Political Communication

Eric Brahm

July 2008


Political communication (also called psychological operations (psy-ops) or information operations), encompasses a wide range of communicative behaviors that have political ends. One element encompasses the conduct of an effective election campaign, to disseminate the candidate's message and to counter the message of one's opponents. Governments also employ propaganda techniques to build support for policies and stifle dissent. Chomsky and Herman's propaganda model of the media[1] "depicts the media system as having a series of five successive filters through which the 'raw material of news' must pass, leaving a 'cleansed residue' of what 'news is fit to print, marginaliz[ing] dissent, and allow[ing] the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public.'" In brief paraphrase, these filters are

  1. a focus on profitability by an increasingly concentrated industry that has close ties to the government and is in a position by sheer volume to overwhelm dissenting media voices,
  2. the dependence of these media organizations on funding through advertising, leading them to favor content likely to appeal to the affluent and making concessions to commercial sponsors,
  3. the dependence of journalists who work for the media on information from sources that constitute, collectively, a powerful and prestigious establishment;
  4. commercial interests that make the media vulnerable to "flak" and criticism from groups and institutions with the power to generate criticism and protest to which they respond with caution; and, finally,
  5. "anticommunism" (or some ideological equivalent) that those who produce content have internalized, thus conjoining them to frame the news in a dichotomous fashion, applying one standard to those on "our" side and a quite different one to "enemies." Most recently, the "war against terrorism" has served as a non-ideological substitute...The propaganda model assigns to the media system just one major function to which everything else is subordinate. That function is the "manufacture of consent" for government policies that advance the goals of corporations and preserve the capitalist system."[2]

Some argue that evolving communications technologies and advertising and marketing techniques are damaging democratic practice by replacing thoughtful discussion with simplistic soundbites and manipulative messages.[3] Campaigns play on our deepest fears and most irrational hopes with the result being that we have a skewed view of the world. That said, media effects on politics are not uniform around the world. Rather, they are the product of the types of media technologies, the structure of the media market, the legal and regulatory framework, the nature of political institutions, and the characteristics of individual citizens.[4] What is more, others argue, by contrast, that "blaming the messenger" overlooks deep-rooted flaws in the systems of representative democracy that are responsible for the sorry condition of political discussion.[5] There is also much discussion about whether the Internet is a positive for American democracy.[6] With respect to often delicate peace processes, the role of the media in the Rwandan genocide has given the news media a tarnished reputation. However, in some instances, the news media has sometimes played a constructive role in sustaining peace efforts.[7]

[1]Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (with a new introduction by the authors). New York: Pantheon, [1988] 2002. Excepts of the first edition available at http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Herman%20/Manufac-Consent-Prop-Model.html

[2]Kurt Lang and Gladys Engel Lang. "Noam Chomsky and the Manufacture of Consent for American Foreign Policy." Political Communication, 21:93-101, 2004, p. 94.

[3]W. Lance Bennett and Robert Entman, eds. 2000. Mediated Politics: Communication in the Future of Democracy. Cambridge University Press.; Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson, (2001) Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion Owl Books.

[4]Richard Gunther and Anthony Mughan, eds. 2000. Democracy and the Media. Cambridge University Press.; Daniel C. Hallin, Paolo Mancini 2004. Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge University Press.

[5]Pippa Norris 2000. A Virtuous Circle: Political Communications in Post-Industrial Democracies. Cambridge University Press.

[6]Bruce Bimber 2003. Information and American Democracy: Technology in the Evolution of Political Power. Cambridge University Press.

[7]Gadi Wolfsfeld 2004. Media and the Path to Peace. Cambridge University Press.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Political Communication." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2008 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/political-communication>.

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