The Study of Propaganda

The formal study of propaganda is impregnated with academic discourses from literature (including rhetoric and narrative), linguistics (semiotics), sociolinguistics (discourse), psychology (perception, attention, and retention) social psychology (interactive communication and persuasion), social anthropology (social practices of ‘reading,’ ‘viewing,’ performance, and gaming), mass communication and media studies. This last includes the political economy of media and their business models; the relationships that tie media to other centers of social, political, economic, and cultural power; the social functions of media; and media “effects.”

Scholarly study of mass communication, rather more than in related fields, wrestled mightily trying to assess the power of media to persuade. Inclined in the early decades of the twentieth century to exaggerate the power of media to change minds (following public revelations of the extent to which US and allied citizens had been duped into supporting participation in World War One), the discipline shifted during and after World War Two towards an empirical approach embedded in social science methodologies. These introduced nuance and sophistication. Research documentation of the many variables intervening in the transmission of messages through to processes of audience sense-making – including the impacts of a broad range of contextual factors – established a theoretical orthodoxy that attributed only modest power to the media, and greater influence than heretofore understood to the “autonomy” of audience judgment.

In the field of news, this included a move away from the idea of news media as institutions that told people what to think, to the idea of their telling people what to think about. The orthodoxy was shaken in the 1990s by improvement in conceptualizing the construction of media content. Newer theories of ‘framing,’ ‘indexing’ and ‘priming,’ examined how texts constructed their topics by selective highlights and omissions, emphases, marginalization, foregrounding and backgrounding, and predisposed audiences to attend to certain aspects and ignore others (e.g. Entman 2003). Particularly on issues with which audiences were unfamiliar, this returned the media back into more sinister perspective, but afforded fresh scope for thinking about texts, meanings, and interpretations. Theorizing about media frames blended with older tools of linguistic and literary analysis that focused on the relationship of texts to storytelling (e.g., the universal recurrence of hero, villain, helper, and narrator roles), and the evolution of how discourses (patterns of linguistic choice, invocations of ideas and associations, arrangement of arguments) addressed or defined different phenomena.

What is Propaganda?

This ground is well-trodden. A well-known US college text by Garth Jowett and Victoria O’Donnell, reviewed various definitions of propaganda, and offered their own:

“Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandisT” (Jowett and O’Donnell 2015).

The choice of words helped distinguish propaganda as a particular form of persuasion in which a persuader assumes a position of power over the persons being persuaded, such that he/she shapes, manipulates, and directs their thinking at the service of the propagandist, first and foremost. Propaganda is more likely than transparent, interactive communication to exhibit the features of concealed purpose, concealed identity, control over information flow, management of public opinion, and manipulation of behavior.

The authors’ explication of propaganda first constructed its history, highlighting notable examples of its exercise by states, armies, churches, revolutionary and social movements. They then examined the ‘institutionalization’ of propaganda practice, its socially pervasive embedding through modern mass media, advertising, and polling, all within an overall culture suffused with promotional communication. To demonstrate the relevance of the study of the psychology of persuasion and its relationship to mass media, the authors drew on theories of consistency, exposure learning, McGuire’s model, the diffusion of innovations, agenda setting, cultivation, uses and gratifications, uses and dependency, and the impacts of cultural studies and collective memory studies.

Psychological Warfare

Jowett and O’Donnell dedicated a chapter to psychological warfare, compiling a history of outstanding examples, including Soviet and Nazi practices and propaganda in numerous US wars, including the Vietnam war and the first and second ‘Gulf Wars.’ They referenced the seven ‘devices’ of propaganda that had been identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) in 1937: name-calling; glittering generalities; transfer; testimonial; plain folks; card-stacking; band wagoning. This list was amplified by later military applications such as the US military Chieu Hoi program. The program targeted North Vietnamese soldiers with ‘fear of death’ threats, appeals to the hardships endured by the Viet Cong, their loss of faith (it was presumed) in a communist victory, the common soldier’s concern for family members and the hardships that they faced, and disillusionment with the war. The emphasis was on the idea of propaganda being contained within a campaign, one with a specific message for a target audience, employing techniques of rhetoric for maximization of impact.

