Many years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote a book called “Manufacturing Consent”, dissecting the propaganda machine of the US government to create domestic public support for its military adventures abroad. While public awareness about governments has definitely increased since then, the propaganda machinery seems to have only become more sophisticated and even subtler—not just in the US, but all around the world. And India is no exception.
With social media echo chambers and information bubbles, it is easier now to manipulate, control, and assert narratives that the state wants. The sheer volume, repetition, and ubiquity of false information, hate speech, and divisive narratives that flood the web today is unparalleled. It is not just the governments that are engaged in this. Certain people and groups have also realised a new means to threaten others with divergent views, with impunity. A new type of consent is sought to be created, what may be called ‘manufacturing fanatic consent’.
The tensions of democracy–divided opinion, confusion, pulls of varied interest groups–appear too much of a burden to bear, especially in times of economic downturn. Democracy only appears to result in a superficial unity of the country while uncertainties abound regarding all kinds of issues–social, economic, and political. In such times, passionate belief in a cause or a person can be a source of both solace and hope for the future. This can easily be achieved under the garb of democratic politics, when people are fed up with corruption, dysfunction and change, and crave some order and structure.
When the individual has not much hope in the immediate time and space, the lure of surrender to the will of a larger group, for example, the ‘nation’, or an idea of it, can be high. This surrender of the will of the individual to another’s, often as defined by a few persons, can easily be achieved by social media. Those who oppose it can easily be tagged as anti-national traitors trying to withhold the nation from achieving its potential. The manipulators rarely surrender their comfort but they project an austere lifestyle of discipline.
This makeover of a ‘nation’ in the mold of its leader, fueled by the passion to reach a higher purpose, was earlier achieved by press censorship and state propaganda with arrests, persecution or execution of dissenters. Today, while arrest is still a weapon of the State, it has outsourced other means to a fanatic and aggressive public–impatient to pronounce its assent to and align with the State, while too defensive to allow any dissent. A ‘progressive’ alternative to press censorship has been found in the form of misinformation by proxy, to exploit modern targeted advertising in order to arouse passion and foster fear. This decentralised yet organised means has proved to so effective that execution of dissenters is no longer the burden of the State but the ‘will of the people’.
To be successful, propaganda has to be complete. It should reach every person at all points. Social media easily provides for this. It appeals to the brain’s seat of violent emotions. That does not mean it causes violence, just that it can increase the possibility of it. It makes it easier to apply the brand of treason to those who even appear to oppose the leader, or who differ with the objectives of the nation being sought. So complete is the identification of the individual to the State, so complete is the manufacturing of fanatic assent.
What does this mean for the public discourse? Does it get any better than it already is? The complexities of the world–the issues, policies and solutions–are widely divergent from the simplistic narratives–stereotypes, myths, and traditions–that people use to make sense of them. This includes the most ignorant person to the most enlightened one.
The capacity for independent thought is overestimated in today’s world of many ‘isms’. We are forced to choose between two manufactured alternatives, like people had to choose in Britain, in the US, and will do so soon in India–alternatives that compete not for substance but for being the first to reach you and do so as often as possible.
What we seek today, it seems, is not enlightenment, but a sort of ‘enlightened manipulation’. Attention is neither shared nor saved, it is a zero-sum game. So is mass manipulation, whether centralised or decentralised. In a democratic setup, based mainly on elections, this manipulation has no room for half-measures which can be doubted. The State seeks complete consent, not by changing its ways, but by arousing passions of some to bring the rest in line. It does, today, by ‘persuasion’ what it used to do by legal coercion. This use of people and technology as ‘instruments of persuasion’, backed by total impunity, is its new expression of power.
Author’s Note: Some ideas in this piece are inspired by Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants”.