People often perceive persuasion and propaganda to be one and the same, but there are important distinctions.

Both are tools that attempt to influence an audience’s thinking, and it’s true that cult leaders and dictators are among the best persuaders because they use words and slogans to play on people’s fears. Hitler, David Koresh (Waco), Jim Jones (the Jonestown massacre), and Charles Manson (the Tate murders) were superb at understanding what motivates human behavior.  But what they practiced was a mix of propaganda, persuasion, and manipulation. There are distinctions.

Here is how social scientists characterize propaganda:

  • It follows a strong ideological agenda.
  • It is practiced by large groups (cults, governments, terrorist organizations).
  • It is disseminated through the mass media, and often has evil motives.
  • The leader accepts no questioning. The audience fears him; they are obsessively devoted.

Persuasion, in contrast, has these characteristics:

  • It tends to be more personal. It can be practiced in a face-to-face encounter, not always to a mass audience.
  • The audience has the freedom to say no and also can use her own persuasive tactics to influence the communicator.
  • It must be conducted in an atmosphere of free choice. You cannot coerce anyone by threatening harmful consequences if they don’t comply.

Manipulation is when someone presents you with a deceptive message and hopes you will believe it because it is disguising her true intent. Phony compliments are one example. She wants you to believe the flattery, but it’s not sincere; her real motive might be something else. Another is a scam artist who calls you on the phone and says you were chosen to win a free trip to Disneyworld, but first, you have to send in a deposit. The overt message is that you won a contest; the real intent is to steal your money.

Many people in noble professions practice persuasion, among them motivational speakers, coaches, ministers, and fundraisers. They are trying to influence people to achieve a certain outcome (sometimes to benefit the audience), but it would be a stretch to put them in the same class as cult leaders.