A friend on Facebook links to the following list of top 10 media manipulation strategies, which is attributed to Noam Chomsky. Now, any native English speaker will quickly notice that Chomsky himself cannot have written the text for this, as much of it is nearly unintelligible. Of course, anyone who’s read Chomsky’s syntax papers might quip with no small justification that “nearly unintelligible” is in fact Chomsky’s characteristic writing style, and fair enough. But in this case I mean the grammar and word choice are so poor that they cannot have been written by a native speaker of English. Also, it would be out of character in the extreme for Chomsky to make a top 10 list, so I’m guessing there’s also no suggesiton that Chomsky has anywhere ranked these methods as being the “top 10″ of media manipulation strategies that he has identified in his various books on the subject. Finally, when googling for the original text, I got so many hits that I think it is near impossible to identify the original author. So, what we really have here is some anonymous non-native English speaker’s possibly erroneous interpretation of various things that Chomsky has said on the media, and his unauthorized assignation of rank to various media manipulation strategies that Chomsky may or may not have identified. Furthermore, there’s no way of knowing what the rankings reflect. Are these the most common strategies, the most powerful strategies, the most effective strategies, the strategies most likely to be associated with manipulation rather than fact-reporting?
In other words, this is just some good ol’ internet fun.
Anyway, here they are, in MY words:
(1) Keep the public distracted – Ok, sure. The idea is that you keep the public’s attention focused away from the “real” issues by “distracting” them with “issues of lesser importance.” Great. So who’s to say what’s important? I mean, surely importance is relative to social commitment, and people who are not as socially committed as Chomsky will not necessarily be as interested as he is in stories about social problems. Furthermore, even among people who are equally committed to social reform, there can obviously be a lot of disagreement about where priorities lie. In particular, there will be disagreement over how committed fellow citizens should be to solving international problems. So, to me this looks like a blank check to label almost anything “media manipulation.” But even granted that we could come up with some framework for deciding what’s “important,” it doesn’t really count as “media manipulation” to choose to report on relatively unimportant things unless we’ve established a political motive. One of the problems I’ve always had with Chomsky’s political writings is the extent to which false consciousness figures in (though never explicitly named). If people are not sufficiently politically engaged, then only because they have been manipulated by the system into complacency. But I find it difficult to believe that people are primarily political creatures – at least in that sense. Before we can rely on a framework that includes false consciousness, I need to see some evidence that people would be more politically engaged if not so manipulated. I’m not really asking for solid empirical evidence here, which would obviously be impossible to obtain in precisely the case that false consciousness were real, but most Marxist analyses lack even a philosophical justification for this assumption.
(2) Create problems, then offer solutions – I guess everyone agrees that this is the oldest political trick in the book. My favorite formulation comes from Clay Shirky, who writes that “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” I prefer this one to the one being attributed to Chomsky because it allows for the possibility, which I suspect is the more common case, that the institution perpetuating the problem is not necessarily the institution that caused it. In any case, I am fully prepared to believe that lots of problems which could easily be solved are not precisely because of the solution currently being applied. That said, we have the same problem as in (1) – which is that you can’t just blithely conclude that anyone proposing a solution to a problem has an interest in seeing it persist! More to the point, too much of this and Chomsky will end up destryong the credibility of any political reformer, including his own allies. Take a situation like Iraq. Now, it’s certainly possible, as many charged, that the government initiated the attack for the purpose of having an external security threat to rally the public around defeating. And so, weapons of mass distruction were never really found in Iraq, leading many to think that that war was instigated for political purposes primarily. And maybe it was. But here’s the rub: how are we supposed to know that? Back in 2002, say, when it’s really important for the public to get this right, how does the public know when the “problem” of Iraqi WMDs is real or manufactured? It’s all very well to sit back and be smug now and say “I knew it all along, it was so obvious!” But that’s just it: it WASN’T obvious. Iraq was known to have received assistance – from the United States itself, no less, though more from France – in developing the weapons in question. It was known to have deployed the weapons. It was known to be aggressive. It was known to be an enemy of the United States. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I *still* find the argument that Iraq was likely to be a security threat persuasive, given what we were told at the time. Which means, in some rationally possible universe, a country like Iraq (Iran, say) WILL turn out to be a security threat. Now, if we go about assuming that every time we’re told that something is a security threat that it’s just never the case that it really is, and it’s only in those cases when no one in power claims that something is a security threat that it actually turns out to be a real security threat – well, I don’t have to spell out why that’s a nonsensical position to take. Sometimes real security threats are correctly identified by the authorities as such. So I think this kind of advice about spotting media manipulation is a useless tautology. Of course people in power will create problems to be solved. But people in power will also offer solutions to problems that they didn’t create for the purpose of staying in power. If Chomsky (or whoever it really is) wants to do something useful, why not start by helping me identify the difference?
