Black propaganda is a form of propaganda intended to create the impression that it was created by those it is supposed to discredit. Black propaganda contrasts with gray propaganda, which does not identify its source, as well as white propaganda, which does not disguise its origins at all. It is typically used to vilify or embarrass the enemy through misrepresentation.[1]

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1905), an antisemitic forgery which positions itself as a pamphlet from a fictitious Jewish conspiracy, is an example of black propaganda.

The major characteristic of black propaganda is that the audience are not aware that someone is influencing them, and do not feel that they are being pushed in a certain direction.[2] Black propaganda purports to emanate from a source other than the true source. This type of propaganda is associated with covert psychological operations.[3] Sometimes the source is concealed or credited to a false authority and spreads lies, fabrications, and deceptions. Black propaganda is the "big lie", including all types of creative deceit.[4] Black propaganda relies on the willingness of the receiver to accept the credibility of the source. If the creators or senders of the black propaganda message do not adequately understand their intended audience, the message may be misunderstood, seem suspect, or fail altogether.[4]

Governments conduct black propaganda for a few reasons. By disguising their direct involvement, a government may be more likely to succeed in convincing an otherwise unbelieving target audience. There are also diplomatic reasons behind the use of black propaganda. Black propaganda is necessary to obfuscate a government's involvement in activities that may be detrimental to its foreign policies.[5]

In the American Revolution


Benjamin Franklin created and circulated a fake supplement to a Boston newspaper that included letters on Indian atrocities and the treatment of American prisoners.[6]

In World War II



Sefton Delmer (1958)

In the United Kingdom, the Political Warfare Executive operated a number of black propaganda radio stations. Gustav Siegfried Eins (GS1) was one of the first such stations—purporting to be a clandestine German station. The speaker, "Der Chef", purported to be a Nazi extremist, accusing Adolf Hitler and his henchmen of going soft. The station focused on alleged corruption and sexual improprieties of Nazi Party members.

Another example was the British radio station Soldatensender Calais, which purported to be a radio station for the Wehrmacht. Under the direction of Sefton Delmer, a British journalist who spoke perfect Berliner German, Soldatensender Calais and its associated shortwave station, Kurzwellensender Atlantik [de], broadcast music, up-to-date sports scores, speeches of Adolf Hitler for "cover" and subtle propaganda.

Radio Deutschland was another radio station employed by the British during the war aimed and designed to undermine German morale and create tensions that would ultimately disrupt the German war effort. The station was broadcast on a frequency close on the radio dial to an actual German station. During the war most Germans actually believed that this station was in fact a German radio station and it even gained the recognition of Germany's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels.[7]

Goebbels, German Federal Archive photo

There were British black propaganda radio stations in most of the languages of occupied Europe as well as German and Italian.[8] Most of these were based in the area around Bletchley Park and Woburn Abbey in Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire respectively.

Another possible example was a rumour that there had been a German attempt to land on British shores at Shingle Street, but it had been repelled with high German casualties. This was reported in the American press, and in William L. Shirer's Berlin Diary but was officially denied. British papers, declassified in 1993, have suggested this was a successful example of British black propaganda to bolster morale in the UK, US and occupied Europe.[9]

Author James Hayward has proposed that the rumours, which were widely reported in the American press, were a successfully engineered example of black propaganda with an aim of ensuring American co-operation and securing lend lease resources by showing that the United Kingdom was capable of successfully resisting the might of the German Army.[10]

David Hare's play Licking Hitler provides a fictionalised account based on the British black propaganda efforts in World War II.



German black propaganda usually took advantage of European racism and anti-Communism. For example, on the night of April 27, 1944, German aircraft under cover of darkness (and possibly carrying fake Royal Air Force markings) dropped propaganda leaflets on occupied Denmark. These leaflets used the title of Frihedsposten, a genuine Danish underground newspaper, and claimed that the "hour of liberation" was approaching. They instructed Danes to accept "occupation by Russian or specially trained American Negro soldiers" until the first disorders resulting from military operations were over.[citation needed]

The German Büro Concordia organisation operated several black propaganda radio stations (many of which pretended to broadcast illegally from within the countries they targeted).[11] One of these stations was Workers' Challenge which purported to be a British communist radio station and encouraged British workers to go on strike against their "capitalist" bosses.[12]

Pacific Theatre


The Tanaka Memorial was a document that described a Japanese plan for world conquest, beginning with the conquest of China. It was widely referenced in official American anti-Japanese propaganda (such as The Battle of China and Know Your Enemy: Japan), but most historians now believe it was a forgery.

The following message was distributed in black propaganda leaflets dropped by the Japanese over the Philippines in World War II. It was designed to turn Filipinos against the United States:[13]


     Lately there has been a great increase in the number of venereal diseases among our officers and men owing to prolific contacts with Filipino women of dubious character.

