Why lies thrive in mass media

It is fashionable to be outraged about lies in mass media. News agencies, corporations, and — God forbid! — even politicians all seem to mislead us. And they get away with it! How is that possible? Niklas Luhmann has some answers in his classic book from 1995 titled “The Reality of Mass Media”.

What are “mass media”?

For Luhmann the key characteristic of mass media is that a few people communicate with a large audience. And there is not much interaction among the members of the audience.

This is how one might imagine such a system: as people connected by their actions. The problem with this model is that it takes things too — personally. It makes us think that if we just placed the “right” people in those positions, everything would be fine. And we are surprised to find out that even after we exchange individuals, nothing changes. The basic rules of the system prevail.

So let’s try something different: Instead of obsessing with individuals Luhmann focussed on the operations that shape and sustain a system. The basic operations of mass media are communications. Such a communication is only successful if information is transmitted and if someone pays attention to it.

He imagined mass media as strings of communications which shape a system.

The Construction of Reality

Before we take a closer look at those communications, we need to bear in mind that Luhmann followed a constructivist tradition. Simply put, constructivists assume that we have no direct access to the world. Instead we pick up information from our environment and construct a representation of the world in our heads. And it is not the outside world that guides our actions but our inner representation of that world.

This means that your individual physical condition, your individual experiences and motivations all shape how you perceive and create the world you live in. Everyone of us lives in a different world.

Luhmann applied this constructivist view to mass media systems.

Mass media also do not show you the world, they show you their constructed representation of the world.

The conditions and individual circumstances of communication systems shape their representation of the world.

How do mass media construct their reality? Let’s look at three main conditions:

1. Time: Communications must happen regularly.

Luhmann said, the fact that “news” seem to occur so regularly to perfectly fit a newspaper schedule should make us suspicious. The rhythm and quantity of news is not determined by the importance of events, but by the need not to lose our attention. Every medium and audience has an optimal rhythm of when to release something new.

2. Selection: Communications must be connectable.

Mass media need to decide what they consider worthwhile communicating and what not. “New” information must connect to outside information and to what has been said before. If mass media just picked any arbitrary information then we wouldn’t perceive a pattern in their communication, it would appear as confused noise. They would lose our attention

Topics that are discussed over a longer period of time are great for that matter because plenty of communications can be connected seamlessly.

3. Irritation: New information must surprise us.

Mass media must keep us on our toes to make sure we pay attention. So it is vital that new information must not only connect well with the old but also surprise or better yet irritate us.

Constraints like these heavily shape how mass media present the world to us. The tricky part here is that they just seem to talk about the outside world but they also follow their essential motivation — which is to win our attention. And this motivation determines how they talk about the world.

Let’s get to the empty circles (communications) in this picture. They represent lies. And as you can see they fit perfectly into this system. Let’s have a look why this is so:


Of course the distinction between “truth” and “lies” is not so simple. There are countless variations and nuances of both. But for our purposes here we will use a simple definition for lies: information which the sender considers false but communicates anyway.

This sort of information thrives in mass media for several reasons:

1. It is easy to come up with lies.

Finding new facts is hard work and isn’t predictable. If you need to deliver news on a regular basis, then just inventing them is a pretty reliable way to come up with new stuff.

2. Blunt lies irritate.

If you want to get attention, only few things beat a blatant lie. In fact, the simpler, cruder and more obvious a lie is, the more people engage emotionally. We just can’t resist our outrage, we find it hard to ignore obvious lies. We pay attention.

3. Lies connect well to stories.

Once a mass medium tells a lie it can easily come up with new communications that connect to this lie: denial, different positions, comments — the list is endless. And a proper “shitstorm” or “scandal” is actually great for mass media, because we keep looking, we want to know what will happen next, how the story unfolds. We pay attention.

Luhmann was very clear that in his view mass media do not lie on purpose. In fact he would disappoint most conspiracy theories. The problem, he said, is that the difference between truth and lies is not essential for mass media — unlike for instance in scientific systems, where verification is vital. The existence of a mass medium is not based on truth, it is based on attention. Fortunately there are individuals who uphold ethical guidelines in spite of that, but those guidelines are not a vital part of the system.

So what can we do?

Let’s listen to the other guys.

Your mind is a stage. It is your choice whether you let the clowns, the liars, and the trolls hijack that stage or whether you invite sincere people into your mind. Let’s beware of attention seeking behaviour and avoid stepping into the outrage honey-trap. Because even if we prove a blatant lie wrong, the liar has still won — because we paid attention. Let’s lend our eyes and ears to reasonable people and spread their stories instead.

This doesn’t mean that we should accept lies, but we should recognise lies that are spread to confuse and distract us from stuff that actually matters. Let’s be aware that mass media primarily seek attention, not truth.

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