Lippmann on Manipulating Public Opinion and Restricting Access to Information

When all think alike, then no one is thinking. Lippmann

Inspired by the writings of Ole Rolvaag on Norwegian-American’s love of freedom, we begin posting a new series of essays from some of the greatest seminal thinkers on the topic of how to maintain authenticity in an era where there are institutions who have mastered the art of manipulating public opinion.

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”
― Abraham Lincoln

We are facing a great crisis of national credibility. The majority of Americans simply don’t trust the news media, with a recent Gallup poll showing only 32% of American saying they trust the media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly”: This is an historically low level of confidence in the media. Americans also don’t trust commercials. They generally do trust people they know and respect and they trust their own eyes, but are realizing that video footage can be easily manipulated with technology. They are learning that even other people in their same community, however, are not immune from top down censoring or subsidizing of half-truths. Everyone fears having their judgment or name destroyed by stating something unpopular or something that is not commonly believed to be true, so some wear their hearts upon their sleeves but do not relinquish the use of their critical faculties.

Perhaps it is a good thing that at least some Americans are waking up to the fact that we Americans have been willingly duped hypocrites for some time, while smugly imagining ourselves to be morally superior in our objective views. My great uncle and grandmother wrote and spoke in the papers and at schools about the double standards white European immigrants used in justifying stealing America from the native peoples. They never claimed either side was perfect, but the willingness of some white settlers to condone the murder of all Native Americans after learning a few stories of atrocities committed by few Native Americans was something that was incommensurate with the values we prided ourselves on at the time.

“A single lie destroys a whole reputation of integrity.” -Baltasar Gracian

Government officials and the media take or pretend to take great offense at an alternative media that questions the official line. Of course, the alternative news media does have some people who, for whatever reason, are borishly pushing silly and untestable hypotheses that for some reason advance an agenda they have. These people may be on the extremes of the far left or the far right. Typically the far left propagates news with an abundance mentality that favors government redistribution of property in the name of fairness and the far right propagates stories that favor a scarcity mentality that limits government power in the name of liberty. Alternative news agencies also have some people who want to provide actual information to balanced American people so that they can test their various hypotheses about the actual etiology of social problems and optimize liberty and justice for all. There is a sizable group of disinformants, bought or coerced to pretend to be alternative news agents just to make all alternative news media sources look crazy. And, often undetected, there are a small number of agent provocateurs, whose job is to gain control of hypotheses generation within a group, and to take that group on wild goose chases. An agent provocateur can cause the group they are supposedly supporting to squander their time, money, or reputation. They can gain control of movements that actually have grass-roots support in order to cause them to make foolish decisions at strategically important times.

Our government funds schools which teach people to think like scientists, where we imagine all plausible conjectures, regardless of what “idols of the tribe” those conjectures might threaten. Then scientists seek data to refute those various plausible hypotheses. Falsifiable hypotheses that stand after being subjected to lots of testing are not irrational to consider as possibly true. That is the epistemological gold standard that critical rationalists follow. However, members of the same state and national governments that fund public education often ridicule members of the public who put out perfectly rational hypotheses to explain events when those conjectures question the integrity of the government and its media assets.

In light of the extremely influential writings of Walter Lippmann an honest and reflecting person must ask whether or not it is still possible for any of us to make the righteous claim that we can be vigilant citizens of a constitutional democratic republic, if we are not at least open to the possibility of evaluating hypotheses that question the objectivity of the information we receive.

Most Americans are busy. Most are tired at the end of the work day. It can generally be assumed that a majority of Americans at any given time on any given issue are cognitive misers, meaning they quickly come to conclusions without properly weighing the reasons for those decisions. We embrace hypotheses of causal relationships that are convenient in justifying worldviews we see ourselves benefiting from, regardless of how just or objectively accurate those attributions are. We are easily deceived by smoke and mirrors that prevent the direct observation of cause. The computational energy required to see hidden causes and conspiracies require more energy than most people have. What Abraham Lincoln wrote still generally holds today: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” However, the real issue for a democracy is not about all the people or some of the people, but rather about MOST of the voters. If you can fool most of the voters all the time, then you can control America. With a few powerful institutions with a unity of interest now possessing the psychological knowledge to control most voters, there is reason to worry.

Americans are also more than ever subject to control, because of the dependency and lack of self reliance we increasingly experience as we become further removed from farms and fields that once allowed us to generally feed ourselves a lack of self-confidence in thinking for ourselves and a perceived need to be of the same mind as the group.

