“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
Edward Bernays, nephew of psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and father of the modern public relations industry
The medium and the message: how communication methods affect decision-making
When citizens only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on pre-approved questions, political outcomes remain very easy for a small group of gatekeepers to manipulate. We’ve seen this process in action in the Roman Republic, where no law could be passed without affirmation from the people gathered in their tribes, and we have seen it in our own modern referenda, where money and power play no less of a role in securing the desired outcome on each political question put to the people.
To escape this manipulation, in a true participatory democracy citizens need to be able not just to vote in pre-approved ways on pre-approved issues, but to take a hand in deciding what measures are voted on and why. In short, somehow citizens need to be put in a position where they can truly deliberate with one another and come up with their own suggestions for future action. The Athenians, after all, spent most of their time in Assembly not voting, but brainstorming and debating motions.
Direct peer-to-peer deliberation has other advantages for democracy, too. When people discuss political issues directly with one another, they often come to a higher level of consensus regarding the action to be taken, and develop greater empathy for diverging opinions than when they are merely asked to cast a vote on the issue. There is also reason to believe that when citizens engage in direct discussion and problem-solving with each other, they are able to make better decisions because the process harnesses each individual’s expertise in the service of the community.
Unfortunately for us, however, facilitating a free and open debate among citizens is much harder to achieve in a modern society than it was in ancient Athens. This is, ironically, mainly due to the very thing that opens up the possibility of exercising direct democracy in large and populous modern states – the radical changes in the way we communicate.
The doors of perception: mass media as gatekeeper and dreamweaver
Studies have shown that mass media can distort viewers’ perceptions, even when this was not intended, and the people concerned do not believe that they have been influenced.
One US university study showed that topics of public interest, such as defence or the nation’s energy policy, only ‘become high priority political issues for the public … if they first become high priority news items for the [television] networks’.1 The study concluded that television news primed the electorate in that it weighted the importance of various topics by giving them more or less news coverage. This kept certain topics at the forefront of citizens’ minds and drowned out others. For example, during the course of the study one group of volunteers was given newscasts containing no stories related to defence for four days, and a second group was given a newscast each day which contained a defence story implying that American security forces were in trouble. Before they were shown the newscasts, those assigned to the second group rated defence sixth in a list of priorities for the American government. A day after watching the last newscast, they rated defence as the second-highest priority. The rankings in the control group did not change. The experiment was repeated multiple times with various topics and influenced viewers’ opinion on the importance of the targeted topic every time.
The researchers also ran experiments that took a more open-ended approach. Here participants were asked to name the three most important issues facing the nation before and after being shown the newscasts that had been doctored to emphasize a particular issue. An average of 37 per cent – not a majority – nominated the target problem as one of the nation’s most important prior to the experiment; this rose to 57 per cent – a ‘democratic’ majority – after the experiment.
And that’s not all. Throughout the study, viewers’ perceptions of a topic’s importance were found to rise and fall in direct proportion to the amount of coverage that newscasts devoted to it. This became obvious when participants were simply asked to name any high-priority issue after being shown doctored newscasts. For example, 24 per cent of those shown no news stories relating to energy named it as a high-priority issue, compared to 50 per cent of those shown three out of fifteen newscasts featuring it as an issue, and 65 per cent of those shown six out of fifteen newscasts featuring it. This pattern held in twelve out of thirteen experiments. Most shockingly of all, the subjects accepted that the importance a news network attributed to a topic was correct, even when this was at odds with their own personal experience. Mass media coverage can thus cause viewers – and voters – to literally discount their own real-life experience in favour of the vicarious experience provided by television.
This means that all media are tainted by a strong subjective bias – news editors determine what the public views as important simply by picking topics to cover – and it is possible for this bias to go undetected because, unlike face-to-face communication, mass media generates a deep inequality between consumers and providers.
Blurring the line between subjective impressions and objective realities
Just as elections and their outcomes are vastly different things to professional politicians and ordinary voters, so too is media production a vastly different thing to media professionals and their viewers. Not only does a small circle of news editors effectively decide which topics are important each and every day, media professionals are paid to construct a smooth narrative of events that is not liable to interruption or contradiction. Moreover, they are employed for their ability to attract audiences with simple and entertaining certainty as opposed to tedious soul-searching and endless relativism.
