How Propaganda Became Entertaining

Ukraine’s wartime communications strategies have roots in World War II.

An animation of old propaganda posters inside new-age cellphones.
Found Image Holdings Inc / Getty; Pictures from History / Universal Images Group / Getty; The Atlantic

Social media has become a weapon of war for Ukrainians, and through it, President Volodymyr Zelensky has emerged as a global star. His virtual appeals for international support, such as his recent message to Congress, and videos that show him and top Ukrainian officials bravely standing their ground in Kyiv are helping him win the fight for public opinion. Ordinary Ukrainians have followed his example, answering his administration’s call for an “IT army” by creating viral posts on Twitter and TikTok. They are effectively combatting a Russian disinformation strategy that has, in the recent past, wreaked havoc on democracies including the United States.

This wartime communications effort may use novel digital tools, but the strategy has roots in World War II, when the United States used multiple forms of communication—notably newer ones such as radio and motion pictures—to inspire, inform, and instruct soldiers and civilians alike. Newsreels, “patriotic shorts,” silver-screen features, and a flood of nontheatrical films kept millions of Americans connected to the war—and one another.

The effort worked because it functioned differently from the “black propaganda” campaign waged by Nazi Germany, one intended to spread lies and obscure the source of the false information. But we are still grappling with the consequences of that successful American media campaign today: It tethered democracy to both advertising and entertainment and gave political leaders new tools with which to manipulate their message. Zelensky’s innovations will no doubt have similar repercussions.

Prior to World War II, the political establishment—overwhelmingly dominated by Protestant white men—looked suspiciously on mass media and particularly Hollywood, an industry run by Jewish immigrants and initially popular with lower- and working-class audiences. Even as movies gained a large audience that politicians wanted to tap into, many worried that celebrity culture would undermine the democratic process by encouraging emotional reactions rather than rational thinking.

Developments abroad seemed to confirm such fears. Both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler worked to control communications and limit freedom of speech—indeed, their political power depended on creating an alternative reality through mass media based in a cult of personality and a distortion of facts. When Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to sell his New Deal agenda to the American people with radio and film, journalists warned against using the “black magic of mass suggestions” that fascist leaders deployed.

In response, Roosevelt emphasized the authenticity of his mass-mediated message. He highlighted how new technology allowed him to connect directly and honestly to the American people. Of course, it also helped him control a particular narrative of his programs and bypass his critics in the press. But the Roosevelt administration kept the focus on empowerment: More people could be in conversation with their president. This was, the administration insisted, democracy in action.

As the war intensified in Europe, Roosevelt began using New Deal messaging strategies to sell an interventionist position to the reluctant American public. He found eager partners in Hollywood’s intellectual and creative left.

Such actions were controversial. Gerald Nye, the isolationist Republican senator from North Dakota, held congressional hearings on what he called movies “designed to rouse us to a state of war hysteria” that had “insidiously” manipulated audiences to support intervention. But, passionate about anti-fascism, many studio executives and celebrities persisted in their efforts and worked to change propaganda from a negative to a positive term.

For example, the actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. traveled throughout the United States not only to generate sympathy and support for Great Britain’s defense efforts, but also to deflate the nation’s fear of propaganda. Declaring that “the cry ‘Propaganda’ rings out in the same strident voice as ‘Witchcraft’ did in Salem in the seventeenth century,” Fairbanks told his audiences to distinguish between informative propaganda—the education of the public about the war—and the subversive propaganda used by fascists to “foment unrest and subvert our system.”

After traveling to South America as a cultural ambassador for the Roosevelt administration, Fairbanks pushed the president to develop a more coordinated propaganda effort to counter German messaging in the region that depicted the United States as greedy and untrustworthy. Once the U.S. formally entered the war, the administration did just that through the creation of the Office of War Information on June 13, 1942. Headed by a popular radio commentator, Elmer Davis, the agency forged voluntary partnerships with media companies and emphasized the importance of education and information in its communication efforts.

