Queen's Policy Engagement

The Long Shadow of Propaganda

A partisan press has been an important part of the US political process throughout the country’s history says Paul Winfree.

The Long Shadow of Propaganda

Social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been criticized for their alleged role in shaping the outcomes of democratic elections. In America, information that voters are exposed to on social media has been scrutinized in every major election since 2016. Exposure to media narratives, however, have influenced political outcomes for a very long time. This includes their role in spreading propaganda with an intent to influence elections.

The freedom of the press is guaranteed by the US Constitution. But a free press does not guarantee a press that is free of bias. In fact, a partisan press has been an important part of the US political process throughout the country’s history. The partisan press has informed voters, encouraged turnout, attacked political opposition, and defined party policy. It was also once much more prevalent than it is today. For example, the party press made up about 80 percent of all newspapers in circulation at the time of the American Civil War (1861-65).

After the Civil War, partisan newspapers played a major role in shaping the politics of the reconstructing country. This was especially true in the former Confederacy where the Southern press was dominated by newspapers affiliated with the Democratic Party. The Democratic press opposed voting rights for Black men, civil rights for the newly freed enslaved, and other reform policies intended to overturn the political, social, and economic order that had existed before the war. (The Democratic and Republican Parties after the Civil War are not what they are today.) Furthermore, to maintain political control during this period of immense change, these newspapers were instrumental in circulating anti-Black propaganda.

In his seminal book Black Reconstruction in America (1935), the preeminent scholar and civil rights advocate W.E.B. Du Bois suggested that there were three main forms of propaganda that had been circulated in the South: (1) that Blacks were “ignorant,” (2) that Blacks were “lazy, dishonest, and extravagant,” and (3) that Blacks were “responsible for bad government during Reconstruction.” In essence, the propaganda helped develop a narrative that Black voters and politicians were responsible for all forms of public corruption in the Southern governments.

My research shows that the dissemination of anti-Black propaganda by newspapers was particularly important in helping build support for the disenfranchisement of Black men around the beginning of the twentieth century. Southern newspapers also exposed readers to more propaganda immediately before important elections that were instrumental to drafting and adopting new constitutions with the explicit intent of removing Blacks and many poor whites from the voter rolls.

In fact, the increase in propaganda was timed in each state to coincide with the development of the new constitutions in important ways. This included splitting support for biracial coalitions which allowed the Democrats to control the content of the new constitutions. In the end, this reinforced their control over state governments creating a Southern oligarchy that lasted until the middle of the twentieth century. These undemocratic governments were instrumental in establishing the discriminatory policies based on race that characterized the Jim Crow period.

The long shadow of anti-Black propaganda exhibits how media influence can affect government policies for many years after it is circulated. It also demonstrates how media coverage can influence public perception even by simply reinforcing existing prejudices. This has implications today as more people consume information through social media that, when compared with more traditional media such as newspapers or television, more quickly spreads “fake news” while broadcasting extreme perspectives associated with discriminatory behavior.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.  


Paul Winfree
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Paul Winfree is a distinguished fellow of economic policy and public leadership at The Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, DC, and is affiliated with the Queen’s University Centre for Economic History. He is author of the book A History (and Future) of the Budget Process in the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He has held several appointments in the government of the United States, including top policymaking roles in the White House, and is chair of the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

1 Comment


Good move – keep it all in the past, where it can safely be ignored. Meantime, the new three points proceed without question, from QUB or anywhere else.
three main forms of current propaganda : (1) that russians are evil, authoritarian expansionists. (2) that russia is losing the war in ukraine, and (3) that ukraine is not riddled with neo-nazi armed terrorists.

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