What Is the True Purpose of Propaganda?

Research helps explain the real purpose of propaganda.

Posted Dec 28, 2020

T87acher/Flickr
Source: T87acher/Flickr

“Why do authoritarian governments engage in propaganda when citizens often know that their governments are propagandizing and therefore resist, ignore, or deride the messages?”

This is from the fascinating paper "Propaganda as Signaling" by the political scientist Haifeng Huang. The common understanding of propaganda is that it is intended to brainwash the masses. People get exposed to the same message repeatedly and over time come to believe in whatever nonsense the authoritarians want them to believe.

And yet authoritarians often broadcast silly, unpersuasive propaganda. Huang observes that propaganda might actually be counterproductive, because the official messages often contradict reality.

Why display in public what everyone knows are lies, and easily verifiable as lies? Professor Huang gives us an answer: Instilling pro-regime values and attitudes is one aim of authoritarians. But it’s not their only aim.

Alongside their desire to brainwash people, authoritarians also want to remind everyone of their power. When people are bombarded with propaganda everywhere they look, they are reminded of the strength of the regime.

The vast amount of resources authoritarians spend to display their message in every corner of the public square is a costly demonstration of their power. Propaganda is intended to instill fear. The message is: "You might not believe in pro-regime values or attitudes. But we will make sure you are too frightened to do anything about it."

Huang describes how China’s primetime news program, Xinwen Lianbo, is stilted, archaic, and is “a constant target of mockery among ordinary citizens.” Yet the Chinese government airs it every night at 7 p.m. sharp. The continuing existence of this program is intended to remind citizens of the strength and capacity of the communist party.

The willingness of the government to continue to undertake costly endeavors to broadcast unpersuasive messages is a credible signal of just how strong and all-powerful it is. In fact, Huang compares this to political campaigns in democratic countries.

Political ads rarely contain new information. It is likely rare that they change anyone’s mind. The function of political ads, though, isn’t simply to persuade. It’s to “burn money” in a public way. They are costly signals of the political campaign’s willingness to expend resources, which shows their commitment.

Huang goes on to report the results of his empirical research. He asked Chinese citizens how familiar they were with the Chinese government’s propaganda messages. He found that people who were more knowledgeable about these messages were not more satisfied with the government. But they were more likely to say that the government is strong, and were less willing to express dissent.

Authoritarians aren’t necessarily trying to convince you of anything. They’re trying to remind you of their power.

Interestingly, Huang even says that the overt insipidness of authoritarian messaging is part of the point. He writes, “for this demonstration of strength to be well taken, propaganda may sometimes need to be dull and unpersuasive, so as to make sure that most citizens will know precisely that it is propaganda when they see it and hence get the implicit message.”

Plainly, the message is: "Yes, we know this message is tiresome and obviously false. But we are showing this to you to tell you that you are helpless to do anything about it."

People are more likely to rebel against a regime when they sense that it is vulnerable. By broadcasting a consistent message repeatedly, the state is attempting to bolster its power. A weak organization can’t produce such messages. It can’t expend the resources. A strong organization can play the same program every night on all networks. It can broadcast the same message on every website and advertisement and television series.

As Huang puts it, “citizens can make inferences about the type of government by observing whether it is willing to produce a high level of propaganda, even if the propaganda itself is not believed by citizens.” That is, even if everyone knows what they are seeing is nonsense, the fact that everyone is seeing it means that the regime is strong enough to broadcast nonsense.

People may be deterred from dissenting against authoritarians not because they believe in their dull messages but because they believe the authoritarians have more power than themselves. Moreover, these official messages dictate the terms of acceptable public discourse and drive alternative ideas underground.

They habituate citizens into acting as if they believe in the official doctrine, if for no other reason than that they do not publicly question it.

The political scientist Lisa Weeden, in her study on the cult of Hafiz al-Assad in Syria, discusses why authoritarian regimes coerce their citizens to engage in preposterous rituals. She notes that “the greater the absurdity of the required performance, the more clearly it demonstrates that the regime can make most people obey most of the time.”

If a regime can make the people around you partake in absurdities, you are less likely to challenge that regime. You will be more likely to obey it. Of course, this doesn’t mean regimes are not interested in indoctrination. They would prefer that people really do hold pro-regime attitudes and values.

But the purpose of propaganda is not limited just to instilling desired beliefs. Often, demonstrating the regime’s strength, capacity, and resources to intimidate people is a more important goal.