Propaganda techniques and opinion manipulation

by Eliane Perret

Anyone who looks at the newspapers today, listens to reports on radio and television or hears speeches by politicians often wonders what to believe. Because so much has become common knowledge today: Published opinion is less and less in line with public opinion, and we are aware of the attempts to use propaganda methods – euphemistically renamed public relations PR – to control the formation of opinion. It has therefore become increasingly important to obtain a broad range of information and often resort to media portals that do not belong to the “quality media”. Not only are the methods used interesting, but it is also worth taking a look at the history.

Glitter that doesn’t glitter

There are timeless and cross-cultural terms that we spontaneously associate with positive content. Examples include freedom, democracy, security, the rule of law, neutrality when it comes to government affairs, but also tolerance, colourfulness, change, science, solidarity, diversity and sustainability. They are often inserted into speeches and media products aimed at gaining acceptance for ideologies and Zeitgeist phenomena.
  Or the power strategies behind wars are legitimised by euphemistic terms such as war of liberation, democratisation, humanitarian interventions with heroes, saviours or freedom fighters who are unquestioningly regarded as trustworthy. The terms radiate good intentions supported by human commitment and ethics, intelligent considerations, confidence and sacrifice and are intended to trigger approval and even gratitude in the other party. Today, political power apparatuses and their advisors “play” with them when they want to influence the opinion of their target audience and win them over to their side. In the technical language of propaganda, we speak of glittering generality. You could also say: it’s about a word or a vague phrase that is filled with different content depending on the situation. However, they are timeless and cross-cultural words that are so vague that everyone agrees on their accuracy and value, even if it later becomes clear that their own interpretation of the term did not match the intended one. They are not right or wrong because they do not actually convey any information and leave the interpretation up to the recipient. In any case, it is a rhetorical device with strong positive emotional appeal. It is used to get us to accept and approve of something without examining the evidence. These words or phrases are therefore often used in speeches or media reports.

Dirty things
that are not dirty

In turn, Name-Calling uses the power of swear words to impose a judgement on certain events and people through constant repetition in press releases, speeches, social media posts, etc., and to accept conclusions without really knowing the facts. Well-known terms that are reinterpreted or neologisms such as “do-gooders”, “climate deniers”, “Putinversteher” [a German neologism and a political buzzword, which literally translates “Putin understander”, i.e., “one who understands Putin”], “diehards” or even terms taken from the animal kingdom such as “sewer rat”, “lapdog” etc. are also used to portray the opponent as naive, mendacious or incompetent and to underpin one’s own position.

Early roots

Glittering generality and Name-Calling: the roots of these terms used to describe propaganda techniques go back almost 100 years to the 1930s. A group of American journalists, educators and business leaders wanted to raise public awareness of the propaganda strategies used to manipulate them. People were aware of the power of radio, which was also very widespread among young people at the time and was an emerging new technology that was free for everyone. The contents transmitted over the airwaves were often the source of dreams, ideals and illusions and the reshaping of cultural values. They led young people away from the reality of life – and this in times of economic crisis! Education was seen as an effective means of countering propaganda.
  In 1937, the Institute for Propaganda-Analysis IPA was founded in New York, whose legacy is a list of the seven common propaganda techniques published in 1936 (see box). Glittering Generality and Name-Calling are two of them. Knowledge of these techniques should enable people to recognise and analyse propaganda. They were modelled on classical rhetoric – the study of how language is used to address an audience – and presented the knowledge that can be used to avoid falling victim to manipulation. The know-ledge gained from the propaganda methods used during the First World War made the scientists at the IPA aware of the need for appropriate educational programmes at schools and universities and the need to educate the American population in order to protect them from being targeted by manipulative methods. Flyers and book publications were to be made available to them.

Committed founders

The IPA was founded by Edward Filene (1860–1937), a business leader and philanthropist who owned Filene’s Department Store in Boston. In 1937, Filene1 collaborated with journalist and educator Clyde Miller. He wanted to support the IPA financially to enable the creation and distribution of teaching materials that teachers could use to guide their students in critically analysing propaganda.
  Clyde Miller, who directed the editorial work of the IPA and helped to publish the first five issues of Propaganda Analysis, was a journalist and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he taught a course entitled “Public Opinion and Education” and worked as a publicist for the university.

