4.1 Developing Propaganda and a Product-Driven Public
Reliable news and the free exchange of the most useful information are extremely important tools that can increase awareness about humanitarian issues and social movements and change our world accordingly. But the mass news media is more often used as a tool to deceive and manipulate people than help them because lies, manipulation and selective reporting are often more profitable than the whole truth.
Corporate and political actors control and broadcast the most easily accessible media and independent voices are often drowned out as a result. Even when large media corporations broadcast very progressive voices, it is often only because they know people will pay to hear these voices. Most of these corporations do not care about the social value these voices can have. Many major news conglomerates are also the only sources of information available in some countries. They have a monopoly on information because governments and corporate interests want to control what is said and what is believed to be factual. Up until 2013, for example, Burma only had only one major newspaper and its essential function was to justify the current regime.
In 1992 23 corporations owned and controlled about 50% of all of the newspapers, movie studios, TV stations, radio stations and publishers in America[i], and most major news stations and newspapers are still owned by just a handful of large corporations, and many of them have conglomerated.
The news media has the capacity to be very lucrative because it affects people’s emotions and opinions. It informs how they should feel, act and present themselves, and corporations have taken advantage of these powers. The invention of the mass media has “flattened the world” and made propaganda even more invasive and far-reaching. The concentration of media outlets has made them more profitable and enabled their agendas to sync up.
Electronic media was immediately monetized by governments and corporations when it was invented, and this has had many negative effects on the world. Edward Bernays was responsible for much of US propaganda. He was referred to as “the father of public relations” in his obituary. Bernays worked for the Woodrow Wilson during WWI in the Committee on Public Information and he was tasked with justifying the war to the public by “proving” it was all for “democracy.” He also helped justify the coup of the democratically elected leader of Guatemala in 1954. His book Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923) influenced Josef Goebbels, infamous for his Nazi propaganda.
Later on Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Corporation. He tried to make cigarette smoking in public less taboo for women to increase profits. He also worked for Proctor & Gamble, the United Fruit Company, CBS and General Electric. Like most of the rich elite, Bernays believed that control of people’s minds was absolutely necessary in order to ensure order in society he thought society. In his book, Propaganda (1928), he wrote:
“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. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society…In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
Bernays was very right that our minds are often molded largely by people we’ve never heard of or met due to powerful propaganda, but he was wrong about this being a necessary part of democracy. People are molded to serve the interests of the few in power, not prevent chaos and conflict in society. A real democracy is completely autonomous and can achieve order and peace because most people want both. There just needs to be free information and the opportunity and the ability to pursue one’s interests and survive.
The problem with Bernays’ assertions is that they rely on the assumption that human beings are not rational actors capable of understanding and collaboration, which can lead to meaningful benefit for the whole. In order to prevent chaos in society, the world does need leaders, prominent voices and intellectuals who can give guidance and educate. But this is not what Bernays was speaking of. Representatives are supposed to be conduits of the people, not self-interested manipulators.
In an ideal word, the only reason one person’s voice would be amplified over another’s would be if there was more value in the voice. The value of a person’s voice and work could be determined in many different ways, such as public demand for it, the extent of its pier support, and its demonstrable social impact. But this is not often the case. Instead, the loudest voices are those with the money to be heard and dominate airwaves with their messages. The main reason most people do need guidance right now is because they are already mislead by the power structures that exist.
Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychiatry. Freud felt superior to those with mental health issues, and he came up with wild theories about them. He felt he had a right to control people’s emotions and identities for “their own benefit.” He often failed to consider patients’ needs or wants, and it makes sense that this intellectual elitism and sense of entitlement would rub off on his nephew, Edward.
[i] Chomsky, Noam: Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Zeitgeist Films. 1992.