In this article I will approach the question of manipulation in the mass media from both the perspective of Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model, in his book “Manufacturing Consent”, and Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory. I will argue that from the point of view of system theory, Chomsky’s rigid claims of manipulation – while informative and thought provoking – are however, misleading. I will explain that from a systems theory point of view, Chomsky’s thesis fails to account for the differentiated functionality of the mass media as an autopoietic social system. I will present a re-interpretation of the concept of “manipulation” as seen from the perspective of system theory and invite a reassessment of Chomsky’s Propaganda model based on a society that is “functionally differentiated”, as opposed to one that is “stratified”. The essential aim of this paper then, is to show how from the point of view of systems theory, the idea of manipulation in the mass media is a consequence of a society that is functionally differentiated, and as such, constitutes an socio-evolutionary process rather than an anomaly that is organized and implemented by human agents.
In the opening chapter of his book, “The reality of the mass media”, Niklas Luhmann suggests, that “whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media”( 2000, 1). Luhmann goes on to point out a curious dilemma that arises out of this dependence on the media to construct our general view of the world, namely, the notion “that we are not able to trust these sources” (Ibid). Who would argue, that now, in the 21st century, we do indeed live in a world where our ‘general’ reality is constructed via the mass media; and if, as Luhmann suggests, we do not feel we are ‘’able to trust these scources’’, is it surprising then if the notion of manipulation and even conspiracy arise? However, Luhmann also suggests that the solution to the problem of manipulation “cannot be found in someone secretly pulling the strings behind the scenes. Rather, he asserts that “what we are dealing with is an effect of the ‘’functional differentiation of modern society”. (Ibid)
Conversely, in 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, published a book entitled, “Manufacturing Consent”. The book presents a convincing account – from the perspective of western democracy – of what the authors believe to be an organised propaganda campaign executed through the mass media in order to impose corporate and political policies on the public by elitist groups within society. According to Chomsky, these dominant groups or agents of power, manipulate and set the agenda of the mass media itself – who of course as we know – shape public opinion.
In this way the propaganda model that Chomsky advocates in his book serves to solidify and sustain the dominant groups control over political and economic affairs worldwide and particularly in America through the manipulation of global news and events. Chomsky argues, that these ‘the agents of power’ fool the public into supporting domestic and foreign policies that they may otherwise have opposed if they were in possession of all the facts. For Chomsky, this on-going deceit at the hands of the ‘dominant elite’ – via the mass media – results in the citizens becoming passive consumers with no real participatory power in the democratic process. He concludes, “therefore we have no democracy but rather a crisis in democracy, which must be resolved.”(10)
As noted, Luhmann does not seem to deny that a level of manipulation is involved in the mass media. However, he has made it equally clear that he does not believe that the answer to this mystery lies in some unseen force controlling things from the shadows, as it were. Chomsky, on the other hand, asserts quite the opposite and insists that “the media serve the interests of state and corporate power, which are closely interlinked, framing their reporting and analysis in a manner supportive of established privilege and limiting debate and discussion accordingly”(Ibid). Chomsky’s whole thesis then is aimed at showing how the mass media serve a societal purpose that, far from enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, actually serves to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government and to the arrangements of the social, economic and political order more generally”. (Ibid 13)
Interestingly enough, it would also appear that Luhmann does not denounce the political and economic bullying that Chomsky highlights above. In fact he clearly concedes that “there are individuals, families [or] groups which, like everyone else, use their networks to their own advantage” (Luhmann 1997, 67). However, unlike Chomsky, Luhmann does not seem to think that concepts that support ideas like ‘suppression’ and ‘exploitation’ are helpful, but sees them rather as indicative of a worldview that does not recognize the functional differentiation of modern society, and suggests that, “it is only by habit and by ideological distortion that we use these terms” (Ibid). So, what does Luhmann mean when he asserts that the idea of manipulation is “an effect of the functional differentiation of modern society” (2000, 1)
According to social systems theory, a society that is functionally differentiated is a society that comprises of a number of functional systems – for example, the political system, the economy, and the system of the mass media. In and off themselves, these systems are “self-generating”, or “autopoietic systems,” that is, they evolve immanently within their own systems environment. In this way each particular system – like that of the mass media – is operationally closed to any other system beyond the boundary of its own autopoiesis. They are all different systems that operate strictly within their own systems environment. In this way they are all social systems that are functionally differentiated.
