How to Size Up Propaganda
No matter how we define it, the principal point on propaganda is this: Don’t be afraid of it.
A few years ago this caution was more necessary than it is now. Propaganda was National Bogeyman No. 1. Speakers and writers saw magic in it. Some of them told us that we did everything but go to bed at night for no better reason than that the propagandist told us to. And so a great many people assumed that a propagandist was lurking behind every billboard, ready to spring out on us, and that whatever he told us was against our best interests.
Both of these ideas were incorrect. One fact that has been emphasized in this pamphlet is that much propaganda is “good.” It urges us to do things that are for our own benefit. And another fact of importance is that much has been called propaganda when it has actually no promotional effort of any kind behind it.
In a democratic country, where free expression is basic, no one who thinks the matter through could possibly want to stamp out all propaganda. The essence of democracy is that rival points of view have the right to compete in the open. Decisions on political and other questions must be made by a free people. That means a people who don’t shut their eyes and ears to opposing arguments, but instead look at them all, evaluate them, and throw out the ones that don’t hold water.
Those who spread an unreasoned fear of propaganda base their preachments on the unscientific notion that propaganda by itself governs public opinion. But the truth is that propaganda is only one of the factors that influence public opinion. Specific information and sound knowledge of facts, presented without any propagandistic motive whatsoever, constitute an extremely important factor in the formation of public opinion. Events, as we have seen, constitute another very important factor. And there are others. The wave of unreasoned fear of propaganda has somewhat leveled off. We clearly realize that, although some promotional campaigns have been conspicuously successful, others have been just as conspicuously failures—evidence that many factors, working together, influence and shape public opinion.
The propaganda against propaganda confused many citizens and led them to ask, “What can I believe?” One writer, answering this question, says that “you can believe in yourself, your own common sense, your own decent instincts, your own values and traditions.” The democratic principle requires that we come to our own judgments on the issues we face. Nobody can dodge the necessity of making up his own mind on any given question that calls for decision, whether it is international policy, local politics, or even the selection of one toothpaste over another. In making up his own mind he can look at all the propagandas and also bring into play all the information that is to be found outside propaganda and use every standard and criterion available to him in weighing values.
He should not forget that there are safeguards and checks for sizing up the merits of propaganda and the self-interest that may lie back of it. One authority on propaganda suggests two, tests:
l. Is it really propaganda? Is some individual or group consciously trying to influence opinion and action? Who? For what purpose?
2. Is it true? Does a comparison of independent reports show that the facts are accurate? Does such a comparison show that the suggestions made are soundly based?
There are other tests that can be applied by the thinking citizen:
Which fact or set of facts in a piece of promotion are really important and relevant? Which are irrelevant?
If some individual or group is trying to influence opinion and action, is the effort selfish or is it unselfish? Will action resulting from the propaganda benefit the individual or group responsible for it? Or will it benefit those who act upon the suggestion given in the propaganda? Or will it benefit both?
What is likely to be the effect of the action or of the opinion that the propaganda is trying to set in motion?
All these points boil down to some very simple questions: What is the source of the propaganda? What is its authority? What purposes prompted it? Whom will it benefit? What does it really say?