Other analysts have amplified the original IPA list. The Swiss Policy Research site identified the following standard gambits: the enemy is solely responsible for the war whereas we are innocent and peace-loving; the enemy has barbaric features; we fight for a good cause whereas the enemy fights for selfish ends; the enemy commits atrocities on purpose, but, when we do it, it’s an oversight; the enemy uses illegal weapons; our losses are small whereas those of our opponents are enormous; our cause is supported by artists and intellectuals; our mission is sacred; anyone who doubts our reporting is a traitor (Swiss Policy Research 2020). In studying the three-way conflict between Ukraine, Russia and the West following the US-backed 2014 coup d’etat in Kiev, Boyd-Barrett identified several axioms of propaganda. His entry on elections resonates with the classic 1988 work of Herman and Chomsky on US media coverage of Central American elections:

“Elections for independence that take place under the rule of authorities who do not enjoy the approval of western powers will be considered less than legitimate by those powers and their media, especially when they occur in periods of conflict and unrest (as in Crimea). Elections for independence that take place under the rule of authorities that are approved by western interests may not even be necessary (as in Kosovo) or, if held, are reassuring signs of democracy even in the most unpromising of circumstances (as in presidential elections in Ukraine that elected Poroshenko to the presidency, and the parliamentary elections that were held in August 2014)” (Boyd-barrett 2017, p. 154).

Describing the ‘Nayirah’ incident during the prelude to the first Gulf War, when strategic communication operator Hill and Knowlton’s pro-war campaign effectively deployed the false testimony of a witness whose identity was misrepresented, Jowett and O’Donnell established a broader perspective on propaganda, one that involved the conjuring of perception through coordinated communications of multiple sources and their ‘evidence,’ with a view to staging a fake reality. Their book outlined a framework for the analysis of propaganda, supplemented with detailed case-studies. One showed how, during Gulf War 2, US television network chiefs colluded with official war propaganda by hiring former military generals, briefed for the purpose by the Pentagon, as supposedly independent ‘pundits’ for news and talk shows. Some were salesmen for defense companies and rewarded by the Pentagon with access to sales opportunities. The practice did not stop.

Going Beyond the ‘Message’

Such examples demonstrated how construction of effective propaganda campaigns involve numerous levels of deception, going far beyond the design and contents of a message. These include the crafting of public perception of the sources of a message, or the staging of reality to create ‘facts’ that are incorporated into the message, and the arrangement of multiple streams of dissemination and repetition to ensure its domination of the public sphere over potential alternatives. The essence of such strategies is to deceptively replicate the conditions under which large numbers of people among the targeted audience as usually inclined to believe any given narrative. (The attached link, The Propaganda Simulacrum, summarizes ten of the most important ways in which such deception is achieved).

This sophisticated approach to propaganda was compellingly foreshadowed in the analyses of political philosopher, Walter Lippmann (Lippmann 1922), and in the writing and professional practice of an acclaimed grandfather of public relations namely, Edward Bernays, nephew of the renowned Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis. Among his accomplishments (Bernays claimed to have helped substitute the term ‘public relations’ for that of ‘propaganda’) he worked for the tobacco industry in the 1920s to persuade women to disregard social taboos on their smoking in public. He staged a ‘news’ event at which young women (supposedly ‘debutantes’ and ‘suffragettes’), during an Easter Day parade in New York, lit up cigarettes as ‘torches of freedom’. Bernays ensured that press photographers knew when to capture the moment. He established a lasting template for staging and publicizing regime-change operations in the 1954 US-backed overthrow of democratically elected president Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. His client was a US banana company, United Fruit, which owned vast swathes of Guatemalan land. United Fruit considered that its interests were threatened by a modest Arbenz proposal to remunerate the company for nationalization of its unproductive lands for redistribution to peasants.

