Modern history

TRUTH, FALSEHOOD AND CONTROL

For the present purpose I am using the word propaganda in a strictly neutral sense, intending, by the simple use of this term, neither praise nor blame, neither approval nor disapproval. A favorite trick of some propagandists is to convey a point of view by using loaded terms rather than adducing evidence. I shall not use this method.

The primary purpose of propaganda as understood today is to persuade, not necessarily because what one is offering is true or right or good—these considerations are basically irrelevant—but because the propagandist or his employer deems it expedient that the view presented should be believed and accepted. The propagandist is thus not concerned whether what he preaches is true, nor does it greatly matter whether he believes it himself. This may have at most a marginal effect on his skill in promoting certain ideas. What matters is not whether he believes it but whether those whom he addresses will believe it. That he should believe it might be an advantage. It is not—in closed societies—a necessity.

Some have even argued that the use of falsehood, at least in wartime, is legitimate. Sir Arthur Ponsonby, in his book Falsehood in Wartime, published in 1928, puts it this way: "Falsehood is a recognized and extremely useful weapon in warfare, and every country uses it quite deliberately to deceive its own people, to attract neutrals, and to mislead the enemy." The same author observed, more tersely, that "when war is declared, truth is the first casualty." The same point is made in early classical Arabic texts.

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