6 Sneaky Ways Countries Try to Win Hearts and Minds

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The spread of propaganda is as old as society itself—but not all propaganda techniques are garish posters or august news reports on television or in print. Some are more subtle attempts to besmirch an enemy or to promote one’s own cause.

1. Renaming things

One propaganda technique of some notoriety was the U.S. government’s decision to rename french fries "freedom fries" in Congress kitchens, a pointed attack on the French army’s reticence to enter the invasion of Iraq. During World War I, some in the U.S. started calling German measles "liberty measles" and dachshunds "liberty hounds."

2. Toys


Who is more impressionable than the very young? That may be the reason that Nazi Germany attempted to smuggle pro-German movies into early cinematic toys sent to the UK that were meant to show simple cartoonish shorts. When the scam was uncovered in August 1939, contemporary news reports said that “the films were found to include such Jew baiting scenes in Germany as aged women being forced to sweep streets while a large crowd laughed. Other scenes showed outdoor Nazi meetings, close ups of Hitler giving the Nazi salute and shots of Hitler and Mussolini.”

3. Cartoons

Some propaganda efforts aimed at children were more overt—and perhaps more sinister for it. During World War II, while Nazi Germany was trying to smuggle in anti-western propaganda, governments were contracting big studios such as Walt Disney to produce propaganda aimed at the other side. Nine out of 10 Disney employees during the war were tasked with producing the films, 68 hours of which were produced. Some of Disney’s most famous characters, including Donald Duck, were tasked with reminding kids and adults alike of the evils of the Nazi empire.

4. Social media

DPRKdaily may well be one of the strangest Instagram feeds out there on the internet. A state-operated propaganda arm, it posts a torrent of photographs of notable North Koreans and gleaming buildings, often with long photo captions that stretch Instagram’s systems to breaking points. Sometimes photo captions spill over into multiple comments on photos, with the whole feed designed to assure social media-savvy watchers that all is well in the secretive state.

5. Video games

The U.S. Army allowed its immersive video game training programs to be modified and released generally for gamers to play worldwide in 2002, while China’s People's Liberation Army (PLA) co-developed a first person shooter, "Glorious Mission," in which players shot at U.S. and Japanese soldiers. North Korean game developers have opted for a soft power expression of propaganda, developing "Pyongyang Racer," a browser game, for Koryo Tours (who operate trips to the country). Rather than shooting people, you pootle along empty roads, taking in the pixellated sights of Pyongyang.

6. Presents from the sky

The dropping of leaflets broadcasting information one country may not want its people to see is a standard propaganda technique, but airborne presents are another thing altogether. The U.S. Air Force has dropped all sorts of items, from miniature radios turned to the Voice of America into Vietnam in the 1970s, to cigarettes, matches, calendars, and chess boards in North Korea in the 1950s. The aim, of course, is to demonstrate that the opposition—portrayed as evil by domestic propaganda—is not as bad as the home government says they are.