The ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) was formed in 1937 out of concern over the increasing amount of propaganda flooding the country. One result of its work was a list of seven steps to use in analyzing and appraising propaganda. They’re listed here with excerpts of the IPA’s explanation of each one.

“Any effort to analyze the propagandas involved in the public discussion of such matters confronts us first with the seven ABC’s of Propaganda Analysis. We must have the feel of these seven ABC’s before we can fully appreciate the uses made by propagandists of the seven Propaganda Devices, the “Tricks of the Trade.” Our seven ABC’s are:

ASCERTAIN the conflict element in the propaganda you are analyzing. All propaganda contains a conflict element in some form or other-either as cause, or as effect, or as both cause and effect.”

The conflict element can be overt or covert. Does the propaganda presuppose or imply a conflict? Is there an assumed tension? Does it, in fact, exist? What other explanations could cause the conflict other than those declared or implied in the propaganda?

BEHOLD your own reaction to this conflict element. It is always necessary to know and to take into consideration our own opinions with regard to a conflict situation about which we feel strongly, on which we are prone to take sides. This information permits us to become more objective in our analysis.”

Being aware of your own feelings helps prevent others from being able to manipulate you through playing on your emotions. Greater objectivity lends itself to a wise and rational assessment.

CONCERN yourself with today’s propagandas associated with today’s conflicts. These are the ones that affect directly our income, business, working conditions, health, education, and religious, political, and social responsibilities. It is all too easy to analyze some old example of propaganda, now having little relation to vital issues.”

Remember this was written in the context of events in the 1930’s, Americans encountered the onslaught of German and Russian propaganda. I think you can use old propaganda for practice—and because something was used by the Nazis, the Soviet Union or a group from the far past, don’t assume that a similar theme is not being repeated or that a method is no longer being practiced. For example, look at the propaganda poster in A Poster Is Worth A Thousand Words. It’s over one hundred years old, but it was designed to promote a world view of class warfare, and it contains numerous presuppositions and prejudices that are treated as established fact. Its ideas are still being used today!

DOUBT that your opinions are “your very own.” They usually aren’t. Our opinions, even with respect to today’s propagandas, have been largely determined for us by inheritance and environment….We resemble others with similar inheritance and environment and are bound to them by ties of common experience….We tend to distrust the opinions of those who differ from us in inheritance and environment. Only drastic changes in our life conditions, with new and different experiences, associations, and influences, can offset or cancel out the effect of inheritance and long years of environment.”

Here again the emphasis is on self-awareness. I don’t think life changes have to be drastic, simply knowing and talking with those who differ from our thinking helps prevent an insular Pauline Kael* effect. I think many members of the media and the celebrity culture of the U.S. are locked into group think and are not even aware of it because they don’t come into ideological conflict in their world of interactions. Provincialism is not restricted to small towns—it can be prevalent in big cities.

EVALUATE, therefore, with the greatest care, your own propagandas [beliefs]. We must learn clearly why we act and believe as we do with respect to various conflicts and issues-political, economic, social, and religious….This is very important.”

I became a Christian in college, and I immediately had my beliefs challenged and had to think through what I believed and why to be able to explain and defend my beliefs. It was a crash course in apologetics in the crucible of a secular campus. Are you familiar with the term apologetics? Christian apologetics is not a defensive apology! It is a verbal defense that provides explanations or reasons for Christian belief.

Why do you think what you think? What are the principles on which you build your perspective on current events? On life? Can you explain and defend your opinions to others? For that matter, have you ever found it necessary to do this? It may not be easy, but as iron sharpens iron, discussion with those who sharply disagree with us helps us to clarify our thinking and understand areas that we need to rethink or work we need to do to find other words and facts to explain.

It’s vital to know what you believe and understand why you believe it. As you are increasingly able to do this, the more easily you will recognize propaganda because you’ve already had practice thinking through the what’s and why’s of your own thinking. You can tell when someone isn’t explaining the reasoning behind their beliefs.

FIND THE FACTS before you come to any conclusion. There is usually plenty of time to form a conclusion and believe in it later on. Once we learn how to recognize propaganda, we can most effectively deal with it by suspending our judgment until we have time to learn the facts and the logic or trickery involved in the propaganda in question. We must ask:

“Who is this propagandist?

“How is he trying to influence our thoughts and actions?

“For what purpose does he use the common propaganda devices?

“Do we like his purposes?

“How does he use words and symbols?

“What are the exact meanings of his words and symbols?

“What does the propagandist try to make these words and symbols appear to mean?

“What are the basic interests of this propagandist?

“Do his interests coincide with the interests of most citizens, of our society as we see it?”

These are great questions to ask about a speaker or writer. When I’m unfamiliar with who someone is, I’ve learned finding a brief biography of a speaker or writer helps me understand his perspective and purposes.

GUARD always, finally, against omnibus words. They are the words that make us the easy dupes of propagandists. Omnibus or carryall words are words that are extraordinarily difficult to define. They carry all sorts of meanings to the various sorts of men. Therefore, the best test for the truth or falsity of propaganda lies in specific and concrete definitions of the words and symbols used by the propagandist. Moreover, sharp definition is the best antidote against words and symbols that carry a high charge of emotion.”

Read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, and remember his words,

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”

Heed the Humpty Dumptys among us! They do treat words as a suitcase, keeping the outward shell for its appeal. They either pull out its original meaning and pack it with their own, confusing and deceiving those who assume the case tells them what is inside, or else they do use words with multiple definitions, leave the meaning up to the listeners’ imagination, knowing that the beautiful outside appearance of the suitcase will itself do a work of deception.


“You see it’s like a portmanteau—
there are two meanings packed up into one word.”

These ABC’s may have been distilled in the 1930’s, but you can certainly use them to analyze Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan “Hope and Change.” Here’s the A: Ascertain the conflict. It’s subtle as no conflict is overtly mentioned, but the phrase in and of itself implies there is a need for hope and for change, and it implies a conflict of choices between the path of the status quo of hopelessness or the path of hope.

The takeaway for me from this list is to step back and look at what’s going on. Be self-aware and aware of the speaker’s background and agenda, and be willing to evaluate. Don’t get caught up and drown in a flood-tide of feeling.

I’ll be going through what the IPA called the seven ‘Propaganda Devices, the “Tricks of the Trade”‘ in future posts.
Photograph: Portmanteau: Ox leather Gladstone bag, puuikibeachCreative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.
The Fine Art Of Propaganda; A Study of Father Coughlin’s Speeches” by The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, Edited by Alfred McClung Lee & Elizabeth Briant Lee, and published in 1939 by Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York via Phil Taylor’s Web Site, The Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.
*Pauline Kael was a film critic who, after the 1972 election, was alleged to have said she didn’t know how Nixon won because she didn’t know anyone who had voted for him. The New York Times quoted her as saying, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.” See the heading, Alleged Nixon Quote, about halfway down the Wikipedia page.