Manufacturing Consent in the 21st Century

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman wrote Manufacturing Consent in the late 1980s to describe the structural forces which cause an otherwise free media—one lacking government censorship, fear of prison for journalists (aside from those sharing designated government secrets), and staffed with people who genuinely see themselves as holding power accountable—can nonetheless produce systematic propaganda, with a highly consistent message, and a strong overton of acceptable opinion.

As Chomsky puts it, “the best way to control public opinion is in fact to promote vigorous debate. You set the limits of the debate, showing what the most extreme acceptable opinions are, and then allow and encourage debate within those limits. Thoughts that fall outside the acceptable spectrum are just off limits.” The five propaganda factors— ownership, sources, advertising, flak, and ideology— work through a series of inducements and threats to encourage views which align with the goals of the powerful, and to discourage or marginalize views which expose the reality beyond the spectrum of acceptable opinion. While Chomsky and Herman’s work was describing conventional mainstream media, which are in fact corporations whose product is the audience they sell to advertisers, using the news as bait, the same factors apply to social media, despite the fact that content is now being created by every user of a given platform. When it comes to social media content creation, there seems to be similarities in something like the music industry.

For example, being in the right time and place for your content to go viral, but also because people are paying to play the game.

Many content creators have paid for promotion, essentially buying followers, and use their page as a business just as the music industry functions. Not to go unmentioned is the fact that understanding how to game the algorithm works to your advantage—knowing what type of content to post, how often to share, etc. The parallel to the music industry to me is how some artists have an ability to write catchy singles but these people are not necessarily great songwriters. Conversely, there are plenty of great songwriters who do not have successful music careers.

Take Travis Scott for example. I’m certainly not going to say he’s a complete SHIT artist (I’m no fan of course), but it’s not particularly creative or inventive music, and you can pay Travis Scott up to $500k to appear on your song. Are people doing this because Travis Scott is objectively one of the best hip hop artists or a truly creative writer? No, they’re doing so because making a song with Travis Scott will extend the reach to more and more mainstream audiences. It’s about generating money, not creating quality or impactful material. You know what you are getting with artists like Travis Scott; objectively mediocre content but it will be noticed by lots of people, and most “successful” social media pages are consciously playing the same kind of game.

Most well established social media political pages—leftwing or not—are sharing content with one thing in mind: PROFIT. Recently I saw an anarchist related meme page with 22k followers who was “selling” their account, which they said was a steady income base for nearly a year until having found their ideal job. So what was this person creating the content for? Not to help people better understand these topics but to make money off their sociopolitical beliefs. These types of content creators are well aware that most people on these platforms are uninformed on the nuances and broad contexts of these discussions, as they tend to be themselves, and in turn they simply create content (memes, short hand, etc) that the algorithm is more inclined to share with audiences. I’m sure there are loads of people who see long hand and more involved pieces who simply don’t have the sociopolitical wherewithal to grasp the material or the internal drive to read something that takes 4-5 minutes of their time. There’s also plenty of leftwing social media accounts that treat the people following their pages like capital, that don’t adhere to solidarity with pages similar by collaborating equally, and this is likely because they don’t want to reroute their followers to better analysis and content creation. Like the music industry, though on a smaller scale, there’s a certain level of ego in running a political social media page with tens to hundreds of thousands of followers.

Where some place the time creating these pages into analysis or thoughtful commentary, there are many more who simply produce easily digestible memes, create multiple backup accounts in case they’re banned, and are clearly focusing their free time on amassing followers for their monetized social media presence. If someone’s format is memes or short hand content, then they may present themselves as an intellectual but they’re not having to back it up with any intellectual coherence. There’s a big difference between being a true left minded intellectual and simply making a lot of jokes rooted in Marxist language, which is what the vast majority of left wing political pages are doing because they know what the general public is here for or simply can’t form their own long form sociopolitical content. But if this is the reality of social media, which has now become the dominant way in which most people interact with politics, then we have to specifically address why this is the case. For starters, we all realize that social media platforms are giant corporations, which are now even larger and more profitable than those that own conventional media. Secondly, we almost reflexively note the nature of how these platforms operate, using terms like clickbait’ and recognizing the existence of promoted content.

