Propaganda: The Manufacture of Consent. Directed by Jimmy Leipold. Brooklyn: Icarus Films, 2018. 53 minutes.
Post Truth Times: We the Media. Directed by Héctor Carré. Paris: Java Films, 2017. 102 minutes.
In the early 2000s, Facebook and Twitter were welcomed to the world as people saw the bright future where collective actions and voices were manifested through the new communication technologies. However, people have decided to leave these platforms that have become spaces for fake news, disinformation, propaganda, and marketing for corporations. Due to the ubiquity, speed, and affordance of these technologies that were once the wellsprings of a public sphere for democracy, we have been experiencing more propaganda and (dis)information than any other time in history.1 The two films I review below speak directly to the way in which we, as members of the global community, critically understand, interpret, and accept (or reject) information, as well as the responsibility of journalism (and journalists) during this (dis)information era.
The first film, Propaganda: The Manufacture of Consent, critically approaches how public relations (PR) in the United States evolved from the propaganda techniques developed during World War II, techniques that have been miraculously effective in changing (or manipulating) our attitudes toward commodities, politicians, public policies, and international relations. How did bacon and eggs become a staple of American breakfast? How did (white middle-class) women smoking cigarettes in public become a symbol of women’s liberation? And how did Juan José Arévalo Bermejo, the president democratically elected in Guatemala in 1945, become a communist threat to the United States? These unrelated questions were all posed by one public relationist: Edward Barney. He enthusiastically believed that the public was incapable of doing critical thinking, meaning that most people must have political, social, and cultural issues simplified by opinion leaders. His false belief came from the “manufacture of consent” model coined by Walter Lippman, which refers to a model in which public opinion leaders collect and analyze public interests, select the common interests on behalf of the general public, and disperse them through mass media.2 In turn, politicians create policies and laws based on these common interests. That is, a group of opinion leaders were necessary as a bridge between the public and the political sector; otherwise, most people could not understand or would not pay attention to what happened around their lives. Not surprisingly, these public opinion leaders were white upper-class men who were closer to politicians and capitalists than the public, as Barney was.
The documentary shows the way in which Barney—an upper-class white male zealot of capitalism—was deeply embedded in his own privilege and worldview. Through critical review of his influence on public discourse, the film leads viewers to think about how PR techniques have affected (or manipulated) our thoughts and habits. In addition, the documentary looks into contemporary PR maneuvers used in digital and social media and explores possible counter actions from the public. Hence, I suggest that educators lead discussions on several points with students after watching the film: Historically and today, who have been powerful opinion leaders in the United States? Are they still white, male, middle or upper class, and white-collar workers, like Edward Barney? Or do we have a more diverse body of opinion leaders today? As members of the public, how do we generate critical thinking to read, interpret, and evaluate information and go further to take actions against PR techniques within a capitalistic media system?3
On the other hand, Post Truth Times: We the Media observes how the latest communication technologies, such as social media, have impacted the broad landscape of professional journalism: the extent to which a constant stream of exclusive and breaking news has changed the profession; the worrisome rise of fake news and disinformation; the growth of social media–based news outlets such as Buzzfeed; and the place of investigative journalism in this new media environment. The film’s attempt to try and cover all these important issues during its 102-minute running time results in a loss of depth. However, the director does not dismiss the crucial value of journalism, which he argues is not just about delivering factual information but about offering investigative news in order to open a public sphere where people acknowledge and discuss insightful stories on social and political issues. Featuring Amy Goodman (the cofounder and producer of Democracy Now) and Janine Jackson (the producer and host of the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting weekly radio show CounterSpin), this film, despite its occasional bleakness, offers glimpses into future paths where journalism could lead.
Although Post Truth Times offers knowledge on a range of issues, its view is limited to mainstream journalism in Europe (mostly Spain and the United Kingdom) and the United States, a narrow scope, even though it is given a justifiable explanation. To prevent falling into Western universality, we should expand the discussion to include how grassroots media have been grown by people of color within and beyond Western countries. When it comes to the fact that mass media has acted as an institutional power itself, students should also be encouraged to consider what “truth” means in every news context, particularly when the term has been co-opted by the interests of neoliberal politics and consumer cultures, the profit-driven motives of media conglomerates, and the individual biases of journalists. In other words, has news ever delivered truths to the public? If so, we can move further to discuss how we, as members of global communities, can critically read and interpret news as well as find alternative journalism that creates space for our voices and actions. We also must talk about how to become active and creative media users who can amplify our voices and actions in the world.4 After watching the two films, I hope that we affirm political, social, and cultural potentials and possibilities coming from our powers beyond a war of (dis)information and propaganda.
1 Andrew M. Guess and Benjamin A. Lyons, “Misinformation, Disinformation, and Online Propaganda in Social Media and Democracy: The State of the Field and Prospects for Reform, ed. Nathaniel Persily and Joshua A. Tucker (UK, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 10.
2 Water Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1922), xv.
3 I highly recommend assigning Manufacturing Consent (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). Even though the book was first published in 1988 and focuses only on mass media, its analysis of the way the digital and social media system caters to the government and private interests still has relevance today.
4 To do so, educators need to consider teaching how we understand our worlds as connected to media institutions and support our students to become active users and participants in the public sphere. David Buckingham, the world-renowned British scholar in the field of media literacy education, has been advancing these ideas. I recommend reading his recent publication The Media Education Manifesto (London: Polity, 2019).