(3) The gradual strategy – Never introduce changes wholesale, but rather gradually, so that people don’t know they’re happening. Now again, I would have to agree that that’s how a successful manipulator would do it, but then again I’d have to say that that’s how anyone would successfully change any institution. Maybe there are some examples from history of far-reaching overnight reforms that were instantly successful, but in general the only examples that come to mind of overnight changes ended badly. So, for example, I don’t think that anyone is going to seriously argue that life got better in the Soviet Union immediately following its collapse. Anyone who lived through it will tell you it got instantly and dramatically worse. Now, it’s probably true, as the experts tell us, that it was simply economically impossible for the Soviet Model to continue, so collapse was inevitable. Fine. The question is whether a managed collapse wouldn’t have been a better option? And again, nearly everyone thinks, in retrospect, that a gradual transition to a market economy would’ve been preferable. But if it had been, would we then say that the Soviet people had been “manipulated” into abandoning the Soviet system? Poppycock, obviously, if that system was doomed anyway. And while I suppose I would have to agree that the gradual transition itself was “manipulated,” then only because it’s a kind of tautology. Any managed anything involves “manipulating” people to some degree. I’m really not sure what else leadership is. It’s fine to make the case that absolute democracy is always better than any manipulated system – and I suppose if you’re the kind of bizarro pro-government anarchist that Chomsky claims to be you’re sort of commited to something like that position – but that case really does have to be made, because it isn’t at all obvious, and it’s CERTAINLY counterintuitive. So once again, I think Chomsky (or whoever it is) is identifying as a problem something that will always be true of all political decisions and actions. It is, one supposes, only a problem to manipulate the public when one doesn’t agree with where things are headed. Well.
(4) The strategy of deferring – Pretend that a current sacrifice will offset future sacrifices to win acceptance for it, then get the public used to it, and then when it is business as usual announce that it is permanent. Orwell identified this one frequently, presumably because he’d heard the Soviet advisors applying it in Spain. It was nothing if not characteristic of how East Bloc regimes operated. But again, I think this one borders on empty for a lot of political actions because the truth is that people adapt. People get used to things, and once they’re used to soemthing, there’s less of a premium on making it go away. So, let’s say that water prices suddenly rise, and we’re told that this is necessary to curb use in a year of drought, and that once rainfall has returned to normal prices will be allowed to sink back to pre-drought level. Well, suppose that the drought takes longer than expected, and people adapt to flushing toilets less, taking shorter showers, etc. By the time the drought ends, it’s probaby reasonable to say that allowing prices to sink to their pre-drought levels isn’t a fair assessment of how much people now value water. In raw business terms, selling water at the old price now that demand is below what it was when water used to cost that will result in profit loss for the utilities, which means under-investment in vital utilities. If said utility was over-invested in to begin with, maybe that’s a good thing. But if it wasn’t? Point being, you can’t respond to changes in a situation without changing the situation, so it says nothing to opine that offering a solution to a plan that’s sold as temporary but doesn’t turn out to be temporary is always evidence of cynical manipulation. Sometimes it’s just the way things turn out.
