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Propaganda in a Social Media Age

The idea and act of propaganda is nothing new. Most people have the misconception that propaganda began in WWI, but the truth is propaganda is as old as human opinions, only it wasn’t defined. It wasn’t until 1622 that the term “propaganda” entered common use in Europe. The term was used to describe the activities of missionaries on behalf of the Catholic church. Propaganda became so popular that Pope Urban VIII set up The College of Propaganda to train priests for their missions. When coined, propaganda was honorable and respectable; it wasn’t until later that propaganda became associated with dishonesty, selfishness, and manipulation. Fast forward to WWI; propaganda became essential to the war efforts. Governments around the world needed to recruit soldiers and get the public’s support for the war. This was when posters, fake news, and headlines became the tactics to persuade the minds of the people. In April 1917, American President Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The goal of the CPI was to convince Americans that war in Europe was necessary. President Wilson appointed George Creel to head up the initiative. Creel was an out-of-the-box, brilliant political public relations man, which made him a great fit as the chairman of the CPI. Creel’s first order of business was to flood America with press releases disguised as new stories to “weld the people of the United States into one white-hot mass instinct.” During the first two months, the CPI generated positive announcements, stories, and advertisements to celebrate American ideals, wartime achievements, and America’s immigrants. Creel believed that befriending ethnic groups rather than attacking them was the best route. The CPI decided to try to change the perception that immigrants from Germany, Austria, and Hungary were just as American as every other American. Unfortunately, after two months of the CPI’s efforts, the public’s enthusiasm was nowhere near what was expected or needed. On June 14, 1917, President Wilson used his Flag Day speech to turn the country’s sights toward destroying Germany’s government to protect the world and democracy. After the Flag Day speech, the CPI began churning out a variety of posters of German soldiers depicted as apes with some captions reading “Destroy this mad brute.”

(Credit: Photo12/UIG via Getty Images)

It was then that CPI and President Wilson let loose the ugly side of propaganda. The spread of fake news and the demonization of Germans, socialists, and pacifists brought forth the protectors of patriotism who began to harass and terrorize anyone who had any doubt about the war. These vigilantes would beat, kill, and set churches of pacifist sects ablaze in the name of patriotism. Perpetrators that were apprehended, almost all of them were found not guilty because of fear, fear of convicting someone acting in the name of patriotism could paint the juror as a traitor to America. Private institutions, state, and local governments also acted against Germans by banning German teaching in schools, firing Germans, and not allowing German music performances. In attempting to change the opinions of Americans, the CPI and President Wilson exemplified the dark side of propaganda.

Jumping ahead to the 1940s, World War II, the United States government used a variety of methods to change public perceptions and build support for entering World War II. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the majority of Americans (88%) were opposed to getting involved in the war as of a January 1940 poll. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration recognized the need to prepare the public for potential involvement and began a campaign to change public opinion.

The government created and distributed posters, films, and other materials that depicted the atrocities of the war and the dangers of fascism. The Office of War Information, established in 1942, was responsible for coordinating government propaganda efforts. These efforts helped to build public support for the war by portraying it as a moral crusade to defend democracy and freedom.

The government also used the draft to change public perceptions. The Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which established the first peacetime draft in American history, required all men between the ages of 21 and 35 to register for the draft. This helped to create a sense of national unity and shared sacrifice, as well as to build support for the war effort.

Another important factor in changing public perceptions was the role of the media. The government closely monitored and controlled the information that was reported in the press, and journalists were often required to clear their stories with government officials before publishing them. This helped to ensure that the public received a consistent message in favor of the war effort.

Both World Wars are great examples of how a government can utilize communication strategies to persuade and change public perceptions, but they also demonstrate the dangers. Four years ago, the term propaganda came to the forefront as two U.S. presidential candidates fought for the presidency, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The 2016 presidential race became one of the most controversial elections with allegations of treason, corruption, and foreign governments interfering with the democratic election. Memes became the digital version of a propaganda poster disseminating disinformation throughout social media platforms. In September of 2016, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had roughly the same number of memes spreading via the internet. In November of 2016, memes containing the word “Trump” jumped to approximately 60,000, while memes containing the word “Clinton” were at roughly 35,000.

(Credit: These Are the Ads Russia Bought on Facebook in 2016,

Before the election and immediately after, memes containing the words “racism,” “Nazi,” “fascist,” “white supremacy,” “LGBTQ,” “transgender,” “bisexual,” “pansexual,” “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Atheist,” “Catholic,” “march,” “protest,” “movement,” and “resistance” were all on the rise. Leading to the conclusion that in 2016, we saw the politicization of memes and a once funny, light-hearted photo turned into a digital political propaganda poster. On November 1, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee released some sample memes purchased by Russian agents on Facebook and Twitter. One meme depicts Satan arm-wrestling Jesus with the text reading: “Satan: If I win Clinton wins! Jesus: Not if I can help it! Press ‘like’ to help Jesus win!” Another meme posted by a group linked to Russian agents called Blacktivist reads: “never forget that the Black Panthers, group formed to protect black people from the KKK, was dismantled by us govt but the KKK exists today.” Another meme depicting women in Burqas is captioned: “Who is behind this mask? A man? A woman? A terrorist? Burqa is a security risk and it should be banned on U.S. soil!” Unlike WWI and WWII, where the United States government set up a committee to disseminate propaganda, a foreign government was able to spread divisive propaganda to influence the presidential election and to spread false information on controversial issues in the United States, which raises significant concerns regarding propaganda in a social media age. Today, propaganda is much more effective because of social media. President Trump can spread propaganda with the click of a button to his more than 82.3 million followers on Twitter. That goes for any political candidate with a following on social media platforms. Foreign governments can spread propaganda using advertisements on social media; one Facebook ad could potentially reach 220.5 million Facebook users in the United States. The options and potential to spread propaganda and disinformation are becoming much more effective and straightforward as social media grows, and more and more Americans become connected. What can we do as Americans to help stop the spread of propaganda and disinformation? If you are a social media user, think twice before sharing a meme or post. Before sharing or taking the post or meme at face value, do a quick Google search to find out more, and validate the information. If you can’t find a valid source or verify the origin of the post, it’s probably best not to share it as it most likely isn’t accurate information. Americans can also support the Honest Ads Act, which will require political ads online to disclose who has paid for them. As the 2020 presidential election nears, coronavirus continues to spread, and protests spill out into the streets in America. It is now more important than ever to combat propaganda and disinformation to ensure a lasting democracy and an informed American public.

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