In A Nutshell
During World War II, propaganda was an important tool on all sides. It was from this extensive use of propaganda tools that the formal definitions of white, black, and gray propaganda were developed—and it wasn’t always possible for either side to tell the difference. White propaganda was that whose origin was clearly labeled and which had a transparent purpose. Gray propaganda is information of questionable origin that is never sourced and whose accuracy is doubtful. Black propaganda is information put out by an opposing government or institution and made to look as though it came from a friendly source.
The Whole Bushel
Massive time, effort, and money went into the propaganda of World War II, setting the stage for the countless propaganda campaigns that followed. Whether in wartime or at home in advertising, three main types of propaganda came out of World War II that redefined how it’s done. And you might not even know what you’re looking at when you see it.
White propaganda is the type of propaganda that was broadcast on the home front for both Axis and Allies, and it was also delivered via millions of leaflets dropped from planes over enemy and friendly territory. This type of propaganda stated clearly who it was from, and the purpose of this propaganda was clear by its design and content. White propaganda is the type that asks people on the home front to support the war efforts, and tells them what they can do to make some contributions. It’s also the kind that features testimonials from content prisoners of war telling how much better life is on the other side—a technique that was used as late as the Persian Gulf War.
White propaganda is, for the most part, truthful. At the very least, it’s based in truth with factual elements, although it often doesn’t tell the whole truth. In this way, it’s very much like black propaganda; partial truths are much more believable than outright lies, after all.
Gray propaganda is information that’s really on the other end of the spectrum. It’s propaganda that might seem like it’s presenting legitimate arguments that don’t have any sort of agenda behind them, but the origins of the information (or even the names of the groups releasing it) are almost never properly sourced. A source might be noted occasionally, but it’s often ultimately untrue.
The difference between gray and black propaganda is often a fine line. Black propaganda is that which is produced and distributed with the intent of subversion. The best and most effective black propaganda is that which, in all ways, looks like it’s produced by a legitimate source. In fact, if there’s anything about it that gives it away as a falsehood released by the opposition, that’s gray propaganda. Black propaganda can be true or false, but it’s defined by the reason that it’s released, the intent behind it, and the crucial element of being completely believable.
During World War II, the British government formed the Political Warfare Executive, an organization responsible for the production of black propaganda with an end goal of demoralizing Axis troops and citizens. In fact, the largest target of this effort was the German citizen populace, and the propaganda tried to undermine the war efforts on the home front.
For example, in the 1940s, the British produced a series of postcards meant for aerial drop over Germany or mailed directly to civilians. The German citizens were already laboring under extremely restrictive rations, and some of the postcards mimicked real German communications and went into detail about the lavish meals that German officers and their families enjoyed while the rest of the population starved. Many were created to look like actual communications that got misdirected, and were addressed to different officers and bore forged stamps.