     Due to hard times and stricken conditions brought about by the Japanese occupation of the islands, Filipino women are willing to offer themselves for a small amount of foodstuffs. It is advisable in such cases to take full protective measures by use of condoms, protective medicines, etc.; better still to hold intercourse only with wives, virgins, or women of respective [sic] character.

     Furthermore, in view of the increase in pro-American leanings, many Filipino women are more than willing to offer themselves to American soldiers, and due to the fact that Filipinos have no knowledge of hygiene, disease carriers are rampant and due care must be taken.

— U. S. ARMY

Cold War black propaganda


Soviet Union


Prior to, and during the Cold War, the Soviet Union used disinformation on multiple occasions, employing the KGB's Service A of the First Chief Directorate in order to conduct its covert, or "black", "active measures".[14] It was Service A that was responsible for clandestine campaigns that were targeted at foreign governments, public populations, as well as to influence individuals and specific groups that were hostile towards the Soviet government and its policies. The majority of their operations was actually conducted by other elements and directorates of the KGB.[15]

United Kingdom


Declassified documents have revealed that the British government ran a secret black propaganda campaign for decades, targeting Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia with leaflets and reports from fake sources aimed at destabilising cold war enemies by encouraging racial tensions, sowing chaos, inciting violence and reinforcing anti-communist ideas.[16][17]



One of the British campaigns played a part in the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66, one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century. This tragedy was fuelled by black information written by British operatives based in Singapore. Exploiting a failed coup attempt by a palace guard, these operatives falsely blamed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and the ethnic Chinese. Despite no evidence linking the PKI to the coup, they posed as exiled Indonesian patriots and incited violence by accusing them of involvement and called for their "elimination". Subsequently, mass killings targeting Indonesian people, PKI members, and followers of Sukarno ensued, resulting in an estimated death toll of at least 500,000.[18]

United States


Following the September 11 attacks against the United States, the U.S. Department of Defense organized and implemented the Office of Strategic Influence in an effort to improve public support abroad, mainly in Muslim countries. The head of OSI was USAF General Pete Worden, who maintained a mission described by The New York Times as "circulating classified proposals calling for aggressive campaigns that use[d] not only the foreign media and the Internet, but also covert operations".[19] Worden and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld planned for what Pentagon officials said was "a broad mission ranging from 'black' campaigns that use[d] disinformation and other covert activities to 'white' public affairs that rely on truthful news releases".[19] The OSI's operations were more than public relations work in that they included contacting and emailing media, journalists, and foreign community leaders with information which would counter foreign governments and organizations hostile to the United States. In doing so, the emails would be masked by using addresses ending with .com as opposed to using the standard Pentagon address of .mil, and hide any involvement of the US government and the Pentagon. The thought of conducting black propaganda operations and utilizing disinformation resulted in harsh criticism for the program that resulted in its closure in 2002.[20]

In domestic politics


Australian media


British media


United States media

  • In the "Roorback forgery" of 1844 the Chronicle of Ithaca, New York ran a story, supposedly by a German tourist called Baron von Roorback, that James K. Polk, standing for re-election as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives, branded his slaves before selling them at auction to distinguish them from the others on sale. Polk actually benefited from the ploy, as it reflected badly on his opponents when the lie was found out.[25] Afterwards the term "Roorback" was coined for political dirty tricks.
  • During the 1972 U.S. presidential election, Donald H. Segretti, a political operative for President Richard Nixon's reelection campaign, released a faked letter, on Senator Edmund Muskie's letterhead, falsely alleging that Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, against whom Muskie was running for the Democratic Party's nomination, had had an illegitimate child with a seventeen-year-old. Muskie, who had been considered the frontrunner, lost the nomination to George McGovern, and Nixon was reelected. The letter was part of a campaign of so-called "dirty tricks", directed by Segretti, and uncovered as part of the Watergate Scandal. Segretti went to prison in 1974 after pleading guilty to three misdemeanor counts of distributing illegal campaign literature. Another of his dirty tricks was the "Canuck letter", although this was libel of Muskie and not a black propaganda piece.

United States Government

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation's counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO was intended to, according to the FBI, "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists, hate-type organizations and groups, their leadership, membership, and supporters". Black propaganda was used on Communists and the Black Panther Party. It was also used against opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, labor leaders, and Native Americans.[26] The FBI's strategy was captured in a 1968 memo: "Consider the use of cartoons, photographs, and anonymous letters which will have the effect of ridiculing the New Left. Ridicule is one of the most potent weapons which we can use against it."[27]
  • "The Penkovsky Papers" are an example of a black propaganda effort conducted by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency during the 1960s. The "Penkovsky Papers" were alleged to have been written by a Soviet GRU defector, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, but were in fact produced by the CIA in an effort to diminish the Soviet Union's credibility at a pivotal time during the Cold War.[28]

