Modern Understandings of Propaganda 1920–2020

This essay first appeared in the November 2023 issue of Choice (volume 61 | issue 3).


Experts consider propaganda to have arisen in premodern contexts, for instance, in the Catholic Church’s seventeenth-century Propagation of the Faith initiatives, in various political movements, and in social reform activities such as the temperance movement. These examples are considered premodern because they were tactics operating without a guiding professional orientation. That is, prior to World War I, no profession was exclusively aligned with propaganda. After WW I, informed by the formation of a bureaucratic operation in the United States dedicated to propaganda, the public relations field emerged as the articulator of how propaganda worked. In the decades since WW I, observers have offered myriad definitions of propaganda. The following definition undergirds these descriptions: propaganda describes attempts by privileged interests to shape the appearance of persuasive messages so that their interests and perspectives can reach a mass audience. This essay tracks books that articulate these modern understandings of propaganda. These works are essential for understanding how observers, many of them academics, describe modern propaganda, and how individuals can discern its presence in society.

About the Author:

Dr. Burton St. John III researches public relations and the management of risk and crisis. He is the author of the 2017 book Public Relations and the Corporate Persona: The Rise of the Affinitive Organization (Routledge), a finalist for AEJMC’s 2018 Tankard Book Award. His coedited volume Pathways to Public Relations: Histories of Practice and Profession was a first-ever public relations book to be a finalist for the Tankard Award. He has published in numerous journals.