The Power of Propaganda

I once met a spy in a small cafe on the Via di Propaganda in Rome. Now, we all think of propaganda as part of the spy world so I found some humor in meeting an agent on the Via di Propaganda, but this particular street is actually named after a committee of Cardinals of the Catholic Church formed by the Pope in 1622. This committee is responsible for spreading the Catholic faith throughout the world, hence the name Committee for the Propagation of the Faith. Propagation-propaganda; from the Latin verb propagare, to propagate and actually means to graft a twig onto the branch or trunk of a tree. As I have observed many times, words are important. So, the actual concept of propaganda is to take something different and make it part of another whole. Come on over to our side and see things our way was the way it started;


Half-truths, my truth not yours (see earlier blogs) and whole lies, is what propaganda has become. Its purpose has also morphed in that while it can still mean to take something different and make it part of the whole, it can also be a destructive force seeking to tear apart that which is different without making it part of anything. Unfortunately, propaganda has also become the stock and trade of much of the current world media which seems no longer to be the fourth estate of government but to be the actual government. Consider the talking heads who tell you what policies are best; or the commentators who try individuals in the court of prime time television and convict those defendants long before they have even come to trial in the actual courts. Try getting an impartial jury after CNN, MSNBC, Fox, and ABC have already convinced the public you’re guilty. Try having an election based on logically discussed policies and the long-term effects of those policies after the media has whipped its audience to a frenzied state through the use of half-truths and whole lies predicting veritable Armageddon should one candidate win.

As I noted above, the general population associates propaganda almost exclusively with those of us in the spy world attempting to manipulate foreign elections or cause disruption within. Within what, you may ask? Well, pretty much anything, for example if you can convince a terrorist organization they have a spy somewhere in their ranks they will tear themselves apart looking for that spy. Factions will form, accusations will be made and no one will trust anyone. Of course, there is no spy, but they think there is. This is a positive example of propaganda but in the world of politics similar propaganda tactics have always been a useful tool regardless of which side you took. In first century CE Rome there was a satirist (Martial) who wrote catchy little epigrams that became almost jingle-like sayings in the Roman population. His stylus was for hire to the highest bidder. One of his efforts I most like is, “Caesar rides an ass, but Catullus is one.” But other epigrams slyly, and sometimes not so slyly, accused people of arson, embezzlement, infidelity, worship of strange gods or insult to Roman gods. The epigrams were short, catchy, and often melodious. They spread through the cheek-by-jowl Roman population like, “My bologna has a first name…”

So, propaganda isn’t new nor is its use by news media in the U.S. What has always confused me, and something on which I wrote a paper my freshmen year of college, is how we have ever really considered the media to be unbiased reporters of matters. For as far back as I can research the media has been making claims and counter-claims; accusations and denials; innuendo and ? The ? is because there is very little efficacious response to innuendo. But how about out and out lies? First, we had the dossier which we are now told was entirely a work of fiction. For more than three years the public listened to the media try a president in prime time but when he was actually tried by the Senate it wasn’t because of the dossier, it was another my truth versus your truth situation. Then, there was a book by a “very senior member of the administration” purporting to give us an inside look at the staffs within the White House and their resistance to and dislike for the President. Now we discover the writer had no White House access and wasn’t a senior member of the administration, nor did he have direct access to any of the information he claimed was real. It was a work of fiction penned by someone who used the ploy of remaining anonymous until just before the presidential election wherein he hopes a new president will be selected and he will be rewarded by the new administration for his actions in the “resistance.” Quite a gamble, for if the President is re-elected he may well find himself in the criminal dock while being sued in civil court by more than one victim of his assertions and allegations because, while the President may not be able to sue for defamation, those on his staff can. There is no question that his propaganda effort had significant effect upon the country if, for no other reason, it gave fresh claims for the media to use in its own efforts. One hopes this would-be Martial has deep pockets to defend himself in court for regardless of who wins the election it is probable he will face law suits, as will those media organizations that picked up the ball and ran with it even though the play should have been whistled dead.

And I suppose that it is my point for this morning. There should be consequences for those who report falsely. History tells us we will always have propaganda but we don’t have to allow its use to go unchecked (and I mean that in both definitions of the word.)

What do you think?

One thought

  1. Alas, I think people hear what they want to hear and aligns with their belief(s). The reality is at times as Al Gore says an inconvenient truth. Of course reality can be bent!

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