A word in the hand: PROPAGANDA
It was born a good Catholic. How did it end up in Trump’s mouth?
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
We talk about fake news as if it is a new thing, but really it is just a new name for propaganda, which has been with us as an English word for 300 years and as a concept for a lot longer than that.
Propaganda was born a good Catholic. In 1622, Pope Gregory XV picked a few cardinals to go forth and multiply. Not in that way: he meant make disciples. The official name of this committee was Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, meaning those who had gathered to propagate the faith. In Rome, this clutch of cardinals was known simply as the Propaganda.Propagated by this missionary origin, the word was adopted into English in 1718.
For a long time, propaganda was a perfectly respectable term, even after the 1790s when it left the confines of the church and came to mean the propagating of any sort of belief. By 1929 the abstract noun had evolved to mean the actual materials used to propagate said belief.Even during the brightest days of partisan posters and pamphlets, however, propaganda was accepted as one of the family. Being a propagandist was a proper job title that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to have printed on your business card. In international politics as well as advertising, everybody did it, everybody knew everybody else did it, and everything was just fine.
There is a school of historical thought that says no one was ever supposed to believe early propaganda. People were considered intelligent enough to see gruesome cartoons of the enemy or airbrushed images of leaders as clear attempts at manipulation. That didn’t mean they wouldn’t be manipulated, but at least they’d be awake while it was happening. As US philosopher Eric Hoffer once said: “Propaganda does not deceive people; it merely helps them to deceive themselves.”It did not take long, however, for the peddlers of propaganda to stop respecting people’s intelligence and their right to know. Sometime in the 1930s or 40s, cheerful old propaganda took a sinister left turn and became known as disinformation.If the origins of propaganda are awash in irony, the beginnings of disinformation are practically drowning in it. Disinformation was born Russian and christened dezinformatsiya. Except it probably wouldn’t have been christened because Josef Stalin was allegedly the daddy of dezinformatsiya. The West said Stalin made the word up. Stalin said it came from French and was therefore proof of the West’s commitment to fabrication. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Whether you call it propaganda or disinformation, its ripples can be far-reaching. The damaging rumour about HIV/Aids being a weapon grown in a laboratory still persists in some quarters despite the original 1983 newspaper article having been revealed as false again and again and again.Less destructive although just as untrue and just as persistent is the idea that eating carrots can improve your eyesight. This disinformation was spread by the British during World War 2, when the air force did not want the enemy to know it was using radar technology. The reason British pilots could see their targets in the dark, it was claimed, was because they ate loads and loads of carrots rich in retina-enhancing Vitamin A.Which was total nonsense. Even the Easter bunny cannot see in the dark.
Despite all attempts to dispel this myth, however, mothers will hold it out as a way to get their children to eat carrots for as long as there are mothers, children and carrots.
The point is, fake news is old news. Whether covertly or with shameless transparency, organisations and individuals have always tried to persuade others with skewed facts or outright lies.
Even my grandmother did it. She told me that the most vicious of her pack of Muscovy geese was a proper gander. Then one day I saw it lay an egg.