The Management of Reality
What is that?
We do not have direct access to social and political reality. That’s uncomfortable. I don’t like it either. But it’s true.
Our direct access to reality is confined to interactions with our family, a few friends and coworkers, chance witnessing of events in our immediate physical neighborhood, and snippets of a few other places experienced in our travels.
If you once belatedly discovered that your partner was cheating on you, or that your child was abusing a dangerous drug, then you know just how incomplete our information is even about those people whose existence we do partially witness directly.
And yet, despite our encyclopedic, abject, first-hand ignorance about almost everything, every one of us has a personal model of The Entire World in the head.
That’s a bold head. For this is a confident model, and one that we readily defend—sometimes passionately—in casual conversations with others.
The model of the world in my head contains many claims—which I easily confuse with facts. At this time (December 2022) I say to myself that Hezbollah is getting weapons from Iran; that the United States is sending weapons to Ukraine; that drug cartels in Mexico have assumed the role of government in many parts of the country; that a leftist government was elected in Colombia; that voters in Chile rejected the new draft constitution; that Europe is experiencing a tough winter with rising energy prices. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Most of us have directly witnessed and/or confirmed exactly none of that. Yet we believe such things to be true. Let’s call them ‘claims of fact.’
Where do these claims of fact come from? They are second hand. We do not witness them directly; we get them from someone else.
Even in this age of social-media platforms and camera-equipped phones, the overwhelming majority of claims of fact come from the major mainstream media companies. When people share a politically relevant ‘fact’—whether in conversation, in an email, or on social media—they are almost always sharing a claim made by some major media company.
Yes, in our webbed world the claims of millions are publicly available. But to examine even just a few hundred such claims is already beyond the powers of an ordinary citizen. So we fall back on the major media. Like we always have.
This goes for social scientists, too.
Of course, some social scientists, edging into the domain of investigative journalists, do primary fieldwork. But every fieldworker can study directly only a very tiny piece of the global system. And only the major media generate daily reports on the behavior of State-level bureaucracies and other important institutions and organizations. This is why even intelligence agencies rely quite heavily on what is reported in the major media.
The major media are, then, the main instrument of observation for those interested in large-scale system behavior.
We don’t all like the same media companies. Some of us hate them all. But our access to what we consider ‘reality’ is nevertheless almost entirely mediated by them.
The media create reality.
This created reality does not consist only of claims of fact. The media provide interpretations too (often via some interviewed academic).
For example, when the media claim that the United States is sending weapons to Ukraine, 1) they say this is because the US government opposes the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and 2) they give reasons to explain why the US government takes this position. Both are media interpretations on the structure of geopolitical reality. (If some media positions simply repeat government positions this does not change the fact; in such cases, the media interpretation is one they got from government).
Now, think about this. Astronomers pay attention to the science of optics because they wish to know how the appearance of objects is affected by lenses, whether natural or fabricated. They need to know whether they are looking at a star or else at a reflection of light bouncing off the atmosphere from somewhere else, or perhaps visual noise in our own atmosphere, or a smudge in the telescope. They need to know what biases and distortions they need to correct for in their instruments of observation.
Shouldn’t students of politics and geopolitics, like astronomers, pay careful attention to possible biases and distortions in their instruments of observation? I think they should. Because the media are attractive to power, and their capture, partial or total, must have a large effect distorting the quality of information.
This is obvious. And yet academic social scientists who write about politics and geopolitics appear far less concerned than the lay public about possible corruption or even clandestine and centralized control of the major media. Without doing the hard work of investigating, they often scoff preemptively at such conspiracy theories. (I find this remarkable.)
One is thus often steered by academics—even the allegedly ‘radical’ ones, such as Noam Chomsky—to the much tamer view that, if information quality in the media has suffered, that’s because media capitalists care too much about money.
I think that’s unlikely to be a real problem.
Think about the effects of market structure. If the news media operate in a genuinely free and competitive market, what will the system-wide effect be of media capitalists who always try to make more money?
In a truly free and competitive market, media companies are independent of each other and also autonomous from government (from every government). This means a media company can only make money if it convinces you to consume its news product. Each therefore has an incentive to expose—with careful documentation—the irrelevancies, errors, distortions, exaggerations, and lies of its competitors in order to shame those competitors, shine before news consumers, and usurp market share, which makes more money. So the capitalist drive—in a free market—improves information quality.
In a truly free and competitive market, greedy businesspeople will be excited to investigate and report clandestine wrongdoings of the powerful because, if the bosses are caught stealing citizen monies or trying to enslave the citizens, these citizens will become outraged—an emotion that sells lots of copy and makes the media capitalist richer. This market structure encourages the serious investigation of conspiracy theories.
But consider now a different hypothetical market structure.
In this other structure, the major media companies appear to our eyes superficially as a constellation of competing brands, but that’s not what they are. They are neither independent from each other nor autonomous from government; instead, they form a hidden monopoly clandestinely controlled by antidemocratic bosses who also have a chokehold on the ostensibly ‘democratic’ government. In this alternative scenario, the major media will publish many important distortions, exaggerations, irrelevancies, and lies to manage our reality for the benefit of those bosses. And they’ll be most reluctant, of course, to investigate conspiracy theories.
The fully institutionalized academic and news-media taboo against conspiracy theory as a category, which damns a priori any Machiavellian hypothesis, is therefore more consistent with the hidden-monopoly model than with the free-market model. And that is one (big) reason to take the hidden-monopoly model seriously—at the very least as a hypothesis that civilized people can put on the table without hearing indignant accusations, snickers, sneers, or other sundry aggressions.
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I have so far been discussing possible models of the major media, of course. For even under the most radical Machiavellian hypothesis it is reasonable to expect that at least some small media outlets are entirely free of corruption. But such are also largely irrelevant. What matters, politically, is the model of reality that millions of people have in their heads. And that model is constructed with the claims of the major mainstream media, not with the claims of bloggers, podcasters, or “sad Americans with substacks” (as one mainstream writer has called us).
Now, if the free-market model of the major media turns out to be completely wrong, this will mean that some important claims of fact in the major media, and some important interpretations, will be false. And hence that we need a better model of the political and geopolitical world than we have so far been using.
I am trying to produce a better model of the news market—how it works and who it works for—so that we can begin to construct better hypotheses about which first-order claims of fact and which second-order interpretations of politics and geopolitics might be true or false. This will allow us to construct a better model of our political and geopolitical world in our present era, testing to see how much it can explain and how well it can predict the future.
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