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Features 2000 Hill1

Scrutinizing Propaganda

By J. E. Hill

Many of us are familiar with fallacies in logic. Even if you are not an active debater, it is good to know some of the more popular fallacies so you can identify them when they come up in everyday conversations. Among the most common is the circular argument, which goes like this: Paul says Jesus is God and we should believe Paul because Paul says we should believe him. Or the ad hominem fallacy, which is attacking the person rather than the argument. For example: You can’t believe him because he’s an atheist and all atheists are liars. Another fallacy is bifurcation, stated as: I cannot accept the theory of evolution because it is so preposterous, that the only other explanation is the supernatural. Perhaps the most popular is argumentum ad populum: There are millions of people who believe in God. How could millions of people be wrong?

The standard list for fallacies can be found in Irving M. Copi’s Introduction to Logic, which list 40 or more formal fallacies. However, aside from fallacies, there is another form of language device that occurs during discourse that we must also be aware of: propaganda. Although fallacies can be found in some elements of propaganda, as we will see, propaganda has it own distinctive properties. Propaganda can be defined as an expression or action by individuals or groups deliberately designed to influence opinions or actions of other individuals or groups with reference to a predetermined end. A propagandist is trying to put across an idea, good or bad rather than trying to discover truth and fact. Sometimes propaganda activities are so far reaching that they become harmful and a social detriment. It is then when it deserves close scrutiny.

In order to scrutinize propaganda, we first need more than a definition and to separate the difference between social and antisocial propaganda. Social propaganda is essentially harmless; advertising, for the most part harmless, so is political campaigning. We all seem to be at least somewhat cognizant of the inflated value of their pitches. However anti-social propaganda is much more subtle and by contrast, harder to detect. We can, by recognizing common devices uses by the propagandist, become familiar with how to detect propaganda. There are:

  • The Name Calling Device
  • The Glittering Generalities Device
  • The Transfer Device
  • The Testimonial Device
  • The Plain Folks Device
  • The Card Stacking Device
  • The Band Wagon Device
  • The Missing Information Device

These devices fool us because they appeal to our emotions rather than our reason. They make us do things that we would not normally do if we thought about it rationally and dispassionately. They work because sometimes we are too lazy to think things through and accept the automatic explanation offered up.

Name Calling is a device to make us form a judgment without examining the evidence on which it should be based. Here the device is very close to the fallacy of arguementum ad hominem but differs in the respect that it is not directly attacking the person instead of the argument. Name calling ignores the argument. The propagandist appeals to hate and fear by giving “bad names” to groups, nations, races, practices, beliefs and ideals they would have us condemn and reject. Name calling can also accomplished by implication with a “bad name”. Such as the headline: “so and so visits communist China, ignores human rights issue.” This implies that so and so is sympathetic with the communist Chinese and agrees with their human rights record. Name calling probably reached its overt best in the Mcarthy Era. The use of bad names without presentation of their essential meaning, without all pertinent information, comprises perhaps the most common of all propaganda devices.

Glittering Generalities is the opposite of Name Calling. This device is used by the propagandist to identify their program by use of “virtue words.” Here the appeal is to our emotions of love, generosity, and goodness. Words like truth, freedom, honor, liberty, loyalty, the American way, all suggest shining ideals. Using virtue words, the propagandist can identify his group, nation, race, practice, or belief with such ideas as to win us over to his cause. As Name Calling is a device to make us form a judgment to reject or condemn, without examining the evidence, Glittering Generalities is a device to make us accept and approve, without examining the evidence. In the Name Calling and Glittering Generalities devices, words are used to stir up our emotions and fog our thinking. In one device “bad words” are used to make us mad; in the other “good words” are used to make us glad. The propagandist is most effective using these devices when the words create devils for us to fight or gods to adore. By the use of this device, we personify groups as devilish and are made mad enough to fight against or elevated god-like groups to a higher ideal to fight for.

Transfer is a device by which the propagandist carries over authority, sanction and approval of something we respect and revere to something they would have us accept. In the Transfer device, symbols are constantly used. The cross represents the Christian church. The flag represents the nation. Many political cartoonists use Transfer extensively to telegraph their point. Transfer uses symbols to stir emotions. At their very sight, in an instance, we can be aroused to a myriad of complex of feelings with respect to a subject. The Transfer device can be used for and against causes and ideas.

The Testimonial device has common elements with the fallacy of arguementum ad verecundiam or appeal to authority. This device suggest, by using authorities, that something is good or bad. The Testimonial device can be applied to almost anything but most likely employed in social, economic, and political issues. We also see an overwhelming amount of Testimonial by Christian apologists. Perhaps one of the most brazen examples of this device was the past practice of using doctors to endorse certain brands of cigarettes!

Plain Folks is a device used by politicians, business leaders, ministers and etc. to win our confidence by appearing to be people like ourselves–“just plain folks among the neighbors.” This is especially true during election years. Politicians kiss babies, eat apple pie, wave the flag (transfer device) go to picnics; they show up at places or do things they would never usually do just to show that they are just like us. Many of us remember the picture of Calvin Coolidge pitching hay while on a campaign tour of the Midwest; the only problem was he wore a suit and patent leather shoes! Plain Folks will try to win us over by showing that they’re just as common as the rest of us, therefore good and wise.

Card Stacking is a device in which the user employs all the arts of deception to win our support for their group, nation, policy, practice, belief, or ideal. Simply stated, the propagandist stacks the cards against the truth. They will overemphasize and under emphasize to dodge issues and evade facts. This device resorts to lies, censorship, and distortion. The propagandist using card stacking will omit facts and offer false testimony. They will create a smoke screen by raising a new issue when a position cannot be defended or becomes embarrassing. They will use red herrings (another fallacy) to confuse and divert those in search of the facts or when they do not want the facts revealed. Card Stackers will make the unreal appear real and real appear unreal. They let a half-truth masquerade as truth. Card Stacking is reminiscence to the tactics of a snake oil salesman. By means of this device propagandists would convince us that a ruthless war of aggression is a crusade for righteousness. Card Stacking employs sham, hypocrisy, and effrontery. There is greater problem within Card Stacking: How do you deal with it? Even if you can identify the lie or distortion, one might be putting them at risk challenging the user. Especially in a crowd that might not be too friendly.

The Band Wagon device wants us follow the crowd. This device is very common to argumentum ad populum. The main theme is very recognizable: “everybody’s doing it!” The technique here is one of the revival show. Fill a hall or stadium, march a million men in a parade. Use pomp and circumstance, music, flags, colors, movement, all the dramatic arts. The user of the Band Wagon device appeals to the desire common to most of us, to follow the crowd. Because they want us to follow the crowd en masse, the direct appeal is to groups held together by common ties of nationality, religion, race, sex, vocation, or environment. All the artifices of flattery become aroused to harness the fears and hatreds, prejudices and biases, convictions and ideals common to the group. Thus, emotion is made to push or pull the Band Wagon.

The Missing Information Device can be used effectively in speech and writing. This device is used when the speaker does not have a case and uses the impression that they have authorities and supporting sources to bolster their cause. An example of Missing Information is: “I could go on and site many sources but we haven’t the space here to do that,” or “I know people who disagree with you and they’re authorities on the subject but we are running out of time so lets move on.” This device leads people to believe these authorities or sources really exist or are readily available. The person using Missing Information hopes no one pushes for authenticity. Watch for this from editorial writers and people who want to quickly end discussion on a particular topic. This device should also be considered as the fallacy of absentia Indicium (absence of information or disclosure).

When we consider that in all these devices our emotions are the stuff with which propagandists’ work. Without it they are helpless; with it, harnessing it to their purposes, they can make us glow with pride or burn with hatred, they can make us zealots in behalf of the program they endorse. Propaganda as generally understood is expression of opinion or action by individuals or groups with reference to predetermined ends. Without the appeal to our emotions–to our fears and to our courage, to our selfishness and unselfishness, to our loves and to our hates–propagandists would influence few opinions and few actions. To say this is not to condemn emotion, an essential part of life, or to assert that all predetermined ends of propagandist are “bad.” What is meant is that the intelligent person does not want propagandists to utilize his emotions, even to the attainment of “good” ends, without knowing what is going on. We do not want to be “used” in the attainment of ends we may later consider “bad.” We do not want to be gullible. We do not wand to be fooled. We do not want to be duped, even in a good cause. We want to know the facts and among these is included the fact of the utilization of our emotions.

Keeping in mind these eight common devices, turn to today’s newspaper, news telecast, some of the popular religious or apologetic written material or better yet a religious broadcast. Read or listen closely and almost immediately you can spot examples of them all. At election time, Plain Folks and Band Wagon are common. Card Stacking is the hardest to detect because it is usually adroitly executed and we lack the information necessary to detect or nail the lie. With a little practice, detecting propaganda devices will soon enable us to detect them elsewhere-in books, writings, magazines, in arguments, communications and discourses, in business groups, church material, schools, and political parties.


Some information for this article was compiled from ‘Propaganda Analysis’ a pamphlet originally published in 1937 by the institute for Propaganda Analysis, New York City. For an in-depth look at propaganda, and a further discussion on the above devices check out: <URL:http://carmen.artsci.washington.edu/propaganda/home.htm>. Although the following books about propaganda are out of print, they may be found at the library:

Folkways by William G. Summer. This book describes the relationship between propaganda and emotion and shows why most of us tend to feel, believe, and act in traditional patterns.

TheMind in the Making by James H. Robinson. This book reveals the nature of the mind and suggests how to analyze propaganda appealing to traditional thought patterns.

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