March 16, 1999

CAN PUBLIC CONSENT STILL BE ENGINEERED IN THE AGE OF THE INTERNET?

by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—The Internet was supposed to free the media. No longer could stodgy news sources with corporate or government agendas hold an effective monopoly on people’s minds! Tyrants would fall and fat cats gnash their teeth while truth and diversity digitally flooded ordinary citizens’ homes.

Wondering whether the breathless promises of technological optimists would bear critical examination, I decided to return to the works of Noam Chomsky, one of the best known critics of news media. Besides his early academic work, which completely changed the course of linguistics, Chomsky is important for his careful (but by no means detached) critiques of U.S. policy.

Of particular interest to media-watchers are the books Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (written in 1988 with Edward S. Herman as lead author) and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control In Democratic Societies (1989). In these and other works, he traces the ways elites control the dissemination of news and the agenda of public discussion. It turns out, if we apply his insights to the Internet, that the ruling class still has a number of batons to wield.

Let me start with the warning that Chomsky is multi-layered and multi-dimensional. He is easy to caricature (usually by reducing his layers of influence to a conspiracy theory) and to dismiss in that caricatured form. So I will announce here that I am choosing only a few simple elements of his model, and that he should be read directly rather than judged by the few pieces I discuss here.

In some societies, of course, censorship is overt and the government controls both public policy and public discourse. In bringing outside viewpoints to Serbia or China, or leaking news from Mexico’s southern Chiapas province, the Internet poses a real threat to regimes (although they have all survived it so far). Chomsky acknowledges the oppressiveness of overt control, but is more interested in the subtler forms exerted in societies with formal democracy and legal freedom of speech.

His research into the beginnings of modern media, at the start of this century, shows that leaders in these societies find a need for “consent” from the masses. Such consent is “manufactured” (to use the words of liberal journalist Walter Lippman right after World War I) or “engineered” (a term from Edward Bernays, leading figure in the public relations industry). Can that supreme feat of modern engineering, the Internet, be used to tie up consent?

Few journalists in a nominally free press decide consciously to serve powerful interests. Rather, those that do so find themselves privy to more and more of the raw materials of their trade. They can call the head of a major corporation for inside dope, attend the formal parties at the embassy where policy is discussed, and so on. If it’s power you’re interested in—and how can you ignore power?—elites control the critical sources of information and hand it out very selectively. This will not change if you’re on the Internet.

Resource starvation is one of the factors that Chomsky identifies to hold down dissent; he points out that most media depends on advertising and that both the desired audience and the funders are from the upper classes. If you’ve tried to fund a Web page, you know that the same principle holds for the Internet. It could actually increase the squeeze on independent journalists by substituting free news for print publications that the public buys.

Especially powerful among the tricks of the corporate media is the lure of the sound bite. The cliché attributed to Andy Warhol—that we will all be famous for 15 minutes—is overly optimistic; 15 seconds is more likely the time you will be alloted on the radio or TV. Few executives will read through more than a page before making a decision, and I have read that many Web surfers never scroll down below the first visible part of the browser window.

Chomsky was very persuasive in showing that nothing can be said that would challenge the status quo—or the “agenda” set by the mainstream media—during a sound bite. All you can do is agree or disagree with a point made over and over by those in power. I am extremely lucky that the publisher of the American Reporter has relaxed the 800-word limit on my own articles, so I had adequate space to explore complex topics.

Even if diverse thoughts make it onto the Internet, most of the public has been disciplined to accept certain forces as expert and to reject others. Aren’t you more confident seeing a well-trained State Department spokesperson speaking with a picture of the Lincoln Memorial in the background, than listening to the halting, foreign-accented voice of an obscure journalist speaking across the ocean on a crackling phone line? The Internet also has sites that are more trusted and less trusted (as it should).

Should people become suspicious of uniformity, the media is expert at introducing minimal disputes within the ruling agenda, and of focusing on the personal rather than the institutional. Chomsky writes, “We then shift to the phase of damage control to ensure that public attention is diverted to overzealous patriots or to the personality defects of leaders who have strayed from our noble commitments, but not to the institutional factors that determine the persistent and substantive content of these commitments.” Could he have anticipated 10 years ago that the Starr report would go online?

I do not intend cynically to dismiss the Internet. It does allow facts to get through the media’s “filters.” People who want to find dissenting views can do so. But search engines are not neutral—corporate publications can afford to buy keywords so that searches are directed to their sites.

In addition, the Internet provides a few mechanisms of its own that rulers can take advantage of. Foremost is access itself: the affluent can bolster their views by going online, while the less educated or financially endowed are shut out. Two other books that do a good job describing the barriers to information access are Civilizing Cyberspace by Steven Miller and Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age by William C. Wresch.

Tracking and databases make many would-be Internet researchers nervous. “Ms. Casey, we find your background in international relations quite compelling, but we notice that you’ve made a lot of visits to the Covert Action anti-espionage Web site—can you say whether you consider yourself a good fit for a job representing American interests abroad?”

People with even the suspicion of being tracked may decide not to visit controversial sites. Spies may set up such sites as decoys to find out who’s a potential dissident.

Let’s never forget that the state and the rich people it favors always have one advantage to wield in the absence of consent: naked force. No matter how much people disagree, few will speak up if they think their next protest will be issued mutely from the ditch.

I don’t know how Chomsky views the Internet, but I can predict what side he’d take in the current debate raging over hate speech and fascist propaganda: he’d come down on the side of toleration. I can predict this because in 1979 he defended the publication of an article calling Auschwitz a “rumor” and denying the existence of Nazi gas chambers by French academic Robert Faurisson.

The hopes expressed by dissenters for news and debate parallel a current movement among pop music lovers, which for the moment is focused on the free exchange of CD-quality recordings in the form of MP3 files. During the first weekend this month, for instance, the New York Times reported a conference by musicians and other supporters of online music to take control of their music back from the large studios with their profit-driven marketing choices.

But some admitted to the Times that the quality of what goes online is not usually very high, and that payment mechanisms have yet to be worked out. There is potential in the Internet, but it is not an instant leveler. Similarly, those of us who try to intervene in public policy should respect the power of the Internet and learn to use it, but we should recognize that the data stream is still running against us.


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