The modern term propaganda immediately brings up negative feelings for most people. It is commonly associated with war and dictatorships, and maybe even more specifically the use of this by the Nazis in World War II. The practice of it and the idea behind it goes back much further than that, but the negative undertones and its potential for adverse effects became much clearer through its prevalence in both of the world wars in the early 20th century. What isn’t typically known is that the word originates from two important things: the meaning of the Latin propago (“to propagate”), and its first use by the Roman Catholic Church in the 18th century. In this case, I will be examining propaganda as a mechanism of social control.


“That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything.” -Noam Chomsky

By clever and persevering use of propaganda even heaven can be represented as hell to the people, and conversely the most wretched life as paradise.” -Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

“No matter how big the lie; repeat it often enough and the masses will regard it as the truth.”

-John F. Kennedy




First known use: 1718

Religious background:

(1718) “Propaganda” became short for a committee of cardinals in charge of foreign missionary work.

Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide” literally = “Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith

The reference eventually gained a more secular meaning: “any movement to propagate some practice or ideology.”

Wartime background:

(1929) The political reference dates from World War I, which initially meant any public service message intended to influence the behavior of– or inform– the masses. This includes such “innocuous” messages about health and safety awareness or encouragement to participate in the election process.

QUICK FACT: The Roman Catholic Church once required that the parishioners recite words and prayers completely in Latin, which was not understood or spoken by anyone except for the priests themselves. Hmmm…


* ETYMOLOGY *          .

So we know that “propaganda” stems from the verb “to propagate,” and this is derived from the Latin prōpāgō (“on behalf of the source”).

In botany, this refers to the natural growth of a plant or tree– layer upon layer upon layer. Further, it means to multiply, or give birth to a new generation, to propagate your species or an idea.

            pro- (“on behalf of, for”) +

pago (“source, province, country, the public”)




According to…

propaganda (noun): a concerted set of messages aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of large numbers of people

According to…

propaganda (noun): information, ideas, or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution, nation, etc.

Synonyms — agitprop, announcement, persuasion, doctrine, newspeak, implantation, publicity, hype, endorsement
Antonyms — truth



What makes propaganda different from other media information? This is difficult to say, but I found some consistencies.
The use of…
  • symbolism and ritualism
  • repetition and saturation
  • one-angled emotional (as opposed to rational) messages
  • persuasive and influential
  • biased toward some end
  • intends to unite all in the same cause

But this tells us nothing about whether the message is good or bad. The bottom line is: It all depends on who is receiving the message.

I couldn’t help but think about George Orwell’s 1984 when investigating this word. In his fictional (yet eerily prophetic) dystopian novel, he uses the term “newspeak” for the fabricated language propagated by the government in which words were constantly created and destroyed in the service of the regime. If somehow you have been deprived of reading this book, go get it.
“The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.” 
“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.”
“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” 
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
-George Orwell, 1984


British War Propaganda Poster (1915)

A 20th-century European depiction of America.