The ‘global’ modern world as we see around today, originated in the early decades of the last century, and grew into optimal proportions in form of two contesting state-systems, Capitalism and Socialism. Even though contesting in nature, the fundamental operating principles of these two systems were very similar; though their goals and aspirations and their means to reach those goals differed, so differed the state structure and the governmental system, since the former sought to achieve a democratic state-society and latter sought to achieve a socialist state-society. However these systems showed exemplary instances of similarity when it came to the question of controlling, mapping, manipulating mass opinion. They implemented effective ‘mediums of control’ participating in a system which binds together the fundamental operating principles of a state-society and further prevents it from falling apart. Any state of any given era or ideology, is constructed where the government acts as an agent of control and the media acts as its agency.
The term ‘media’ is the plural of Latin ‘medium’ literally meaning ‘middle ground or intermediate’.
If we analyse this meaning we will find that as a system of knowledge ‘media’ is acting as an agent in a process of what we can call a transference. Being the intermediary is an agency that allows the media to generate amicable means of communication with various other entities. This transference allows ‘media’ to shape and impact knowledge systems of both the society and the individual masses. Being the ‘medium’ has essentially been the sole purpose of ‘media’. It is something that communicates and integrates knowledge and information.
The media acted as “an intervening agency, a means, or an instrument” first applied to newspapers and then as a singular collective noun common in the fields of mass communication, print media, news media electronic media mass communication and advertising. The recipient in this mode of interaction i.e., the mass inherently believes that the agency of ‘media’ is credible and is reliable enough to be accepted and trusted. The concept of ‘mass media’ emerged by the 1920s.
The 1920s was largely a time that shaped the nature of the ‘modern world’.
The period is known in history as the interbellum years (i.e., years between the two world wars). The second and the third decades of the 20th century is the phase which shaped the model of ‘state driven capitalism’ initiating a transformation in capitalist societies where the cycle shifted from ‘industrial and imperial capitalism’ towards ‘state driven capitalism’. Throughout, from 1920-s onwards, if we try to trace a brief historical outline of western democratic societies, let’s say till a hundred years after, the entire edifice of ‘modern-global world’ has been built during these years. History tells us that the idea of society we see around today, is a result of a development having its roots back in 18th and 19th century Europe. Late 18th century European society was a nodal point of genesis, of certain principles like citizenship, individual rights, liberties and freedom which became important pillars of a democratic society.
The core idea of democracy is that democracy initiates a political dialogue where masses or the ‘people’ interact with the political systems at large.
The government that emerges out of it is mainly formed with the representation of masses in the political processes. Today’s democratic society thrives out of the system however earlier, the capitalist society thrived out of the concept of ‘civil society’. The civil society movement paved the way for ‘collective action’ i.e., the question of formation of a democratic government based upon people’s participation in electing the representatives who will eventually rule them. Civil society back then acted as a forum of people with common goals and interests to further develop democratic ideals, which can lead to a more democratic society or a state. For the west, democracy vis-à-vis democratic society is an aspiration, it is a form of consent, it is the idea that government is an artifice which is required to be legitimised by an agreement among the subjects who are naturally free, and private citizens of the society.
How do you get consent of the masses
You basically start by creating curated opinions which in turn creates a collective set of inference for the masses. In short we can call this mass opinion or public opinion. Therefore, any media – be it print, be it digital or electronic (or even social media) is heavily driven by the idea; that it initiates a process where it interprets events and then creates mass opinion – acting as a form of consensus required for the sustenance of the larger order of things, mainly – the state and the larger ideological apparatus of the state. The idea of a ‘modern’ society was not only restricted to the west, it spread around the world as colonialism paved the path for interaction between colonial and the non-colonial (now ‘third world’) societies.
Also, the birth of America in the late 18th century is rather important to note. The rise of third world countries essentially meant that the age of colonialism was now gone, and after the victory of allied forces in the second world war a new global leader emerged in the form of the United States of America.
Mass media played a very important role to make people believe in the West, that since European imperial systems are now dead, a new leader is required under the newer circumstances. British and French economies crashed after the world war two, the system they represented became increasingly outdated. With the rise of the Soviet Union, Soviet Russia, socialism loomed at large as a threat to the western democracies, thus they inherently shifted towards the United States.
The United States emerged as the supreme leader of a new world order that was shaped and destined to defend democracy and fight socialism. This context changed the idea that a ‘civil society’ was not required anymore to be the gatekeeper of democracy. The democratic societies now just need to cling together as a monolithic whole. This monolithic whole is commonsensical called the ‘West’. The ‘global’ ‘neo-liberal’ worldview as we call it now, emerged here onwards.
Time immemorial, governments, states, institutions have used mass media to create public opinion.
The history of transformation of mass media is directly proportional with ideas and models of development driven by capitalism in the ‘western democratic societies’. Also, mass media has a tremendous importance with respect to Socialist and Fascist states and their respective societies. History tells us that be it in a democratic setup – or a fascist, or a socialist, the curation of opinion for sustenance of the larger ideological apparatus of the state; use of mass media as a tool of organised communication has been rather essential.