The campaign’s most egregious deception was to portray the Guatemalan government as a threat, not to United Fruit, but to the USA on account of what Bernays falsely depicted as Guatemala’s pro-Soviet, ‘communist’ government. The campaign was suffused with disinformation, some of it disseminated to US newspapers by a regional news agency Bernays had established for the purpose. Tactics included the hiring of “anti-government protestors” and favors to visiting New York journalists. Of critical importance, Bernays secured the active support of the Dulles brothers, one the secretary of state, Foster Dulles, and the other, Allen Dulles, head of the CIA. These commanded the mobilization from adjoining territory of a counter-revolutionary militia to oppose the Guatemalan army and flew CIA planes to bomb Guatemala City in what the operation’s mastermind, Howard Hunt, confessed was a terrorist campaign modelled on Nazi tactics (Curtis 2002).

The Propaganda Model

An influential theoretical model for explaining the relationship between power and news media representation of events, especially in the domain of international relations and conflict, was developed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent. The model identified five filters through which stories needed to pass if they were to be published:

Stories could not constitute a threat to the interests of US media conglomerates (which enveloped almost all popular US news outlets) – powerful, for-profit enterprises, central to US capitalism and its global reach. Secondly, since advertising revenue was a major, frequently the major revenue stream for media conglomerates, stories could not constitute a threat to advertisers (who represented key sectors of the US economy such as pharmaceuticals, automobiles and fossil fuels, sanitary and beauty products), or to a consumer-friendly narrative of the world that helped sustain sales of the goods and services that advertisers promoted. Thirdly, stories needed to satisfy the principal drivers of US journalism: giving prominence to ‘authoritative’ sources, most of these in positions of power (therefore the most threatened by full disclosure), or to routine institutional sources on which news media depended for steady supply of cheap, pre-digested information, including news agencies. Fourthly, stories must not provoke the ire of sources with substantial power to punish journalists, or their employers, when these did not toe the ‘company line.’ And finally, stories must conform to the world of taken-for-granted ideological perspectives that are commonly shared by both journalists and their sources. In the 1980s, this was represented by the still comfortable lens of anti-communism, later substituted by a neo-liberal ideology of financial deregulation, ‘free’ trade, and the exploitation of human rights pretexts for undermining the national sovereignty of disfavored nations.

This ‘propaganda model’ appeared early in the Herman and Chomsky volume. They presented it as a systemic model whose operation, independent of the actions and intentions of individuals, was an inevitable, automatic outcome of US military, economic and cultural global dominance. Perhaps more impressive than the basic model were the authors’ detailed case studies and ‘natural experiments,’ demonstrating how particular countries were covered by mainstream US media in Vietnam and Central America. For example, they showed that victims of state violence in countries that were allies of the USA were marginalized and depersonalized. If blame was to be attributed to state actors, then these would be relatively low-level, rogue operators. Victims of state violence in countries whose governments were not favored by Washington, on the other hand, were humanized, and sanctified, and the most senior members of government were called to account. This theory of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ victims has been amply confirmed and shown to have predictive power.

The case studies went some way to undermine the authors’ claim of systemic bias to explain US mainstream media propaganda. They underlined obvious consistencies of which practitioners could scarcely be unaware, and the exercise of strong and conscious agency on the part of individual editors and journalists. This informed a related criticism of the model, namely that it ignored ample evidence that western mainstream media (WMM) news coverage was manipulated by intelligence agencies in a variety of ways: agency infiltration of news media; suborning of editors and journalists by intelligence agencies through tactics of flattery, bribery, or threat; disproportionate dependence by journalists on these agencies for information, in ways that favored US official narratives. To the role of intelligence agencies could be added public relations, lobbyist and ‘dark money’ influences whose ability to shape news agendas and content went beyond whatever Herman and Chomsky implied when discussing journalistic dependence on authoritative sources.

