Walter Lippmann’s Public Opinion and Edward Bernays' Propaganda are two major works on public relations and mass communication in modern times. Both have cast long shadows across the years and are both still surprisingly readable. Apart from a few examples which relate to current events (in 1922 and 1928 respectively), you can see much of what formed their impressions today.
The basic argument of both books is that members of the general public have a poor understanding of the wider world and so are not able to make good decisions, either for themselves or collectively (i.e., as a voters). The suggestion is that an élite of people who are best informed make all the choices and present the information in such a way that can be understood by all and supports the ‘best’ course of action.
Some of this thinking was also motivated by the then popularity of Freud’s theories on human behaviour. Much of this focused on our apparent underlying irrationality and inability to control ourselves. Without people to control the greater population, by manipulating the information available, then civilisation would collapse as we gave in to our base instincts.
While that fad of psychology has receded, many of the points raised are still relevant. Unless we witnessed the event first hand we are always relying on someone else’s interpretation. Even if it’s abridged with the best intentions, some possibly vital details will be omitted Most of us have very little time each day to commit to understanding the outside world. There is also much that we don’t care about, even if it is important (have you read all the details of your pension scheme, insurance policy or tenancy agreement?). These factors combined with the massive complexity of the world mean we have very little chance of understanding what’s going on.
Normally we rely on the press to help us understand what is going on, bring distant information into our hands and provide the relevant context. The problem faced by the press is that to remain in business, they have to ensure that we keep buying their papers, TV channels, films etc, so they have to entertain and appease us. Most people buy papers which supports their worldview, we often don’t like to be challenged on deep held beliefs; and perversely trust those who express similar opinions to ourselves more, even if those are demonstrably false by existing evidence.
Flat Earth News is a great book covering the modern issues surrounding the press and impartial reporting. In short it is the harsh realities of the journalism business, and not malice, that normally leads to weak reporting. The need to instantly push stories out leaves very little time for fact checking and the removal of expensive investigative journalism departments means there’re very few people left to do in-depth reporting. As consumers we’re often only worried about paying the least, which includes nothing for many internet sources. Lippmann complained about the same issue in 1922:
“We expect the newspaper to serve us with truth however unprofitable the truth may be. For this difficult and often dangerous service, which we recognise as fundamental, we expected to pay until recently the smallest coin turned out by the mint. We have accustomed ourselves now to paying two and even three cents on weekdays, and on Sundays, for an illustrated encyclopaedia and vaudeville entertainment attached, we have screwed ourselves up to paying a nickel or even a dime.”
Lippmann’s view is that because of these fundamental limitations a democracy is not something that can be maintained anymore. While it works for small communities, where everyone knows what’s happening, the idea of having the public elect officials based on such limited knowledge is useless.
His recommendation is to have an independent arm of the government whose job it is to analyse, compile and deliver data to leaders. This would be centrally funded and not dependant on the fads and whims of the fickle buying public. This seems a reasonable idea at first, and the world’s closet equivalent at the moment is probably the BBC , which is paid for via a license fee. The BBC does have a well deserved reputation for neutrality and high quality reporting, but also a long running and uneasy relationship with governments and other parts of the UK media, mostly because of it’s huge influence. In that regard it is more accountable than what Lippmann suggest and not completely independent. The great problem with an information interpreting service that has no oversight is that it could very easily start to serve only its own purposes, and not those it’s meant to serve.
The conclusion that both authors arrive at is that the general public will be taken more and more out of the important decision making. In order to keep the peace and build support (the now famous phrase “manufacturing of consent”) for the decisions taken more widespread use of propaganda will be necessary. This makes people believe they are involved, and it is their wishes that are being enacted, when this is not the case.
Normally at this point people wheel out the internet as the solution. With free, easy access to vast amounts of information, no longer can things be hidden. While the internet does offer great opportunities and I think is leading to a greater openness we have to be careful. It is always important to know the source of information, but this is not something the internet is good at, or encourages.
Aggregators, wiki articles, search result snippets all result in a dehumanising of information, treating it as if there is nobody involved. This removing of the people in the equation brings a false sense of neutrality, a belief that is must be true if it is free of human interference; but it most have come from someone.
There’s no easy answer and we’ll probably end up having to pay for it one way or another. The best solution is probably a wider recognition that good news and reporting is something worth paying for. This is effectively what happens with the BBC, but since it’s indirect we are not as aware of it. I think there is still room for widespread free news, but will be mostly just a recording of events; for in-depth reporting and investigative journalism we have to see and understand the value it brings and be prepared to pay for it. This is something the press in general needs to be very careful of and something that it is not currently doing very well .
There is a similar debate running around second hand computer games . Do you want the money you spend on games to go to the developer, or the shop that sold it a second time? It’s the same choice here; do you want advert revenues going to the aggregator of news snippets or the journalists?