However, it is important to note, that functionally differentiated social systems that are “structurally coupled”, tend to create what Luhmann describes as “irritation” or “perturbation”, that cause the boundaries that define each system to become “blurred”, with the result that a transgression or penetration between two or more operationally closed systems can appear to occur. However, in reality, no transgression or penetration transpires, nor can it ever transpire – given the autopoietic configuration of the system. Rather, the illusion of transgression is the result of the perturbation incurred due to the “structural coupling” of two or more closed systems each with their own distinct operational codes. It is this blurring of the boundaries, or “mutual borrowing” as Luhmann terms it, of structurally coupled social systems, that gives rise to the notion that the system is being controlled or manipulated by a system that lies beyond the boundaries of its own environment.
In order to clarify this point it may be helpful to use the analogy of three trees planted in close proximity to each other. We may say that each tree is representative of the systems of politics, the Economy, and the mass media. As noted above, each system is a result of its own autopoiesis. Correspondingly, each of our trees are the same in that they are each a stand-alone and separate organism in their own right. However, as each tree evolves and grows, it branches out and spreads its canopy, and, due to its close proximity to the other two, it merges with the canopy of the one next to it. The result is that from the perspective of the canopy alone, it is almost impossible to be sure which tree is which. The tree of politics merges with the tree of the economy, and the one of the economy merges with the tree of the mass media. However, each tree is still a distinct and separate system in its own right. Our trees are functionally differentiated, yet, because they are also structurally coupled (given that they evolved and grew out of their own operationally closed autopoietic environment) the boundaries that define them becomes blurred and thus difficult to distinguish one from the other. Indeed, when one looks up at the canopy and sees the intermingling and entanglement of the branches and leaves of each tree, one could be forgiven for interpreting that one particular tree was responsible for manipulating the other and vice versa. In reality however, the “confusion in the canopy” is due not to the manipulation of one system by another, but rather, to the fact that they are functionally differentiated systems that have evolved in a way that structurally couples them with each other.
In this way, the political system cannot dominate the economy any more than the economy can dictate to or dominate the mass media. They are independent yet interdependent. All three are autopoietic systems whose environments are operationally closed from one another. Yet paradoxically, they are also helplessly co-dependent due to their structural coupling and the “perturbation” that results from this evolutionary systemic process. In his book Luhmann explained, Moeller informs us that, “society looks different from the perspective of each subsystem and its function, and there is no perspective, or super-system, that can supervise the subsystems”. As with the “confusion” in the canopy” that results from the structural coupling of the trees in the above analogy, the same is necessarily the case in regard to the notion of supervision or manipulation of the mass media by some other dominant system. In considering the “confusion in the canopy”, is it possible to say which tree is manipulating the other? Is it reasonable to suggest that there is a hierarchal system that is centrally steered which enables one tree to dominate the rest?
From a purely systems theoretical point of view, this is exactly what Chomsky’s propaganda model is suggesting: that there is a dominant force within the political system and the system of the economy, which does supervise and manipulate the mass media. Furthermore, Chomsky argues that this dominant force is hidden from public view. Conversely, “social systems theory does not assume that the mass media system is either directly manipulated by other systems such as politics or the economy nor that it can directly manipulate them” (Moeller 2006 145). Systems theory recognizes that the “confusion in the canopy” is due to the “perturbation caused by the trees “structural coupling”. Why then, is Chomsky so adamant in his belief that the mass media are being manipulated? What differs in Chomsky’s approach to the question of manipulation in the mass media, to that of the point of view adopted by Niklas Luhmann?
In a short, though exemplary introduction to “systems theory”, entitled “The Legacy of Niklas Luhmann”, Bechmann and Stehr assert that:
“Luhmann distances himself from what he calls the “old European” ontological theoretical tradition, hopelessly outmoded in its potential for capturing modern society in all its complexity. In doing so, he is trying to overcome two thousand years of tradition that, in his view, have been transcended by the process of functional differentiation” (2002, 70).
