Persuasion vs Propaganda

Getting people to believe or do something has been a major problem on both an individual and even an international level. To address this concern both individuals and nations have turned to both persuasion and propaganda. This post will define both persuasion  and propaganda and compare and contrast them.


Persuasion is communication that attempts to influence the behavior or beliefs of others. This can be done through appeals to reason, appeals to emotions, or a combination of both. Often persuasion is done  on a small scale and is informal. Example would be a child trying to persuade their mother to let them go outside to play.

A more serious example would be a lawyer trying to persuade a judge. This involves one lawyer try to move the opinion of one judge. The goal here is for the lawyer to show the strength of their position while discrediting the position of others and the opposition.

Even though it is not on a large scale, persuasion works critical thinking, deep thought, with a thorough knowledge of the problem and the person(s) one is trying to persuade. Nothing can ruin persuasion like ignorance of the problem or people who you want to persuade.


Propaganda is persuasion on a large scale. It involves a group or organization of persuaders who combine their efforts to reach a large audience. The term propaganda was supposedly created in the 17th by Pope Gregory XV who in 1622 created the Sacred Congregation for the Propagating of the Faith. This group is responsible for spreading the Catholic religion in an evangelistic manner for conversions to the religion, which implies that propaganda is the spreading of ideas so that people accept them.

Edward Bernays is often seen as the master of propaganda. It was he who brought the use of propaganda to an art form in the early to mid 20th century. Ever the master of language and knowing the negative connotation of propaganda Bernays used an alternative term publicly on many occasion called “public relations.” This is the term essentially all institutions used today even though it has the same primary characteristics of propaganda which is to influence public opinion about something.

As mentioned in the previous paragraph, generally, the term propaganda is viewed negatively even though it is simply massive organized persuasion. This may be because propaganda is usually used for nefarious purposes throughout history. For example, Hitler used propaganda to strengthen the Nazi party. However, all countries are guilty of developing  propaganda for reasons that may not be completely altruistic in order to support their position in a competitive world.


Persuasion and propaganda are in many ways opposite extremes of the same idea. What persuasion is on a small scale propaganda is on a large scale. However, it is hard to tell how big persuasion has to become before it reaches the level of propaganda. One indication may be in perception of the message. People who disagree with a position may call it propaganda, while people who agree with the message may call it persuasion.

Both persuasion and propaganda involve the use of planning and serious thought. Propaganda may involve more planning as it requires a large group of people to impact a  much larger audience. Finally, when persuasion and propaganda fail it may lead to something more sinister called coercion. This is when people are not necessarily forced to believe but usually to do something.


Whether persuading or sharing propaganda it is important to be aware of how these two terms are similar and different. Generally, the difference is a matter of scale. Persuasion is a local personal form of propaganda while propaganda is a massive impersonal form of persuasion


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