“Online manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 18 countries over the past year, including in the United States.” That was the lead finding of Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report, “Manipulating Social Media to Undermine Democracy”. 2018, in turn, has brought further revelations of how various companies, organizations and countries have manipulated social media and other Internet sites through botnets, hidden funding, astroturfing, algorithmic manipulation, and “fake news” (both in the sense of fabricated stories and in the sense of discrediting unwelcome news by calling it “fake”).
The effectiveness of the Internet in spreading propaganda and manipulating citizens is a stark contrast to early utopian visions of the Internet that assumed it would be a natural fount of knowledge and an inevitable promoter of freedom. But it’s not a surprise to those who have studied the history of other mass media. In various times and places, newspapers, radio, films, and television have been used to spread either knowledge and encouragement, or ignorance and fear. Neither of these outcomes is inevitable. Those who understand the effective use of mass media can promote either of them, or can learn how to defend themselves against manipulation and support trustworthy communication.
Therefore, it’s worth taking a look at what pioneers in the field known as “public relations” say about their craft, and how it can be used to shape public opinion for good or for ill. In 1923, public relations was a new and growing field of specialization. One of its key figures was Edward Bernays, who that year published his first book on the subject, Crystallizing Public Opinion.
Bernays’s book repeatedly cites Walter Lippmann’s 1922 book Public Opinion, a work that introduces the concept of the “manufacture of consent” through mass media. Lippmann’s book, now in the public domain, is an influential piece of analysis; Bernays’ book refocuses many of Lippmann’s ideas (and those of others) into more of a how-to manual.
One of Bernays’s key recommendations is to look beyond the expected ways of communicating information. Companies had been advertising for a long time, just as governments had long issued official proclamations and publications. But getting a product or idea into the news, and talked about by the public, could easily be a more effective method of promotion. A subtler, indirect suggestion of a viewpoint could persuade people who might resist or ignore a direct, obvious promotion. Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, also notes the importance of the “unconscious” mind and the ego in people’s decision-making.
There are, of course, more or less ethical ways of doing the sort of indirect publicity that Bernays discusses. In this book, however, Bernays shows more concerns about the ends of publicity than the means. “The only difference between ‘propaganda’ and ‘education,’ really,” he writes, “is in the point of view. The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe in is propaganda.” It’s seductively easy to move from that idea to an “ends justify the means” approach to public manipulation.
And not all of Bernays’s ends were good. Some of his campaigns promoted health, racial harmony, and peace. But he also worked for cigarette companies, particularly on campaigns to increase smoking among women, at a time when doctors were clearly establishing smoking’s links to ill health. In the 1950s, he also promoted the interests of United Fruit against the government of Guatemala, which would eventually be overthrown in 1954 by a CIA-led coup.
Even if there are problems with who Bernays worked for, though, it’s still worth reading what Bernays has to say about how he worked, to understand the techniques better, and where appropriate, how to counter them. Some of what he says in 1923 seems eerily applicable today. For instance:
“Domination to-day is not a product of armies or navies or wealth or policies. It is a domination based on the one hand upon accomplished unity, and on the other hand upon the fact that opposition is generally characterized by a high degree of disunity.”
It’s not hard to trace a line from that idea to the covert social media influence campaigns in recent elections, where government agencies simultaneously ran accounts provoking opposing sides of hot-button political issues, to foment disunity, create distractions, and discourage voting and meaningful political participation.
The US copyright on Crystallizing Public Opinion ends six days from now. If having it more widely available and readable helps Americans to better understand and remediate an unhealthy social media environment, it will be an especially welcome (and overdue) addition to the public domain.
2019 update: Link to full text of Crystallizing Public Opinion, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.