May 17, 2005
The End of the Obvious Pseudo-Event
An Evil Genius, acting shrewdly and cleverly to harness the megaphone of mass media, can now change the fate of nations.
Rivaling the nuclear alchemists of the 20th century in power, an individual can effectively exert enormous change in policies, societies, and outcomes, solely by shrewd use and manipulation of public opinion.
Some might say this has been the case for some time. Surely, they might argue, the media has been influential for quite a while. Yes, but in this age we have entered a new sort of environment. Now, individuals have more impact on the media than before. Whereas the media as an institution had this power previously, now it is within the grasp of normal citizens, provided they possess some modicum of cunning. Whilst the CIA or other covert agencies may have attempted disinformation or propaganda campaigns before, we now exist in an age where such a campaign could be started and followed through to its goals by small groups of people operating alone.
The potential power of the small groups who will manage to manipulate mass messages for their ends is truly mind-boggling.
While gobs of brainpower is spent on discerning the likelihood of small bands of terrorists obtaining a nuclear weapon and detonating it in the United States -- and rightly so -- little thought has gone into considering the equally enormous impact available to groups of people who are able to manipulate the mass media into parroting their message across the globe.
The case of Newsweek and the Koran is most likely not one of deliberate misinformation, as the case of Dan Rather and the National Guard memos was. It is instead one of journalistic incompetence. But both episodes hold the smallest glimpse of what the future might portend. If a mass media newsroom, equipped with all of the latest technological gadgetry, every possible database and fact-checking method at hand, and dozens of minds supposedly trained to ask penetrating questions about truth and authenticity can be fooled -- deliberately or not -- then the rest of us are so many sheep ready for slaughter.
While the standard tools of public relations -- the press release, the news conference, the reliance on projecting a certain image via the use of some phrases, and the careful avoidance of others -- seem stale, contrived, and outmoded to us now, we are headed toward an era in which institutions lose nearly all ability whatsoever to control the images through which they define themselves.
This makes calls for more careful deployment of our "soft-power," all the more meaningless. Colonial Operations and Strategic Communication, a post from January, noted Joseph Nye's definition of "soft power":
Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will. Both hard and soft power are important in the war on terrorism, but attraction is much cheaper than coercion, and an asset that needs to be nourished.Furthermore, the post referenced a study by the Defense Science Board, (first noted on Belmont Club) which said this:
Strategic communication -- which encompasses public affairs, public diplomacy, international broadcasting, information operations, and special activities -- is vital to America’s national security and foreign policy. Over the past few decades, the strategic communication environment and requirements have changed considerably as a result of many influences. Some of the most important of these influences are a rise in anti-American attitudes around the world; the use of terrorism as a framework for national security issues; and the volatility of Islamic internal and external struggles over values, identity, and change. ... America needs a revolution in strategic communication rooted in strong leadership from the top and supported by an orchestrated blend of public and private sector components.When the mass media are so invariably hostile to the sitting administration, is such a campaign even possible? Who is to orchestrate such a blend of components? No such orchestration is possible, if it ever was, for two reasons:
1) the mass media has an aversion to being the handmaiden for any government program and
2) the mass media is rapidly being replaced by a decentralized free global and private press that is unprecedented.
A top-down approach will not work if saving America's image is the goal.
What will become of the era of mass-marketing campaigns? For the forseeable future, individuals will swim in a sea of images that are uncoordinated, contradictory, of questionable trustworthiness, and of unclear origin. It is this environment which institutions must manage -- not manipulate -- in order to achieve the ever-more elusive desired public image.
In the past, monolithic organizations were able to effectively control their images in the public realm through the careful manipulation of equally monolithic media outlets. Today, neither the monolithic organizations nor the media outlets can truly be said to still exist. How much more difficult to control the images given off by all members of a corporation, or a government or other institution.
Instead, here is the ultimate paradox: a single individual, with a single message, unwatered-down with aggregate corporate goals or concerns, and unfiltered by the professional caste of the Fourth Estate, will be infinitely more successful in affecting changes in opinions all over the world.
Are we then, at the end of the age of "pseudo-events"? In his 1961 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, the historian Daniel Boorstin noted the rise of the manufactured event, meant to make news. He noted the following characteristics of pseudo-events, which make them overshadow spontaneous events:
1. Pseudo-events are more dramatic. A television debate between candidates can be planned to be more suspenseful . . . than a casual encounter or consecutive formal speeches planned by each separately.Perhaps it is most fair to say that mass media is not dead, and pseudo-events are not either. At the same time as media is decentralizing, the public has become fed up with pre-planned, orchestrated pseudo-events. That is to say, the public is completely unenthused about pseudo-events that are recognizable as such. Since our technology has surrounded us with pseudo-events, we tire of them, ever searching more frantically for spontaneity and authenticity. At the core of this truth is where our Evil Genius above will strike. He will continue to manufacture pseudo-events, but they will not be recognizable as such. They will appear to be unauthored, unedited slices of life, but in fact they will be as carefully positioned as ever before, but opaquely so.
2. Pseudo-events, being planned for dissemination, are easier to disseminate and to make vivid. Participants are selected for their newsworthy and dramatic interest.
3. Pseudo-events can be repeated at will, and thus their impression can be re-enforced.
4. Pseudo-events cost money to create; hence somebody has an interest in disseminating, magnifying, advertising, and extolling them as events worth watching or worth believing. They are therefore advertised in advance, and rerun in order to get money's worth.
5. Pseudo-events, being planned for intelligibility, are more intelligible and hence more reassuring. Even if we cannot discuss intelligently the qualifications of the candidates or the complicated issues, we can at least judge the effectiveness of a television performance. How comforting to have some political matter we can grasp!
6. Pseudo-events are more sociable, more conversable, and more convenient to witness. Their occurrence is plnned for our convenience. The Sunday newspaper appears when we have a lazy morning for it. Television programs appear when we are ready with our glass of beer. In the office the next morning, Jack Paar's (or any other star performer's) regular late-night show at the usual hour will overshadown in conversation a casual event that suddenly came up and had to find its way into the news.
7. Knowledge of pseudo-events -- of what has been reported, or what has been staged, and how -- becomes the tes of being "informed." News magazines provide us regularly with quiz questions concerning not what has happened but concerning "names in the news" -- what has been reported in news magazines. Pseudo-events begin to provide that "common discourse" which some of my old-fashioned friends have hoped to find in the Great Books.
8. Finally, pseudo-events spawn other pseudo-events in geometric progression. They dominate our consciousness simply because there are more of them, and ever more.
Cunning will be the image-makers who create the new stealth campaigns. Cowardly will be the institutions and individuals who rely on the old methods of easily spotted pseudo-events. And incredibly brave will be those who shed all pretense, and allow their employees to blog; their politicians to act in public without handlers; and their news to be raw and unrefined.
Also: See A New Kind of Car Chase and see how one innovative company is trying to make its pseudo-events as authentic as possible. Note as well, how uncertain they are as to what image of the company will result, and whether it will increase sales.
And here's an earlier post about pseudo-events, enemy war propaganda, and the relationship of both to the mass press.
Posted by Chester at May 17, 2005 10:36 PM
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