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Beyond Manufacturing Consent


“The United States is a very free country, in fact it’s the freest country in the world. I don’t think freedom of speech, for example, is protected anywhere in the world as much as it is here. But it’s a very managed society, it’s a business-run society, carefully managed, with strict doctrinal requirements and no deviation tolerated – this would be too dangerous.”

Noam Chomsky in an interview with Vincent Navarro, 2008

Given the way the American left has either embraced or denied the reality of the rising cancel culture, it’s perhaps not too surprising that most of them have also turned away from the evidence of a massive state-driven and systematic censorship effort. Almost nobody on the left wants to hear about or discuss the #Twitterfiles reports written by Matt Taibbi and three other journalists (Lee Fang, Bari Weiss, and Michael Shellenberger) during the past year. The reasons the left gives for dismissing the reports range from the blatantly disingenuous to the cynical. What has been surprising, however, is how many have used the media criticism of top leftist Noam Chomsky as a shield against contending with the reality that the Department of Homeland Security has partnered with nearly all social media companies and media outlets in a new and expansive effort to manufacture consent. It’s understandable that Jon Schwarz would turn to Chomsky and Manufacturing Consent–Hermann and Chomsky’s thesis that media corporations conflate what is in the public interest with what is good for business–in his essay for the Intercept entitled, “Elon Musk Would Have Done Better With Twitter if He’d Read Noam Chomsky.” After all, the facts had not yet been made public in November of 2022, but the current insistence that the left only view our media system through Chomsky’s propaganda model now is obstinate and cynical. When I tried to draw attention to the facts exposed in the #Twitterfiles on the YT channel I run for Sublation Media by posting a video entitled “MSNBC, Twitter Files, and the Deep State,” a regular commenter objected:

“Ye ole Chomsky’s propaganda model explains this better. There’s much more going on here with Chomsky’s propaganda model, like Elon’s private ownership of the media platform, Matt’s access journalism, Twitter’s need to sell ads….”

Professor Noam Chomsky is still, at the age of 94, the most cited American dissident alive. He is the author of over 100 books on politics and is the left’s most well-known and respected critic of the media. However, “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of Mass Media,” was published in the Reagan era. At the time, his Propaganda model was provocative, even radical. The establishment either ignored the book or attacked it. In 1989 Dutch Defense Minister Frits Bokestein attacked, saying that it amounted to nothing more than a conspiracy theory. But it wasn’t a conspiracy theory, and this is the reason the model is no longer sufficient. Given how society has changed over the last thirty years, it’s time to leave Noam Chomsky’s critique of mass media behind.

In light of the revelations in the #Twitterfiles, critics of corporate media should admit that, while Chomsky and Herman’s institutional critique of private corporations may have had teeth in a more open era, political events and the expansion of State power have created conditions that make Chomsky and Herman appear naive and even Pollyanna today.

For those unfamiliar with Manufacturing Consent and Chomsky’s propaganda model, a bit more of an explanation may be necessary. The book presents an institutional and structural critique of media corporations in the late 20th century. Hermann and Chomsky argued persuasively that the owners of American media had common interests and a shared agenda. Through the selection of “right-thinking personnel and by editors’ and working journalists’ internalizations ofpriorities…that conform” to the common corporate agenda, the mainstream media reliably produced propaganda rather than news. Reliance on advertising and thereby a reliance on the very corporations that might otherwise be the target of journalistic investigation, the centralization of the media into just a few transnational conglomerates, and the commercialization of a new globalized culture were the primary forces acting upon newspapers, book publishers, and television stations. These institutional and structural realities were enough to create conditions wherein public consent could be manufactured and maintained by a media class that did not consciously understand their role in those terms but still considered themselves to be truth tellers working independently.

However, starting shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, State tolerance for this type of pseudo-independence began to dry up. In 2001 the patriot act was passed by the US Congress, empowering the US security apparatus to, among other things, surveil what books Americans were buying or borrowing from libraries.