In the service of doing so effectively, journalists and presenters transform subjective impressions into objective realities. A magazine article might read: ‘At our interview, Ms X looked stunning in a blue blouse’, but is unlikely to say, ‘Ms X was wearing a blue blouse and I thought she looked stunning, but then I’ve always been partial to redheads’. Likewise, a newspaper headline might scream, ‘Minister Y makes defiant declaration’, not ‘Minister Y makes a statement in an entirely normal tone of voice, but “defiant declaration” is alliterative and sounds exciting’. Journalists record their final views or impressions, but they do not inform their audience about what led to those views being formed. Indeed, time and space would not permit them to do so, even if they wanted to. The impressions they deliver are, by necessity, superficial.
And reporters do not just add content, they can also remove it. A reporter might omit a fact from a story for no better reason than that including it will cause them to go over their word count, because their deadline is approaching, or because including it would slow down the pace of their article or disrupt its tone.
Taken together, all of this means that subjective impressions, often based on nothing more than the reporter’s own arbitrary preferences combined with the necessity to sound exciting and not to overcomplicate things, are displayed as objective fact. This would not be so harmful in itself if modern mass media were not a highly concentrated and syndicated enterprise.
While there appears to be more ‘choice’ in media than ever before, content is provided by fewer organizations. In 1983, fifty companies controlled 90 per cent of American media; by 2011 this was down to six. In fact, by 2001 only three companies accounted for 75 per cent of all market share in American newspapers, with the top six companies accounting for 96.5 per cent of the total market. Across the Atlantic in Britain, the situation is almost identical. There, the top three national newspaper companies account for over 75 per cent of total market share, just four companies own 70 per cent of market share in local and regional newspapers, two broadcasters (BBC and ITV) account for over 85 per cent of the total national television market and the four largest commercial radio owners control 77 per cent of commercial radio stations. Similar patterns of concentrated media ownership are standard across western European countries.
Since news conglomerates reuse and syndicate their own content, coverage of a story is often identical across several different media outlets – for example, across several different newspapers and television channels that appear to operate under different brands, but are ultimately owned by the same company. This creates the false impression that there is a high level of agreement across different sectors of society that the coverage is appropriate and that the facts discussed are those that are relevant, when in reality the coverage has originated in the same place. As a result, a narrative or point of view that may literally have started out as one person’s opinion – an opinion they themselves may not have even thought very hard about – is presented as a mainstream consensus that is difficult to contest.
As a result, a narrative or point of view that may literally have started out as one person’s opinion – an opinion they themselves may not have even thought very hard about – is presented as a mainstream consensus that is difficult to contest.
As we saw in the study above, the vast majority of viewers do not consider what they see and hear in the media as merely possible interpretations or partial accounts of events. They accept that what media outlets say is real, even when their own life experience contradicts it. This is not because people are stupid or gullible, but rather because our brains are hardwired to readily accept as truth information that is presented as the community consensus. In many ways this is a strength for shared learning and building social structures, but when it comes to modern mass media it is a weakness that leaves us vulnerable to manipulation.
Mass media creates our perception of reality, and some actors are not prepared to leave the content of those perceptions to chance.
Using mass media to guide public discourse
Since mass media determines what the important issues and events of the day are, it is very important to people in many professions to receive media coverage and to ensure the coverage is favourable to their interests. This is true of anyone whose business relies on general public opinion rather than word-of-mouth communication, a category that can include celebrities, manufacturers of mass consumption goods and, of course, politicians. All of these actors not only want the media to pay attention to them so that people will not forget that they exist, they want the media to portray them in a manner that is conducive to their own aims. What this means is that modern mass media is not just a powerful tool for influencing public perception, it is a powerful tool that several parties are constantly fighting to control.
And this, in turn, means that the information people receive is not just a version of events distorted by media professionals’ own random biases and preferences. It is also distorted by whoever currently holds the upper hand in the battle for media domination. This can include politicians, private companies and, of course, media owners themselves.
With only a handful of companies controlling national media, politicians cannot afford consistently negative coverage from a large media conglomerate. Politicians, particularly young, aspiring politicians, depend on media organizations to emphasize their attractions and downplay their faults. In turn, media owners depend on politicians to make laws that benefit them. It is not surprising therefore that media owners and politicians should enter into a symbiotic relationship which gives them both what they want: media owners are able to influence future decisions through the politicians who depend on them for favourable coverage and politicians are able to influence election outcomes by getting media owners to back them in return for those future favours.
Perhaps the media owner most notorious for interfering in politics is the Australian-born Rupert Murdoch, owner of NewsCorp, which operates, among others, the Sun and The Times newspapers in Britain and Fox News in the USA. Murdoch has been a force in politics, particularly British politics, for decades. In fact, no British prime minister has come to power without Murdoch’s blessing since 1983.
That’s not conjecture – the politicians involved have frankly admitted as much.
In the 1980s prime minister Margaret Thatcher berated another media owner for his dislike of Murdoch: ‘“Why are you so opposed to Rupert?” the Iron Lady asked. “He is going to get us in [elected].”’ Murdoch indeed delivered and Margaret Thatcher remained in power, despite many deeply unpopular policies. In fact, Murdoch also delivered for Thatcher’s successor John Major in 1992, reminding the new prime minister to whom he owed his loyalties with a Sun headline that openly claimed that the newspaper had won victory for the Conservative Party.
Murdoch, however, quickly wearied of a Tory Party without Thatcher at the helm. Anxious to change NewsCorp’s position, Norman Fowler, then chairperson of the British Conservative Party, visited Sun editor Kevin McKenzie in an attempt to convince him ‘about the virtues of John Major’s government’ before the 1997 election. But it was too late. NewsCorp had found a new friend in Tony Blair, the leader of the rebranded ‘New Labour’ Party, which chose to drop most of the policies Murdoch had found so objectionable in the ‘old’ Labour Party. Tony Blair had not only proved his willingness to listen to the media tycoon by travelling to ‘the other side of the globe to woo Murdoch executives’, once elected ‘his government withdrew the longstanding ban on foreign companies fully owning British television stations’, a policy which directly benefited NewsCorp.
The link between favourable coverage from NewsCorp and electoral success is so widely accepted among British politicians that when Tony Blair resigned in 2007, his successor Gordon Brown and Conservative candidate David Cameron vied for Murdoch’s attention. Brown met with Murdoch on at least fourteen different occasions. Notwithstanding this obviously sincere attempt to win Murdoch’s backing, the two had ‘a bitter falling out … [Murdoch] told Brown his papers would not support Brown’s Labour party in the 2010 election’. Instead, James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son and manager of much of his business, met with Conservative candidate David Cameron ‘over drinks at a pub and told him his company’s Sun newspaper would support his Conservative party in the next election’. David Cameron, having arguably spent some of mankind’s most profitable hours in a drinking establishment, did indeed become prime minister in 2010 after his Conservative Party won a narrow electoral victory.
As we saw previously, the value of free coverage that a media empire like Murdoch’s can provide to a party often exceeds the total campaign finances of the party itself by a considerable margin. Parties and candidates know that they literally do not possess sufficient resources either to provide themselves with positive advertisement or to effectively counteract negative media attention, but that they can steer coverage by promising to use their powers in the interests of supportive media enterprises once they are in office.
Fowler, who as the former chair of the Conservative Party would certainly know, openly admitted: ‘If you have a company that owns almost 40% of British newspapers and a big chunk of a successful television company you can expect nothing less [than for politicians to go to great lengths to gain your support]. In the main politicians are not fools. They can see where media power is and for a very long time it has been with Murdoch.’
News owners like Murdoch get a privileged say in government and ordinary citizens get the information that these media owners and their allied politicians have agreed they should receive. It is a state of affairs hardly conducive to sound democratic decision-making.
Of course, not every news outlet is owned by Rupert Murdoch. Some news conglomerates are owned only by anonymous shareholders with no particular driving force within the company. However, content on these less ideologically driven news outlets is actually even easier to influence, for those with the inclination and resources to do so, because of the way in which media enterprises work.
Media outlets, especially newspapers, often procure their content from wire copy providers, such as Reuters and Associated Press. These are companies that employ their own journalists to generate content which is then sold on to newspapers, television stations and other outlets to be used as part of their coverage. But while mass media outlets always pay for wire copy, they often fail to admit this to their readers.
A further 20 per cent of stories originated as press releases or wire copy to which the journalist had added some of their own material. Only 12 per cent of material was generated by the reporters themselves. This creates the false impression that the news comes from many different sources; for example, if the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and the Telegraph all print the same facts, the reader tends to accept that there is overwhelming agreement on those facts, when the truth is that all of the stories derive from a single source – the person who provided the original wire copy story. Getting a story covered by wire agencies can thus be a simple way to set the media agenda for some time, and interested parties do exactly that by providing newswires and media outlets with free content in the form of ‘expert commentary’, live footage of events and press releases.
Generating and circulating press releases is a relentless activity for many corporate and government entities – by the 1990s, the British government alone was churning out 20,000 of them a year – and they can have a much deeper impact on reporting than an outside observer might be inclined to think. This is because media enterprises often fail to give their reporters sufficient resources to conduct additional research into any information that they receive. One in-depth researcher interviewed a journalist who admitted that his newspaper made an annual profit of £70 million, but forbade its staff from calling the telephone information line to find sources. Travel to the site of events, even to the closest courthouse, was not permitted. Another journalist, who worked at the Independent’s bureau in Washington, DC, claimed that, owing to cost-cutting measures, his job consisted of cutting and pasting material from large American newspapers for his own submissions, and that this tactic was so widespread in the industry as to be unofficially known as ‘the JCB technique’.
Since they aren’t able to verify the information being fed to them, journalists are obliged to merely regurgitate the content of press releases. The University of Cardiff study cited above also revealed that even in cases where a news story relied upon one important fact or statement, journalists failed to check its accuracy 70 per cent of the time. When a company, government or politician sends a press release (or several press releases) to a journalist, they can often expect to see that release reprinted verbatim in a newspaper at some point, or, at the very least, included as one of two ‘sides’ in a debate in which none of the issues under contention are actually examined. It is an easy and cost-effective way of ensuring more positive coverage, and bombarding reporters with press releases that present an issue in a certain light is now a basic component of everyday public relations.
But PR efforts can also be much more elaborate.
For example, media coverage can also be influenced by funding academic institutions and think tanks. The scholars associated with these institutions then write ‘expert opinions’ or undertake ‘studies’ that align with the interests of the institution’s chief financial backers. In media appearances these experts will often be introduced with a byline that creates the impression that they are a member of a professional if bland organization such as ‘the Institute for Justice’. This encourages viewers to take the expert’s opinion seriously, because there is an assumption that an institute is an impartial entity and that academics have a duty to weigh evidence carefully and act in a socially responsible manner.
Unfortunately, this assumption no longer fits reality.
Since austerity measures and tax cutbacks mean that universities – and particularly researchers – are starved of funds, anyone with enough cash can make a very realistic effort at dictating research terms by funding academic think tanks. Some of the biggest funders of academic think tanks in America are businessmen Charles and David Koch. The Kochs’ most successful venture in influencing academic output is possibly the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that they have poured millions into since founding it in 1977, and whose scholars teach at George Mason University, the University of Chicago, Yale and the London School of Economics, among others.
The Cato Institute and similar think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation (which does not disclose its donors), provide an intellectual home and funding for scholars who hold corporate-friendly views, placing them at a competitive advantage over their peers. These favoured scholars are more likely to attain lucrative employment at a younger age and more likely to have leisure for publishing and networking. The likelihood that they will become unemployed or forced to take up other work is diminished, and they are simultaneously provided with a name and a home institution that allows them to speak publicly with a great deal of credibility. In fact, the Cato Institute boasts that its scholars are cited in nearly four thousand news articles every year, as well as participating in two thousand news broadcasts and writing hundreds of newspaper op-eds, making it, according to the Institute, the best value for money of any think tank in America. It is a long-game tactic, but the results are impressive, as media outlets devote airtime to ‘institute’ members and voluntarily repeat their claims without informing their viewers of the full nature of the organization in question.
And governments have not been slow to master the art of shaping public perceptions, either.
In both Canada and the United States, government press conferences allow the politician or (more usually) spokesperson in charge to determine the range and depth of the information discussed by allowing them to select the reporters who are allowed to ask questions. At White House press conferences even senior reporters employed by the most established news organizations are not allowed more than one question and a follow-up, while most of their colleagues are not permitted to ask any questions at all. This restrictive setting is often the only avenue that journalists have for obtaining government information, because governments do not permit any of their other employees to speak directly to the press. As Canadian journalists complain: ‘Instead, reporters have to deal with an armada of press officers who know very little or nothing at all about a reporter’s topic and who answer tough questions with vague talking points vetted by layers of political staff and delivered by email only.’
An American journalist corroborates: ‘the operative assumption at the Pentagon is, we will talk to you if it fits our specific narrow purpose and not if it doesn’t’.
Politicians often punish reporters and organizations that attempt to get around these barricades by freezing all interaction with them. Since media outlets that can be counted on for more favourable reporting continue to be fed information, this can have a devastating effect on the target – deprived of the ability to cover the big events, they will lose viewers and their profits will nosedive.
Instead of providing healthy criticism, media outlets are expected to unquestioningly pass on the information governments feed them to the public even when they have no way to verify its authenticity. For example, when European officials criticized seal-hunting in 2009, Canada’s cabinet showed their support for local seal hunters by journeying to the Arctic to personally consume seal meat. The event itself was arguably somewhat anticlimactic, since Canada’s governor-general had already personally cut out and eaten a raw seal heart earlier in the year, but it was still considered an important component in underlining that the Canadian government had no intention of bowing to international pressure. A photo of the prime minister’s ‘seal snack’, as well as video footage, was duly circulated in Canadian media.
While the image creates the impression that it was taken by a photo-journalist present at the event, it (and the accompanying video footage) was actually taken by the prime minister’s own press office. Photographers were banned from attending the occasion. It might seem like an innocuous event – ‘Who cares whether Stephen Harper really likes seal meat?’ one might think – but the point is that Canadians believe they are viewing a spontaneous event that has been confirmed by an independent third party as having really occurred when they are actually viewing a carefully manufactured appearance of something occurring. That is an important difference that can have consequences far beyond the popularity of Canada’s traditional hunting practices.
For example, a Conservative Party rally ahead of the British general election in 2015, depicting party leader David Cameron speaking in front of several placard-waving supporters, was revealed to be a carefully angled press shoot in which nearly everyone attending the ‘rally’ was actually in the photo. Most importantly, the enormous empty spaces in the venue, which were conspicuously not filled by Cameron supporters, were not in view. The photos presented to the public thus gave a falsely optimistic account of Conservative Party support in the area, using seemingly incontrovertible proof – the photos, which the viewer does not know are carefully stage-managed.
Following the incident, in which twelve people were killed, a huge public demonstration of solidarity with the magazine was organized in Paris. Dozens of high-profile world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, King Abdullah of Jordan and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Paris, and photos of these top politicians linked arm in arm ‘leading’ the solidarity demonstration were broadcast around the world.
From a security point of view, such personal leadership was risky to undertake on a public street filled with millions of people in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack. So risky, in fact, that the photos weren’t really what they seemed. Another set of photos taken from a higher angle soon emerged, showing world leaders posing for the original photos in a separate closed-off side street surrounded only by enough of their own aides and security personnel to give the impression of being at the head of the demonstration. After the photo op, these top politicians simply returned to their own cars to be whisked off the scene – they never participated in the march. Yet dozens of top media organizations unquestioningly published the photos as genuine pictures of world leaders marching in Paris without ever apparently retracting that information.
All of these examples show how easy it is for politicians to stage-manage their own events and then pass them off to the press as genuine interactions between themselves and their constituents. Events that never actually happened or which happened very differently are presented as reality simply because it is more favourable to the politician’s image to do so.
News organizations run the footage, because otherwise they would have to drop the entire story for lack of information. As a result ordinary people are forced to live in a world filled with false information that is nearly impossible for them to sift through, making real deliberation and sound decision-making hard to come by.
The meaning of mass media for democracy
We are all influenced by what we see and hear on television, radio and in newspapers, and unfortunately much of it is inaccurate, its content controlled by those who have the means to subsidize production. This ability to control information enables these actors to buy election and referendum outcomes without having to resort to outright bribery. We have spoken of parties and candidates spending money to win elections in previous chapters – this is what they spend it on.
The predominance of mass communication is why modern democracy can never truly be like ancient Athenian democracy. Even if we switched over to direct digital democracy with citizens deciding on all matters themselves, that experience would still be accompanied by a controlling and all-pervasive media environment that persistently and intentionally misinforms its citizens.
And under those conditions, how could citizens hope to make informed and well-considered decisions?
The only thing that could possibly alter this would be if internet communication, which is, after all, what will soon make online democracy feasible, could somehow break the stranglehold of mass media over our communications.
Battlefield Internet: how many soldiers does it take to run a Facebook account?
As we said in an earlier chapter, talk is cheap, but gathering an audience to hear that talk is not. This is still true on the internet, which perpetuates the domination of establishment structures over communications.
According to the British House of Lords Committee on Communication, ‘traditional news providers … have been able to transfer dominance of the mainstream media to the internet and in the process attract an even bigger audience’.11 This is also true of other developed countries. For example, while 8.9 million Australians get their news online, the top ten sites visited are all traditional offline news sources, such as the Herald Sun and the Sydney Morning Herald. In fact, the top ten Australian news sites are owned by only six companies.
Traditional political spending structures and their results are also mirrored in online communications. In the USA, ‘[a]ll candidates in the presidential primaries in 2008 invested heavily in online strategies’ ranging ‘from internet advertising and search engine positioning to Facebook and YouTube to encourage citizens to organise on their behalf’.12 Utilizing these tools effectively is not free. As in traditional offline campaigns, political candidates use money to dominate online communications with similar effects: Barack Obama spent approximately $16 million on onlineadvertising ($600,000 on his Facebook campaign alone), while his rival, Republican Party candidate John McCain spent $3.6 million.
And the cost of online political activity is ratcheting up fast: in 2016, American candidates are expected to spend over $1 billion on online advertising and social media, twenty times what was spent just six years ago in 2010. In Britain, the Conservative Party spent £100,000 a month just on its Facebook campaign in the run-up to the 2015 election, and circumvented laws prohibiting paid political advertising on TV by running attack ads on YouTube instead. In the new digital world, cash is still king.
However, proponents of internet communication would argue that while this might be the case, ordinary citizens can also have a voice online that they do not have in traditional mass communication. Anyone, after all, can set up a Facebook page or a Twitter account. You don’t need to be an American Senator or the prime minister of Britain.
And it is true that by using social media, the ordinary voter can speak online, but the question is who they speak to.
The median active Twitter account has only sixty-one followers; only 4 per cent of Twitter accounts have more than a thousand followers. What is more, the majority of heavily followed Twitter accounts represent people or organizations that are already famous or powerful within the traditional offline media landscape and who can use their resources to procure a commensurate online presence. When an ‘ordinary’ person tweets they mutter from the peanut gallery to the friends they would have spoken to in real life anyway; when Fox News tweets, its voice resonates to 5 million followers. For the purposes of democratic participation, it does not matter how much a citizen speaks on the internet if there is no one to hear him, but this is precisely what most people do, broadcasting into an endless silence, like a lone Athenian rambling to an empty Assembly. They have spoken, but they have not been heard. They have ‘free speech’ but they do not have isegoria – the right to speak equally in a public forum – and free speech doesn’t accomplish much without a free audience to go with it. Like so much else in our thin version of democracy, it is action without result.
In addition to this passive reinforcement of traditional communications structures, there are also ways to actively control online conversation. For example, governments and companies operating under fake identities can infiltrate public forums in order to skew debate. In doing so, they often use special persona management software to generate profiles and online history for fake identities. These programmes can allow a single operator to use up to seventy different identities, creating the false impression that their views are widely shared. This can silence opposition or make it appear that any opposition is a minority view. The Bivings Group, a PR company specializing in internet lobbying, explained, ‘there are some campaigns where it would be undesirable or even disastrous to let the audience know that your organization is directly involved … Message boards, chat rooms, and listservs are a great way to anonymously monitor what is being said. Once you are plugged into this world, it is possible to make postings to these outlets that present your position as an uninvolved third party.’
Leaked documents from security company HB Gary Federal revealed that the US Air Force has asked companies to bid to supply it with persona management software. The British seem to have gone one farther, creating a new brigade (Brigade 77, also known as the Security Assistance Group) to engage in ‘shaping behaviour through the use of dynamic narratives’ online and with the media. The brigade, which began work in April 2015, has 1,500 members; a mix of regular soldiers, reserves and civilians with experience in mainstream media and social media. The brigade’s prime purpose is to ‘control the narrative’ about conflicts that Britain is interested in. In addition to ISIS, it seems to have its sights set on countering Russian public television and radio services that broadcast English-language programmes over Europe and North America. Russian and Western media channels do not always see eye to eye in their interpretation of events, and apparently the British government has decided to help its side along.
Although most analysis of Brigade 77 focuses on the possibility of it operating its own Facebook and Twitter accounts, it does not take 1,500 personnel to send out the occasional birthday greeting or 140-character tweet. Most people, after all, manage on their own. The British Army’s 2014 booklet seems to envision somewhat more ambitious outcomes for its integrated media engagement.
According to the booklet, the army’s new SAG unit will contribute to blurring the lines between soldier and non-combatant, as well as between economic, political and military concerns. It will work to influence ‘longer term attitudes and behaviour’, because the ‘desire to achieve success by changing the perceptions of adversaries and populations is as old as warfare itself’. The unit leadership will understand that ‘military operations mainly seek to contribute to gaining political or economic advantage’ and the brigade will be composed of several earlier British Army units, including the Media Operations Groups and the Psychological Operations Groups.
And as if this weren’t enough to worry about, governments and companies can always simply pay or train volunteers to dominate online commenting and ratings sites. The Chinese government allegedly pays 50 cents for every post that criticizes dissidents or disturbs the debate of a point that the government would rather not have debated (the so-called ‘50-cent party’), while Astroturf groups like American Majority seek to affect consumption patterns by visiting entertainment sites like Amazon and systematically downgrading products they disapprove of while upgrading products they do approve of. This is done in assembly-line fashion solely on the basis of whether the product in question is deemed to conform with their values. The person rating the product may not have actually read or viewed it themselves. As one member of American Majority described it: ‘when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue …’
These are not the actions of individual concerned citizens, but coordinated, well-funded campaigns. Over 75 per cent of the funding for American Majority comes from the Sam Adams Alliance. In 2008, the year in which American Majority was founded, 88 per cent of the Alliance’s money came from a single donation of $3.7 million. This means that even something as innocuous as online commenting on entertainment products is skewed by financial interests instead of representing a relatively accurate reflection of general public opinion.
Considering the extent to which it is already being manipulated, there is not much hope for internet communication to provide a genuine avenue for the kind of peer-to-peer debate that is necessary for a democracy. If anything, the internet thus far has served to underline and further entrench the narrow scope of media activity in modern societies. Therefore, we have to accept that the problems mass communication creates for democratic debate are going to stay with us for the foreseeable future. And this means, in turn, that we need to find a way to reduce their impact on democratic decision-making to the greatest extent possible.
Reclaiming the narrative by funding massive participation instead of mass media
Because we will all continue to live in an environment saturated with mass misinformation for the foreseeable future, we cannot afford to think of digital democracy merely as a system in which citizens hold a long series of online votes. In that scenario, the vast majority of citizens would inevitably cast their vote on the basis of the twisted and biased information they have received, and that would be disastrous. Indeed, when I talk to people about digital democracy or participatory democracy, the first concern they tend to bring up is the alleged ignorance of their fellow citizens, whom they do not trust to vote in a responsible manner. And although these fears are often a little exaggerated – in the participatory experiments run so far people tend to vote in a surprisingly responsible fashion – as we’ve seen in this chapter, when it comes to communication and information, there is still a lot to be worried about.
In order to work against the influence of mass media and other channels of misinformation, in a digital democracy it would be necessary for citizens not just to vote on proposals using online software, but to debate any motions with each other online immediately before voting. Moreover, attending such a debate would need to be compulsory for anyone wishing to vote, and – in the interests of preventing trolling and fake account activity – it could not be anonymous. Online debate prior to online voting would enable people to raise points and views and share information that is normally not heard in major media communications. It would also force participants to confront opposing views and seek to resolve different perceptions of what the facts surrounding the issue at hand are. It’s a far from perfect solution, but it would give us a start on mimicking the type of communication that was present in Athens within an enclosed buffer zone where citizens participate on equal terms and have a chance to share their own relevant experiences and expertise.
Of course, sitting through hours of debate is hard work – but the Athenians recognized this and therefore they paid people to do it. A modern democracy that truly wants to enable participation from all sectors of society would also need to take account of this and pay citizens for participating in the debate that will precede their vote.
Is pay-for-participation possible?
Pay-for-participation can sound like something out of a science-fiction novel, but the Athenians did it, and we do it too for jury duty, the one form of equal democratic participation that lives on in modern societies. For most people any opportunity to earn extra money is welcome, especially when – unlike in the current configuration for jury duty – they are free to choose whether or not to take advantage of it. The question is thus not whether people would generally be averse to receiving money for an activity (political debate) that many of them now engage in at least occasionally for free, but rather whether pay-for-participation would be economically feasible. Can we afford to pay people to debate and decide in such numbers? I decided to find out.
In investigating whether pay for participation would be feasible, I started with the country I was born in: Canada. There are approximately twenty-four million registered voters in Canada. Assuming that the nation held a public decision-making session at least every two weeks or twenty-six times a year and attendees received $30 (a little less than half the daily minimum wage) for a two-to-three-hour session, this would cost $18.7 billion per year. It is a lot of money, but not more than Canada, a country that has not been attacked since 1812, spends annually on defence. In other words, digital democracy is easily affordable at the mere cost of cutting back spending on a military apparatus that would hardly do Canada any good in the unlikely event of an attack from either of the two nuclear powers it is geographically wedged between. Even such measures, however, would not be necessary, because it is utterly unrealistic to assume that every single eligible Canadian would attend every single Assembly meeting.
The goal of participatory democracy is not 100 per cent participation on every issue, but rather to attain a flexible participation rate that is high enough to reflect the society as a whole. In Athens only about 15 per cent of citizens attended any given Assembly meeting, and there is no reason to believe that attendance would be much higher at a Canadian Assembly. On any given day, many people are busy or ill or uninterested in the topic under debate. Still others are politically apathetic (the Athenians, never ones to mince words, labelled such people idiotes – the root of the word ‘idiot’ – and didn’t lose any sleep over them). And unlikely as it is that more than 15 per cent of people would show up at any one meeting, if they did it would be entirely possible to limit Assembly attendance to the first 15 per cent of citizens who register. Reducing participation in a hypothetical Canadian Assembly to around 15 per cent of registered voters shifts the cost down to a very manageable $2.8 billion per year.
