The development of cinema at the end of the 19th century provided political groups with a seemingly perfect medium for propaganda. Film has immediacy, meaning as quickly as the action happens on screen, we perceive it as real time. Printed material, by contrast, might leave the viewer time to think and consider alternative viewpoints, which would reduce the effectiveness of the message. Furthermore, film has an unusual ability to reach significant numbers of people quickly, and it faces an audience who have paid to sit still, face forward, and consider one (literal) viewpoint. Propaganda is most often presented as documentary footage, but can be framed as a fictionalised narrative.
Some of the earliest propaganda films were dramatisations of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), and with the onset of World War I and the increased need for films which evoked patriotic sentiment, filmmakers and military and political leaders realised that not only could propaganda films erode an audience’s doubts and distastes for war and conflict, they could more effectively portray it as a positive good and an opportunity for glory.
Political turbulence coupled with developments in film technology, production, and distribution in the interwar years resulted in the release of some of the most impressive propaganda films ever made in the period before and during the Second World War. Films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s 'Battleship Potemkin' (1925), which attempted to present socialist revolution as inevitable, gave way to Leni Riefenstahl’s 'Triumph of the Will' (1935) which portrayed the fascist visual pageantry of the Nuremberg Rallies. World War II offered a uniquely fruitful atmosphere for propaganda which hasn’t since been replicated, but propaganda lives on in the digital age in the form of ‘fake news,’ ‘shockumentaries,’ and state-sponsored video news platforms such as Voice of America or RT (formerly Russia Today).
On June 8, 1972, Associated Press photographer Nick Ut was outside Trang Bang, about 25 miles northwest of Saigon, when the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly dropped a load of napalm on the village. 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc had suffered burns to 30% of her body. Ut’s photo of the raw impact of conflict underscored that the war was doing more harm than good. When President Richard Nixon wondered if the photo was fake, Ut commented, “The horror of the Vietnam War recorded by me did not have to be fixed.” In 1973 the Pulitzer committee agreed and awarded him its prize. That same year, America’s involvement in the war ended.
It’s even been argued by academics Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky that modern media news constitute a form of codified propaganda, in which news corporations are marketable products which depend on advertising revenue, are disinclined to challenge the status quo, and aim to manipulate public opinion through the use of fear, agreeable statements, and subtle persuasion. As an example, they pointed to the presence and behaviour of television news in the Vietnam War, the first conflict to be featured on television as a regular news event.
Chomsky and Herman argued that it was propagandistic to portray the war positively in the media only to then later portray the Soviet War in Afghanistan as an aggressive act. While the Vietnam War was arguably only portrayed positively until the Tet Offensive in 1968 shook the confidence of American viewers in the military efforts there, it may also have been that as audiences in the US grew tired of the ongoing conflict, reporters and television news networks may have simply reflected this weariness back at them in a sort of propaganda of cynicism. Because these audiences had little faith in the willingness of official military propaganda sources to accurately portray what was occurring, the news networks became, by default, the trusted sources.
There is a thin and often blurry line between propaganda and opinionated media in general. There will almost certainly always be people who will accept no group's expressed opinions or statements of fact - take those who instinctively distrust any criticism of China, for example, or their counterparts who refuse to believe any statement on behalf of, say, NATO. Ultimately, propaganda is a lot like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of obscenity - "I know it when I see it."