How the Centralized Media Lost Its Power over the People

Mainstream media as a mediating structure—a means of collective intelligence and social coherence—will never be the same.

In 1977, reporter Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, wrote an exposé on his fellow journalists. More than 400 of them, he revealed in Rolling Stone, had done the business of the CIA. Members of the press had “provided a full range of clandestine services—from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries.” And in some cases, leaders of top American news organizations had been in on it.

Bernstein’s exposé was just the start of what would become a larger picture of collusion between US government agencies and the news media.

So much for objectivity—or the vision of the media as an independent check on the federal government.

By 1979, a few other intrepid journalists began to lay bare the extent of the incestuous relationship between the media and the CIA, much of which had apparently been covered up by the Church Committee in the wake of the Watergate hearings. The facts surrounding Operation Mockingbird, for example, demonstrated that the CIA had only to dangle a few carrots—and maybe brandish a couple of sticks—to co-opt the media for both intelligence and propaganda purposes. And indeed, the media were very different animals in the 1950s. Massive. Top-down. Corporate.

The Blue Church

Even if power was conspiring with the media, it was just the sort of conspiracy that had been likely to crop up at that place and time.

Theories abound as to why this had been the case, but one of the most persuasive comes from serial entrepreneur and social theorist Jordan Greenhall, who posits that the media evolved this way. Greenhall thinks the organization of the media in the 20th century was largely an emergent phenomenon. In other words, even if power was conspiring with the media, it was just the sort of conspiracy that had been likely to crop up at that place and time.

Greenhall calls it the “Blue Church.” He says it “solves the problem of twentieth-century social complexity through the use of mass media to generate manageable social coherence.”

We might be skeptical of grand designs and conspiracy theories, but it’s easy to notice that older people tend to be nostalgic about the Walter Cronkite era. In those days, they say, we were more united. Barring a couple of instances like the Vietnam protests or the civil rights marches, our general civic narrative was, indeed, more coherent than it is today. And the older folks have a point but for reasons that might now strike us as cynical.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” wrote Edward Bernays in Propaganda.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” wrote Edward Bernays in Propaganda.

“Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. ... We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Though this should strike us as counter to the spirit of free expression and thought, Bernays was not exactly wrong.

"Mass Media for Social Control"

The 20th-century social order was built on a shared, centralized form of collective intelligence, according to Greenhall.

The Blue Church is a kind of narrative/ideology control structure that is a natural result of mass media. It is an evolved (rather than designed) function that has come over the past half-century to be deeply connected with the Democratic political “Establishment” and lightly connected with the “Deep State” to form an effective political and dominant cultural force in the United States.

By the early 1950s, the Blue Church began to play an outsized role in shaping America’s culture-producing institutions—and thus public opinion.

Greenhall believes we can trace the Blue Church’s roots to the beginning of the 20th century, where it arose in response to “the new capabilities of mass media for social control.” By the early 1950s, the Blue Church began to play an outsized role in shaping America’s culture-producing institutions—and thus public opinion. Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, it peaked. But, writes Greenhall, “it is now beginning to unravel.”

In the 20th century, society became much more complex. Information traveled faster. And for people to see themselves in solidarity both with each other and with a larger protective security apparatus, everyone would need to get the right message. The Blue Church rationale had been: our security requires both a common enemy and a common narrative.

Power could no longer tolerate the idea of the media as a loose collection of beat reporters getting scoops and running with them on anyone’s terms. Outlets, editors, reporters, and readers would have to follow master narratives so that the people could socially cohere.

And for the most part it worked. The only way to achieve a shared collective intelligence, however, was to control the media. Power could no longer tolerate the idea of the media as a loose collection of beat reporters getting scoops and running with them on anyone’s terms. Outlets, editors, reporters, and readers would have to follow master narratives so that the people could socially cohere.

“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace,” wrote Noam Chomsky in his classic of media conspiracy, Manufacturing Consent. “It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society.” Even if one is generally reluctant to agree with Chomsky, as I am reluctant, this point is compelling.

Centralized Society

Why is social coherence so important?

Greenhall reminds us that in the transition from the 19th to the 20th century, there were massive shifts in social complexity: agrarian to industrial, rural to urban. Humanity leapt from horses to rail to cars and airplanes, effectively shrinking the world. By 1953, Watson and Crick had identified the structure of DNA; Darwin had only published On the Origin of Species in 1859. The first theory of electromagnetism appeared in 1864, but by 1945, the first atomic bomb had been deployed. “This was a hell of a century.”

The Blue Church had been that regulatory structure and, therefore, the emergent solution to the problem of maintaining social order in an increasingly complex world.

