Black Propaganda

What is Black Propaganda?

Black propaganda is any kind of material that is not obiously propaganda and whose origin is completely concealed. The item is accepted for something other than what it really is.

Real Examples

One of the few sources of examples of actual wartime black propaganda materials can be found in two books describing British efforts in this area in World War II. The Howe book "The Black Game" may be easier to find and gives a very good picture. Delmer's "Black Boomerang" is harder to find and is expensive when you find it. The Friedman interviews with Ellic Howe are available on-line and are informative. Black operations were (and still are) deep secrets, so finding modern examples will not be easy. The area can get a bit sensitive; governments don't like to admit doing it.

Use of black is not restricted to wartime, and governments are not the only entities to use it. Black continues, although you will likely never see it referred as black propaganda. It seems to be usually described as "dirty tricks." Black propaganda operations might also be called hoaxes. Political campaigns are a fertile field for finding black propaganda, although they are not the only arena where it may be used. The 2016 presidential campaigns yielded fine examples of black.

Modern examples:

  • Attack on Google. It was widely reported (early May 2011) that Facebook had hired a PR firm to anonymously circulate claims about Google. Investigation by two USA Today reporters found some of the claims true and some false. The agency, Burson-Marsteller, planted phony stories about a Google social networking plan.
  • Sugar vs Fat Research. On September 12, 2016 the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research; A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. After a decade or work, the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) had commissioned and obtained a review paper titled “Dietary Fats, Carbohydrates and Atherosclerotic Disease” and gotten it published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1967. (JAMA) Continuing research was starting to implicate sugar as a major contributor to Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). If this were confirmed, the effect on sugar sales would be serious, something the SRF was quite aware of. The intent of the review article was to deflect attention from sugar and focus it on dietary fat instead reducing fat might actually result in more sugar sales. It worked - for almost 50 years! That 1967 NEJM article was not recognized as misleading propaganda until 2016. In fact, some modern research still implicates sugar as a major contributor to CHD, diabetes and obesity. This was good propaganda - it worked. For details, read the references below.
  • DNC email Hack. Thousands of emails were copied from the Democratic National Committee chairman's email account, probably in April 2016. They emails were transferred to WikiLeaks. As of October, large numbers of emails unfavorable to Mrs. Clinton have been pouring out. See New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other news sources for stories. U.S. intelligence authorities have pointed to Russia as the source of the hacks. A report described a phishing email salvo that collected gmail email access codes that allowed easy access to DNC data that went beyond just emails. The serious question is whether the emails have been subtly altered before being released. Problem: there is no way to check for such alteration. A good example of black propaganda?

  • Vote-by-Text tweet.
    Shortly before the 2016 election, this image was distributed widely via twitter. The message was entirely false; nowhere is it possible to vote by text message. The actual identity of the source was unknown. The purpose? Not stated, of course, but likely convincing some number of voters that they could vote for Clinton without having to go to a polling place. Anyone who was so tricked gave up their vote. A nice example of black propaganda.
  • Fake Report about Ben Carson.A recent instance of black was reported by the Washington Post on 3 February 2016. It contained a report on the Cruz campaign's use of Twitter to plant a black item. One of the tweets read:
    "Carson looks like he is out. Iowans need to know before they vote. Most will go to Cruz, I hope." (Washington Post 3 Feb 16)
    Just a few hours before the Iowa vote, this tweet (and apparently others) spread the rumor that Carson was dropping out. Carson and his wife quickly denounced the rumor as false, but there was so little time before the vote that any damage it did was likely irreversible.

How Does it work?

Black propaganda is similar deception (like "The Man Who Never Was" hoax) in that it is sneaky and subversive in nature but differs in being aimed at soldiers, sailors, and civilians in the enemy territory. Deceptions are aimed at the leadership and attempt to deceive them into a seriously wrong view of what you are actually doing. Subversive black materials cause problems for the enemy inside his own structure while deception tries to get him to do something that will be self-damaging. Black propaganda operations might also be called the "Dirty Tricks Department." Howe and Delmer, particularly Delmer, recount the cleverness and diabolical nature of the "dirty tricks" that British black operations teams played on the Germans. Hollywood writers might not think of tricks like these, but these tricks were real and worked.

