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Name Calling Propaganda: Definition and Examples

Dr. Thomas Swan studied cognition and culture at Queen's University Belfast. He enjoys exploring the interplay between politics and culture.

The Goebbel's guide to naming combatants.

The Goebbel's guide to naming combatants.

What Is Name Calling Propaganda?

Name calling propaganda occurs when complementary or pejorative words are used by governments, individuals, or the media to describe another person or group. The purpose is to subliminally manipulate or influence public opinion in order to generate conformity with the opinions of those producing the propaganda.

For example, names such as terrorist or insurgent carry negative connotations, leading to their prolific use in describing groups that are opposed to Western governments. Conversely, when a government wishes to praise or support a group, titles such as freedom fighter or rebel are used instead. When these names are used prolifically in media broadcasts, they could be called name calling propaganda if they're likely to influence public sentiment in the desired manner.

Name calling propaganda is often used by governments and their media allies to describe foreign groups. Indeed, international news stories typically come from government press releases or media organizations with the connections, permits, and funding to operate abroad. With little chance of verification by the viewing public, international news is commonly distorted in this way to garner support for government policy. As a general rule, the further a news story is from its audience, the greater the level of propaganda.

The more a group is described in a particular way by the media (e.g. Syrian rebels) the more likely it is that media organizations have received instructions to do so. Thus, the popularity of a name often demonstrates government interference in the dissemination of information to the public.

The spectrum of political name calling propaganda for foreign groups.

The spectrum of political name calling propaganda for foreign groups.

Name Calling Propaganda Examples

It's been observed that the Western media use the following list of names to differentiate foreign groups according to US government approval of (or opposition to) the group's activities.

  • Terrorists: This title is reserved for the pinnacle of evil. It is used when a government wants public approval for an armed assault on another nation. It generates fear and hatred by placing the group in the same category as the culprits responsible for the September 11th attacks. For this reason, it's more easily applied to Islamic groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas. It was famously used by G.W. Bush as part of his justification for the Iraq War, despite belated confirmation that Saddam Hussein had no links to terrorism.
  • Insurgents: Slightly less condemnation is required for groups placed in this category. They may not be planning to incinerate Western civilization, but they are certainly thinking about it as they sit around a bonfire fuelled by American flags.
  • Guerrillas: Use of this pejorative has reduced since the fall of communism in Russia. When used, it suggests dirty savages with bandannas and AK47s. It's an attempt to revive the anti-communist sentiment that is still pervasive in the Western world; but is directed at many unsavory groups regardless of their political objectives.
  • Militants: This designation is becoming increasingly popular due to the liberalization of the West. It implies a group that desires military conflict, regardless of their true motives. Such war-mongering, anti-pacifists are exposed to negative sentiment from all who oppose war.
  • Soldiers: This is a neutral description for individuals who serve a cause by participating in armed conflict.
  • Rebels: This name was used in the popular Star Wars films to describe a righteous force fighting a powerful and evil empire. It's therefore used whenever a propagandist wants to garner support for a group that is attempting to thwart a powerful and supposedly tyrannical regime. It's recently been ascribed to groups fighting the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi in Syria and Libya; presumably because of US opposition to these regimes.
  • Freedom Fighters: This unctuous title is generally reserved for smaller groups of rebels. The questionable actions of rebel groups become more common and effective as the group becomes larger. Smaller groups have greater underdog status and are limited in the magnitude of their barbarism. This allows for a greater distortion of their status, and a greater will to justify their murderous rampages as the actions of people fighting for freedom. The most obvious example of this name calling propaganda occurred when the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a terrorist group opposed to Iran (see video below), was taken off the US terrorism list and subsequently referred to as freedom fighters.
  • Activists: This term is commonly applied to domestic groups such as environmentalists, or those seeking social change. Thus, it is sometimes used to invoke this same image for some foreign groups, whether they're armed with weapons or not.
  • Protesters: Coming into common usage during the Arab Spring, this term depicts the pinnacle of innocence. It seeks to confuse the difference between Western and foreign definitions of a protest. When an individual in a crowd of protesters shoots a police officer with a rifle, and the police return fire, the media only report the state retaliation. Westerners are left to believe that their kind of peaceful protest would have received the same retaliation. Eventually, when enough protesters pick up AK47s, and the media can no longer categorize them that way, they become freedom fighters or rebels.
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Venezuela: A More Recent Case

As the US government pushes for regime change in Venezuela, and their subservient media toes the line, I recently stumbled upon a tweet from comedian, Lee Camp, detailing the name-calling propaganda being applied. The goal is clearly to legitimize the opposition while doing the opposite for the Venezuelan President's supporters.

Propaganda Techniques

In recent years, the public have become wise to hackneyed names like terrorist and freedom fighter. In some cases, these names have been replaced by less extreme alternatives (e.g. militant or rebel). In other cases, infrequently used synonyms such as extremist or fundamentalist are becoming more common. In time, they may become the preferred pejoratives.

Unfortunately, society tends to lag several years behind when it comes to developing skepticism for the latest names. Eventually, though, we'll become tired of the current wordage. Perhaps, in decades to come, we'll be naming our groups mercenaries, belligerents, and antagonists. These words have yet to be deemed suitable for mass-consumption, presumably because the current terms are still effective at generating conformity.


Name calling propaganda that misrepresents foreign combatants will endure for as long as the public is largely oblivious to the technique. We cannot expect those who use it to grow a conscience. Instead, individuals must learn to be skeptical, and perhaps even cynical of those with the power to disseminate information on a massive scale. This can only be achieved by educating people to think critically and objectively, such that credulity for propaganda is minimized.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 Thomas Swan

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