Public opinion and free choice in the age of mass media

Tarek Ali Hassan
Political and Social

Public opinion and free choice in the age of mass media


The public can be transmitted into pictures, information and commentary, even via documentary shades of reality that subtly point one way or another. It is very difficult to actuate mechanisms that see to it that what is transmitted is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. After the First World War, Edward Bernays inspired by Freud developed the dubious art of manipulating public opinion banking on the many suppressed fears, frustrations and desires of people.  The dynamics that govern the process of what is transmitted are to the public at large for manipulation in a particular direction, remain mostly mysterious forces or rather hidden-behind closed doors forces.  The processes of shaping and directing public trends are still an incompletely fathomed enigma even to the experts due to the many hidden and unexpected dynamics that operate. They are therefore forces against which an effective defense is difficult.


Conflicts away from our direct cognizance in Africa or Asia or South America even on the home-nation, may be persistently reported in a way that will certainly generate public outcry, or may be reported as a side happening or may be partially or completely ignored ensuring indifference and complete lack of interest or commitment.  The same non-transparent dynamics will apply to famine, natural or human disaster, transgressions against human rights. protests by workers, women or minority groups  etc. These happenings can be ignored or can be capitalised to become -all or each- a major national or international issue.


The working up of the image and the substitute and the quasi, has been developed to a very high degree. Since Sigmund Freud and Edward Bernays started the theory and the practice of shaping and manipulating public opinion.


People can see a real war as entertaining and interesting war games just like in the games arcade down the road.   They can be allowed to see the flesh and blood of that war, or denied that right, in which case indifference or even satisfaction and sense of righteousness is generated instead of angry public outcry. These free public responses of the free can now, thanks to the new technology be engendered according to dynamics unknown to the recipients.  Free and righteous people will have things done in their name that they would never knowingly approve or condone. 


Reality testing, validation, critical analysis, have not been sufficiently developed since the days of the hegemony of static unitary concepts of right and wrong in a non-pluralistic world. The people at large have not been trained in mechanisms for validation or for ensuring neutrality or at least ensuring presentation of many divergent points of view including adequate presentation of the other.  The education, formative and upbringing forces that generations undergo in most cultures do not prepare them to develop that critical analytical eye or that questioning posture. Much of that unitary, simplistic polarized right and wrong education is out of place with the advent of the enormous changes that make up our global village in the twenty first century. The masses are not ignorant and dangerous as Freud and Bernays postulated, they are manipulated and educated into ignorance, aggression, possessiveness and impulsiveness


The image fed through the unstoppable mass media and information agencies can easily become a substitute for reality. It can generate and or modify reality.  There is very little scope for direct, unbiased information unless we have a new breed of public born and bred into the conceptual  frame work of reality as a pluralistic, dynamic and interactive process. That new education immunizes people all over the globe from being victims or perpetrators of the pre-twenty first century simplistic, judgmental stance of absolute a prior right and wrong and absolute a priorlinear polarization in which one side is without question the baddies and the other without question the goodies. An eternal barrier against understanding causality and obstructing  the way to real resolution.  A new education is needed. A new contract  with the mass media and information industry is needed