Production of this kind of material requires great skill and perfection. A single grammar error in a printed item can result in detection of it. Flawed use of the language in a broadcast will reveal that the speaker is not a native speaker of the language. Black propaganda is not easy to do except on the internet.

Forms of Black Materials

During the war British black materials were either broadcast (radio) or printed. Radio broadcasting was done on medium or short wavelengths and could be targeted to specific areas. Printed items could be air-dropped by the RAF, smuggled into Germany, or, in some cases, mailed into Germany (with counterfeit stamps!). Today, can you say "Internet?" Twitter and the like are fantastic vehicles for black.

Broadcast (Radio)

Black broadcasting requires the utmost knowledge and skill. The operators must have deep knowledge of the target's language, culture, and current events. The broadcast must pass as being produced by members of the target's population. British efforts in this area were obviously brilliant. In one area, British black radio was so successful with its subversion that Goebbels was forced to stop using radio for transmitting instructions to the people of Germany.

Denis Sefton Delmer, who headed the black operations, had managed to obtain a hellschreiber, or radio teleprinter, with which he could monitor the output of the German news agency and get up-to-the-minute news bulletins from inside Germany. These reports could be quickly used on the black radio stations, giving them a real flavor of legitimacy.

These clandestine stations could be quite successful. One, Soldatensender Calais, had a larger audience than Goebbels' German stations and was considered to be a reliable source of news items.

How is this propaganda? The stations were broadcasting real German news. Think about it this way: you hear four or five news stories on Calais. You accept them as real news, but what you don't know (and cannot easily find out) is which one of them is fake, misleading and subversive. Delmer wrote that their little motto was "cover, dirt, cover, cover, dirt, cover, dirt."

Howe describes a good example: A Luftwaffe sergeant has been reported in having no confidence in his airplane after returning from a mission. The Luftwaffe was known to be having problems at the time. The sergeant then took off on a mission but returned to base after five minutes because his engine was running very badly. He complained about an improperly serviced aircraft and was punished for it. He flew another mission from which he did not return. All of this was in a German news item and sounded quite genuine. It conveyed a picture of a Luftwaffe having problems servicing its aircraft and sending pilots on missions in aircraft that were not properly maintained. This was, however, one of the fake news items. Howe relates that it is essentially true that the sergeant did fly a mission over England, was shot down and his body identified. The story about what preceded this was made up. Intent: erode German confidence in the Luftwaffe.

A genuine-sounding news item could warn of a bombing raid on a German city and advise evacuation. This would clog the roads with fleeing citizens and cause chaos all around.


Howe's small group produced millions of counterfeit German civilian food ration cards, which were delivered by the RAF in air drops. They were very good forgeries and could be easily used by Germans to get extra food rations. The purpose was to cause trouble for German authorities at home; if loads of them were used it would stress the food supplies, while collecting them all was infeasible. It worked.

Another print product that remained in demand was an adhesive sticker (size not stated) large enoung to be conspicuous and intended to be stuck on official German posters within Germany. The sticker was one word - "scheisse" - which is the German word for shit. It was provocative in that the "ss" in scheisse was made up of the two runic symbols that were the symbol of the German SS.

Another very interesting (and subversive!) product was a little booklet which described how to simulate (fake) physical conditions that would keep young Germans from being taken into the armed forces. They were enclosed in various deceptive covers, printed in large numbers, and air-dropped into Germany. They caused a lot of problems for German authorities.


In the 21st century world, the internet provides a superb medium for black. All kinds of things can be planted via the internet with nearly total anonymity. The almost instantaneous dissemination of the the item plus widespread uncritical acceptance contribute to the success of it.