Propaganda analysis in the classroom

To help teachers, the IPA developed short informational articles in magazine format with titles such as “How to Detect Propaganda”, “How to Analyze Newspapers” and “The Public Relations Counsel and Propaganda” to name a few. Thanks to the generous financial support of Edward Filene, these publications were sent to thousands of high schools, colleges and public libraries across the United States. The material was later supplemented by the “ABC of Propaganda Analysis”, which provides practical advice on how to analyse current examples of propaganda in the classroom. It anticipates much of what is now conceptualised as a modern form of media literacy.2 In October 1937, the IPA distributed 3,000 copies of an announcement issue of the Propaganda-Analyse-Bulletin and advertised for subscriptions. In the first year, 2,500 subscribers were gained. The publications were well received by many teachers and were used in the classroom.

Comprehend the propaganda –
become a fellow human being

While the list of propaganda techniques is still known today, the ABC of propaganda techniques has been forgotten. Perhaps it did not fit in with the spirit of the times; for as Clyde Miller wrote in 1942, one of its aims was to combat the ideological theories of racism “which Hitler and Goebbels have used so effectively to create mass hatred”, and he recorded in the common usage of the time: “No student who has once gone through the recommended educational programme of the Institute is likely to succumb to propaganda which makes him hate Jews as Jews and Negroes as Negroes. This approach immunises pupils against propaganda that incites hatred on the basis of racial and religious differences.”3 A call for equal human solidarity!
  The work of the IPA was viewed very critically by the American government. The necessary financial support was withdrawn from the institute and it was forced to close its doors in 1942, shortly after the USA entered the war.  •

1 Filene’s reasons for campaigning against propaganda may also have been of a personal nature. His father, whose original name was Wilhelm Katz, emigrated from Prussia to America in the 1840s along with other Jewish citizens due to persecution. His son Edward took over his father’s company in 1908 and was also an active social reformer who, for example, founded the first employees’ union in America.
2 The “ABC of Propaganda Analysis” is not characterised by authorship. However, due to the way the IPA works, it is assumed that it was written with the active participation and editorial supervision of Clyde Miller.
3 Renée Hobbs/Sandra Mc Gee. “Teaching about Propaganda: An Examination of the Historical Roots of Media Literacy”. In: Journal of Media Literacy Education 6(2). 56–67, p. 64.

Further sources:

Hardinghaus, Christian. Kriegspropaganda und Medienmanipulation. Was Sie wissen sollten, um sich nicht täuschen zu lassen. (War propaganda and media manipulation. What you should know to avoid being deceived.) Europaverlag 2023

Menath, Johannes. Moderne Propagandatechniken. 80 Methoden der Meinungslenkung. (Modern propaganda techniques. 80 methods of influencing public opinion.) Verlag Zeitgeist. 2022

Morelli, Anne. Die Prinzipien der Kriegspropaganda. (The basic principles of war propaganda.) ZuKlampen-Verlag 2004

Ponsonby, Arthur. Falsehood in Wartime. E.P. Dutton & Co, 1929. (extracts in:

The Seven Propaganda Devices

The source of information – a person or institute – is discredited through pejoritive terms, so that their statements are no longer recognised.

Bandwagonjoining the movement crowd
Through evoking emotion, followers are won over to maintain a certain opinion.

Glittering Generalitiesglamourous generalisations
With the use of sparkling ideals or virtues a certain opinion becomes particularly noble and credibly glorified.

Flag Waving
Certain outwardly visible symbols become the signs of togetherness.

Plain Folksthe common people
Through language and behaviour, the impression is created that the opinion maker is a true representative who stands up for the arguments of the people.

Testimonialbearing witness
Prominent personalities from politics, economy or show business are presented who already represent the desired opinion.

Stacking the cardsshuffling the cards
An action is (falsely) portrayed according to one’s own objectives in order to attain a certain goal or a certain opinion.

Source: Clyde Miller & Violet Edwards (1936, October).
The intelligent teacher’s guide through campaign propaganda.
The Clearing House,11(2), p. 69-77

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