Nazi Germany is the best example that can ever exist. If we just google a Nazi antisemitic propaganda material, the general trend will be that a jew will appear in a poster who is in a dehumanized condition, with elaborate instructions on bigotry and portrayal of hate; the poster or propaganda material (mostly in print and some in visual) will urge a common German to hate that jew. Hatred against the jews was the larger narrative of the Nazi German state before the world war. Curated mass opinion toes the fundamental logic behind the state, one that either the state or the system intends to feed us with. Antisemitism in mid-20th century (i.e. hatred against jews) and later systematic extermination of jews during the second world war (also known as the Holocaust) is just an example where ‘mass media’ was used to manipulate an illusion, a lie – so deliberately imposed that the masses gulped and swallowed it as the truth. There are hundreds of other examples, till date. Soviet Russia during the early 20th century, fantastically used mass media in curating and then generating opinion of the public or the masses. The systematic curation and generation of public opinion is a phenomenon which is historically tested and is proven to be effective.
Media acts as an invisible element that constantly and intentionally hits our conscience.
The entire idea of media is based on ‘communication’. The forms of communication can be classified into four broadheads. The Authoritarian nature of communication, the Libertarian nature of communication, the Soviet-Communist way, and lastly the Social-Responsibility theory of communication. We have discussed aspects of these theories in bits and pieces in the course of this discussion. Along with media and communication we have this discipline of media studies. Media studies though is an independent discipline it has been of partial interest to history as a sub-field of historical research, we simply call this category ‘media history’. Media history considers the historical dimensions of communicating information, knowledge, and values to a broad audience, since media history shares an interest in understanding the impact of such structures on societies around the globe and the particular forms they have taken and the dynamics of historical change which they initiated.
The most significant area of interest in these studies with regard to media is that how mass media has a role in political participation.
Over the years the trend that emerged, which if read in conjunction to our discussion here is that – media plays an influential part in formation of public opinion, including its consumption. The models of sustenance for media have moved, over the years, from a ‘public service model’ towards a ‘market-oriented model’ since the media is constantly engaged in a dynamic and changing relationship with the existing political processes. Complex nature of the relation between elites as representative of the ordinary citizens on one hand and the ordinary citizens on the other is a question of much concern as the liberal democratic infrastructure is increasingly sceptical about the involvement of the ordinary, thus mass opinions are created and not spontaneously generated. The ‘public sphere’ or the successor of ‘civil society’ in the modern democratic set up is a major missing. Public sphere is grossly appropriated by the system, and thus the voice of those which matters the most, i.e., the masses is now lost. Media as a medium of representation does not represent the voice of the citizens, it does not hold those in power accountable for their action; the idea of participatory democracy has now turned to the democracy of elites. Existing broadcast materials and media information at large can be called “populist” since by virtue of it’s accessibility this method of communication further widens the gap between systems of power and public accountability.
Is there an alternative?
The political involvement with systems of communication has concerns for the notions of ‘citizenship’ and the sustenance of the ‘public sphere’. If the citizens are to play an important role in a democratic set up, they are to be given access to a forum or medium – institutionally guaranteed so that they can express their opinions questioning established power. Since, media now primarily constitutes a medium of political communication; the involvement of the citizens in aspects of political communication is rather essential, where the media itself can act as a public sphere of ‘political communication’. This idea is derived from a theory called the ‘The Theory of Communicative Action’ devised by a leading contemporary German philosopher Jurgens Habermas. The media eventually is creating a society of private and fragmented individuals who find it difficult to form the public and rationally critical opinions which could oppose established power.
Media thus seemed as a ‘pseudo-public sphere’ and not meant for ‘public debate or discourse’.
There is far and wide a contradiction that though media in general and mass media in specific has substantial power however it is questionable whether that can be used for the benefit of the ‘public’. This gap in the current years has been bridged by social media, although partial in nature ‘social and electronic media’ has made a newer way towards creation of a ‘pseudo-public’ sphere where at least a narrative of the public or the masses can be registered. Although this is one of the many aspects of social and electronic media and not the only overwhelming aspect of it. There can be very minute good aspects, however the general trend shows that the media is going to (in the coming days) further extend its control over human actions and emotions.
This game is going to a whole new level. If the earlier goal of the media was to curate public opinions, today the motive is as the trend tells us at least, is to psychologically alter human aspirations by manipulating the brain and the mind. The virtual or electronic media (a part of it represented by the social media) now aspires to build a metaverse or a parallel virtual universe for people to be in, and interact.
Artificial intelligence itself is built on the idea of altering neurological behaviours of human beings and simulate a technologically mediated human-like experience.
All this is brought together in a close knit virtual world around us, and this is specifically the role of social media or electronic media in today’s world, so that it gets widespread acceptance.
Food for thought – How does the future look from here onwards?
About The Author
References and Further Reading
- How mass media influence our society?
- Timeline of the Evolution of Mass Media.
- The “Viral Society”: The Impact of Social Media on Empathy and Helping Behaviour.
- Role of Media in Influencing Culture and Society.
- Views of social media and its impacts on society.
- In advanced and emerging economies, similar views on how social media affects democracy and society.
- Data bombing and dead cats – how PR uses practices of secrecy to influence media and society.