There are some aspects of social media that go far beyond the control exercised by traditional media. The algorithm promotes content that serves the ends of the corporations— that gain the most interaction, and therefore generate the greatest amount of revenue. The average person is aware that other ordinary people have become influencers, whose income often comes from living subsidized lives of luxury while being paid for their posts. On the one hand, these influencers set the pattern for what posts are *supposed* to look like, which most users instinctively imitate; on the other hand, many users are actively trying to build sufficiently large followings to monetize their own accounts. Whether they succeed or not, these efforts push content in the same direction as is desired by the algorithm; and if they do succeed, then we have yet another large account that replicates and perpetuates the pattern of short hand content for corporate profits. These patterns exist whether the content is models, lifestyle, health and wellness, news and information, political related, etc. They are all pushed toward the formats and type of content that please the algorithm and its corporate designers. Which brings about another parallel between social media and conventional outlets. Social media algorithms champion memes, or content that does not get to the heart of the discussion. Similarly, conventional corporate media shortens everything into concise sound bites that leave little room for commentators to flesh out the intricacies and nuances of these discussions in order to paint a clearer picture. Going back to Chomsky and Herman’s work and looking at the five factors from their original propaganda model, we can see how they apply specifically in the domain of social media.

1 – OWNERSHIP. We all know who the wealthy owners of our platforms are—Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. They have well known biases, and every user can observe how these play out the heavy censorship of pro-Palestinian content for example, where even pro-Zionist accounts will have to write “G@z@” in order to avoid being flagged for mentioning a society that our owners have decided is a candidate for disappearance from history.

2 – SOURCES. Just as in the original “quest to get the story first,” which causes outlets to run stories with insufficient fact checking, or to simply re-run stories from other outlets, and which was manipulated by the Bush II regime by handing press releases directly to friendly outlets; there is a similar trend occurring with social media now. Many pages recycle memes, news content and other posts from each other. Meta decides which sources to flag for supposed “misleading” or “graphic” content and then suppresses the material; using corporate and government approved sources results in better visibility for posts and accounts, and it’s far easier to generate volumes of content by reposting things that you can see have done well, than by trying to generate your own content. These pressures lead to a lot of repetitive posts, recycled content from more popular pages, and an avoidance of sharing from sources that have been flagged, which results in these kind of posts and accounts being suppressed despite the accuracy of their messaging.

3 – ADVERTISING/FUNDING. Of course the real purpose of social media is to influence opinions while generating profit for the owners of the platforms. They don’t want to lose advertising money, which in turn puts pressure on them to curate their algorithms in a way that pleases advertisers, as well attracts and avoids alienating them. As mentioned, users are aware of the kind of content that gains followers and leads to monetization, and this exercises considerable influence on the kind of posts they make. Even where they go against this formula, popularity and monetization go hand in hand, and the accounts or posts that get the most promotion from the algorithm get the most financial benefit for their account operators. Of course, if an account becomes large enough that it is now the primary revenue source of its creators, they simply cannot afford to lose this income; this becomes akin to losing one’s job, which is honestly pathetic in itself as content creating on social media contributes nothing to the functionality of society. Therefore they will be under great pressure to avoid losing visibility, and to continue to have as much engagement as possible.

4 – FLAK. Just like in conventional media, complaints and official censure play a role. Posts can be reported, many accounts get deleted, and shadow bans are ubiquitous. Users learn where the line is, and either instinctively avoid pushing it, so as to keep to official narratives and superficial takes that barely scratch beneath the surface, or else their content risks being suppressed, their accounts shadow-banned, and even eventually deleted in many cases. The Canadian Government recently passed a law requiring social media platforms to pay news outlets if posts containing their content generate revenue for the platform. Rather than acquiesce, meta has now restricted users in Canada from viewing any news content. This shows how far they are willing to go to protect their profits and control their content. And of course there is no shortage of harassment, doxxing, aggressive DM’s and so on that accounts have to deal with when they post content that crosses the boundaries of acceptable opinion.

5 – IDEOLOGY. Originally ‘anti-communism’, then ‘anti-terror’, the primary form today; it also covers capitalism, communism, anarchism, etc. There are ideologies which are to be promoted, and those which are to be considered inherently vile. Content that aligns with a social media platform’s interpretations will be promoted and protected, while content that criticizes or promotes the *wrong* ideologies or interpretations will simply be branded “pro-terror,” “anti-western,” or whatever else. As in traditional media, it doesn’t really matter how transparent this is. Even pages adhering to subversive ideologies—Marxist, socialist, anarchist, etc—usually aren’t getting to the heart of these discussions and often are simply reenforcing the corporate state’s interpretation of these ideologies by not offering substantial analysis. The point is that at the end of the day, most users will primarily see content that aligns with the political, ideological and economic goals or beliefs of the ruling elites who own society, while subversive but easily digestible content will be presented as evidence of our supposedly open and free “marketplace of ideas,” with anything that actually poses a threat to power simply marginalized, removed, and dropped into the dustbin of history.