In Justin Khoo & Rachel Katharine Sterken (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Social and Political Philosophy of Language. pp. 125-146 (2021)
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This chapter provides a high-level introduction to the topic of propaganda. We survey a number of the most influential accounts of propaganda, from the earliest institutional studies in the 1920s to contemporary academic work. We propose that these accounts, as well as the various examples of propaganda which we discuss, all converge around a key feature: persuasion which bypasses audiences’ rational faculties. In practice, propaganda can take different forms, serve various interests, and produce a variety of effects. Propaganda can aim to affect not only audiences’ beliefs and attitudes, but also their emotions and moods, and in turn how audiences subsequently reason or act. While propaganda is often thought of as false or misinformation, it can instead involve framing effects (“The war on drugs”), covert messaging (“There are Muslims among us”), emotionally charged slogans (“Make America Great Again”), or myths (“The American dream”). These forms of propaganda mislead audiences, not by introducing false information, but by making some beliefs and values, rather than others, salient. In fact, propaganda can even employ straightforwardly true claims (again, as in “There are Muslims among us”) and seemingly objective bureaucratic reports (“Crime has risen 4.2%”). To understand how these and other mechanisms enable propaganda to persuade by arational means, further study is needed. To that end, throughout the chapter we identify a number of places where the study of meaning and communication can help elucidate propaganda, as well as the places where propaganda issues challenges for the study of meaning.

Author Profiles

Anne Quaranto
University of Texas at Austin
Jason Stanley
Yale University


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