well as that of the american and british media reports leading up to the present iraq war.

  14. Adam Says:

    I hear your final point, but once again, I have to disagree–rather forcefully in fact. Without getting into the supposed bias or false reporting by America’s media of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (which is a contentious issue), the point in many ways is irrelavent. The mainstream news sources in the U.S. are all independent, private institutions that aren’t acting at the behest or with the permission of the government. Moreover, Edward Said was a tenured professor at Columbia who was completely unimpeded in getting his message out–appearing on television and publishing best selling books that became standards on most political and literature syllabi.

    The difference in the Soviet Union and other communist societies is that dissenting are simply not tolerated. Period. Even China, which has moved to a less totalitarian state of being, tries its best to control the media and internet, and all references to the Tienamen Sq. massacre are blocked out, while in the States, Rosie O’Donnell can get on TV every morning and spread conspiracy theories about how the Bush government was involved in 9/11.

    Any culture will have certain values that inadvertently lead to the media being delivered and consumed in a certain way. The question is, do certain societies have more accurate and challenged views than others. My belief is, yes, and those that do are to a number free societies.

  15. mark Says:

    incidentally (meryam and adam)- showing a bias one way or the other does not mean deliberate propaganda.

    propaganda is what the “other side” calls the news they don’t like.

  16. Adam Says:

    Actually, that was sort of my point, Mark. The work of a free press can’t be the government’s propaganda. That said, techinically speaking, propaganda is a more generic term that goes beyond mere labeling by critics of the “other’s” message. Admittedly, through time, it has taken on the meaning in common parlance you invoke.

  17. john liauw Says:

    I went to Wikipedia to look up the meaning of “Propaganda” in which it states,

    “it is a type of message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people. Often, instead of impartially providing information, propaganda can be deliberately misleading, or using fallacies, which, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid.”

    The key word I think here is
    “deliberately” and “impartially”,

    When Eva said,
    “propaganda always has a negative connotation. The definition of propaganda is to spread false or misleading information.”
    I think she was refering to “deliberately”,

    But what about those advertisments in whcih “deliberately” delivered those positive messages of a product?

    Can we say that the information if false and misleading?

    I think the answer worth every one of us to think deeper.

    For the same token, concerning the notion “impartially”,
    as a journalist, my understanding of the word is that when one reports or delivers the message from a third party’s prespective and without prejudice, then it can be called “impartial”.

    Can “propaganda” be treated as impartial message?!

    I think it all depends on when and who the propaganda is being used and sent to,

    Imagine during the war time or time of crisis, patriotic propaganda was necessary in order for one country’s survival, example like the 雷峰精神 in China during the early days and American’s type of “I want you” by Uncle Sam during the war time.

    In these particular time and space, could one said these “propaganda” was “bad” and “misleading??”

  18. Iris Chan Says:

    I can still remember how Michael Moore accused American media of their “deliberate” reporting to glorify the war in Iraq in his movie “Farrenhait 911”. Again, the fact that Michael Moore is free to express himself by his self-chosen means is the best manifestation of the country’s “openness” and “superb degree of democracy”.

    But I could not agree with Adam’s generalization of the control in free flow of information in ALL Communist countries. Take China as an example, people are well aware of the fact that all sensitive (or disgraced) information are censored and withheld by the Central Government (I have to say Chinese people are not that stupid). People would not rely heavily on the reports from CCTV or other official channel to obtain the whole truth. Internet? It is only the luxurious means of communication limited to very priviledged people…

    Emperors in China have been trying to control means of communications and free flow of information as early as 2000 years ago. It has yet been achieved simply because there is no one who can control ALL means of communications and most importantly, manipulate the thinking of the whole (or majority of the) population.

    I am not suggesting China is the most liberal country in the world (we all know it is not), I just want to say the mere control of information by Government does not necessarily lead to the outcome of absolute manipulation by state (in terms of Propaganda). By the same token, like what Shermann says, “pluarlity alone is not necessarily enough to ensure the best outcome “. It’s not difficult to imagine information in US can be manipulated… have you all seen the movie “Wag The Dog”??

  19. Kenneth Li Says:

    “Knowledge is Power.”

    Totalitarian states do control information to limit the knowledge of their people. They would ‘spoon-feed’ people with the type of information they so desired. This, I would submit, is within the context of the word ‘Propaganda’.

    Although the information/ ideas carried through propagandas may not always be entirely false, they are tended to be biased or exaggerated, and, most importantly, to the advantage and serving the interests of their originators.

    Over the centuries, propaganda has been adopted by states as an effective tool to convey their ideas if not trying to mode the thoughts of their people. And this happens in both totalitarian and free societies.

    I would not classify ‘propaganda’ as a negative word as I believe it all depends on the motive of its originator and how much ‘truth’ it carries in it!!

  20. eva Says:

    I do feel Kenneth that you have contradicted yourself as control of information by the government is surely not a positive thing and if you are saying that this amounts to propaganda then surely it must, by definition, be negative.

    Adam, if propaganda is about not providing the whole truth then is it not at least a partial lie?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s