There are many different definitions for the term “propaganda” and it is important to understand the differences between them in order to fully comprehend their implications throughout history.

The first definition presented is that of Jacques Ellul:

PROPAGANDA Jacques Ellul
“A set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through physical manipulations and incorporated in an organization.” It is generally agreed that this definition provides the most comprehensive explanation of the motives and results of propaganda.

The following are alternate definitions of the term “propaganda” which for one reason or another have been deemed incomplete or vague by contemporary scholars:


PROPAGANDA Marbury B. Ogle (American Jurist)
“Propaganda is any effort to change opinions or attitudes…The propagandist is anyone who communicates his ideas with the intent of influencing his listener” (Ellul, xi)

This definition of the word propaganda is often seen as being far too simplistic. It does not address the motives of the propagandist and encompasses almost all conversation with its loose uses of the words “communicate” and “influence”. This would imply that any speech, sermon or teaching is propaganda.

PROPAGANDA Harold Lasswell (20th c. American Political Scientist)
“Propaganda is the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view of influencing the opinions or actions of other individuals or groups for predetermined ends through psychological manipulations.” (Ellul, xii)

When addressing Lasswell’s definition we must notice the distinct negative implication. The  use of words such as “manipulations” and “suggestion” imply that the propagandist is causing the audience to embrace something against their will. As Ellul explained, propganda is most effective when it reinforces the dominant ideologies of the masses, this incites a powerful emotional response from the target audience which is vital to propagate.

PROPAGANDA Leonard W. Doob (American professor of Psychology at Yale University)
“An attempt to modify personalities and control the behaviour of individuals in relation to the goals considered non- scientific or of doubtful value in a specific society and time period.”

The use of the word “unscientific” is what causes Doob’s definition to present itself as negative.

PROPAGANDA Randal Marlin (Philosophy professor at Carleton University, specializes in propaganda studies)
“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 judgement.”


PROPAGANDA Websters Third International New Dictionary 1966
“dissemination of ideas, information or rumour for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause or a person.”

The fundamental problem with this definition is that, though it takes into account the motives of the propagandist, it could apply to any fundraising or altruistic endeavour.

PROPAGANDA Vernon McKenzie (20th c. author)
“the real sense of propaganda is the spreading of information whether it be true or false, good or bad- literally ‘spreading the faith’.”

Again this definition does not take into account the manipulation or motivation involved in propaganda, it gives far too whimsical a sense to a word with powerful action associated to it.


PROPAGANDA Brendan Bracken (British Minister of Information for Britain during WWII)
“Propaganda…is a perfectly respectable name, attached to one of the most profoundly religious institutions in the world. It is really too respectable a veneer to put upon a thing like the Ministry of Information. I do not mind the use of the word ‘propaganda.’ In fact, I welcome it. There is nothing wrong with the name except that it connotes to certain minds something that they do not really understand.”

PROPAGANDA John Grierson (Documentary filmmaker and founder of the National Film Board of Canada)
“There are some of us who believe that propaganda is part of the democratic education which the educators forgot…We believe that education has concentrated so much on people knowing things that it has not sufficiently taught them to feel things…It has given them the three Rs but has not sufficiently given them the fourth R which is Rooted Belief…We can, by propaganda, widen the horizons of the schoolroom and give to every individual each in his place and work, a living conception of the community which he has the priviledge to serve. We can take his imagination beyond the boundaries of his community to discover the destiny of his country. We can light up his life with a sense of active citizenship. We can give him a sense of greater reality in the present and a vision of the future.”

And finally, a quote from American sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld presenting a summary of elements necessary for the effective dissemination of propaganda:

Paul F. Lazarsfeld (American Sociologist)

“Research indicates that, at least, one or more of these three conditions must be satisfied if this propaganda is to prove effective. These conditions may be briefly designated as 1) monopolization 2) canalization rather than change of basic values, and 3) supplementary face-to-face contact.” (1969, pg 508)


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