Religious black propaganda


Environmentalist black propaganda


See also



  1. ^ Doob, Leonard (1950-09-13). "Goebbels' Principles of Nazi Propaganda". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 14 (3): 419–442. doi:10.1086/266211. JSTOR 2745999. S2CID 145615085.
  2. ^ Ellul, Jacques (1965). Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, p. 16. Trans. Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner. Vintage Books, New York. ISBN 978-0-394-71874-3.
  3. ^ Linebarger, Paul Myron Anthony. 1954. Psychological Warfare, Combat Forces Press, Washington
  4. ^ a b Jowett, Garth S., Victoria O'Donnell, Propaganda and Persuasion. 2006. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California
  5. ^ Shulsky, Abram. and Gary Schmitt, Silent Warfare. Washington, DC: Brasseys Inc. 2002
  6. ^ "Propaganda Warfare: Benjamin Franklin Fakes a Newspaper – Journal of the American Revolution". 10 November 2014.
  7. ^ Allen, Thomas and Normal Polmar. Spy Book. New York: Random House Selection. 2004
  8. ^ John Pether, The Bletchley Park Reports: Report No. 17 Black Propaganda, Bletchley Park Trust 1998
  9. ^ Rigby, Nic (2002-09-09). "Was WWII mystery a fake?". BBC News. Retrieved 2007-09-23.
  10. ^ Hayward, James (2002). Shingle Street. CD41 Publishing. ISBN 0-9540549-1-1.
  11. ^ ""Buro Concordia" Operated Nazi Clandestines" (PDF). FRENDX "Shortwave Center". 1966.
  12. ^ "Nazi Clandestine Radio Broadcasting: Workers' Challenge transmission, 23 August 1940". 2021. Archived from the original on 2021-02-07.
  13. ^ Linebarger, Paul Myron Anthony. 1954. Psychological Warfare, page 123, Combat Forces Press, Washington
  14. ^ "How Soviet Active Measures Themes Were Spread". Archived from the original on 2020-11-01. Retrieved 2010-04-07.
  15. ^ "The Foreign Intelligence Role of the Committee for State Security".
  16. ^ "Secret British 'black propaganda' campaign targeted cold war enemies". The Guardian. 14 May 2022.
  17. ^ "British 'Black' Productions: Forgeries, Front Groups, and Propaganda, 1951–1977" (PDF). Journal of Cold War Studies. 2022. doi:10.1162/jcws_a_01087. S2CID 252014591.
  18. ^ Lashmar, Paul; Gilby, Nicholas (2021-10-24). "Survivors of 1965 Indonesia massacres urge UK to apologise". The Observer. ISSN 0029-7712. Retrieved 2024-03-15.
  19. ^ a b Dao, James; Schmitt, Eric (2002-02-19). "A Nation Challenged: Hearts and Minds; Pentagon Readies Efforts to Sway Sentiment Abroad". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-11-09.
  20. ^ Carver, Tom (20 February 2002). "Pentagon plans propaganda war". BBC News.
  21. ^ "Howard forced to fight off dirty tricks allegations". The New Zealand Herald. 22 November 2007. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  22. ^ Young, Audrey (22 November 2007). "Howard's speech overshadowed by race issues". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  23. ^ Ansley, Greg (23 November 2007). "Fake flyers derail Howard". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  24. ^ Leigh, David (2000-06-12). "Tinker, tailor, soldier, journalist". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2007-06-16.
  25. ^ Byrnes, Mark E. (2001). James K. Polk: a biographical companion. Santa Barbara, California: ABC CLIO. p. 183. ISBN 978-1-57607-056-7.
  26. ^ McLaren, C.; Bolning, Brian (Spring 2002). "Fake Letters and Bad Poetry: Highlights from the FBI's Secret War on Dissent". Stay Free. No. 19. Archived from the original on 2010-07-19. Retrieved 2009-09-20.
  27. ^ Churchill & VanderWall, p. 187; Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project
  28. ^ Shulsky, Abram and Schmitt, Gary. Silent Warfare. Washington: Brasseys, 2002
  29. ^ Kent, Stephen A. (2006). "Scientology". In Stout, Daniel A. (ed.). Encyclopedia of religion, communication, and media. Routledge Encyclopedias of Religion and Society. CRC Press. pp. 390–392. ISBN 978-0-415-96946-8.
  30. ^ United States of America v. Jane Kember, Morris Budlong, Sentencing Memorandum; pp. 23–25.
  31. ^ "Shell in the Arctic". Greenpeace. Archived from the original on 10 June 2012. Retrieved 25 April 2017.
  32. ^ Stenovec, Timothy (18 July 2012). "Shell Arctic Ready Hoax Website By Greenpeace Takes Internet By Storm". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 3 August 2013.