Persuasion, Manipulation, and the Mass Media

If a striking distinction were noted between an authoritarian society and a libertarian system, it might be the difference between two words: coercion and persuasion.

The goals of an authoritarian state are usually achieved through coercive means. Men’s actions, and in some cases their minds, are forced into a pattern by the power of the government. On the other hand, the democratic society theoretically reaches its goals through persuasion. Men are convinced by the weight of argument to support or oppose candidates, policies, and projects. When there is sufficient support on one side or the other of an argument, then that side carries the day.

Unfortunately, the classical theory that envisions an informed, intelligent citizenry weighing candidates and issues and then making wise decisions does not always square with the realities of a modern democratic state. Most democracies that were originally dedicated to the theory of giving ear to the voice of the people provide the machinery to accomplish that goal, but the machinery has been clogged by manipulators.

Part of the machinery of a democracy includes the media of information (newspapers, magazines, broadcasting stations, motion pictures, books, and press services). And it is in the mass media that the manipulators are gumming the gears and slowing down the wheels of persuasion.

And just who are the manipulators?

For the most part they are persuaders who have given up the legitimate, democratic device of persuasion and replaced it with manipulative techniques.

The merchant who tries to sell you a product by extolling its virtues and offering it to you at a fair price is engaged in legitimate persuasion. The merchant who exaggerates the quality of his product, fails to disclose dangerous weaknesses, or misleads as to price is manipulating.

A political candidate who takes a position on issues and speaks to his own qualifications for office operates in the best tradition of democratic persuasion. Manipulation enters the picture when issues are evaded or opposing candidates are smeared.

The prime minister or president who takes his case to the people, arguing for his policies, has made a contribution to an intelligent electorate. The government official who plays with half-truths, intimidates or curries favor with the news media, or is just unwilling to communicate with the people becomes a manipulator.

The industrial giant that faces up to social criticism on safety or environmental questions with honest answers deserves respect. But the corporation that attacks its critics, threatens economic ruin to local communities, or responds with a Madison Avenue publicity campaign has left the persuaders and joined the manipulators.

Examples here could be multiplied, but maybe the point becomes clear. There is nothing essentially wrong with allowing attempts to convince us to buy soap or dentifrices, to vote for candidates, to engage in wars, to sign peace treaties, to legalize gambling, or to censor obscene movies. The heart and soul of a democratic system is that each idea should be tested in the marketplace.

The system breaks down, though, when the information upon which decisions are made has not been honestly presented, or important information has been withheld. Manipulation muddies the water and distorts the truth. Successful manipulators bring about decisions based on emotion rather than fact. It should be noted that most of us are motivated in large measure by emotion and prejudice, but that fact makes it even more critical for us to have every opportunity to introduce some rationality into our decisions.

Is there any protection or solution for the individual honestly searching for answers to public affairs questions? Pilate posed the rhetorical question to the Savior. “What is truth?” (See John 18:38.) In matters other than the revealed gospel, that question is still a thorny one. Even with a totally unbiased presentation of information, honest men may reach contradictory conclusions. On that assumption, can you envision the difficulties when honest but prejudiced men are subjected to dishonest and biased information?

The real miracle of modern life is that democracies survive at all in the ebb and flow of distortion, half-truths, and outright lies.

From a practical standpoint, just what does this mean to a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wherever he may be in the world? First, most Latter-day Saints live in countries where they have an opportunity to cast votes in free elections. Participation in local and national elections should assume some knowledge of issues and candidates. In fact, any person in a free society is faced with constant decisions that can be made wisely only if the individual has access to current information.

This, then, is our real dilemma, to acquire reasonably accurate information on current affairs so that our decisions will be intelligent ones.

There is no easy answer to the dilemma because most of us are at the end of the information flow. We don’t sit at the apex of the decision-making process. We are not privy to the actions and thoughts of those who influence our economic and political lives. We are mostly dependent upon what we are told in the mass media or by what is passed on by other individuals who may claim access to the inner circles.

It should be noted here that the manipulation discussed earlier enters the information stream at two major points: (1) the actual source of the information, and (2) the media.

The role of a free press in theory is to check on the manipulations at the source and provide the “correct” version of events and ideas. But it must be admitted that the news media do not always perform that role. Incompetence, focusing on the sensational in order to attract interest, corporate bias, and individual bias have all interfered on occasion with the adequate performance of the mass media in the free world.

The real tragedy of all this is that a free society is greatly dependent upon trust—trust in government, trust in the educational system, and trust in the press. Very few democratic governments today enjoy the complete confidence and trust of the electorate. And the news media have performed poorly enough to create a widening gap between themselves and their patrons.

It is essential that the performance of both governments and the press reach such a level of adequacy that liberty-loving people will no longer feel that they are being manipulated. Changes in that direction will not likely take place until individuals demand it.

In the meantime, identify sources of information that you can trust. Support those individuals and elements of the mass media that have given some evidence of trying to be honest. Adopt a note of skepticism with advertising, editorials, news stories, commentaries, and government officials. Never depend upon a single source of information if you are dealing with an issue of any significance.

There are responsible, honest people in government, business, and the media, so the battle to properly inform yourself is not hopeless, especially if you are willing to accept some responsibility for altering the affairs of men on this earth. And Latter-day Saints should have some concern for those public affairs.

[illustration] Art by Nina McNaughtan