Why does the dog wag its tail?
Because the dog is smarter than the tail.
If the tail were smarter, it would wag the dog.
My girlfriend recently had me watch the brilliant movie Wag the Dog, claiming it would be perfect for me. She was right.
In the movie, Robert De Niro is a spin doctor whose job is manipulating the media – in this case, to work with Dustin Hoffman, a Hollywood producer, to create a fake war with Albania in the public’s mind so that people would be distracted from the President’s sex scandal until he could be reelected.
The movie is brilliant. A libertarian (or really any somewhat free-thinking person) who watches it naturally starts to wonder if this sort of thing actually happens. Most people, on the other hand, simply dismiss it as an entertaining but fictional movie, and then move on with their lives.
I have no doubt that media manipulation to the extent portrayed in Wag the Dog happens in some of the worst countries – say, North Korea. Most people would agree. But to suggest that comparable manipulation exists in America or the Western world would likely result in you being labeled a “conspiracy theorist”, and then summarily dismissed as a crank.
To be honest, I don’t think the US government and its lapdog corporate media could pull off a deception of the degree demonstrated in the movie (but hey, I could be wrong). But that doesn’t mean the media doesn’t engage in less extreme forms of manipulation and propaganda. They do – and to great effect.
How The Media Can Be Controlled
At this point, most people would already be calling me a little bit crazy, and would be confused how I can say such things despite America and the rest of the Western world having freedom of speech and an independent media. But this is only nominally true – yes, the Soviet Union had far more stringent controls on the press than we have here, but Western media is hardly “free”.
In fact, there are all sorts of overt, covert, and even perhaps unintentional/indirect ways in which the media isn’t really free or independent (I discuss a bunch of this in an earlier post on why democracy is a utopian idea). In fact, the US was ranked 46th in the world in press freedom in 2014. And when six corporations control over 90% of what you hear, read, and watch in the media, it’s not hard to imagine the mechanisms which would lead to a lack of independence (here’s more on the media market’s consolidation).
In fact, when watching the news, one can’t help but feel like there is very little in the way of differing opinions. It’s so comical that Conan O’Brien has made a whole “thing” of it:
In other words, “the news” is mostly just meant as entertainment, something scripted and made ready to digest for public consumption. The words you listen to on TV news are coming from people higher up in the corporate structure, and passed down, ensuring a uniformity in the message. This need not be intentional or conspiratorial, but it is a side effect none the less.
Since most people would rather hear about celebrity gossip than about crimes perpetrated by their governments, the news delivers what consumers want. Of course, there is some real journalism, but that isn’t the point; most people are not willing to go to the effort to gather information from multiple sources and really understand important issues. As I stated in my democracy post:
“Regardless of how great some reporters might be, if people don’t want to educate themselves, then the media simply will not do the work for them. And when important issues are being covered, it is easier for the journalist to accept a government spokesman’s account rather than doing serious investigation of any complex issues. It’s even easier (and cheaper) to post opinion pieces and interviews, which are making up a larger and larger share of media time.”
There is nothing “wrong” with this per se, though it certainly does provide a filter for journalistic content. The same can be said for advertising, the primary means by which these giant media corporations make their revenue.
Naturally, big sponsors are going to tend to have some influence on the content that is ultimately presented to the public. You wouldn’t expect a newspaper that is largely financed by (or that the parent corporation owns interests in) military contractors or weapons companies to publish content that is against the military or exposes these companies to any kind of negative publicity. And it just so happens to be the case that the federal government is one of the media’s largest advertisers. In 2010, the federal government spent at least $945 million on advertising services, and that doesn’t include numerous related expenses. The cost of media outreach related to Obamacare alone is going to be an estimated $684 million per year, according to government sources. See here for a more balanced overview and discussion of federal spending on advertising.
These filters are very real and influence content, but there are more dark and scary ways that the media can be influenced as well:
“Government officials may become angered by overly critical pieces and have the power of coercion to respond (picture Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, the detention of David Miranda, etc.). If you reveal something too close to the heart of the National Security State, you will be punished. Consider James Risen, who is being coerced by the federal government for refusing to reveal a source for a book he wrote exposing the CIA.
The fact is, potential government sources are highly unlikely to provide information to journalists known to be critical of the government. And who can blame them? People tend not to like publicizing their own failures or being made to look bad.
Since government controls access to critical sources and information, this is a significant point. The government restricts physical access to sources, selectively provides information that highlights the administration’s successes rather than failures, and prescreens reporters’ questions or only allows scripted ones.”