The rise of the internet and the subsequent disruption of the 20th-century information industry created both new problems for the State and new solutions. While the internet made it possible for everyday citizens to gain audiences and share information, in 2013, a leak from within the National Security Agency revealed that the US State was surveilling all telecommunications both within and outside of the United States. By 2017, after the long economic crisis of 2008 and the consequent election of Donald Trump as President, what Herman and Chomsky refer to as “crude interventions” by the State were deemed necessary if consent was to be maintained. On January 6th, 2017, the outgoing secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, issued a statement explaining that “the election infrastructure” of the United States would be “designated as a subsector of the existing Government Facilities critical infrastructure sector.” This placed the entirety of the US information technology sector and the communications sector within the jurisdiction of CISA, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. All American cable television companies, phone companies, internet service providers and platforms, and radio stations were to be protected from both foreign and domestic threats to America’s security.

Chief amongst those threats was the specter of “disinformation.”

As Jacob Siegel wrote in his essay for Tablet Magazine entitled, “A Guide to Understanding the Hoax of the Century,” the current war on disinformation should be understood as a new type of McCarthyism. This is an era when, according to Siegel, “American liberalism [has] lost faith in the promise of freedom and embraced a new ideal.”

The term disinformation is essentially a term of combat. In the EU Action Plan Against Disinformation from 2018, the term is defined as “verifiably false or misleading information that is created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public, and may cause public harm.” The EU goes on to describe disinformation as legally protected speech. The aim of the EU’s action plan was to target and combat only the speech that fell outside the purview of the laws of the Union or “of any of the Member States.” That is, if a statement can be found to be libelous, obscene, fraudulent, or to be a direct threat, it is not disinformation. By its own admission then, the EU has gone to war on the right to speak and think, and they are calling this war a war on disinformation.

Further, as the #Twitterfiles reveal, what counts as verifiably false or misleading is open to interpretation and changes over time. The Virality Project, an NGO tasked with combatting disinformation around COVID-19, apparently included theories of a lab leak origin in its list of disinformation narratives. Other forbidden topics included Anthony Fauci’s emails sent in advance of the Proximate Origins paper he co-authored, evidence that natural immunity was as effective as the vaccines, anecdotal stories about the vaccines’ side effects, and, ironically, complaints about censorship online.

The exposure of subtle but significant distortions from a relatively free and independent media that seemed damning in 1988 simply, but Chomsky’s critique fails to encompass the reality of what the DHS is describing as a “whole of society” effort to stamp out disinformation. A sober look at the evidence should convince everyone that, while the old corporate media outlets were far from satisfactory and were never truly bastions of free speech, we now face an effort by the state to abolish legal protections from censorship and establish total information control as a follow-up to total information awareness.

As I mentioned, Chomsky’s explanation of Western media fails to take into account how the State has conspired with big tech to use machine learning, NGO cut-outs, and a neutered left to control what the no longer even nominally free press.

Turning to Noam Chomsky as a guide, turning to a critique that aims itself at private corporate power as the primary culprit, that blames market forces and wealth accumulation for turning the news into big business propaganda, is to risk ignoring how our political reality has changed. Elon Musk’s disordered and mercurial efforts to make a profit from the business he acquired have led to all manner of censorious actions on the platform, but these pale in significance when compared to the institutionalized and bureaucratic war on disinformation we are experiencing.

Rather than turn to Chomsky, the American left might want to discover or rediscover the French radical Guy Debord, a communist intellectual who was cited in the London School of Economics Media blog. Authors Vera Tolz and Stephen Hutchings surprisingly cite Debord’s Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, as they suggest that speech can be judiciously combatted if States become capable of distinguishing between polemical criticisms of Western Societies and malicious disinformation. It’s a surprising citation, apparently today’s “left” academics can only bear to quote Marxists when they twist their words into support for censoriousness.

Debord wrote: “The confusionist concept of disinformation is pushed into the limelight instantaneously to refute, by the very noise of its name, all critique that has not been sufficiently made to disappear by the diverse agencies of the organization of silence. For example, it could one day be said, should this appear desirable, that this text is a disinformation campaign against the spectacle; or indeed, since it is the same thing, a piece of disinformation harmful to democracy…

Where disinformation is named, it does not exist. Where it exists, it is not named.”

In other words, even in 1988, when Debord published his comments, dissent was being censored directly, and every official pronouncement had to be regarded as disinformation.

If there is to be a left in America or anywhere, it must recognize that when the State declares that there is a new war on disinformation, what it is saying is that its people are verging on going out of its control. When the powerful use the term “disinformation,” while pointing to everyday life, to our newspapers, to our social media profiles and feeds, they merely admit that they fear the people.