A Propagandist Focus

A different critique considered the Herman and Chomsky approach ‘media-centric,’ one that lavished attention on the admitted importance to propaganda of the mass media but ignored the identities and strategies of the propagandists. This critique called for an understanding of propaganda that goes beyond the ‘linguistic’ or ‘semiotic’ realms of the message to ‘real-world’ acts of incentivization and coercion (Robinson 2020b; Bakir, Herring, Miller, and Robinson 2018) that in turn shape the message. The focus on propagandists captures, highlights, foregrounds not just the media, therefore, but all institutions operating within an increasingly promotional culture in which spin, and exaggeration, are pervasive, that create and circulate propaganda – including State bureaucracies, corporations, NGOs, human rights organizations, think tanks, and academia. The attention here is on the production of propaganda, not so much its publication. This includes vast sums of money expended by States on ‘public diplomacy,’ embracing the creation and distribution of inaccurate or misleading information whose purpose is to support the political projects of the governing class (e.g., ‘weapons of mass destruction’[WMD] propaganda in the run-up to the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003), often aligning with ideologies of regime-change intervention under such pretexts as ‘responsibility to protect’ (RTP), or to stop terrorism.

By no means is this approach limited to the cerebral production of messages or meanings, but extends to physical, concrete actions undertaken so that desired meanings and messages can thus be generated in ways that might not otherwise have been possible. War itself sometimes serves this purpose when the crushing of an opponent is less important than the warning which this directs to potential future opponents, or when a conflict is extended even without hope of a clear-cut resolution merely as a message to others that, if they mess with the propagandist, they will pay dearly. Exhibitions of immense force and violence, as in the case of the Reichstag Fire, the ‘shock and awe’ bombing of Baghdad, or the destruction of the World Trade Towers (WTT), have been cited as moments of intense, physical acts of propaganda whose purpose is to radically subvert and re-arrange the boundaries of political action, from the Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933, through to re-assertion of western imperial might in the Middle East in 1991, to a destabilizing ‘war on terror’ (WOT) in 2001 whose purpose, arguably, was the perpetuation of US global hegemony.

Propaganda is ultimately about the message, but elements of the real world to which the message refers sometimes require construction or refinement to provide a necessary evidentiary basis to support its credibility. The message has little value without a machinery for its overwhelmingly pervasive, apparently multi-sourced, repetitive, and constantly reformulated dissemination in both communicative and action-oriented, concrete form.

Longue Durée

This is rarely more impressive than in propaganda campaigns that direct the totality of societies over decades or centuries. Some such campaigns are commensurate with recorded human history. They deal with fundamental choices of human existence and social organization. They require substantial resources at the disposal of ruling elites and their acolytes (including ‘divinely ordained’ royal families, armies, priests and shamans, writers, and educators). They shape the organization of space, architecture, and social relations and communicate industrially through stone, papyrus, paper, and modern communications media. In these broader, ‘meta-propaganda’ campaigns play out the contests of cultures, social practices, interests, and ideas across vast stretches of time. They concern the nature of gods; gender, ethnic, racial and caste dominance; rights of owners to slaves, laborers, and profit; benefits of private as opposed to collective ownership; merits of free as opposed to restricted trade. On the outcomes of such contests have been constructed the enduring global power of major religions and philosophies (e.g., Judaism, Christianity; Hinduism; Confucianism), of political structures (e.g., imperial and monarchical power relative to the power of the people) and economic models (e.g., capitalism, socialism, communism).

Ideological and propaganda driven campaigns are hardly a stranger to modern times. For seventy or more years the world divided between nations ascribing to an ideology of unfettered ownership and private accumulation of capital, and nations ascribing to the superiority of collective ownership of the means of production. Each side was represented by organized propaganda institutions in the form of political parties, publishing and cultural production houses, intelligence agencies and front organizations. Fear of Soviet propaganda following World War Two inspired the CIA-funded Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF) in June 1950, part of a US plan to ‘contain’ the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR) and, specifically, to combat the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform), launched by Joseph Stalin in 1947 as successor to the Communist International. It opposed the influence of pro-communist western artists and intellectuals such as Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copeland, Albert Einstein, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre and Frank Lloyd Wright. In his 1950 National Security Council Paper NSC–68, US foreign policy adviser George Kennan urged the USA to demonstrate the superiority of the ‘idea of freedom,’ working through non-state actors. The CCF spearheaded publication of prestigious anticommunist journals, including Encounter (Britain/US), Tempo Presente (Italy), Quest (India), Preuves (France), Der Monat (Germany), Quadrant (Australia), Cuadernos (Spain), Forum (Austria), and Hiwar (Lebanon). Complex economic differences between communism, socialism, and deregulated capitalism were obscured by a Manichean division between ‘free’ and ‘totalitarian’ societies which even the West – always soft on western-friendly military autocracies – did not altogether believe, although CCF, mindful of the ideological appeal of the ‘good society,’ was also critical of apartheid and the Latin dictatorships of Argentina, Portugal, and Spain, among others.

