This book is both a lesson in history, and the story of the current times. The first edition of the book was published in 1988, followed by a revised edition in 2008.
The first edition gave the framework or model of Propaganda and how it can be used to understand the interaction between a country’s government and its mass media, and how the former routinely uses the latter to give a direction to the public discourse.
The introduction to the revised edition talked about how the media houses grew more powerful in that time. This edition did not have a lot to talk about the internet since internet based advertisement agency was in infancy in 2008 – Facebook came into existence in 2004; Google released AdWords in 2000, and this patent in 2003. But the Propaganda model that’s given should be able to cover the tech based advertising decently because it covers the interaction between the government and profit seeking providers of advertisement (which were mass media back then and tech companies now).
The media houses have grown many fold, the digital advertisement agencies are more powerful, there have been elections that were won by manipulating the public discourse, etc.
The centre piece of the book is the Propaganda Model and how the mass media uses it to stay profitable, and to propagate the views of the government, and picks the direction of the public discourse. Different media houses tend to keep the discussions in a tight spectrum without letting it spill out enough where the government can be questioned.
In order to do that, the mass media applies 5 “filters” to the facts. These are applied mostly because of:
Private ownership by wealthy individuals with profit as the reason for existence
- As media houses become more powerful, they are going to bring in investors to grow, and whose aim is going to be profit.
- One way of this might be lobbying for more power or contracts
- Lobbying also would require favour from the government, and therefore you can’t speak too much against the people in power.
- This creates a top-down hierarchy where the upper management is not critical of the government, and this cascades to the lower rungs of the ladder.
Advertisement as the source of revenue
- Advertisement really subsidises the cost of operation of the media company.
- Any media house not using it is going to get losses until it is driven out of business (interestingly this cites Herald as one of the )
- The aim of the media is not to inform customers, but to connect the advertiser and their customers (readers)
Government as one of the sources of newsworthy content
- Media houses rely on their networks with the people in different government positions to get the insider information
- These people are only going to give access to the information as long the media play by their rules, otherwise they flak the media (see next point)
The fear of “flak” by the government and other powerful bodies
- If the media doesn’t toe the line, the government and other powerful bodies interested to keep the government in power can target the media houses
- It can be a direct attack in terms of petitions, protests, letters, court cases, etc.
- It can be an indirect attack by changing policies, or electing a politician which caters to the powerful people, or by creating think-tanks and funding “experts” which keep to the government’s side and criticize the government.
Dividing people is mostly the easiest approach of hiding ineptness
- Calling a nationalism card and pumping up the emotions of people, and by dividing them is one of the oldest trick in the book.
- This allows the experts and media to get away without facts and figures.
- It’s much easier to discuss and focus on the easier topics than on the hard ones. The divide is always present, so this can be utilized in order to drive discussion away from the mistakes of the government.
These filters are not isolated and tend to interleave, e.g. Profit as the reason for existence will lead to the lobbying with the government both for the advertisement dollars, and for the broadcasting frequencies.
Like any model, this model is not to be considered 100% correct all the time. The book says:
No simple model will suffice, however, to account for every detail of such a complex matter as the working of the national mass media. A propaganda model, we believe, captures essential features of the process, but it leaves many nuances and secondary effects unanalyzed.
This model is general enough to provide some way to look through the interactions of the powers at play with a little more understanding. As always, the facts may be present, it’s up to the reader to come to a conclusion based on this model, or to find if the model works at all.
Other Interesting Pieces
The section on advertisement industry is pretty interesting: how almost every form of media turns around to have advertisements as the source of revenue. It happened already with print, radio, television, and, in recent times, to the internet based publishing. (A related book is The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu).
The next few chapters are mostly case studies of how these 5 filters are applied in the real world, to either hide the mistakes of the government or their clients (which are essentially the countries of interest) or to highlight of the failures of the enemy governments.
I skimmed over most of these chapters since not I don’t have enough context around the tumultuous decades described in the book.
The model that this book provides can be used in looking at the world in a different light, as is generally a good one to keep in the tool set in today’s world.
Author Tushar Tyagi
LastMod Aug 16, 2020