“[T]he group mind does not think in the strict sense of the word. In place of thoughts it has impulses, habits, and emotions.” -Bernays

More than anything else, we are concerned with what our neighbors think of us and how our opinions or theories will make us either popular or unpopular. We all fall short of at least a subset of our neighbors’ or fellow citizens’ expectations for us, so much so that if everyone were to read our diaries, our notes, or hear our comments, at least some people might take offense at them.  We know that there are people out there to whom we appear either: too successful or too unsuccessful; too poor or too rich; too in-shape or too out-of-shape; too ugly or too beautiful; too lazy or too driven;  too conservative or too liberal, or too something or something’s opposite, so that we know that, given the right opportunity, there will always be a subset of people happy to bring us down with negative comments and ridicule, or worse.

Knowing that Homo homini lupus est, we are all subject to a kind blackmail of thought, and we are able to be cowed into submission because only the craziest of us wish to become the next person fed to the lions in the entertaining arena of the news. But I ask myself, how could we have come to this as Norwegian-Americans (?), when I read Rolvaag, who states:

“The strongest and most important characteristic of the Norwegian people…is their love of freedom, which leads them to set their highest priority on individual rights under common law. Since this last trait is the essence of the American ideal, it means that the Norwegian immigrant is already a good American before he even leaves home.” –Ole Rolvaag, Concerning Our Heritage

So, Norwegian-American are born loving freedom, but yet everywhere they embrace their chains.

Although I know we are not entirely conscious of our lack of freedom and our ability to be manipulated, it could be argued that one of the advantages of living in a country full of small independent farmers, is that by virtue of their self-reliance, they might be able to speak the truth with less worry than those who are at the mercy of other employers. Small farm communities could in this respect be an asset to our democratic republic, precisely because farmers who can feed themselves may have less reason to worry about what others will think about their opinions. Some of us who are inspired by Rolvaag, are wanting to revisit what it is truly to love freedom and individual rights under common law. For that reason, I will be starting to post seminal writings of intellectuals who have understood people’s ability to be manipulated with the hope that a larger number of people will read this and become more self-aware. One seminal text is Public Opinion, written in 1922 by Walter Lippmann.

In Chapter XV of Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann addresses how rulers utilize their positions of power to manufacture consent.  He mentions how those who control the media are actually the real leaders of the suggestible and uncritical masses, as they are able to control and direct public sentiment by playing upon what we often now call, fixed action patterns.

Public Opinion, by Walter Lippmann

Leaders often pretend that they have merely uncovered a program which existed in the minds of their public. When they believe it, they are usually deceiving themselves. Programs do not invent themselves synchronously in a multitude of minds. That is not because a multitude of minds is necessarily inferior to that of the leaders, but because thought is the function of an organism, and a mass is not an organism.

