The creation of public opinion

It is in the 1920s when the notion of “Public Opinion”; gains serious currency, as in the writings of someone such as Walter Lippmann. Specifically, its emergence appears to have relied on the extraordinary success of American and British propaganda during World War I. It only became possible to speak of something called “public opinion” after national elites succeeded in using radio and newspapers to hammer millions of diverse hearts and minds into a mass public desire for war against Germany.

Today, the concept of “public opinion,” as it is used by journalists and political scientists, tends to refer to an aggregate variable, a social average, which reflects the ebbs and flows of individuals, thoughts and attitudes toward some societal issue. Today, we are taught that “public opinion” refers to how the public answers the big social questions which a democratic populace must decide for itself in order to indicate the path politicians must follow. But the history of this concept reveals that, historically, the answer came before the question. At least in its founding, the answers of “public opinion” to the most important political questions of the time were quite explicitly decided by state elites first newspapers and radios among other increasingly “mass” media were used to merely pose the right questions.

It is in this time that “propaganda”; comes to have a bad name and is associated with Nazism. In people like Lippman and Bernays, we observe the high point of unapologetic, unashamed elitism arguing very frankly for elites to use propaganda, via the increasingly “mass” media, to promote their visions of how society should be organized.

To the typical university student today, to speak of elite-driven propaganda in formally democratic societies may begin to sound like conspiracy theory. But there’s nothing conspiratorial about this history, in the sense that there is no secret cabal directing the narrative I’ve sketched above. The argument, so far, is only about the evolution of concepts and flagging some simple facts about how the conventional wisdom has changed significantly over time. Also, it is worth noting that to speak of propaganda only smells of conspiracy theory precisely because of this conceptual history: it only because propaganda has been widely recast as a sinister, conspiratorial type of messaging which supposedly only authoritarian governments engage in. To speak of propaganda in democratic societies with a “free press” often raises eyebrows. But to this we should simply recall that propaganda is actually quite a basic and common type of messaging which has always been a part of mass media society, including and perhaps especially in democracies–this seemed obvious and was largely embraced by thinkers such as Bernays and Lippman.[^1]

[1]: It would be interesting to trace the history of when and how exactly “conspiracy theory”; emerged as a pejorative term to dismiss certain accounts of political history. No doubt there will always exist many truly deranged and unverifiable narratives of political affairs, which are perhaps rightly derided as “conspiracy theories”; and rejected. But it also cannot be denied that conspiracies or just conspiratorial tendencies do in fact emerge from time to time in political affairs! And it would seem to me that the pejorative power of the term “conspiracy theory”; is itself a little piece of propaganda, as it tends to very successfully neutralize even perfectly true and well-documented narratives of elites engaged in actually sinister behavior! An enterprising student could trace the emergence of this term as a popular notion, when and how it gains its pejorative power and capacity to political neutralize truths about elites which otherwise would indict and threaten their public support.

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Murphy, Justin. 2014. "The creation of public opinion," (December 14, 2018).