CCF was judged by many supporters a stunning success in curbing the appeal of communist ideology and Stalinism (Allen and Lowe 2020; Wilford 2008). Less often invoked as a model for enlightened, large-scale propaganda, were the parallel influences of McCarthyism, which exhibited an ideological fervor no less intense than that for which Stalin was castigated. Equally embarrassing were disclosures during the 1970s of widespread penetration of US and overseas media by the CIA (Church Senate Commission 1976; Pike Report 1976; Rockefeller Commission, 1975; and the investigative journalistic accounts of Seymour Hersh, cited in Olmstead 1996, and Carl Bernstein 1977). While this was a golden age of official revelation of intelligence manipulation of press, intellectual and academic domains, it has been succeeded by continuing exposures in similar refrain (see, for example, Dadge 2006, Duffy and Nowosielski 2018, Hersh 2016a/b, Schou 2018, Ulfkotte 2019).

This can extend into State or intelligence penetration of academic departments of journalism and prestigious think thanks for the purpose of recruiting potential quislings and seeding them in mainstream media (Macleod 2021) and other useful conduits for State propaganda. Liberal media appear to be a particular favorite (Edwards and Cromwell 2006). The role of both State and private intelligence and law enforcement agencies, with the collusion of mainstream media, and from a variety of countries including the US, UK, and Australia, was central to the massive “Russiagate” hoax perpetrated on behalf of the Democratic Party in 2016 (Boyd-Barrett 2020; Sakwa 2022). It worked as effectively as it did because it fitted within a long trajectory of Western anti-Soviet and anti-Russian propaganda stretching back at least to the nineteenth century and before. The traces of propaganda, therefore, are rarely annihilated from human consciousness: mostly they linger forever as free-floating semiotic tools of war available for rekindling at any time.

Totalistic Propaganda

Such ‘totalistic’ propaganda campaigns are always railroaded through the prism of a prevailing ideology, shared among elite classes, and represented as normal, even tediously self-evident, throughout mainstream political movements, media, business, religious, and academic outlets. The ideology ‘naturalizes’ a humanly constructed and unnatural world to a degree that its most basic presumptions and tenets acquire a taken-for-granted quality that seduces even its more accomplished defenders. Always, such propaganda campaigns spin historical narratives that favor ‘us,’ acknowledge but forgive or excuse ‘our’ weaknesses and assure us of ‘our’ essential decency. They tell a much less favorable, less nuanced, history of ‘them’ and of their so-evident weaknesses. Even if weaknesses may not always be ‘their’ fault, they underline, by contrast, ‘our’ innate superiority and worthiness.

The power of narrative in effective argument, persuasion and propaganda has a long history in communication studies (see Underberg and Norton 2017). On ‘our’ side we may encounter narratives that do not hew to establishment groupthink, but these are typically obscured, marginalized, and ridiculed in comparison to establishment versions. This is readily demonstrable by mental experiment: how many Hollywood movies can the reader recall in which leaders of the 1917 Russian revolution led by Vladimir Lenin, the 1949 Chinese revolution led by Mao Tse Tung, or the 1959 Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro are sympathetically represented? Indeed, it is challenging to recall any movies about these momentous and extraordinarily dramatic events that have even been acknowledged in Hollywood cinema. Then consider the endless list of Hollywood treatments of World War Two which glorify armies of the ‘allies’ against ‘axis’ powers, or espionage movies which pit heroic, elegant, western intelligence agents against insanely brutish and often incompetent Russian, Chinese or Islamic villains?

