Engineering Consent

Mass societies are characterised by a balance between coercion and consent. Where other institutions like the courts and prisons operate as a coercive mode of power, media institutions exercise power via consensus, or agreement.

Coercive modes of power are the threat, and use, of direct force to make populations act in a certain way. Authoritarian societies are more coercive than consensual: they rely on a strong military and police force to control people in their daily lives.

While coercive modes of power may seem quite obvious, consensual forms of power are a bit more subtle in comparison. They operate by establishing a way of life that people feel makes common sense. They present an idea about what constitutes a ‘good life’ and a sense that this life is attainable by following certain rules and norms.

Coercive modes of power are direct. If you break some rules – like commit an act of violence – the state will come and lock you up. But, for the most part, the modes of power we encounter everyday are consensual: they nudge us toward, suggest, and affirm particular ideas. They indicate what kinds of people get rewarded and have the good life and who is excluded.

Over time we begin to understand how the rules work and we learn to monitor ourselves. We learn to make judgments about how to follow the rules based on what we understand the rules and consequences of not following them.

Media and the meanings they create and disseminate play a critical role in teaching us the rules, rewards and modes of life that will be affirmed.

The relationship between meaning and power is a building block of our understanding of media and society. To begin, we start with this claim: meanings are part of the exercise of power because meanings shape how we understand the world, how we understand the world shapes how we act in the world and how others act towards us.

Exercising power enables us to get things done in the world.  Power is not a bad thing. In many ways it is an important part of social organization in a mass society. Of course, power can involve force and violence.

But, more importantly, we should pay attention to how power is subtly written into the everyday ideas and ways of life around us that are encouraged and discouraged. How is common sense established? Who benefits and who loses?

The Engineering of Consent

Let’s weave together some threads we’ve spun so far: media technologies are used to exercise power in three ways.

Firstly, by media creating a network or infrastructure that controls the flow of ideas.

Secondly, by creating and circulating meaning. The media everyday tells us a story about what the ‘good life’ is and how to live it, what normal is. This is part of the exercise of power in that it legitimates particular groups as right, and others and their ways of life as wrong. It affirms particular ways of thinking and living your life.

Thirdly, media technologies collect and process information. They are a key instruments for monitoring people. Sometimes that monitoring is used in direct and forceful ways: to identify criminals and apprehend them. But, monitoring is also used in more subtle ways: to nudge, suggest and shape the flows of ideas we are immersed in. Part of Facebook’s capacity to shape a story about everyday life in your news feed rests on its capacity to customize that feed to your interests by monitoring you, creating a kind of feedback loop of influence.

I’ll conclude then with an excerpt from ‘The Engineering of Consent’ a 1947 essay by Edward Bernays’, a founding figure of modern public relations. He writes:

The tremendous expansion of communications in the United States has given this Nation the world’s most penetrating and effective apparatus for the transmission of ideas. Every resident is constantly exposed to the impact of our vast network of communications which reach every corner of the country, no matter how remote or isolated. Words hammer continually at the eyes and ears of America. The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times. Knowledge of how to use this enormous amplifying system becomes a matter of primary concern to those who are interested in socially constructive action.

Bernays maps out the consequences of the creation of a media infrastructure that spans a nation and distributes ideas into the daily lives of a vast population. But for us, the single whisper in a room is now amplified globally.

The technologies of the mass society collapses time and space, and in doing so enable the management of enormous populations of people.

Technologies like railway, telegraph, newspapers, cinema, television store and transport people, goods and ideas around the world.

Before these technologies news, people and objects from outside your immediate surroundings would circulate very slowly. Other people and ways of life would have felt very distant. Most of the people and objects encountered each day were produced within your immediate surroundings by people you knew.

After these technologies the circulation of goods, people and the ideas they carried with them began to speed up. Think of the speed of a train carrying newspapers or reels of film from town to town, to a telegraph or radio network transferring sound across a continent, to the internet distributing information around the globe. 

With infrastructure for transporting goods, people and ideas over distance more quickly, populations spread over large areas could begin to interact with each other in meaningful ways. This makes the idea of a globalized society possible: vast areas where people come to understand themselves as part of a shared way of life.

Within nation states political and economic elites could manage the day to day lives of vast populations of people. The nation state – characterised by its technologies for managing the circulation of ideas, people and goods – is a system through which political and commercial elites can exercise power. Bernays is writing in the shadow of World War II – the rise and fall of Nazi Germany with its propaganda machinery, the emerging Cold War between the mass societies of Soviet Russia and the United States – both societies that use a large media and cultural machinery to exercise control over daily life.

While he warns, ‘we must recognise modern communications… as a potent force for social good or possible evil’. Perhaps most importantly he makes the point that whoever leads complex mass societies will need to ‘master the techniques of communication’. By this he means not just the capacity of a leader to deliver compelling rhetoric, but more fundamentally the ability to build and maintain media and cultural institutions that ‘engineer consent’.

Over time, engineering consent makes forms of coercive power unnecessary. We have already agreed to our own monitoring and control and those of our fellow citizens.

Notes | Edward Bernays quote is from Bernays, E. (1947). The engineering of consent. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 250(1), 113-120. | Excerpt of CJ Lawrence talking about Black Lives Matter is from CBS News August 14, 2014 '#iftheygunnedmedown creator on the representation of Mike Brown'.