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Propaganda in the Classroom
(I've already read the following text)

The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition (1989) says that in the 20th century the word propaganda developed the following meaning: "The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, esp. in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Also, the ideas, doctrines, etc., disseminated thus; the vehicle of such propagation."  I define it as information (words, images, sounds, etc.) used to manipulate people's behavior or beliefs.  Regardless of whether the message is true or false, it is always manipulative.  The target of a successful propagandist will feel that s/he has made a voluntary choice,  even though s/he was never given a real chance to do so.  And later, only very effective counter propaganda will be likely to effect a change.

During World War II, the word became a pejorative in the U.S.  Therefore our advertisers, marketers, public relations officials and public information officers no longer call their product propaganda.  Nevertheless, that is what it remains.

Most of us have come to think of propaganda as synonymous with lie.  And while any piece of propaganda can convey a lie, the best is usually true - true in that the specific things it says are true, even though its implications (the message(s) people actually take away from it) may be false.  For example, many people will remember the 1994 video clip of the CEOs of the major U.S. tobacco companies testifying before a Congressional committee, raising their right hands and swearing to tell the truth, then proceeding to say repeatedly that they believed nicotine was non-addictive.  The key word here is believe.  (see Is That a Fact?)  They may well have held that belief.  If so, their statements were true.  Proving otherwise would be very difficult, if not impossible.  However, their intended message, that conveyed by the weight of their testimony, their companies' advertising and the positions they'd taken in courts throughout the land, was that smoking was not harmful.  Given the evidence produced in their own research labs, and those of independent researchers, they could not honestly say that it was safe; only that they believed it to be so.  It is a subtle but very important difference.  They knew that most people listening to them would hear what they wanted them to, even though they hadn't actually said it.  Intangibles like body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc., things for which the executives could not be held to account, explain why many people ended up hearing something different than was actually said.  This type of behavior is one of the major tools in the propagandists' arsenal.  I call it the Big Lie technique.  The specific things one says are true, but the larger message one wants the listener to take away is not.  If pressed, or taken to court, the propagandist can plead innocence and apologize for any misunderstandings; but they can do it in a way that maintains the Big Lie.  Trapping them is like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.

Helping your students become aware of propaganda, and teaching them how to evaluate it in an effort to defuse its power over them, will be a large task; much like that of a salmon swimming upstream.  However, it can be done; and the rewards of doing so are great.  In this section of the site you'll find ideas and resources to start you on your way.

Online Resources


Words as Weapons

With the advent of the war on terrorism in late 2001, some writers explored the role language plays in war.  Here are links to some of the better pieces I've found.

The Language of 9/11, One Year Later (The New York Times Magazine, September 1, 2002)

In Times of Terror, Teens Talk the Talk (a 3-19-02 Washington Post article on the effect of the 9-11 attacks on teen language)

New Words for a Nation's Anguish (Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2001)

Them's Fightin' Words: War Lingo Rushes to the Front (Washington Post, November 10, 2001) 

Naming Names by Lisa Kadonaga (November 1, 2001)

WORDS OF SPEECH = WEAPONS OF WAR (O'Dwyer's PR Daily, October 15, 2001)

The Effects of September 11 and Its Aftermath on the Way We Talk - Geoff Nunberg on Fresh Air, October 18, 2001

Lesson Ideas
Check back later to see the coming attractions.

Find out what your students already know

about their media use

about the effectiveness of advertising

General skills

Questions to ask of a propagandistic message

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Do you hear what I hear?

Spotting propaganda

Where there's smoke there's fire - Or is there? Reading headlines intelligently

Case Studies


Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes: Subliminal Messages in Advertising

Why People Smoke

at last, a use for junk mail

Manipulative Techniques

Symbols and the subconscious

Toying with Reason - the (illustrated) language of advertising claims

Tapping into Emotion

Moving Points of View

Political Debate

Face-off Over Guns

Triggering Emotions

Dueling Facts

Longer Arguments

Propaganda Goes to War

Hollywood Goes to War, 1914-1930

At War with Iraq: the Propaganda Battles

Dueling Posters

Faces of the Enemy

Numbers at War

Radio Enlists

Popular Song Weighs In

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original web posting: Tuesday, October 9, 2001
last modified: Wednesday, May 25, 2011