Defining Propaganda: criteria and examples

The term ‘propaganda’ has negative connotations in modern communications, meaning that it sometimes seems to equate to ‘bad’ or ‘unethical’ communication.  But this won’t do as a definition: to then say that propaganda is defined as ‘bad persuasion’ is circular.

Possible Criteria for propaganda

The first possible and most obvious definition for propaganda is that it is ‘bad’ or ‘unethical’ persuasion. This is akin, in a way, to defining a terrorist as an ‘unethical militant’.  It does, though, fit the view that propaganda is defined, in specific times, places, and cultures, as persuasion that in style and substance is anathema to that culture.

Sinister Ends

A second, related, critierion for propaganda is that it is persuasion in a bad cause.  Here included for completeness, rather than because it seems a substantial aspect of a definition. Whatever propaganda is, it seems the definition resides in the form, method and environment of persuasion, not in the specific topic it concerns.


Third, propaganda might be identified and defined by the stylistic devices that are specific to it – repetition, lack of substance, contrived simplicity, heavy use of pathos rather than logos.


Fourth, propaganda might be identified by the criterion that it is persuasion with scant regard for factual accuracy. This line of inquiry is hampered by the subjective nature of analysis of truth, and the lack of any final arbiter on what precisely is true and accurate and what is not.  Any system capable of deriving truths is limited in its capacity to validate the measure of truth employed. This said, methods for deriving truths and argument can be scrutinised for rigour, and not all are equally rigorous. A propagandistic argument may be said to be one that is grounded in convenient, rather than well-researched or reasoned hypotheses or evidence.

Argument (brook no opposition)

A fifth possible criterion for propaganda is that a propagandistic argument is one that prevents counter-argument, or refutes any possibility of valid counter-argument. This may mean the argument is rhetorical rather than dialectic: premises that support the argument are invoked, those that oppose it are omitted or ridiculed. There is no intention of deriving a stronger argument, since any detracting consideration is ignored.  Or it may mean simply that by dint of power any alternate perspective or argument in wider society is marginalised, leaving the ‘propagandistic’ argument the only contender.


A sixth and final criterion for propaganda is that it is persuasion in the hands of the powerful.  Again this criterion means that a reasoned dialectic dialogue does not occur: only one side of an argument is heard. This time this is not necessarily because such an argument is omitted or ridiculed but because it is disproportionately quiet: drowned out, sidelined, by the argument supported by the mob or a majority, or by institutions, or by the Powers-That-Be.


Consider each of these examples. Which of the following do you consider are propaganda and which are not?  More importantly, why?  What general rule underpins each of your decisions? In other words, what criteria are being used to define propaganda, and distinguish it from persuasion?

  1. Julian Assange’s treatment by Western governments and media
  2. Julian Assange’s defence by Wikileaks, activist organisations, public figures and supporters
  3. An advertising campaign from Apple for a new Iphone.
  4. A government anti-smoking marketing and advertising campaign
  5. Olympics coverage
  6. Inaugural presidential speech by Barack Obama
  7. A Greenpeace anti-whaling campaign
  8. A campaign about human rights from Amnesty International.
  9. A Government ‘cheat sheet’, containing prepared statements on issues for politicians of a party
  10. Online sites arguing that anorexia is ‘not a disease but a lifestyle choice’ (pro-ana movement)
  11. An argument put by Bill O’Reilly on Fox News that those who do not support the war should ‘shut up’
  12. An argument on somebody’s blog that those who do not support the war should ‘shut up’
  13. Winston Churchill’s ‘We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches’ speech of World War II.
  14. Promotion of Justin Bieber by (at least) 25,000,000 ‘Beliebers’ on Twitter and other social media.
  15. A lecture given at university to undergraduate students.
  16. Hello Kitty.



Providing a precise definition for the contested term ‘propaganda’ is of limited usefulness in and of itself. But it does give insight into the ethics of persuasion.  Based on consideration of Q1., under what circumstances might persuasion be unethical (or unfair)?  What rhetorical practices do you think you would not be prepared to engage in, even for persuasion in a good cause?