The manufacture of consent
Walter Lippmann introduced the notion of “manufacturing consent” in his book “Public Opinion,” which was published in 1922. As a journalist, Lippmann suggested that the “news” and the “truth” are not synonymous. The news, according to him, functions as a way of signifying how an event happened. In this sense, the subjective interpretation of the writer is a factor. The truth, he argued, refers to concealed facts. Democracy for Lippmann suffers because of the fragility as to how issues are played in the media. Which results in one crucial thing—the ignorance of voters.
In the 1988 book, “Manufacturing Consent,” Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky expounded on this Lippmann thesis by applying it to the mass media industry. They argued that the mass media “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function…” Herman and Chomsky were speaking about the propaganda model of communication. Both suggested that since media outlets are corporations with profit as goal, they are subject to the control of market forces.
Chomsky indicated that social control is a factor in determining content. Government chooses which information it divulges to the public and keeps as state secret whatever it deems as inimical to its interest. The criticism against mainstream media outlets in reporting the Paris terror attacks can be traced to the Eurocentric model of discourse. However, it is not only about the alliance of the most advanced Western states. Some commentators note that it is also about what type of news story sells and why.
Back here, the national elections has never been this interesting. The emergence of Rodrigo Duterte as frontrunner means that he is a great source of news story. The mayor has almost single-handedly exposed what Philippine politics should be duly concerned about. Whether you agree with him or not is not the point. What is more significant is how he has elicited the narratives that would have remained hidden from the view of the public. For instance, he has unveiled the issue of elitism in Philippine politics and has given voice to Mindanao’s 14 million voters.
Those who do not agree with the mayor’s brand of leadership are also right in pointing out the important concerns that people also need to reflect on, foremost of which is the human rights issue. However, it is not a farfetched claim that the clamor for radical change has also exposed the incompetence of the national government in tackling many of our problems. It is up to the electorate to make their judgments. Real democracy thrives in the agora of public discourse.
The depth of understanding of the electorate with respect to issues of national concern determines the political maturity of a nation. On hindsight, one may point to social media as the most influential factor right now in mainstreaming the chaotic nature of politics. Social media knows no boundaries. It has also effectively destroyed the distinction between the private and the public. The democratic space it offers is boundless because there is no way to control the traffic of content online. Sanitizing the news is almost impossible. People from all walks of life have become instant armchair analysts, giving their personal take on vital issues. Whether one’s opinion is right or wrong is not the point. What is important is to recognize how social media has transformed overnight into a “sounding board” for public opinion, to use a term from Jurgen Habermas.
If and when a voter favors a particular candidate and defends that candidate no matter what, it reveals how his experiences may have determined his perspective. While the words coming from the mouth of charismatic leaders are sometimes largely symbolic, the point is that politics in the Philippines is deeply personal. To be able to connect with the majority of our voters who belong to the masses, it is not enough to point out to them your platform of government. You have to convince them that your smile is honest and sincere.
The Philippine elections in 2016 will not be determined by Facebook or Twitter. Majority of the masses do not have access to the Internet. Social media is important, but it is not the most important.
Traditional broadcast media, both TV and radio, still play the most important role because they have the widest reach. Broadcasters help shape the form and content of public issues. They manufacture for the hungry the choices that they have to make. While some broadcasters are actually more of attack dogs unleashed by political patrons than journalists, the basic point is, people form their opinion on the basis of what they hear. A critical mind that reaches out to the masses beyond the virtual world in this respect still is the most potent instrument in achieving political change.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc is assistant professor of philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He holds a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden, and has trained on political party building under the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Bonn and Berlin, Germany.