In the case of the Syrian conflict – one of the earliest of such conflicts in the age of social media maturity – we find, first of all, only Hollywood promotions that glorify the western correspondent (e.g. A Private War, 2018, about Marie Colvin), the rebel cause (e.g. For Sama, 2019, in which the jihadist affiliation of the protagonists is barely hinted), and the heroics of first responders (e.g. The White Helmets, 2016, which obscures the jihadists with whom White Helmets many times collaborate). In mid-2020 the author briefly scanned movie offerings about Syria on Amazon Prime. There were scores of largely low-cost, sympathetic representations of the rebel cause (e.g., Last Men in Aleppo, 2017) and nothing whatsoever that favorably represented – or dealt at all – with parts of Syria that remained pro-regime during the conflict. Pre-conflict tourist or cultural representations of Damascus were strangely unavailable.

The scholarly literature on media coverage of international affairs has chronicled a consistent trend for media coverage to harmonize with foreign policies of their respective governments. This is not to say that media cannot impact foreign policy. The controversial ‘CNN effect,’ that pushes governments to intervene in cases of visually distressing natural disasters or human rights atrocities, suggests otherwise (for a good, critical discussion see Robinson 2002). An alternative argument is that governments allow themselves to be pushed when it helps them accomplish foreign policy objectives. The history of ‘human rights’ interventions is riddled with inconsistency and contradiction. WMM that were slow to decry the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, or NATO’s wrecking of Libya in 2011, frothed indignation when Russia, they claimed, ‘seized’ Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Based on popular vote in Russophone territory Russia had in practice accepted Crimea’s preference for annexation by Russia rather than remain within the vehemently anti-Russian regime that took power in Kiev by coup d’etat in 2014 (Boyd-Barrett 2017).

Propaganda and the Pretexts for War

What does it take to resist a prevailing, establishment narrative of war and conflict? Official pretexts for war, humanitarian intervention and regime change in the age of social media seemed to collapse more suddenly and frequently than ever before. Hardly had the Twin Towers collapsed in 2001, when authorities confidently and within hours determined the culprit, did the darkest suspicions take root of a ‘false flag’ operation (a term less familiar then, than now). When this massacre was exploited within hours and days as the pretext for regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq – wars of bloody invasion and occupation premised, in the case of Iraq, on outright fabrications about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ – did it dawn on a community of critical intellectuals that an alliance of western nations had initiated a shameless bid to shore up western power amidst the downsides of globalization. Brittle narratives of folkloric heroes and cardboard villains emerged, the plaster barely dry, for each new tactical twist in official sense-making of the violence of western meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Georgia, Lebanon, Ukraine, Syria, Sudan, Russia, Yemen, and China.

Brittle as they were, the investment of military and intelligence authorities in spinning and patching the narratives, and punishing miscreants who refused to believe them, grew in intensity. Principled whistleblowers including Coleen Rowley, Edward Snowden, Katherine Gunn, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, and many others risked careers and even lives. In few places did disinformation pollution of the public sphere proceed as rapidly or as drastically as in Great Britain, exposed by (1) revelations of government and militarily sponsored transnational propaganda networks, with the assistance of the British Army’s 77th Brigade and contractors such as ARK; (2) anti-Russian shenanigans, illustrated by the ‘novichok’ poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal; (3) British participation in the fables of ‘RussiaGate’ (Boyd-Barrett 2020, Sakwa 2022); and (4) politicization of the judgement of international bodies such as the OPCW (Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons). Western and local opposition charges against the Syrian regime of uses of CW were always unlikely, given western threats that their use would provoke a military response of the same scale that toppled Ghaddafi in Libya. Attempts by a small band of journalists and academics to expose evidentiary weaknesses of such claims, including some adjudicated by the OPCW, were publicly pilloried on behalf of the establishment by writers for the right-wing press, or otherwise ignored (Robinson 2020a).


The nexus of war, media and propaganda is hardly limited to “peacetime.” The very notion that there is “peace” is itself a potential tool of disinformation, as it generally requires, first, ignoring ongoing forms of violent conflict that may occur through civil protests, civil war, crime and the like, and, secondly, that clear boundaries separate periods of peace from periods of war whereas, more often, peace is merely the space that separates periods of overt conflict, or is the result of the violent suppression of one population by another. Similarly in the study of propaganda, an understanding of “war” propaganda incorporates an assessment of how propaganda activities emerge or endure regardless of the intensity of actual conflict at any given moment. This review of the history of the study of propaganda is intended as demonstration of just that diffusiveness of its subject.