But the OWI wanted to make sure that media messages also advanced Roosevelt’s ideology. Accordingly, it distributed an advisory manual to Hollywood studios that directed film productions to help make Americans “live and breathe” Roosevelt’s four freedoms. “Each individual must know how these Four Freedoms affect his individual life, his everyday affairs,” stated the manual. “The realization must be driven home that we cannot enjoy the Four Freedoms exclusively. They must be established on a world-wide basis—yes, even in Germany, Italy, and Japan—or they will always be in jeopardy in America.”

Following these guidelines, entertainment productions offered positive views of American life while also encouraging sympathy for international allies, including Russia. Patriotic shorts sold specific messages about proper wartime behavior. And films not intended for theatrical distribution, such as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, taught both soldiers and civilians about the meaning of military engagements abroad.

Quick histories of World War II frequently overlook these nontheatrical films, but, like social media today, they helped turn new areas of civic life—schools, community centers, and parks—into places where citizens could consume messages about the war. The OWI had an entire division dedicated to nontheatrical films that combined documentary footage—shot with 16-mm cameras —and interviews with ordinary citizens, soldiers, and government officials.

An amateur technology, 16-mm film was cheaper and easier to use than 35-mm film, the Hollywood standard. During the final two years of the war, the Treasury Department urged exhibitors of 16-mm films to bring the wartime message—including the pitch to buy bonds—into “every nook and corner of the land.” The OWI also distributed manuals about how to integrate 16-mm films into civic events. In the process, civilians across the country learned how to operate cameras and develop publicity for events with premieres, advertising, and other Hollywood promotional strategies.

When the war came to an end, President Harry Truman celebrated Hollywood’s “outstanding wartime record” and praised motion pictures for becoming “one of the more effective and forceful media for spreading knowledge and truth.” With this newly recognized power came controversy, once again. Over the next decade, intense debates about the messages of Hollywood films and the political activities of those crafting silver-screen productions resulted in the infamous HUAC hearings.

But Hollywood—as an industry and as a style of communication—hardly retreated from politics. For those willing to support the Cold War, opportunities abounded and new avenues for political participation opened up. George Murphy, Frank Sinatra, and Ronald Reagan performed for the armed forces and extolled anticommunism at Rotary and Kiwanis Club meetings. Murphy went on to climb the ranks of the Republican Party, and he eventually won a California Senate seat. Sinatra became a prominent campaigner and fundraiser for John F. Kennedy. Reagan’s successful gubernatorial run alerted seasoned politicians to the importance of emotion, personality, and performance. “We may think this is demagoguery, but it is very effective,” Richard Nixon observed in 1968.

The same could be said of Zelensky’s tactics. Like Reagan and, later, Donald Trump, the Ukrainian president rose to fame through the entertainment industry, winning the Ukrainian version of Dancing With the Stars and even starring in a television series, Servant of the People, that had a story line about a teacher who wins a presidential election after a video goes viral. Also like Trump, a master of Twitter and Facebook, Zelensky has a gift for direct, unfiltered communication. He became an instant celebrity with his selfie-video response to the Russian invasion on the streets of Kyiv, pledging to fight to defend his country. In his trademark green T-shirt, he has made emotional appeals to European and American leaders via videoconference, pleading for recognition and resources. With his encouragement, Ukrainians are thoroughly documenting their wartime experience, seeding social media with images of sympathetic Ukrainian victims. Ukraine is winning the battle not just for information, but for attention.

Of course, Zelensky’s aims are different from Trump’s. Trump obsessed over his personal ratings and used his gift for mass communication to advance conspiracy theories and undermine democratic institutions. Zelensky is using his performative skills to defend democracy from the Russian military and disinformation campaigns. But if the content of propaganda does matter, as it did during World War II, it looks more and more like entertainment—and that’s part of its effectiveness.