Friday, March 30, 2012

Book Review: Media Control by Noam Chomsky

I really did not know what I was stepping into when I decided to read Noam Chomsky’s Media Control. The history of propaganda leading to its modern day usage fascinates me, especially in how it ties in with the early days of the Public Relations discipline. This book covered several interesting theories on the use of propaganda in democratic societies to control the “bewildered herd” – Chomsky’s term for describing the uneducated and uninformed public. Beyond the theoretical aspect of propaganda early in the book, which is where my interests are, it morphed into criticisms of the United States government making hypocritical cases for war and holding ownership over all of the media outlets. It went further into how journalists should have covered the events leading to the Gulf War if they were not bought and owned by the government. In this respect, the book left me with more questions and doubts about his claims than answers to my historical interests.

Chomsky writes about manufactured consent, a method for creating scenarios that the masses could all agree to support – propaganda – in order for the democratically-elected governing body of intellectuals to achieve its goals. The concept is something I have paid attention to for quite some time in mass media – newspapers, cable news, news websites, social media, word of mouth – it’s an amazing phenomenon when one subject is discussed in all corners of mass public communication. I see it in the 2012 presidential race as the slanderous tactics used between the Republican contenders for the nomination; I recognized it in the case made to invade Iraq almost a decade ago. Though I feel propaganda has shifted wildly in the past few years, the desire to use it to win over the audience is alive and well.

Slogans seeming to contain little or no value are a primary manipulation tool to support the concept of manufacturing consent. According to Chomsky, “the point of public relations slogans like ‘Support our troops’ is that they don’t mean anything.” (Location 109) As much as I have always supported our troops, I never comprehended how that justified our country’s involvement in Iraq, yet I have heard and read the slogan more often than anything else since Operation Iraqi Freedom started in 2003. Similarly, in the social media sense, how will copying and pasting a cause-based Facebook status for an hour alleviate world hunger or eradicate cancer?
Initiatives are branded with vacuous slogans that no one can argue with, essentially putting the entire public on the same page despite their many diversities and multitude of opinions. Who in their right mind will argue the idealism of supporting our troops? Other than a few possible isolated events, it would be virtually unheard of.

Fear is a strong ingredient in manufacturing consent, according to Media Control. The masses must be whipped into shape to support a war as well as other government initiatives. They need to fear the evil despot of a foreign land who is hell-bent on taking over the world. Fear unites the public like no other, and the jingoistic slogans feed the mass hysteria making the bewildered herd that much easier to manipulate. However, “the picture of the world that’s presented to the public has only the remotest relation to reality.” (Location 182) Reality does not matter in the court of public opinion as long as it pushes the agenda forward. The agenda, of course, only serves the narrow democratic governing body that decides what is right for the public, because they cannot think for themselves. An interesting concept, though I question its validity.

Starting with the early days of propaganda, another key factor that allowed mass manipulation to occur was individual isolation. Individuals who would not agree with their government felt they were alone in their thinking; that no other like-minded people were around. Without the ability of like-minded people to congregate and build strength in shared knowledge and numbers, they were powerless to combat the governing body’s propagandized agenda. Chomsky wrote of early dissidence surrounding the Vietnam War – a first step toward where we find our society now, I believe – though I sense he did not have much faith in it lasting.

Since this book was published in 2002, social media did not yet exist and much has changed in these ten years. With the advent of the social web has come strength in large like-minded numbers and amazing quantities of immediately shared knowledge, leading to the masses telling a cancer research non-profit to reverse a controversial funding decision. It led to residents unifying to recall controversial elected leaders in a few states; to the American people and businesses forcing the US Congress to drop special interest-fueled anti-piracy bills that would have hampered our First Amendment freedoms on the Internet in the name of protecting intellectual properties; and to full-blown political revolutions in the Arab world.

The social web has opened the floodgates, so to speak, giving people everywhere not only a voice, but also the ability to quickly share information and to congregate like never before in history. Perhaps what we are experiencing is a global revolution, a path to true democracy that is not run by the select intellectual few, as Chomsky claims. It is exciting to witness technology altering the course of human history on both local and global scales. And this is probably the first time since the invention of propaganda that it can no longer work, at least not in its original form.

Healthy skepticism and honest discussions held between thousands of people at any given minute of the day have broken down the old propaganda tactics, but that doesn’t mean some governing factions won’t continue to find new methods to use it. If the US government was truly practicing rule by propaganda, as Chomsky suggested, it must be looking at new methods and tactics to confront the masses’ new voice. Perhaps, there was an ulterior motive to the Internet anti-piracy bills, an attempt to take control of a free speech platform, thereby censoring it to serve the interests of the government, and to potentially create a revenue stream. Maybe I’m being too cynical.

From my perspective as a professional writer, these theories on propaganda used to persuade the masses can teach a lot about human nature and influence my approach to the craft, but I feel a responsibility to never deviate from the truth. The truth as Chomsky presents in Media Control leaves me skeptical, in fact, it makes me think this book is a piece of propaganda itself to promote his personal, albeit far-fetched, beliefs. Right or wrong, it has instilled in my creative brain some new ways to observe society and to persuade – or win over – the audience in my professional writing. That alone made Media Control a worthwhile venture.

This review was first published at: