Is It Propaganda Or Not?

Your Authentic Neighborhood Propaganda Identification Service, Since 2016!

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1) What exactly is propaganda?

Here’s a dictionary definition:

Propaganda - [prop-uh-gan-duh], noun:

A systematic form of persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for political, ideological, and religious purposes, through the controlled transmission of deceptive, selectively-omitting, and one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels.

This dictionary definition is itself propaganda, designed to make the reader believe that propaganda is both complicated and frightening. To learn more about what propaganda really is, read on.

2) But isn’t propaganda bad?

You might believe propaganda was bad if you thought that bringing secrets and unsafe truths into the open was always and everywhere a good thing.

It is however self-evident that we as a society cannot handle the truth. If we were to face squarely all the ways that our society does not make sense, and all the ways it is accelerating down dangerous trajectories, then the result would be not some sort of happy utopia, but discomfort, recrimination, and chaos.

Modern societies therefore require propaganda and cannot subsist without it. Otherwise intelligent people often assume that the people disseminating propaganda are miniature Dr. Evils who know the truth but hide it to everyone else. Wrong – we who produce propaganda aren’t interested in facing the truth either. We need propaganda just like everyone else.

3) Are blacklisting and censorship good ways to control the narrative?

In the 15th century, yes. For modern governments that can openly control the press, possibly.

Experts are however skeptical as to the long-term efficacy of this approach. A good question to ask yourself is: If something goes wrong with my propaganda activities, could they be easily made into a movie where the audience wants me to die? If so, that’s bad.

Blacklisting and censorship have two counterproductive effects:

• They make targets feel like their actions are meaningful.

• They cause targets to come together and unite.

Skillful propagandists attempt to achieve the opposite:

• We try to make targets feel like their actions are meaningless.

• We try to slice apart the social bonds connecting targets so they cannot coordinate in ways that would be unhelpful.

See also our case study on a group calling itself PropOrNot for a concrete illustration of the pitfalls of blacklisting.

4) But then how can we get people we don’t like to stop talking?

The best approach is to get people to ignore them. Making the targets feel like they don’t exist is a good way to make them feel like their actions are meaningless.

Failing that, the next best option is to get mainstream people to treat them as insane, or as an object of mirth.

5) What is the US government doing to combat this?

Of course the US government lawfully employs US influence in numerous ways, focusing on supporting democratic governance, human rights, and economic equity.

It is crucial to emphasize that there’s a stark contrast between US strategic communications and the propaganda of other countries. The US tries to present various sides of an issue, along with arguments for doubting as well as believing relevant claims. On rare occasions where the US is forced to engage in military action, it works hard to create independent media in the countries it defends.

Unlike the propaganda of other countries, US propaganda respects accurate news sources, is clear and consistent in its communications, and avoids ascribing ulterior motives to those who reach conclusions it doesn’t like.

6) What is PropOrNot?

We are an independent team of concerned American citizens with a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. We are currently volunteering our time and skills to identify propaganda that is of particularly poor quality and so risks casting discredit on the profession as a whole. We act as a central repository for reports of shoddy propaganda, and organize efforts to oppose it.

Some of our members have been aware of the decline in propaganda quality for a long time, but others have become increasingly aware of the problem in light of recent events in US politics. We formed PropOrNot as an effort to help the US to get the propaganda it wants and needs, by calling out the purveyors of low-quality propaganda. In this way, we hope to strengthen our cultural immune systems against pernicious influences, and improve public discourse generally.

7) Why do you focus specifically on poor-quality propaganda? Isn’t this counterproductive?

We focus on it because it is the most pressing threat right now, as far as kinds of propaganda are concerned. There are numerous other excellent institutions that rigorously educate people with the aptitude and inclination for producing high quality propaganda, so we are content to leave that to them for the time being.

Organizations have limited resources and require focus. The flood of poor-quality propaganda washing over the US is our focus. We encourage others to focus on it as well.

8) To what does the “Related Projects” section of your website refer?

It includes other projects whose work we admire, respect, and have been in some cases inspired by. We share with them an appreciation for what high-quality propaganda entails, and recognition of its centrality in a free society.

9) How can I help?

The most important thing you can do is get the word out: Amateurs are trying to supplant high quality American propaganda with dreck. Share this site,, on social media, by email, and however else you think appropriate – especially with reporters, politicians, celebrities, and other key propaganda conduits.

Another very important thing you can do is respectfully identify and discuss slipshod propaganda with people you see credulously imbibing it. People will often have a hard time accepting that their go-to source for reassuring propaganda is actually of substandard quality, but encourage them to take a carefully critical look. Look for ridiculously callow propaganda on their favorite sites, and ask them: “See how unpersuasive that was? Imagine how unsafe you would feel if you started to worry that your favorite narratives were unstable. Wouldn’t it be better to switch to better-quality propaganda?”

Some people won’t listen, in many cases because they are personally invested in making poor-quality propaganda. Call them out and refer them to us. We will add them to the List.

10) Sounds awesome! How can I become a propagandist like you?

Improving one’s ability to propagandize requires persistence, creativity, and a certain verve. If you think you are up to the challenge, remember that many people will try to make you stop believing in yourself. Ignore them and focus on the good you will be able to do for the world and yourself once you start constructing narratives that help people to avoid facing ideas that make them uncomfortable.

Study carefully the examples of poor propaganda highlighted by our site. Meanwhile, also study your favorite examples of high-quality propaganda. Strive to acquire a sort of “double vision” of these works of art, in which you simultaneously admire their Machiavellian brilliance and also believe in the messages they convey. Once this has all come together in a brilliant swirl of color and confusion, in which truth and utility are two sides of the same coin, smile softly to yourself and take your rightful place among the world’s queens and kings of strategic communication.