Recognizing Propaganda

Everyone living in the world today is bombarded with messages regarding what to buy, whom to believe, how to behave, etc. These messages come from advertisers, politicians, friends, and the media but they all have something in common. They contain information that may, or may not, be factual. Whether the signal is from a clearly partisan source or from a self-anointed “no-spin zone”, let the receiver beware.

Some of the input may be incorrect because the sender just doesn’t know any better. As a consumer of information you must be able to evaluate the knowledge of the speaker to ascertain if they are likely to know what they are talking about. The blowhard is not the focus of this article however. Here we are concerned with the purposeful slanting or complete distortion of information. There are plenty of folks out there who want to sway you to buy their product, whether it is an idea, a car, or a candidate. So what can you do to become a better consumer of information? You can best arm yourself by understanding the tricks the pros use to misinform you, the methods of propaganda.


Seven major propaganda techniques were identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938 and they are still commonly utilized to misinform. They include bandwagon, card stacking, glittering generalities, name calling, plain folks, testimonials, and transfer. Here is a brief explanation of each along with tips for recognizing them when you see (or hear) them. Additional techniques have since been added to the list but we will save them for a later article


Bandwagon asserts that everyone is doing it, most people believe it, or that the proposal is on the winning side. Since people generally do not want to be on the losing side or to be left out on a sure thing, they feel pressured to join the crowd. To resist the bandwagon a person needs to independently judge the merits of the opposing views and decide their position on the merits of the evidence.


Card stacking is selective omission of evidence against a proposal while providing ample evidence in support. Pros and cons are often provided, but the opposing position is either frivolous or highly understated. This technique is based on your trust of the message sender and a tendency to believe the evidence presented. The only way to combat card stacking is to independently seek information and further evidence.


Glittering generalities are words that are connected to a concept that is highly valued in the culture (i.e. freedom, democracy). This technique plays on the emotions of the receiver. Who wouldn�t be for freedom, honor, or democracy? Glittering generalities can be exposed by considering the merits of the idea being promoted when the high-value word is not attached.


Name calling is the practice of arousing prejudice by attaching a negative label to the target. If the label sticks (in the eyes of the viewer) the target will be viewed in a negative manner as well. When this technique is observed we must try to separate the idea or proposal from the label and judge it on its own merits.


By using the language, accent, or idioms of a particular group, the propagandist attempts to portray his/her position as that of the common person. This technique is designed to position the presenter as a member of the target group and deserving of their support. The defense for this technique is to consider the merits of the proposal separately from the persona of the presenter.


Testimonials are endorsements of a product or idea by a famous or highly respected person. An attempt is made to connect the value of an idea or proposal to the celebrity status of the person providing the testimonial. As with many of the propaganda techniques, we must attempt to ascertain the merits of the proposal aside from the person or organization making the proposal.


Transfer is the attempt to link the concept being sold to another that has either a highly-positive or highly-negative connotation. It is an attempt to connect the two in the subject�s mind. To combat transfer we must require that proposals and ideas stand on their own merits.

Obviously, this is a lot to keep in one�s mind when listening to a speaker, reading a news story, or watching a television debate. One way to use the information here is to turn this article into a checklist and print out copies when you really want to tune in on an issue. Try this technique just once and your eyes will be opened to the widespread use of propaganda as a tool to sway your judgment in important decisions. You may be surprised to learn that it is used by all sides, especially in politics and war.

%d bloggers like this: