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Propaganda and social control in the 21st Century: an interview with the editors of The Propaganda Model Today

An Interview by University of Westminster Press

As the dissemination of fake news and media manipulation against transformative forces continue to expand, a volume edited by Joan Pedro-Carañana, Daniel Broudy and Jeffery Klaehn celebrates the 30th anniversary of the publication Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, a benchmark book on propaganda and misinformation written by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. In this original work, the authors spelled out a Propaganda Model (PM) to explain why and how the mainstream media operate to legitimise imperialist actions and support the interests of power elites. In addition to providing a vast amount of empirical evidence through content analysis of media, Herman and Chomsky identified five “filters” that constrain the possibilities for democratic communication. Media ownership, dependence on advertising as a source of revenue, reliance on official sources, flak or planned attacks on critical journalists, and dominant ideologies all work in synergy to promote information supportive of elites and marginalise views in favour of social transformation.

Drawing on Herman and Chomsky’s work, the book The Propaganda Model Today: Filtering Perception and Awareness studies new developments in media systems to explain the (re)production of hegemony in today’s hyper-mediated societies. Contributors reflect on propaganda systems in Europe, North America, and Latin America to demonstrate the utility and validity of the PM in various geographical contexts. In addition, the book analyses a variety of communication products, such as news from print and digital media, Hollywood movies, television entertainment programs, social media communication, and Google search results. The case studies analyse the representations of wars, coups, US foreign policy, national security, nuclear weapons debates, austerity policies, sports, and the emergence of alternative social and political forces.

The volume has been published Open Access via a CC-BY-NC-ND Creative Commons license by University of Westminster Press (UWP) and can be downloaded from the publisher’s website. In this interview conducted by Andrew Lockett from UWP, the editors reflect on the Propaganda Model, its on-going value for further research, new factors or filters that should be considered in media analysis, its place in academia, and alternatives.

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UWP: The language of PM theorists, in the use of terms like the ‘mainstream media’ and ‘elites’ has been co-opted by the far right. It seems as if this was deliberate as well as highly successful in the short term. Is this something the PM anticipates or has guidance on how best to counter?

Jeffery Klaehn: I remember reading The Power Elite (1957) by C. Wright Mills and learning about Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as an undergrad. Lippmann’s Public Opinion (1922) and Propaganda (1928) by Edward Bernays, and Plato’s cave metaphor and its point about perception, also come to mind. The PM is a perfect model to explore how divide and conquer politics are represented in media discourses, to gain new insights into how fear is being utilized and deployed as an ideological weapon.

Joan Pedro-Carañana: Media, political and corporate elites always try to co-opt concepts, ideas, and the aesthetic of critical movements. This is a very effective way of emptying the subversive contents of communication and dissolving its transformative capacity. However, it also signifies a relative victory for alternative forces because it means that elites have been forced to play according to the discursive rules that we establish. There is a process of appropriation, but there can also be a reappropriation from below and a re-filling with critical-transformative content. Once the ideas make it to the mainstream, they achieve visibility and are open to a symbolic battle for establishing their specific meaning. Trump’s fake populism has been effective in attacking the elites, but alternative forces can effectively argue that he actually is a key actor of the elite who works in the interest of elites and against the general population. Trump criticizes the mainstream media, but engages in the production and dissemination of fake news and cannot make any proposal for media reform to promote its democratisation, reduce the concentration of ownership, and assure the independence of journalists. However, critical forces can do so.

Daniel Broudy: The fifth filter can help us see how elite narratives appearing in media are the residue of the process of fear mongering and vilifying a selected enemy. Right-wing talking heads, such as Limbaugh and Hannity, among others, have developed expert practice in appropriating terms such as ‘mainstream media’ and ‘elites’. When mainstream policies fail to square with more extreme right- or liberal dreams, the MSM (or lame-stream) becomes the target of these flak machines (see the fourth filter). The irony inherent in their definitions of these terms, however, becomes more obvious in the face of the other filters working to camouflage the funding sources for these ideologues. Sadly, even National “Public” Radio (NPR) is not immune to corporate infiltration. Have a look at the streams of funding for these organisations. The War Party has its factions in both wings, and their battles are waged on various fronts, some in opposition to one another, others in league against civil rights, freedom of the press, free speech, consumer and environmental protections, voting rights, fair labour practices, workers rights, and food safety. These fights necessitate the manipulation of meanings in keywords to dazzle the eyes of the public. Both the far right and the liberals engage in forms of manipulation, and, as the PM shows, ownership and advertising will have their say.

