Manufacturing ConsentThursday 21 December 2017
“If we can’t sell this to the American people we ought to go into another line of work." Mitch McConnell said this after the Senate passed the unpopular tax plan. Isn't that backwards from how democracy is supposed to work? In a democracy isn't the government supposed to implement the will of the people, not convince the people to want what the government has already done? In today's world both the way politics and the marketplace are supposed to work have been flipped upside down by advertising, which is really just propaganda.
The theory behind free markets is that the consumers will choose winners based on who delivers the best product at the best price. The theory assumes that consumers make rational choices, incorporating all available information into their decision. This is already a very unrealistic assumption for anyone who is familiar with cognitive biases and the way decisions are actually made. It becomes an absurd assumption when we consider that most of the information consumers have comes from the media and advertising. As discussed in No Logo, by Naomi Klein, corporations now realize that it is more effective for them to focus on marketing and branding than on R&D or actually producing high quality products. Many "brands" sell what are essentially commodities and the only value they add is in creating a brand image and brand awareness and convincing people that their products are better than their competitors' when in reality there is negligible difference. Why spend money improving your products when it is far cheaper and more effective to just convince people that your products are better?
A similar thing has been happening in politics, especially after Citizens United opened the floodgate of money. Rather than politicians responding to the will of the people, the politicians use their corporate money to convince the people to do whatever the donors want. The rise of partisan cable news networks, which parrot the official party lines non-stop all day every day, ensure that the viewers will only have the information which support the views and are constantly bombarded with rhetoric about how bad the other party is. In this post-truth era, any facts or data that contradict one's viewpoint are just dismissed as incorrect or "fake news." The confirmation bias predisposes us to reject information which is contrary to our opinions and the availability heuristic ensures that we will tend to believe information that we are exposed to more often, so can remember better. Combined with today's technology and the media saturated environment we live in, these biases basically ensure that people can very easily be manipulated into believing most anything.
I had just finished reading "Manufacturing Consent" by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky when the McConnell made the statement quoted in the first line of this article. The book was written in 1988 and focuses on how the government and the mass media conspire to make sure that the public supports the actions of the government. This is not a typical conspiracy in the sense that the government and the media don't collaborate to come up with these plans, it is baked into the system - the media gets its information from the government and reports it as facts. The examples described in the book are all cold war influenced incidences where the media supported the US government doing things in the name of anti-communism that they would have raised hell over had the Soviet Union done the exact same thing.
What is surprising about the book is not that these things happen at all, but how much these things have become normalized over the three decades since the book was first publlshed. In fact, I would say that the types of propaganda described in the book are no longer exceptions, but now are the rule. The most recent foreign policy example of such things would be the justification for the Iraq invasion based on non-existent WMDs, which had almost all major US media clamoring for war. But domestically, propaganda has basically taken over politics. The recent US presidential elections featured little to no discussion of issues of any sort. The focus was on personal foibles and defects of the candidates. Rather than offering policy proposals, advertisements focused on attacking the other candidates. In the end the election was solely about which candidate you personally felt greater animus for. This is a far cry from how democracy is supposed to work.
The rise of the internet and big data is only going to exacerbate the problems. The ability to target messages to individual people is just taking advantage of cognitive biases to further deteriorate the state of politics and the economy. Technology and automation is going to concentrate greater and greater wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer people who can use that wealth to either persuade the politicians to do their bidding, or in a worst case scenario just convince the people that what the wealthy want is good for everyone, such as how McConnell was talking about trying to convince people that the tax bill is good for everyone, when it in fact seems to mainly be good for corporations and holders of capital. The influx of money into American politics combined with technology promises to make it easier to manufacture consent for whatever is already done rather than doing what the people want.