Language as propaganda

By Bert Pieters (Mediawijs – BE), Renee Hobbs (University of Rhode Island – US), Adriana Mihai (Mediawise Society – RO) and Maja Dobiasz (Center for Citizenship Education – PL)

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Young climate activists, climate truants or profiteers?

Yesterday, for the 4th week in a row, students came out in the streets of Brussels to demonstrate for a better climate policy. Every Thursday they are in large numbers. And they intend to continue to do so until the Belgian government actually takes action.

A few weeks ago, the action group ‘Youth for Climate’ called on young people to take part in the action “Skipping class for the climate”. Since then, in newspapers and on news websites, the demonstrating students are mainly addressed with the term ‘climate truants’.

This term is gratefully used by opponents of the demonstration. Where ‘Youth for Climate’ does not immediately generate negative feelings, the term ‘climate truants’ clearly does. Because truancy is a violation of the law, and thus produces many mixed feelings: “We think the young people are right, but the way they express their ideas is a problem.”
The flemish Minister of Education Hilde Crevits was one of the first to state this:

“It is positive that young people stand up for the climate. But truancy is not the right method.
Always welcome on Wednesday afternoons in the Flemish Parliament.”

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Or it makes people think: “Smart, from those young people! They pretend to be behind something, when they just do not go to school. ” This headline says: “Students take another day of ‘vacation’ to demonstrate for the climate”

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Language can be used to stimulate feelings about a certain action (group). It can (and will) be used here as a propaganda tool. Authors, politicians, supporters and opponents try to frame the group with the choice of this or that term. For good or for worse.

George Orwell called it doublespeak: the use of language to deliberately obscure, disguise, distort or reverse the meaning of words.

Of course this is not limited to the Belgian press alone. Discussions among international colleagues within the Mind Over Media project showed that certain terminologies are also deliberately used in countries such as the US, Poland or Romania to influence sensitive social or political issues.

Here are some recent examples from the different countries:

Refugees. Or what do we call them again?

  • Illegals
    “Undocumented migrants” are often illegal in the country. But can a person be illegal? Anyway, the term is used. In the US there are also those who prefer the term “illegal aliens”: what illegal strangers means, or even extraterrestrials. These terms show how you can dehumanize someone. You certainly see that in the discourse in the US, where there is an open call for ‘illegals’ to be enclosed in ‘cages’.
  • Economic migrants
    This term is used to distinguish between those who migrate for economic reasons and those who flee war and violence. It was however overused to justify any negative news or narrations on migrants and challenge the legitimacy of accepting refugees at all.
  • Transmigrants
    Since 2015, the term “transmigrants” appeared for the first time in Belgian government documents. The term refers to “people who do not live in the country – but stay there now – and travel to another country to settle there.” The word clearly has an ideological meaning and is often used where you can say “refugee” as well. According to opponents, however, the word takes “the soul out of the person”. A transmigrant seems to be someone who does not want to be here, because he wants to go somewhere else. However, if you speak of a refugee, you implicitly understand that he / she is fleeing for war or violence.

The family. Traditional and valuable?

The “traditional family” is a concept that is mainly used by organizations, activists or politicians to view the family of father-mother children as the most valuable family. In Romania, for example, there are currently many actions to protect the traditional family: they ask for the law to be adapted so that only the traditional family as a family should be seen. The concept appeared as a reaction to LGBTQ activism and growing same-sex marriage recognition in other states.

In other countries, such as Belgium, the polarizing effect of the term seems to have disappeared.

Company cars or salary cars?

A Belgian employer can pay part of the wage in natura. Some employers offer you a phone (even if you don’t need one for work), others pay you a car. 20 years ago we called the latter “company cars”. But a few years ago activists started to promote the term “salary cars”. Both terms are used for the some object, but have a different ideological meaning. When talking about “company cars” it seems that you needs the car for your work, for the company. When talking about “salary cars”, you see it as part of your salary. One of the results is that in recent years more and more people refuse the option of a company/salary car and ask for a real salary instead. And they use bikes or public transport to go to work.

Solutions to the problem?

Educators can help to raise awareness of the dangerous power of language to reshape reality. For example, the U.S. National Council of Teachers of English creates negative visibility for those who use language for propaganda purposes by awarding the DOUBLESPEAK AWARD each year. The Doublespeak Award is offered to individuals who perpetuate “language that is grossly deceptive, evasive, euphemistic, confusing, or self-centered.” Previous winners include Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, for coining the term “alternative facts” to defend President Trump’s falsehoods about inauguration crowd sizes.

And as an educator you can also dwell on the power of language. Try (re)framing words together with the students. For example: who are the climate truants? Would you – as some activists say – say that the government is the real truant? Or can you together find a word that is less ideologically charged? Or maybe has a neutral meaning?

Mind Over Media wants to give teachers tools to teach about contemporary forms of propaganda. With numerous propaganda examples from more than 40 countries and ready-made teaching ideas. One of the lessons from the Belgian curriculum ‘The power of words’ specifically deals with how words can influence us in a subtle way.

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