Manipulation and Media
“A revolutionary plan should not require the manipulators to disappear; on the contrary it must make everyone a manipulator.”
—Hans Magnus Enzensberger, from Constituents of a Theory of the Media
At the beginning of a recent episode of Delete Your Account, co-host Kumars Salehi joked (half-joked?), “I would love to work for a propaganda and agitation department...for the right government, obviously…” For listeners who are politically left of center or hard left this might come off as distasteful. “Propaganda” has earned a sort of bad reputation – we in the U.S. would much prefer the corporatized version: “Public Relations.” Either way you want to think about it, all media necessitates shaping the presentation of events of any given situation by relationships of power.
All this being said, liberals and leftists alike have become increasingly concerned (probably due to the rising media coverage) about the manipulation of media narratives – or what we might just call “fake news.” In response to the crisis surrounding fake news, some suggest that there must be a new emphasis on speaking truth in media. But as Derek Ford says “...politics has never been about a correspondence with an existing truth.” Calls for truth are fundamentally flawed because they assume that the media is actually capable of telling the truth. To get at this possibly contentious claim a bit further – if truth is constructed through multifarious media outlets, leftists shouldn’t get mad, they should get even. Instead of asking politely for MSNBC or Fox News to just tell the truth, I’d like to rehabilitate the practice of manipulation as a political tactic for the left.
The word manipulation stems from the Latin manipulus, meaning something like a “skillful handling.” For example, manipulus may have denoted the way a pharmacist would measure out medication by hand. We all practice this type of manipulation every time we have a hangover and eyeball the approximate dosage of ibuprofen. Etymologies are interesting not because they offer some definitive ‘real’ meaning of a word, but because they can be helpful interventions in rediscovering different meanings within discursive structures. When it comes to manipulation, we find that there’s a definition that doesn’t immediately signal danger, suspicion, and falsehood. It is in this sense, skillful handling, that I think we can rediscover manipulation as a leftist media practice.
In Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s masterful essay Constituents of a Theory of the Media, he explains that leftists – The New Left of the 60’s in his case – were all too afraid and cautious when it came to the idea of manipulation and media. Enzensberger explains, “The current theory of manipulation on the Left is essentially defensive; its effects can lead the movement into defeatism” (Enzensberger, 51). When we speak of manipulation, we’re usually drawing out a critique to unpack the political distortions and ideologies expressed within journalism or representation. This is a defensive approach because it’s attempt to take apart a packaged production in order to rob it of its power. Criticism is great, but the left needs an offensive media practice.
Enzenberger is right that only engaging with media at the level of suspicion is defeatist. This way of dealing with manipulation sets up a reactive dynamic where we leftists sit back and wait for the next media volley to hit so that we can produce the hottest Twitter take. When we deal with media in this way we participate in “the liberal superstition that in political and social questions there is such a thing as pure, unmanipulated truth…” (51). Truth, as represented in mass media, cannot be unmanipulated or untainted, and the etymology laid out above demonstrates this. Media, scripted or unscripted, is skillfully crafted and knitted together. It is told from a perspective laden with values and ideology.
To note that the media manipulates is worthwhile, but in light of this more complex reality, one should simply hone their ability to manipulate and negotiate entry into the spaces where truth is constructed. Current regimes of media are always quick to absorb dissenting voices through market mediated censorship and other forms of centrist and rightwing attacks; however, not participating in the production of media is not an option. Picking back up on Enzensberger, “...the temptation to withdraw is great. But fear of handling shit is a luxury a sewerman cannot necessarily afford” (52).
In light of all of this, there are some worthwhile examples of a positive leftist practice. TeleSUR, for example, is one of the few media outlets with an explicitly leftist bias. Liberals often decry TeleSUR as manipulated to support leftist ideologies. The liberal answer is to TeleSUR is “fair and balanced” media, but since all media is always manipulated at the level of writing, editing, and production, what they’re really asking for is a political opinion closer to their own sensibilities. Does TeleSUR report with a left bias? Yes, and it should – someone has to do it.
Apart from broadcast sources, digital media (decentralized writing networks, podcasting, videos, etc.) is one of the tools within the toolbox of capitalism – to not engage, reflect, and create digital media surrenders an important consciousness shaping space to capitalism. In past years, the media sphere was heavily guarded by technical and cultural gatekeepers. You needed training, ideological vetting, and so on to tell a story to a mass audience. The internet and proliferation of digital platforms offer up an important (yet nuanced) battleground for leftist struggles. The internet, as long as it remains relatively open, gives all leftists the opportunity to be manipulators.
Public Relations is a field that creates strategies to adjust public opinion to the agenda of an organization. If PR and marketing are as powerful at shaping the consciousness of individuals, why not practice adjusting the sensibilities of the masses toward liberation rather than oppression?
Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. Critical Essays. New York, NY: Continuum, 1982.