This fact is obscured because the mass is constantly exposed to suggestion. It reads not the news, but the news with an aura of suggestion about it, indicating the line of action to be taken. It hears reports, not objective as the facts are, but already stereotyped to a certain pattern of behavior. Thus the ostensible leader often finds that the real leader is a powerful newspaper proprietor. But if, as in a laboratory, one could remove all suggestion and leading from the experience of a multitude, one would, I think, find something like this: A mass exposed to the same stimuli would develop responses that could theoretically be charted in a polygon of error. There would be a certain group that felt sufficiently alike to be classified together. There would be variants of feeling at both ends. These classifications would tend to harden as individuals in each of the classifications made their reactions vocal. That is to say, when the vague feelings of those who felt vaguely had been put into words, they would know more definitely what they felt, and would then feel it more definitely.
Leaders in touch with popular feeling are quickly conscious of these reactions. They know that high prices are pressing upon the mass, or that certain classes of individuals are becoming unpopular, or that feeling towards another nation is friendly or hostile. But, always barring the effect of suggestion which is merely the assumption of leadership by the reporter, there would be nothing in the feeling of the mass that fatally determined the choice of any particular policy. All that the feeling of the mass demands is that policy as it is developed and exposed shall be, if not logically, then by analogy and association, connected with the original feeling.
So when a new policy is to be launched, there is a preliminary bid for community of feeling, as in Mark Antony’s speech to the followers of Brutus. [Footnote: Excellently analyzed in Martin, The Behavior of Crowds, pp. 130-132,] In the first phase, the leader vocalizes the prevalent opinion of the mass. He identifies himself with the familiar attitudes of his audience, sometimes by telling a good story, sometimes by brandishing his patriotism, often by pinching a grievance. Finding that he is trustworthy, the multitude milling hither and thither may turn in towards him. He will then be expected to set forth a plan of campaign. But he will not find that plan in the slogans which convey the feelings of the mass. It will not even always be indicated by them. Where the incidence of policy is remote, all that is essential is that the program shall be verbally and emotionally connected at the start with what has become vocal in the multitude. Trusted men in a familiar role subscribing to the accepted symbols can go a very long way on their own initiative without explaining the substance of their programs.
But wise leaders are not content to do that. Provided they think publicity will not strengthen opposition too much, and that debate will not delay action too long, they seek a certain measure of consent. They take, if not the whole mass, then the subordinates of the hierarchy sufficiently into their confidence to prepare them for what might happen, and to make them feel that they have freely willed the result. But however sincere the leader may be, there is always, when the facts are very complicated, a certain amount of illusion in these consultations. For it is impossible that all the contingencies shall be as vivid to the whole public as they are to the more experienced and the more imaginative. A fairly large percentage are bound to agree without having taken the time, or without possessing the background, for appreciating the choices which the leader presents to them. No one, however, can ask for more. And only theorists do. If we have had our day in court, if what we had to say was heard, and then if what is done comes out well, most of us do not stop to consider how much our opinion affected the business in hand.
And therefore, if the established powers are sensitive and well-informed, if they are visibly trying to meet popular feeling, and actually removing some of the causes of dissatisfaction, no matter how slowly they proceed, provided they are seen to be proceeding, they have little to fear. It takes stupendous and persistent blundering, plus almost infinite tactlessness, to start a revolution from below. Palace revolutions, interdepartmental revolutions, are a different matter. So, too, is demagogy. That stops at relieving the tension by expressing the feeling. But the statesman knows that such relief is temporary, and if indulged too often, unsanitary. He, therefore, sees to it that he arouses no feeling which he cannot sluice into a program that deals with the facts to which the feelings refer.
But all leaders are not statesmen, all leaders hate to resign, and most leaders find it hard to believe that bad as things are, the other fellow would not make them worse. They do not passively wait for the public to feel the incidence of policy, because the incidence of that discovery is generally upon their own heads. They are, therefore, intermittently engaged in mending their fences and consolidating their position.
The mending of fences consists in offering an occasional scapegoat, in redressing a minor grievance affecting a powerful individual or faction, rearranging certain jobs, placating a group of people who want an arsenal in their home town, or a law to stop somebody’s vices. Study the daily activity of any public official who depends on election and you can enlarge this list. There are Congressmen elected year after year who never think of dissipating their energy on public affairs. They prefer to do a little service for a lot of people on a lot of little subjects, rather than to engage in trying to do a big service out there in the void. But the number of people to whom any organization can be a successful valet is limited, and shrewd politicians take care to attend either the influential, or somebody so blatantly uninfluential that to pay any attention to him is a mark of sensational magnanimity. The far greater number who cannot be held by favors, the anonymous multitude, receive propaganda.
The established leaders of any organization have great natural advantages. They are believed to have better sources of information. The books and papers are in their offices. They took part in the important conferences. They met the important people. They have responsibility. It is, therefore, easier for them to secure attention and to speak in a convincing tone. But also they have a very great deal of control over the access to the facts. Every official is in some degree a censor. And since no one can suppress information, either by concealing it or forgetting to mention it, without some notion of what he wishes the public to know, every leader is in some degree a propagandist. Strategically placed, and compelled often to choose even at the best between the equally cogent though conflicting ideals of safety for the institution, and candor to his public, the official finds himself deciding more and more consciously what facts, in what setting, in what guise he shall permit the public to know.
That the manufacture of consent is capable of great refinements no one, I think, denies. The process by which public opinions arise is certainly no less intricate than it has appeared in these pages, and the opportunities for manipulation open to anyone who understands the process are plain enough.
The creation of consent is not a new art. It is a very old one which was supposed to have died out with the appearance of democracy. But it has not died out. It has, in fact, improved enormously in technic, because it is now based on analysis rather than on rule of thumb. And so, as a result of psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication, the practice of democracy has turned a corner. A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power.
Within the life of the generation now in control of affairs, persuasion has become a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government. None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how to create consent will alter every political calculation and modify every political premise. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.



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