The best books for understanding propaganda and persuasion

Who am I?

I’ve been fascinated with propaganda and persuasion since childhood. Growing up in Detroit, our family would watch both American and Canadian TV channels. The TV commercials shown on the American TV channels were noisier, nosier, zanier, and more intrusive than the more sedate and polite forms of persuasion on Canadian shows. Because advertising and propaganda are kissing cousins, I've always appreciated how they shape politics, journalism, entertainment, activism, education, and the arts. Propaganda's greatest (and most dangerous) power is its ability to both unify and divide people, and there's never been a more important time to look carefully at how propaganda is shaping our understanding of reality through the many screens in our lives.

I wrote...

Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age

By Renee Hobbs,

Book cover of Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age

What is my book about?

Students of all ages are surrounded by contemporary propaganda – and it now takes many forms as social media delivers highly customized, nonstop streams of entertainment, information, and persuasion. But educators can help students cope with the different kinds of propaganda – both beneficial and harmful – that can be found in news, advertising, movies, political campaigns, activism, and even education. This book offers a cornucopia of instructional strategies that help students analyze, resist, critique – and create propaganda. In the interplay of influence, propaganda is a strategic tool that shapes public opinion by using the power of language and images to appeal to the deepest hopes, fears, and dreams of people around the world. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Why this book?

You may think you can tune out advertising, but you’re wrong. You may think it’s natural for so much entertainment to be available “for free” on all your digital devices. But most of us don’t realize how many businesses are profiting from harvesting our attention—and they keep finding new ways to entertain, inform, and persuade us, that we may not even notice them. I loved this book because of the engaging way that Tim Wu chronicles the history of the many industries that feed on human attention. He demonstrates how influencers, hawkers, celebrities, politicians, and pitchmen are not just salespeople, but the living heart of media and technology systems. 

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

By Tim Wu,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Attention Merchants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers.
In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the 'attention merchants', contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion…


By Edward Bernays,

Book cover of Propaganda

Why this book?

There’s no magic wand, no defensive armor, vaccine, or potion that can inoculate people against the influence of propaganda. But learning about propaganda is essential for people of all ages who want to hold on to their democracy in the face of threats. What will surprise you when you read this classic work, written in 1928, is how timely it remains. Bernays anticipates the rise of influencers and memes because he knows that people rely on thought leaders for most of their opinions and beliefs about the world. But the most important feature of this book is what he has to say about propaganda and democracy. Bernays convinces you that propaganda is not inherently evil, and he even makes the case that propaganda is necessary for democratic societies to flourish. 


By Edward Bernays,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Propaganda as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Bernays’ honest and practical manual provides much insight into some of the most powerful and influential institutions of contemporary industrial state capitalist democracies.”—Noam Chomsky

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”—Edward Bernays

A seminal and controversial figure in the history of political thought and public relations, Edward Bernays (1891–1995), pioneered the scientific technique of shaping and manipulating public opinion, which he famously dubbed “engineering of…

Book cover of Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Why this book?

I love how the study of persuasion and propaganda provides plentiful opportunities to address values, ethics, and morality. As a theologian, Jacques Ellul interrogates propaganda to demonstrate the practice of critical thinking that increases human autonomy and freedom. What I love about this book is its spirit of optimism: through inquiry, dialogue, and reflection, we can evaluate propaganda’s explicit and implicit claims. We can discern between propaganda that is designed for personal gain and propaganda that is trying to benefit society. We can acknowledge our own vulnerability to propaganda and recognize when our buttons are being pushed. 

Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes

By Jacques Ellul,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Propaganda as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This seminal study and critique of propaganda from one of the greatest French philosophers of the 20th century is as relevant today as when it was first published in 1962. Taking not only a psychological approach, but a sociological approach as well, Ellul’s book outlines the taxonomy for propaganda, and ultimately, it’s destructive nature towards democracy. Drawing from his own experiences fighting for the French resistance against the Vichy regime, Ellul offers a unique insight into the propaganda machine.

Book cover of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Why this book?

With the rise of the internet and social media, it’s become obvious that people are born vulnerable to persuasion because we’re hard-wired to cooperate in social groups.  In fact, we depend upon others for our understanding of reality. This book helped me spot the different ways that people try to influence others through what they say and do. When I was seeking to be a more effective communicator, I found this book valuable because it gives names for the fundamental persuasive techniques that I use every day, at home, in the workplace, and in daily life. But what I love most about this book is how it reveals that persuasion isn’t something that is done to us – in the end, we ultimately persuade ourselves.  

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

By Robert B. Cialdini,

Why should I read it?

20 authors picked Influence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The foundational and wildly popular go-to resource for influence and persuasion-a renowned international bestseller, with over 5 million copies sold-now revised adding: new research, new insights, new examples, and online applications.

In the new edition of this highly acclaimed bestseller, Robert Cialdini-New York Times bestselling author of Pre-Suasion and the seminal expert in the fields of influence and persuasion-explains the psychology of why people say yes and how to apply these insights ethically in business and everyday settings. Using memorable stories and relatable examples, Cialdini makes this crucially important subject surprisingly easy. With Cialdini as a guide, you don't have…

Book cover of Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Why this book?

I couldn’t help but love this book for the marvelously dishy stories from inside the belly of the beast. You might think Ryan Holiday is dangerous, because he used all kinds of devious PR strategies to get journalists to promote his clients by giving them attention in their publications. He did it by arousing strong emotions, simplifying information, attacking opponents, and appealing to people’s deepest hopes fears, and dreams. But this entertaining read gets profound as Holiday reveals the dangers that can result from placing propaganda in the public sphere. Through rich storytelling, he unpacks the personal, social, and reputational damage caused by the many new media manipulators seeking to profit from controlling your attention.  

Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

By Ryan Holiday,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Trust Me, I'm Lying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

You've seen it all before. A malicious online rumor costs a company millions. A political sideshow derails the national news cycle and destroys a candidate. Some product or celebrity zooms from total obscurity to viral sensation. What you don't know is that someone is responsible for all this. Usually, someone like me.

I'm a media manipulator. In a world where blogs control and distort the news, my job is to control blogs-as much as any one person can.

IN TODAY'S CULTURE... Blogs like Gawker, BuzzFeed, and The Huffington Post drive the media agenda. Bloggers are slaves to money, technology, and…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in propaganda, persuasion, and consumer behaviour?

8,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about propaganda, persuasion, and consumer behaviour.

Propaganda Explore 14 books about propaganda
Persuasion Explore 21 books about persuasion
Consumer Behaviour Explore 25 books about consumer behaviour

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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