(5) Go to the public as a little child – If you treat the public as infants, they’ll respond as infants. So, talking down to the public has a way of keeping them in line. I think there’s probably some truth to this one. And yet, I can see evidence that the public remains savvy in spite of efforts to talk down to them too. Take television, for example. If the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that public tastes were more sophisticated than the television companies would have believed. I’m not sure whether Chomsky’s (or whoseever it is) theory here predicts that or speaks against it. Have public tastes in television improved because the quality of television has improved? Or did the quality of television improve because public tastes were always this sophisticated, and the market structure for sophisticated programming just wasn’t in place until now? Irritatingly, people like Chomsky can and will have it both ways on that. When it’s convenient to say that people were being manipulated against their will, then say the latter. When it’s convenient to say that people’s will is created by market structure, then say the former. So again, without some guidance as to which is going on when and in which situations, this is not a very useful thing to say.
(6) Use the emotional side more than reflection – Yes. Here I agree wholeheartedly. If you want to manipulate someone, it’s pretty pointless to try to do it rationally.
(7) Keep the public in ignorance and mediocrity – Basically, make sure that educational opportunities for the ruling classes are always better than for the lower classes. I would basically agree that this is a good way to manipulate the public into submission, but I have to say I see no evidence that it is happening in the United States. Most of the really thoughtful and educated people I know are not members of the upper classes. Most children of upper class people that I know are boors. If they are being exposed to a superior education, they’re not using it to their advantage. What I see instead is that they have political and economic connections that I don’t have, and they use these to get cushy positions that are overpaid relative to their actual productive value. But at best this exploits networking skills that I have never seen taught at school, and in reality I think it mostly just exploits a greater availability of social resources. And actually, to lay my cards on the table, I think education is largely ineffective outside of the right culture for it, and I don’t think the right culture for it exists as the general rule in any class of American society. Things are getting better, but it remains more or less uncool to be really educated no matter what stratum of society you’re in.
(8) Encourage the public to be complacent with mediocrity – Repeats my point in the last bullet point – that a population with an anti-intellectual bent is easier to control. Ayn Rand said the same thing, though.
(9) Strengthen self-blame – Awkward wording, but the idea seems to be to make people believe that they are responsible for their lot in life. So, you know, pump them full of lots of stories of people who have taken initiative and made things happen for themselves. But of course this one begs the question too: if there are a lot of such stories to be told, then isn’t it in fact the case that social mobility is a real possiblity? And if we automatically assume that such stories are mere propaganda, we destroy any real mechanism for determining when political liberation has been achieved. I suppose Chomsky’s (or whoever’s it is) response would be to say that we’re striving for economic equality, but that’s stacking the deck. We’re also striving for a generally higher level of wealth, and there is plenty of room for rational disagreement on which of these to prioritize (assuming they’re actually in conflict, which I believe them to be), and by how much.
(10) Knowing the public better than they know themselves – Basically, any psychological knowledge must be in the hands of the elite and not disseminated. But here again, we’re substituting an ideal for a reality. The public in general can’t be expected to have an expert’s knowledge of Psychology, and the process of scientific progress necessarily operates in such a way that knowledge is discovered before it can be disseminated. Some scientific elite will always know more about a given subject than the general public, and things that are useful for manipulating the public will be studied with more attention by people who want to do exactly that. I guess it is fair to say that knowing a lot about high-powered sales techniques makes one automatically suspect as a member of the great conspiracy to keep you poor and stupid, but that begs another question: how do members of the conspiracy identify themselves among each other so as to keep this knowledge secret? It doesn’t follow that just because specialists have specialized knowlege of Psychology that there is a conspiracy to keep your poor and stupid!
Anyway, if Chomsky did in fact come up with all of this then it’s proof of nothing so much but that he’s paranoid. But we already knew that without having to dissect this. And of course, as the great thinker Anonymous said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. The problem with all of these is that while they’re all real things that a real conspiracy would do to keep the public in line, they are also by and large things that will happen even in the absence of such a conspiracy. Without some guide as to how to tell the difference, it’s kind of a useless list.
To the extent that I’m sympathetic to any of this, then in the way that I think the public should be cured of its fear of intellectualism. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do that, and I suspect it cannot be done.