Since completion of this article early in 2022 the long-standing “Ukraine Crisis” erupted in seemingly more violent form upon Russia’s military “incursion” (western media prefer “invasion”) into Ukraine on February 24th. Ukraine had suffered a state of continuous violence since 2014, resulting in 14,000 deaths before 2022, mainly of ethnic Russians in the Donbass. International agreement (the Minsk accords) required Ukraine to make peace with the newly declared autonomous republics of Donetsk and Luhansk by introducing a stronger measure of what one could describe as federalism to the Ukrainian polity. Attempts by Kiev to move the electorate along these lines were forestalled by the considerable threats of violence against implementation of Minsk, from Ukraine’s electorally insignificant but militarily and institutionally influential Banderite and other neo-Nazi movements. At no point has Washington or the West exerted significant pressure on Kiev to implement Minsk with greater determination. In the absence of any such initiative, the Ukrainian army, including the Azov battalion and comparable militia with neo-Nazi ties, subjected the people of Donbass to continual, lethal shelling for eight years. The State even cancelled social security benefits for its citizens of the autonomous regions.

These elements of context rarely appear in western mainstream media coverage. There is emerging evidence that Russia’s 2022 incursion was at least in part a response to the presence of 60,000 Ukrainian army soldiers on the Donbass border with the rest of Ukraine and of a major upsurge of Ukrainian shelling against the Donbas.  Other factors included established western plans for the destabilization of Russia, major annual western and Ukrainian military exercises along Ukraine’s border with Russia, and Ukrainian clamoring for faster access to NATO membership status and nuclear weapons.

Along with many other scholars and analysts I will likely be writing about these complex events for many years to come. For the moment I shall offer a few brief comments on how the information war components of these events illustrate the first of the ten principal features of what I have above labelled the “propaganda simulacrum” (i.e. namely that effective propaganda builds on established public perceptions and expectations that are in part the result of previous propaganda campaigns). Western media propaganda against the Russian perspective on the Ukraine crisis clearly builds on well over a hundred years of western anti-Soviet (1916-1991) and anti-Russian propaganda. This quietened down somewhat during the years of the pro-western Yeltsin presidency in the 1990s and was then acutely stoked (through western news and entertainment media) in response to the accession to power from 2000 of pro-capitalist but nationalist President Putin and to media hysteria over iconic examples of supposed Russian barbarity. These included, among many other considerations, Russia’s opposition to the 2004 US-backed color revolution in Ukraine; its defense of South Ossetia against George in 2008, unproven charges against Russia for the poisonings of Litvinenko in 2006 and of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in 2018, Russia’s agreement (called “seizure” by western media) to annex the largely pro-Russia Crimea 2014 in defense against rabidly anti-Russian threats of the new coup regime in Kiev and its modest level of protection of the peoples of the Donbass since 2014,  its highly successful interventions of Syria against western backed jihadist militia in Syria from 2011 and the “Russiagate” charges fabricated principally by the US Democratic Party against Russia for meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections.


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(Featured Image: “The Television War” by MattHurst is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.)


  • Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus (Journalism and Public Relations) from Bowling Green State University, Ohio and (Communication) from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His first book, The International News Agencies, was published by Constable/Sage in 1980, and its French sister, Le Traffic des Nouvelles (with Michael Palmer) by Alain Moreau, in 1981. Since 2000 he has focused on issues of war and propaganda. Recent titles include Hollywood and the CIA (Routledge), Media Imperialism (Sage), Western Mainstream Media and the Ukraine Crisis (Routledge), Russiagate and Propaganda (Routledge), Media Imperialism: Continuity and Change (Rowman and Littlefield)(with Tanner Mirrlees), Conflict Propaganda in Syria (Routledge). Two current projects deal with Russiagate: Aftermath of a Hoax (Palgrave), and Afghanistan: Aftermath of Imperial Occupation (provisional).