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UWP: We were struck by Herman’s mention of a Russo-phobic environment created by Democrats. I’m wondering do you think that the PM’s anti-communism filter is in part being translated into Russo-phobia out of habit? It is a stretch to say the Russia is communist now in any but it still seems systematically central to media performance overall.

Jeff: I think one of the great strengths of the PM is that it can be updated, and has been updated, over time.

Dan: That’s right. The model encourages elaboration and critique in light of observed phenomena, especially the 5th filter. In my reading of Herman’s comments in the interview, he doesn’t leave much open to alternative interpretations beyond the explicit reference to serving the demands of the larger War Party – the more powerful tentacles of both major parties. All signs point to higher profits with war, or rumours of war, and stoking the flames of fear that Russia is the eternal antagonist of Western interests.

Joan: This is part of the traditional construction of an official enemy, identified by the 5th filter, to promote internal unity vs. an external threat and justify oppressive policies both at home and abroad. The threat and power of the Soviet Union was largely exaggerated (I was really afraid of Ivan Drago in Rocky IV). Latinos were also stigmatized to help justify invasions and interventions, and next came Muslims with the War on Terror. More recently we have seen Trump developing a campaign of fear and criminalisation of migrants who are escaping misery that the West has contributed to create, for example by supporting the coup d’état against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. Russia is an authoritarian regime and should be criticised, but it doesn’t pose a threat to the USA. It is actually recommendable to reduce tensions. The Democrats have also chosen to pursue the Russo-phobic strategy as a political weapon against Trump, but it is a dishonest strategy. At the same time, Democrats and liberal media are not focusing on the issue of climate change and the policies that Trump is implementing to reduce the power of citizens and strengthen the dominant elites. There is also very little criticism of Saudi Arabia and US support. A typical double standard predicted by the PM.

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UWP: The PM was first created at a time in an era largely of broadcasting whereas digital media aims narrow and very individually. Do you feel there is a lot more to be added, to do, in order to retool the PM for a very different media environment in which audiences are constructed in a much wider variety of ways than in 1988, on a much more individual basis at least superficially?

Jeff: The PM was originally intended to be applied to elite, agenda-setting print media. I feel the model’s explanatory power holds. The media landscape has radically changed, but concentrated ownership of media platforms (see Nick Srnicek’s work) and reliance on advertising (via targeted ads) remain remarkably consistent. Digital media also has political bots in the mix, helping fake news gain wide currency.

Dan: Absolutely there is much more to add to the PM. How might today’s media scholar fortify the Model with the algorithm or AI as filtering mechanisms? These aren’t ideologies but technologies. Such scholarship is badly needed. If we can see the power of the algorithm as a mathematical projection of some programmer’s political bias, we begin to see, as a concerned public, how the elite programmers – or editors – use these tools to influence and shape our minds. Christian Fuchs is working on these sorts of questions. Douglas Rushkoff writes about this as well. If humans are coding and decoding creatures, AI now threatens to tip the balance of power to code against us. This is deeply concerning as machines can now be programmed to target messaging to individual persons based on participation in social networks, geography, and search history in engines owned by the elite programmers.

Jeff: Oh, if I may, I’d like to mention Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast, too.

Joan: As we show in the book, the five filters have a strong influence in online production of communication and we have seen in the cases of Brexit, Trump or Bolsonaro the capacity of elites to dominate the cyberspace with the dissemination of fake news. It’s actually worse than with the traditional media and it is difficult to control because the messages are targeted at specific groups through Facebook and more recently WhatsApp. However, I also think it is important to pay attention to the possibilities of digital technologies for emancipatory social movements for spreading alternative messages, especially in times of crisis and powerful, organised social action. This was the case of the Occupy and the 15-M movements. Digital media have also been helpful in the Bernie Sanders campaign, for Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum and for the development of Podemos.

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UWP: Will old school propaganda be so necessary in the future for the powers that be when there is potentially near-ubiquitous surveillance of all citizens voluntary or not?

Jeff: Persuasive communication has been evolving alongside media and surveillance. I think of branded content, for example. Controlling narratives. Ubiquitous media, vested interests, data harvesting, targeted content, information funneling, representation and inequalities of voice, legitimation: it’s all interconnected. #propagandamodel

Joan: Surveillance and Big Data play a fundamental role in the elaboration and targeting of effective propaganda. Corporations and political parties know much more about citizens than in the past. The segmentation of the population according to their profiles gives elites even more power to transmit fear, spread lies, provide selective information, omit crucial facts, and use other forms of traditional propaganda messages.

Dan: Propaganda is an ancient art, but its practices will continue, more refined by the digital tools that threaten to integrate human beings into the ever-expanding global neural network. Integration propaganda, in fact, is now at work normalising the erasure of personal privacy. The study of this emerging convergence is vital to the future of human autonomy and agency. It is imperative that new scholarship deal directly with this threat and call for limits on the technocratic invasion of private life.

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UWP: Has academic resistance to the PM been fuelled by its relative simplicity perhaps?

Jeff: I’m not sure the PM is any more or less complex than other conceptual models. It’s true, however, that it’s not targeted specifically to the intellectual classes. Andrew Mullen has produced excellent research on the systematic marginalization of the PM throughout 1988-2010. The centring of institutional power and political-economic dimensions within the PM’s explanatory framework shaped its reception. Over the past decade, however, more and more outstanding scholarship on the PM has continued to be published. At the same time, the continued relevance of the PM is abundantly clear. In terms of resistance to the model that still persists, like Socrates said, “The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not fighting the old, but on building the new.” The PM encourages such activity. I think it’s important to remember too that the PM exists alongside other theoretical and conceptual models. Concepts like ideology, hegemony, the public sphere, narrative, power, viral media, neoliberalism, corporatism, ethics and agency, are all there, in the mix, too.

Joan: Postmodernism and poststructuralism are powerful within academia, at least in Europe, especially by scholars who consider themselves progressives. Structural analysis, theoretical modelling, and empirical evidence are not trendy. The critique of the overall capitalist system and the media systems constrained by capitalism has given way to the analysis and development of specific, micro-narratives disconnected from the macro-structures. This is the dream of neoliberalism: the individualization of social problems. There is no questioning of the global oppressive structures. Moreover, it seems easier to develop an academic career if scholars use an obscure, often unintelligible language dressed in progressive clothing that in reality is disconnected from the general population and that elites find inoffensive.

Dan: One key feature of an elegant theory or conceptual model is simplicity. Hasty criticisms of the PM on the grounds that it is too simplistic are absurd. I’ve also heard the opposite, that the PM is a bit too complex and unwieldy. Perhaps the hasty characterizations are wrapped up in the filter metaphors: filters are inanimate objects, but people generally like to know also who constructs the filters and why, where they are positioned and by whom, and how they perform and at what cost. As a linguist, I can empathise with Chomsky on the desire to describe how people use language, in this case people in power. Such questions naturally point to agency and the power that elites have to shape perception. I would say that the PM is inadequate and unworthy of our attention only if we choose to remain blind to the powers that shape awareness of the objective world free from mediated forms of communication. Our own positions within the academy are sometimes at risk if the wilful blindness fails us and we choose to attend to objective reality. News and analysis of Zuckerberg’s partnering with The Atlantic Council in May, for example, illustrates the elegance of the PM to predict this performative act by Facebook now “drawn into a symbiotic relationship with powerful sources of information by economic necessity and reciprocity of interest.” It is not difficult to contrast how MSM report on this major development and how independent sources report it. The stark differences in the reported details are not surprising.

UWP: The Propaganda Model Today has a big contribution from Spanish academics and on Spanish and Latin American topics. Does it feel to you that there is more acceptance or interest in the PM in the Spanish-speaking world relatively speaking?

Jeff: The question of “interest” is instructive given that the PM has been generally excluded from debates on media performance. It’s hard to evaluate whether there’s interest in the PM in Canada and the US simply because the model’s been ignored, maligned, and falsely represented for decades. Literally. This is changing, however, and recent years have seen the publication of excellent scholarship on the PM in the International Journal of Communication, Westminster Papers in Communication and Critical Sociology, all major journals based in the US or the UK. In terms of the broader global public sphere, Synaesthesia: Communication Across Cultures, which Dan founded, has also published important scholarship on the PM. The Organization for Propaganda Studies (http://www.propagandastudies.ac.uk/) has been established. David Edwards and David Cromwell of MediaLens, the British media analysis site (http://www.medialens.org/), recently published Propaganda Blitz: How Corporate Media Distort Reality (2018). Christian Fuchs and Marisol Sandoval co-edit tripleC: Communication, Capitalism and Critique, an open access peer-reviewed journal  that focuses on the critical study of capitalism and communication.

So I think there really is great interest in how power impacts communication, among the public and academics alike, all around the world.

Joan. I also think that the PM is now much better received than 15 years ago. This has been possible through communication and organization between scholars from different countries and within countries. Most of us began learning and utilizing the PM individually, then found the work of other scholars and started to get in touch to collaborate in articles, books and conferences. When I was studying my Master’s degree I met professor Ana Segovia, who had worked on the PM and was willing to supervise my final project. Then I joined the Latin Union of Political Economy of Communication (www.ulepicc.org). Francisco Sierra had already edited a book on the PM in Spanish. At the same time Jeff, Dan and other scholars started to get in touch to think about possible collaborations. All of these contacts helped to build a school on the PM and feel supported and encouraged to use the PM. Conducting academic work individually is very complicated, so the key has been the effort of critical scholars to get together and show the value of the PM. Of course, this was possible because the PM is actually a very useful tool of analysis in different geographical contexts and for the analysis of different media products. For example, when I worked in Colombia, students and professors thought the PM was very helpful to understand the media system there. In my view, the level of media manipulation is higher in Latin America than in the UK or the US for a variety of historical reasons, and that also helps explain the interest in the PM. The media system in Spain is also highly concentrated and there is a lot of political interference. Moreover, Podemos developed a strategy based on appearing in television, so there was some discussion on the possibilities and limits of that strategy. The chapter written by Miguel Álvarez looks at how the 15-M movement, Podemos and left wing, star journalists have promoted alternative communication both in television and the internet. Aurora Labio focused on the limitations of such strategy by analysing the coverage of mainstream newspapers. With both chapters, the book provides a comprehensive view of the social production of communication by and about alternative social and political forces in different media.

Dan: I’m not aware of many Japanese scholars, or westerners teaching in Japan, who routinely use the Propaganda Model to help contextualize their lectures on media performance, but I’m certain there are some. Certainly there is wide awareness in Japan of the Propaganda Model in academia. We still have a relatively strong press in Japan and some fearless journalists who press hard for openness and truth. I’m not aware of any systematic marginalization of the PM, such as what can be observed quite easily in North America.

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UWP: Are students responding to the ideas presented by the PM, more sympathetically than maybe 12 years ago in today’s more polarised political environment?

Jeff: In my experience, students have always embraced the PM. They’re able to readily apply the PM to news that’s literally in front of them everyday, just as they were able to do 12 years ago, or 30 years ago when Manufacturing Consent was first published.

Dan: I see the same sorts of responses in Japan. When students realize what the filters are and how they work, they see that the Propaganda Model crosses the line from concept to practice before their eyes. Maybe more significant: the Model crosses many international boundaries. This awareness of its utility is especially keen for students already suspicious of how the centres of power in Tokyo and Washington manufacture consent in big media to establish new projects, for example, in military garrison construction. They’re often extremely concerned about destruction of the local environment and making enemies with neighbouring nations. With the emergence of digital media and social networking platforms, students are excited to see how their perceptions are being shaped by the media they consume. Their new awareness creates in them a kind of resistance to the prevailing mass-marketed narratives.

