In the waning years of the last millennium, at my university, one of the cause célèbres of the progressive left was a concept known as “Manufacturing Consent,” the title of a book and film, by and starring Noam Chomsky. Its central thesis was that U.S. mass media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship.”
It’s fair to say that history has been pretty kind to this theory. Consider the support drummed up by mass media for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. To quote the public editor of The New York Times, “To anyone who read the paper between September 2002 and June 2003, the impression that Saddam Hussein possessed, or was acquiring, a frightening arsenal of W.M.D. seemed unmistakable. Except, of course, it appears to have been mistaken.” Consider the September 2002 dossier published by the U.K. government “to bolster support for war” which turned out to be full of spectacularly incorrect information, and the media’s failure to interrogate those claims.
It’s hard to overstate just how cataclysmic these errors were. If the mass media had pushed back against the false claims of weapons of mass destruction, we might have avoided the Iraq war, which killed hundreds of thousands and cost trillions of dollars. Saddam Hussein was not exactly a tough act to follow, but the U.S. still managed to follow its falsely motivated war with a botched occupation, which turned Iraq, and arguably the larger Middle East to this day, into a bloodbath.
An interesting question is: What would have happened if today’s social media had been around in 2003? Today, if a wrong assertion is promoted by the mass media, it doesn’t take long for subject-matter experts to appear on Facebook and Twitter, correcting them, and either going viral themselves or becoming the subjects of countervailing media stories.
This doesn’t necessarily mean catastrophe would have been averted. But at least a possible corrective to the collective hysteria of the mass media would have existed, unlike in 2002-3. (Yes, those were the days of Blogspot and LiveJournal, but they didn’t have anything like the reach or significance of today’s social media.)
Consider a more recent event: the 2016 American presidential election. It has become an article of faith, in certain quarters, that it was won and lost by the diabolical use of Facebook ads, especially in conjunction with the psychographic superscience of Cambridge Analytica. This is ridiculous. First, no one credible thinks CA’s purported ability to mind control Facebook users by showing them “psychographically” targeted ads was anything other than snake-oil nonsense.
Second, as Nate Silver points out, the impact of social-media ads was enormously less than the impact of mass media. Remember the months of hysteria about Hillary Clinton’s emails? Remember how it turned out to be a complete non-story? Doesn’t this remind you of Iraq’s WMDs?
“The media’s coverage of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal was probably literally 50 times more important to the outcome of the 2016 election than Trump ads on Facebook.” Perhaps, my fellow mass media, the fault lies not in our psychographic bullshit artists, but in ourselves.
Social media has many downsides. You don’t have to go particularly deeply into my own back catalog to discover that I am a harsh critic of Facebook myself. But let’s not pretend that mass media, just because it’s older, is therefore perfect. It has its own catastrophic failure modes itself. In fact — whisper it — maybe we’re a lot better off, net, with social media and mass media, in that each can act as a counterbalancing corrective on the other’s flaws and failure modes.
The progressive left may have gone from “mass media is the enemy” to “Big Tech social media is the enemy,” but maybe, and I know this sounds crazy because it’s on the internet, but hear me out here, maybe there’s room for a little nuance; maybe they both have good and bad aspects, and could possibly balance one another out. If you don’t think mass media needs a corrective, let me remind you once again of the Iraq War and But Her Emails, to name but two of many, many examples. Maybe there exists a future in which social and mass media are each a cure for what ails the other.