Human society cannot function “without a regulatory structure adequate to its level of complexity,” according to Greenhall. The Blue Church had been that regulatory structure and, therefore, the emergent solution to the problem of maintaining social order in an increasingly complex world.

But then something happened: the Internet.

Decentralization and "Memetic Warfare"

In the 1990s, hierarchical media organizations started to falter. A series of events began to reveal the cracks, and one might argue that the 20th-century apparatus of collective intelligence began its decline sometime between dial-up modems and the election of Donald Trump.

The 2016 election was perhaps the first time the Blue Church media apparatus was in full-throated support of one politician and against another. And yet it failed.

The 2016 election was perhaps the first time the Blue Church media apparatus was in full-throated support of one politician and against another. And yet it failed. Hillary Clinton was a well-funded establishment politician running against a loutish outsider. According to Greenhall, however, Clinton’s opponents executed a digital insurgency to ignite what he refers to as the “Red Religion,” a populist movement with retrograde ideas and sophisticated communications tools. The Blue Church was neutralized. The media had fundamentally changed. Of course, there are all manner of distinct but interwoven causes of the 2016 election result. Nationalism. Scapegoating. Disaffection with the establishment. Hillary Clinton’s lack of vision and charisma. Even though all of these were factors, Donald Trump would not have been elected without a digital insurgency capable of challenging the Blue Church. Old ideas. New tech.

Just one example lay with Cambridge Analytica. The big-data startup, fresh off an apparent win with Brexit, worked its magic with Trump, too. The modus operandi of Cambridge Analytica was to harvest sentiment data from social media posts. They would then match this data against the most powerful of the personality models used by psychologists the world over: the Big Five. Finding the Big Five’s patterns in the data, Cambridge Analytica could then mine for messages that the campaign could parrot back to those from whom it had been mined.

But Cambridge Analytica might be viewed as somewhat centralized. Memes from “Kekistan”—produced by the so-called “Autists of Kek”—were all about a clever mix of mockery and misinformation contra Clinton. Couple these Kekistani insurgents with foreign fake-news producers, and the result was a win for the famous billionaire who became beloved by both spit-and-sawdust America and those weary of Blue Church posturing.

One brilliant strategist predicted, if not seeded, the Red Religion insurgency in 2015. In a paper for NATO, Jeff Giesea wrote:

“Memetic warfare can be useful at the grand narrative level, at the battle level, or in a special circumstance. It can be offensive, defensive, or predictive. It can be deployed independently or in conjunction with cyber, hybrid, or conventional efforts. The online battlefield of perception will only grow in importance in both warfare and diplomacy.”

Memetic warfare could be waged against ISIS or the Democratic National Committee.

Mainstream media as a mediating structure—a means of collective intelligence and social coherence—will never be the same. Decentralization means the popular control of making media yields agile platoons: citizen investigators, checkers, trolls, purveyors of fake news, and other dynamic new hive minds. These can assemble and dissolve in real time.

The Evolution Continues

Think of the Gray Lady, a.k.a. the New York Times. Imagine her as a kind of automaton, powerful but stiff. She’s surrounded by a thousand tiny drones. The drones are angry. The Gray Lady tries in vain to swat them with her cane. But her cane is no match for the swarm.

So what does this mean for social coherence?

It depends. Even if one thinks Greenhall is being too cynical in concluding that government and media were fated to collude in the 20th century, one still might think the country needed some degree of social coherence. Social coherence is both a way of dealing with complexity and a way of maintaining some unity in the face of cultural entropy—diverse values, beliefs, and so on that can tend to fracture people. But social coherence for great secular religions—to preserve large, top-heavy nation states—might no longer be possible. (It might not be necessary, either.)

We can take heart in the fact that there is less at stake in the fate of any single system in decentralized environments with smaller jurisdictions than there is in the fate of a monolithic system.

So, in reckoning with the coming era, how do we get social coherence? We’ll have to see. We can take heart in the fact that there is less at stake in the fate of any single system in decentralized environments with smaller jurisdictions than there is in the fate of a monolithic system. Decentralized environments are more “antifragile.” Social coherence need only develop locally in most cases.

Whatever one thinks the future might or should be like, hierarchical media structures no longer provide social coherence. Knowledge and information no longer travel in bidirectional flows up and down chains of authority and expertise. The media have been lateralized. Information and disinformation alike want to be free. Social coherence will have to come about through different means, as within smaller units of social organization. The media are not the only mediating structure that is weakening. We have grown up with a few more pillars upon which civilization has depended, evolving more or less, since the time of Galileo.

The foregoing is excerpted from Max Borders’s new book, The Social Singularity. Get it now.

Further Reading

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