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UWP: In the next few years how would you like to see researchers work with the PM? What kind of projects would you like to see completed, what analysis?

Jeff: I’d like to see the PM applied to a range of different media. Matthew Alford’s work on the PM and cinema has broken new ground. Chapters presented in our book break further new ground. I’d like to see the model applied to new media. I’d like to see new articles applying the PM to the world of sports, inspired by Barry’s chapter. I’d also like to see PM scholars utilizing social media to share new ideas and research. I’d like to see a hub created, so PM researchers can connect and share ideas as well as video lectures, podcasts, interviews. Open access journal articles are changing the dynamics of academic publishing, at last, and I think this is fantastic too.

I’d like to see PM scholars uploading video lectures to YouTube and other social media, and applying the PM to new media, such as Ted Talks, building on the existing body of PM-scholarship.

I’d like to see creative new work in the future, inspired by Herman and Chomsky, that builds upon all the PM research that’s been published to date.

Joan: I agree that there should be further analysis on emerging media and pop culture. I think it will be important to use and improve the PM for the analysis of digital media. We started this path in the book and proposed new filters, such as the Security System proposed by Dan Broudy and Miyume Tanji, and the Propaganda System theorised by Piers Robinson. Miguel Álvarez has looked at alternative uses of the digital media that have been able to, temporarily, reduce the influence of the filters through organized social and political action and the exploitation of the contradictions of media power, to use Des Freedman’s terminology. I also think it will be important to continue to analyse new case studies with content analysis, i.e., reliable empirical evidence. Florian Zollman has done fantastic work in this regard.

UWP: What sort of hope for resistance against inequality and oppression for the future do you think the PM could offer?

Joan: Capitalism and other forms of oppression will triumph if we belief Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that There Is No Alternative (TINA) or that it’s the End of History. We are not in a post-political zeitgeist. We have witnessed massive social and political movements fight the hegemony of neoliberalism and neo-authoritarianism. This struggle will continue and intensify in the future. Wallerstein argues that there is an on-going process of bifurcation between forces that aim for more authoritarianism and those, which promote freedom and equality. The configuration of the world of the future will depend on the outcome of this current struggle, so there is no other option but organizing and developing midterm strategies that can be effective. We need to criticize the existing social powers and at the same time provide viable alternatives. We need to seriously address the problem of climate change, and we can surely learn a lot from indigenous communities. It’s time for mutual support and internationalism.

Dan: I’m reminded of Plato’s famous Allegory. The Propaganda Model describes the ways in which media condition our minds to perceive and accept the mediated world cast on the walls of a cave, now the television or the computer display. As prisoners of this mediated environment, if we can pause to consider how the Model illuminates the artful media performances before our eyes, we can lose the mental chains that restrict our view of the world. We can see the world as it is rather than how it is reproduced for us, the hidden inequities and the oppression that we are moved by a natural desire for truth to unearth. I think the PM provides an extremely useful – in fact an invaluable – way in which to see and grasp the clever manipulations. If we remain blind to them, what hope is there for a future?

Jeff: Education grounded in truth is always dangerous for power. Like Chomsky says, that’s why people have to be controlled, whether via persuasive (and pervasive) ideological influence, flak or force. Ability to critically engage, to recognize ideological dimensions of discourses is centrally important in terms of resistance against inequality and oppression.

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Thanks for participating.


University of Westminster Press

About University of Westminster Press

Based in the heart of Central London, the University of Westminster Press (UWP) is a new open access publisher of peer reviewed academic books and journals.

Launched in 2015, UWP exists to provide global public access to academic work in multiple formats. In partnership with our authors and editors, we shall publish in areas that reflect the teaching and research strengths of the University of Westminster in social sciences and humanities, science and technology, media arts and design, business, architecture and the built environment. UWP builds upon the strengths and traditions of the academic community and alumni of the University of Westminster.


University of Westminster Press
5 December 2018
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