Chomsky’s propaganda model seeks to educate the masses as to the hidden machinations that control society and thus their lives; not to mention the ‘unknown and ‘unnamed’ “agents of power” that are responsible for all this. Chomsky seems to promote the idea that “we would be presented with the real view of reality if only we could get rid of these evil manipulators. It we had truly democratic and liberated mass media, manipulation would disappear, and then would we be able to see the world as it is” (Moeller, 143). In this way Chomsky’s approach is highly normative, in that it sees the problems of the mass media as being the result of the unethical behaviour of “unknown” and “unnamed”, individuals. In my view, this type of perception makes it practically impossible to interpret correctly the “confusion in the canopy”, and leaves one condemned to understand the world in a fragmented and obscured manner that almost borders on paranoia. Moreover, I believe that this is an attitude that systems theory compels us to discard in order to “come to terms” with the fact that we have evolved beyond the “Old European Tradition” of a society based on stratified differentiation. In fact Luhmann quite openly posits this view in, “Globalization or World Society?: How to conceive of modern society. The passage I am referring to deserves, I believe, to be included here in its entirety:
We have to come to terms, once and for all, with a society without human happiness and, of course, without taste, without solidarity, without similarity of living conditions. It makes no sense to insist on these aspirations, to revitalize or to supplement the list by renewing old names such as civil society or community. This can only mean dreaming up new utopias and generating new disappointments in the narrow span of political possibilities. These desirability’s serve as a central phantom that seems to guarantee the unity of the system. But one cannot introduce the unity of the system into the system. We may well recognize the hardships and the injustice of stratification, but it is no longer the main problem of society. For its scheme of difference and identity is no longer framed by stratificatory (or hierarchical differentiation). Stratification would mean that we could know the addresses of influential people and the ropes, and that we would be able to change the structure of society by appealing to reason, by critique, by reforming institutions, or by revolution. But this has become more than doubtful”.
Of course, Chomsky does not supply us with the names and addresses of the “influential people” who are responsible for the manipulation outlined in his propaganda model. The reason for this is because we all manipulate the system. Human beings are themselves operationally functional elements that contribute to the autopoiesis of all social systems. However, our contribution is not to be understood as something inherently created by us, but rather a manifestation of the communicative constructivism, or autopoesis, of the whole system. From a strictly systems theoretical perspective, Chomsky’s own observations can be understood as incidents of “perturbation” between systems that are structurally coupled rather than a single individual with an omniscient picture of reality. It appears that, Chomsky believes that we can introduce “unity” into the system via a revolutionary process that advocates a reformation, or democratization of the mass media. This proposal is based on a society that is stratified, and presupposes that a unified picture of reality or the ultimate truth of world events can be achieved. However, due to the evolutionary inevitability of the structural coupling of all social systems (and by extension the creation of new ones) one can only observe or cognize reality in parts, so to speak, which effectively sabotages any attempt to perceive the system in its entirety. As Moeller puts it, “if you want to see everything “as it is” you will see nothing. (150).
“Unlike Chomsky, Luhmann does not want to ignore the fact that his own observations must necessarily have a systemic location” (Ibid). It is this point that accentuates the fundamental difference in the way Chomsky interprets manipulation in the mass media compared to the way Niklas Luhmann understands it. In Luhmann’s observations he acknowledges that he is like “a rat in the labyrinth and [he] has to reflect on the position from which he observes the other rats” (Ibid). Chomsky, however, seems totally caught up in “the confusion in the canopy”, and as such, he is lost “in the labyrinth” that results from the curious notion that one can somehow perceive reality in its entirety. From the perspective of systems theory and as a ‘second’ order observer, Chomsky would no doubt recognise the trees of politics, the economy and the mass media, as separate, self-producing autopoietic systems. He would realize that, contrary to his propaganda model, the idea of manipulation is, as Luhmann quite rightly asserts, merely “an effect of the functional differentiation of modern society”. (2000, 1)
• Chomsky, Noam & Herman, Edward, S. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Vintage, 1994, 1998.
• Luhmann, Niklas. The Reality of the Mass Media. trans by Kathleen, Cross. Stanford, University Press. 2000.
• Moeller, Hans – Georg. Luhmann Explained: from souls to systems. Open Court.
• Luhmann, Niklas. Globalization, or World Society?: How to conceive of modern society. International, review, of Sociology, Mar, 97, Vol. 7. Issue 1. p13 – 67.