Propaganda: (n.) the media and ideas one disagrees with.
In the nearly five hundred years between the invention of the printing press and World War I, the use of mass media propaganda was embraced and honed by religious institutions and governing bodies around the world. Commercial entities also sought to influence the masses with their own creative use of propaganda. In many cases, the use of propaganda was benign, even a productive way of promoting civil debate or advertising ideas and products that benefitted the target audience.
At the height of World War I, when the use of propaganda exploded, attempts to vilify political enemies took propaganda to a markedly darker place. Without substantiating the stories, British newspapers printed headlines like “Germans Crucify Canadian Officer,” while Germany countered with inflammatory headlines of its own. Inflated casualty numbers were also reported on both sides. As a result, the conventional meaning of propaganda was significantly altered.
Then came the Nazis.
Adolf Hitler, realizing how necessary it was for him to hide the truth from his own people, created an entire government branch to malign the Jews and create a false reality for Germany. By literally naming the department the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, the Nazi party defiled the “p” word for posterity.
Fast forward 80 years. Today the word propaganda has a new dangerous relevancy. While the propaganda associated with Nazi Germany denotes the intentional dissemination of lies, contemporary Americans’ use of the word propaganda gets stretched to describe any mainstream information or message that an individual disagrees with—even opinions based on facts or the facts themselves.
Obama says the economy is recovering. “Propaganda!” shouts the right.
Romney says his plan is to cut taxes for everyone. “Propaganda!” shouts the left.
Democrats say Romney should be held accountable for practices at a company of which he was the CEO. “Propaganda!”
Republicans say the Obama administration should be held accountable for five trillion dollars of new debt. “Propaganda!”
While the recent use of the word more closely reflects its original meaning, the damage done to those four syllables during the twentieth century is irreparable. Propaganda is now a derogatory term with an indisputable and negative connotation; it is a political synonym for lie.
Americans are being misled from all sides when politicians and media outlets apply the term propaganda to something simply because it does not agree with their particular ideology. A barrage of political attack advertisements will fill the airwaves in the coming months, and commentators on both sides of the political spectrum will quickly dismiss the ads they deem inconvenient as propaganda, instead of refuting any claims factually. The problem with that kind of defense is that there is usually some truth to an attack ad. Crying propaganda as opposed to issuing a rebuttal marks the end of an informative public debate that creates more informed voters and legitimizes a candidate’s platform.
Unless something changes quickly, the inability of respected public voices to be more judicious with their rhetoric will quickly filter down through an impressionable electorate. This is campaign poison. If the two parties intend on winning votes through grassroots efforts, they will need to model the kind of policy defenses that will allow Joe the plumber to persuade his neighbor with logic, not accusations. Because if it’s all propaganda, the undecided voter might as well stay home.