And I’ve only barely scratched the surface of the government’s direct involvement in manipulating the media, where a recent survey found that 64% of journalists believe that they are being spied on by the US government. There is copious evidence that the CIA regularly works to manipulate the media. For starters, there is well documented collusion between the New York Times and the CIA. This isn’t too surprising, however, since they regularly push fabricated evidence in attempts to promote warfare and militarism.
The NYT may be among the worst of news organizations in this regard, but they are hardly alone. Operation Mockingbird, which began in the 1950s, involved (among other things) recruiting journalists to push the CIA’s version of “news”, and you can be sure similar work is being done today. In fact, a well known German journalist claims he published stories written by the CIA under his name, and according to three time Emmy Award winning journalist Amber Lyon, “CNN is routinely paid by the US government and foreign governments to selectively report on certain events. Furthermore, the Obama administration pays CNN for editorial control over some of their content.”
We’ve also recently learned that the CIA was able to successfully pressure the NYT into killing an embarrassing story about a plan to sell faulty schematics for nuclear weapon parts to Iran. And across the pond, Britain has just announced that they have recruited 1500 “Facebook Warriors” to spread disinformation and conduct psy-ops online.
Of course, it is impossible to know the true extent of media manipulation by the CIA, the government, corporate interests, and the global elite. But there is more than enough evidence that it is being done, and more than enough theoretical understanding of how it actually happens. And the effects can be significant. Again, quoting from my democracy post:
“In my opinion the most glaring recent example of the media not informing the populace of important information was with Iceland’s “pots and pans” revolution in 2009-10. The mainstream media in the US was completely silent about this event, and yet it was among the most important world events at the time. This was a peaceful revolution where the government was overthrown, and the fraudulent banksters were thrown in jail. Maybe, just maybe, this was because they didn’t want to give Americans any ideas?”
It is critical to understand that, while ostensibly “free” and “independent”, the media does serve an agenda, and that agenda is rarely to create an informed populace that has an accurate picture of what is going on regarding important events in the world. While we don’t yet have outright censorship in America (although the idea is being bandied around now; the State Department was recently discussing shutting down Russia Today, an English language publication with a pro-Russia bent), the power elite still have an incredible degree of control over the media.
Promoting Elite Memes
Despite all the ways in which the media is influenced by the powers that be, they need not create a fake war in order to have dangerous effects on the public mind. The way these manipulations work are far more subtle than the way it is presented in Wag the Dog. Similar kinds of manipulations may be happening, but it need not be this super-secret, artificial thing. In fact, it is far more effective to promote certain ideas, and create strategic memes that, once promoted, can develop organically.
In short, the strategy of the elite is to promote something akin to Plato’s Noble Lie – to use untruths or omissions to help maintain some form of dominance and social control. Or like Leo Strauss’s “salutary myths”, or ideas that elites must promote to help representative democracy remain stable in times of crisis, including shoring up patriotism, support of the military, and some amount of belligerence in foreign policy.
The elite, therefore, are promoting certain memes, with the intention that they spread throughout society and create a certain general opinion about things, or present a certain view of the world, which has some kind of advantage for them. Note that not all of these things are necessarily lies; in some cases, they can be true or partly true. Sometimes, like with Iceland’s “pots and pans” revolution, it is a deliberate omission, rather than an outright lie. In any case, the idea is to bolster support for some ideas and deflate support for others.
I’ve found The Daily Bell to be a very good resource for helping to understand these elite memes. In most cases, we may not know for sure whether something is an elite meme or not, but objective, reasoned analysis can help uncover some of them and how they are used. Some of the more obvious ones are that Putin is evil, that support of the idea of secession is equivalent to supporting slavery, that government policies are successfully tackling poverty, that everyone should own a house, that libertarians and free-market supporters are “selfish”, that we should be afraid of price deflation, that radical government action is needed to stop global warming or cooling or climate change or peak oil or the population bomb or whatever else.
I don’t intend to get into the details of any given meme here or even discuss the whether they are true or false. That’s not the point. What is worth noting is that a given meme is strategically amplified in the media or through other organs like public education. When these ideas take hold, the meme spreads more organically. A couple of planted stories, carefully timed “leaks”, and a failure to ask the right questions can set the tone of the debate on any kind of issue. I’m not being crazy and paranoid; documents released by Edward Snowden have shown that this is precisely what agencies like the GCHQ and NSA do (by artificially increasing the page view counts for favored web sites, using fake “victims” to discredit those with opinions they don’t like, among other ways).
Once the Ukraine crisis was framed as Russian aggression, that became the dominant narrative. There doesn’t need to be outright censorship – other ideas simply become “kooky” or “conspiracy theories”, and no right-thinking person would believe them anyways. The discussion turns away from who is responsible for what is happening in Ukraine, and towards the US response. It is a matter of how militarily involved we should be – the idea of non-intervention isn’t to be considered in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression! After all, Putin is “the new Hitler”, and we all know how much of a folly appeasement was back in the 30’s.