This could be easily paid for using pre-existing tax revenues. It’s estimated that Canada Revenue loses $8 billion every year to offshore tax evasion. Tax evasion – unlike tax avoidance – is a crime and it is easy and cheap to prevent, because whistle-blowers who work in offshore tax havens are generally willing to part with data that can lead to the recovery of hundreds of millions in tax revenues for a mere million or two, i.e. for far less than it would cost the authorities to mount a traditional investigation. Indeed, the Canadian government has repeatedly been offered information that would allow it to prosecute hundreds of tax evaders. Canada would need to recoup only around 40 per cent of the revenue currently lost through offshore tax evasion to pay for an Athenian-style direct democracy. Recovering the full amount of taxes owed would easily allow Canada to conduct an Athenian-style online Assembly with participation rates of more than 30 per cent (nearly double the participation rates in Athens) or, alternatively, to up the pay rate to $60 per session – nearly a full day’s pay at minimum wage – while retaining a 15 per cent participation rate. The only ‘price’ is needing to enforce the law and punish criminal behaviour, something the government has a duty to do anyway.
And Canada isn’t the only country able to make this work.
Britain loses at least £5 billion annually to tax evasion, while failing, one way or another, to collect £35 billion in taxes. If Britain recovered all £35 billion of its tax gap, it could pay 15 per cent of its 45 million registered voters £199 (three times the daily minimum wage!) per online debating session, if such sessions were held twenty-six times per year. Just recovering the £5 billion in outright tax evasion would give a payment of £28 a session, about half the daily minimum wage. In Germany, tax evasion losses are estimated at 13 billion euros annually, enough to pay 15 per cent of Germany’s 61.8 million eligible voters 54 euros per session.
Not only is simply enforcing existing tax law a completely painless way to pay for a participatory online democracy, it would also work towards rebalancing the economy, an important step in stabilizing the political system. Instead of being hoarded in offshore bank accounts, the money ‘spent’ on direct democracy would go straight into ordinary families’ pockets and therefore straight back into the local economy. To take the Canadian figures, a person who attended Assembly twenty-six times a year at a rate of $30 would, besides getting to make direct decisions on policies that affect them, earn $780. That’s the price of a new laptop; a year’s gym membership; a car repair bill; an extra payment for the retirement plan; or a year’s worth of children’s clothing. These are exactly the things most people would spend extra money on, and doing so reinvigorates the economy and helps ordinary people secure their own financial future. By helping people help themselves, dependence on government services would be reduced. Pay-for-participation would lead to smaller government and less government waste.
Direct, digital democracy isn’t just fun – it’s free. Far from requiring sacrifices, it rewards people for their efforts, making high levels of political participation sustainable, even from the most vulnerable members of society, while simultaneously serving to redress severe economic imbalance. Most importantly of all, enabling citizens to debate issues directly between themselves works to mitigate the influence of mass media and the corporations and think tanks that subsidize their content. Pay-for-participation subsidizes citizen-generated content instead, putting citizen deliberation back in the centre of democratic decision-making.
Mass media: the single biggest threat to democracy
In a certain sense Athenian debate was rather dull because there were no bright lights or camera-ready smiles, but in another sense it was terribly exciting, because it was real. Media today might be more exciting on a superficial level, but it is ‘fake exciting’. ‘Big stories’ break for no better reason than that a PR agent was able to have them placed on a wire agency. Politicians clap each other on the back in a friendly photo that is actually a selfie. Experts sit in sharp suits to glare through pince-nez glasses and give the talking points that their think tanks demand. To top it all off, internet conversation is dominated by trolls and celebrities who can afford to hire others to oversee their online presence.
In an environment saturated with mass misinformation, freedom at the ballot box is nearly irrelevant. Manipulation can occur effectively and easily before the voting stage. However, this cycle can be at least partially broken by implementing a financially feasible pay-for-participation model in which citizens participate in online debate with each other immediately prior to voting. When citizens debate online, they are given an opportunity to inform each other and set priorities without mediating filters. This ensures that debate and action will centre around citizens’ needs to a greater degree and that direct democracy can be supported by an environment that allows for truly equal debate.
It is not a perfect solution, to be sure: some point out that even in wealthy countries not everyone has access to high-speed internet; others may be concerned about the lack of privacy that unavoidably accompanies a non-anonymous debate. However, notwithstanding these concerns, holding a debate in which a majority of citizens stand a goodly chance of expressing their views or hearing very similar views expressed by someone else without being prevented from doing so by privileged gatekeepers is certainly preferable to going to the polls subjected only to mass misinformation, which is what we are currently doing.
Image credit: Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, by Gage Skidmore