The Media are the Message

Edward Bernays 1929 “torches of freedom” campaign for American Tobacco Company raised women purchases of cigarets in US from 5% to 33% percent and was eagerly embraced by feminist leaders

This is the second installment of my The God of Scientism series. You may also want to read my recent, related AI and Hollywood blog before you continue as it explains the link between scientism and the media.

Many people do not realize that the role of the media goes beyond the simple left or right wing bias of certain publications. The media industry can be best understood as a propaganda tool, an opinion making machine, not beholden to party politics. Let us look at the brief history of the US media.

The father of the modern US media machine is Edward Bernays, who single handedly created the US public relations industry in the early 20th century. In 1925, Bernays published a short book Propaganda, which applied the lessons of WWI for the purpose of “regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments their bodies”. Here are some quotes from his book:

With the printing press and the newspaper, the railroad, the telephone, telegraph, radio and airplanes, ideas can be spread rapidly and even instantaneously over the whole of America. …Instead of a mind, [print and] universal literacy has given the man rubber stamps, rubber stamps inked with advertising slogans, with editorials, with published scientific data, with the trivialities of the tabloids and the platitudes of history, but quite innocent of original thought. Each man’s rubber stamps are the duplicates of millions of others”.

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions. It is not generally realized to what extent the words and actions of our most influential public men are dictated by shrewd persons operating behind the scenes. Nor, what is still more important, the extent to which our thoughts and habits are modified by authorities..…No serious sociologist any longer believes that the voice of the people expresses any divine or specially wise and lofty idea. The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders”. After reading Propaganda I realized that Edward Bernays had an excellent understanding of the dynamics of social fields, far beyond todays AI experts.

Fast forward 20 years. Another propagandist with a profound understanding of the dynamics of emergent macro fields was Kurt Lewin. Lewin came to the US in 1933 from London where he was the director of the Tavistock Clinic, a part of the Tavistock Institute. In his 1945 paper Conduct, Knowledge, and Acceptance of New Values, he describes “re-education” as a correction of “divergence from the norm or from reality of objective facts” toward a “closer contact with reality”. It turns out that just like todays “fact checkers”, Lewin equated “objective facts” with the opinions of his employer. The evidence is quite strong that Kurt Lewin’s work on group dynamics was embraced during and after WWII by the US government. In a remarkably short time he established the Harvard psychology clinic, National Training Laboratories and was very active at Stanford, MIT, Cornell, Duke and other universities.

In his 1949 letter to George Orwell, Aldous Huxley wrote: “Within the next generation, I believe that world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons and that lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience”.

Fast forward another another 30 years. Huxley was right, instead of the Orwellian future as a prison, the future arrived in the form of Huxleyan reality TV. Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of several recent US administrations, wrote in 1971, just 22 years later after Huxley’s letter: “[Today] in the technetronic society, individual citizens are easily within reach of magnetic and attractive personalities through massive increase of newspapers and latest communication technology [which can] manipulate emotions and control reason. In the future we shall have the means to manipulate the behavior and and intellectual functioning of all people through environmental and biochemical manipulation of the brain”.

From this observation he concluded: “Nation state as a fundamental unit of man’s organized life has ceased to be the principal creative force: International banks and multinational corporations are acting and planning in terms that are far in advance of the political concept of the nation state. The fiction of sovereignty is clearly no longer compatible with reality. The time has come for a common effort to shape a new framework for international politics. Emerging global consciousness is forcing the abandonment of preoccupations with national supremacy and accentuating global interdependence”.

I find it remarkable that Bernays, Lewin and Brzezinski all share the common approach of applying field dynamics approach to the task of large scale, media based manipulation of public opinions. in my next blog, I will get into detail about the theory behind the dynamics of social fields.

Fast forward another 40 years. On November 7th 2012, the day of the US presidential election, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was working hard inside Barack Obama’s election headquarters at directing the power of Google’s mighty technology to sway the results Mr Obama’s way. While it is hard to tell what impact Eric Schmidt’s effort had on the election outcome, the fact is that within two months, on January 2nd 2013, the US government dropped its ongoing antitrust law suit against Google. Two weeks later, the Google News web site markedly changed the composition of its news sources in favor of the established news media.

Finally, fast forward to the present. In his 2016 book, The New Mind Control, well known Harvard psychologist Robert Epstein argues that due to its worldwide monopoly on search, Google has the power to “flip upwards of 25 % of national elections in the world”. In controlled experiments, his group proved that manipulated search results could change the voting preferences of over 50% of potential voters. This was shocking to researchers who expected the results to be in the 2% range. Moreover, knowing that search results are biased to a specific candidate did not prevent the voters from being manipulated in this way. This is exactly in line with Bernays’ confident prediction 100 years ago. How does Google achieve such results? During the 2016 elections Epstein tweeted a simple query he typed into three different search engines. The results are self explanatory:

Next artcile in this series: The Roots of Modern Totalitarianism.