Similarly, consider the meme of “climate change” or global warming. I am not a scientist, and have no idea whether global warming is actually happening or not (climate change, practically by definition, is of course happening). But you’ll notice that there are many people, equally as clueless about climate science, who claim with absolute certainty that man-made global warming is happening, and governments around the world must take drastic action to stop it by curbing our liberties and impoverishing us. There are enough scientists who don’t think there is man-made global warming to invent the term “deniers” in order to ridicule them, but then we are told that it is “settled science” and that there is a “scientific consensus”. The theory of gravitation is “settled science” (well, as far as science can even be settled at all), and that’s why you don’t hear debate about it. But there is debate about global warming – it’s just that those who don’t think it is happening must be suppressed so that further globalization, centralization, and regulation can be instituted. Man-made global warming may very well be a correct theory, but either way, debate is being intentionally silenced. The elite intervention on this issue has led to the average person being fully convinced of an idea, and then to promote that idea on their own and deride other views as crazy, ultimately creating a “hive mind” response to this issue.
Another tactic used by the powers that be is to take advantage of a sort of Hegelian dialectic. As explained by The Daily Bell:
“Hegel postulated that each stage of human advance – and the course of history itself – was driven by an argument (thesis), a counterargument (anti-thesis) and finally a synthesis of the two into a more advanced argument, at which point the process restarted. For Hegel, the dialectic could explain everything – art, culture, history, even nature.
From our more modern vantage point, Hegel’s dialectic may not seem so persuasive as an explanation of all things – and in fact, it probably is not. But for the elite of his day, and for the monetary elite today, the Hegelian dialectic provides tools for the manipulation of society.
To move the public from point A to point B, one need only find a spokesperson for a certain argument and position him or her as an authority. That person represents Goalpost One. Another spokesperson is positioned on the other side of the argument, to represent Goalpost Two.
Argument A and B can then be used to manipulate a given social discussion. If one wishes, for instance, to promote Idea C, one merely needs to promote the arguments of Goalpost One (that tend to promote Idea C) more effectively than the arguments of Goalpost Two. This forces a slippage of Goalpost Two’s position. Thus both Goalpost One and Goalpost Two advance downfield toward Idea C. Eventually, Goalpost Two occupies Goalpost One’s original position. The “anti-C” argument now occupies the pro-C position. In this manner whole social conversations are shifted from, say, a debate over market freedom vs. socialism to a debate about the degree of socialism that is desirable.”
There used to be debate over whether there ought to be a minimum wage or not. Now it is just a question of how high it should be set. There used to be a debate about whether a central bank should exist or not. Now the question is about whether interest rates should rise 25 basis points or not. There used to be real discussion over what role US military power should play in foreign policy. Now the question is whether we should invade a country on this pretext or that pretext.
These techniques are ridiculously effective, probably more effective than outright censorship. After all, people truly think that they came to their conclusions on their own.
No one can really escape this. Even if you read alternative media or evaluate situations as objectively as possible, the information environment you live in has been corrupted. Even if you believe that certain ideas are being suppressed or amplified, it is hard to figure out exactly how, or what specific effects that has on the debate. If global warming is truly happening, my skepticism, caused by a vague awareness of the way these memes work, will prevent me from accepting that truth. All debate and knowledge becomes corrupted when the integrity of the system has been compromised.
The media does help disseminate some useful information to the public, but primarily serves as a propaganda tool to promote elite memes. While we still enjoy a relatively large degree of freedom of speech in the Western world, the public nature of the debate is being directed by outside forces. The debate maintains a superficial appearance of being organic and natural, but in effect is heavily influenced by the wishes of those who wield the most power in society: government, globalist bankers, the military-industrial complex, and giant corporations.
This use of propaganda is more effective than the overt totalitarianism so prevalent in the 20th century. The manipulation is hidden from the public and typically unconscious to all those in the media other than at the top. As stated in an insightful article by Nicolas J S Davies, the manipulations look more like this:
“The editor or media executive who amplifies government and corporate propaganda and suppresses alternative narratives is not generally doing so on orders from the government, but in the interest of his own career, his company’s success in the corporate oligarchy or “marketplace,” and his responsibility not to provide a platform for radical or “irrelevant” ideas.”
When even those who are promoting these elite memes are unaware that they are doing it, the system has succeeded. There is an illusion of real, honest debate, one that almost everyone has bought into. But the reality is that opinions are being molded to fit the desires of the super-rich and super-powerful.