In 2004, I asked Merriam-Webster the following question. Assistant Editor, Jennifer N. Cislo, replied as follows.

Q: Your Collegiate Dictionary says “propaganda” can be ideas or rumor. While ideas can be true or false, it seems that rumors are usually false. Does “propaganda” therefore carry both positive and negative connotations? Is one more prevalent than the other is?

A: The connotation of the word “propaganda” is almost invariably negative.

The history of “propaganda” begins with the Catholic Church. During the 16th century, Spain and Portugal mainly controlled missionary activity, which made Italy unhappy. Seeking to centralize the administration of missionary activity, Pope Gregory XV issued a bull that instituted the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (in Latin, “Congregatio de propaganda fide”). The office was simply referred to as Propaganda and was charged with the direction and administration of ecclesiastical affairs in non-Catholic countries.

While this ecclesiastical use of “propaganda” was well known through the 18th century, by 1790 a generic use meaning a group or movement organized for spreading a particular doctrine had been established in English. By 1840 this usage had acquired a derogatory connotation. In the early twentieth century we find “propaganda” used to mean “the systematic dissemination of ideas, information, or rumors so as to promote or injure a cause.”

This sense also gave rise to the use of “propaganda” to denote the ideas so disseminated. During the First World War both sides put out a profusion of propaganda, most of it false or exaggerated, further damaging the word’s reputation. Propaganda also played an important role in the Second World War as a weapon of “psychological warfare.” Since then we have heard much about Communist propaganda, Socialist propaganda, rightwing and left-wing propaganda.

Addendum: See also “indoctrinate.”

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