Chomsky and Herman’s Propaganda Model

In this post, I will be referring to a book chapter by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky called “A Propaganda Model” which appears in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.

By and large, the internet is quite ‘free’ in that content isn’t really regulated. Some websites, such as Facebook, will block certain content, usually content that people find ‘offensive’ and endeavours to remove any content that is ‘harmful’. For instance, recently someone from an all girls private school in Perth posted a school social event. They did not use privacy settings when listing the event. Soon, many people from around Perth and Australia said that they were ‘attending’ the event and posted vulgar comments about private school girls and threatened to damage the school property on the night of the event. When school officials were made aware of this, they requested that facebook remove the event announcement. It was taken down soon after.

Freedom of speech on the internet does exist to a large extent for individuals who live in countries without internet filters (the topic of internet filters will be discussed in another post in the future). While websites maintain control over content that users might generate and are likely to ban content that features child pornography or terrorist-related planning, the nature of the internet itself is characterised by an inability to block any information, as Internet Freedom of Speech details:

“The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.” Because of the Internet’s robust design, it is impossible to completely block access to information except in very limited and controlled circumstances, such as when blocking access to a specific site from a home computer, or when using a firewall to block certain sites from employees on a workplace network.

Even filters can be ineffectual in censorship as well. For instance, when I was in Vietnam, I was annoyed because Facebook had been blocked. But, it was very easy to go around the censorship, indeed, there are many available avenues to get around the various blocks.

Freedom of speech/expression is realistically a part of the internet. But, as Herman and Chomsky point out, freedom of speech does not remove the existence of propaganda. There are various ‘filters’ that the authors talk about which stop us from truly getting ‘free speech’. I’m going to describing and discussing their filters, and then, keeping in mind that the paper was not written about the press during the 1980s, see how the filters might apply to the internet. Overall though, the authors suggest that, through these filters, the media essentially endorses the status quo, which for many places would mean that the media ultimately supports neoliberalism.

Filter one: Size, ownership and money.

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The authors talk about how expensive media ownership is. Start-up costs are huge and it costs a lot to print newspapers or bring television shows to air, and thus initial outlays are very high. As a result, mainstream media is owned by very few individuals and the situation is fairly centralised. To get an idea of how this works in Australia, looking at who owns the major daily newspapers is quite telling.

Owned by Newscorp are the following publications:

Daily Telegraph
Gold Coast Bulletin
Herald Sun
NT News
Sunday Herald Sun
Sunday Mail
Sunday Tasmanian
Sunday Territorian
Sunday Times
The Advertiser
The Australian
The Courier-Mail
The Mercury

Fairfax owns the following newspapers:

The Age
The Sydney Morning Herald
Brisbane Times
WA Today
The Australian Financial Review
Illawarra Mercury
The Newcastle Herald
The Border Mail
The Warranbul Standard
The Canberra Times

While there are independent newspapers in Australia, the numbers are quite low and they are not usually daily papers. Additionally, centralisation doesn’t just exist for newspapers, Australia actually has one of the highest media centralisation in the world. Information on Media Ownership Policy can be read here.

When the media is controlled by so few people, it is ultimately those two stakeholders that can so easily control the content of all the major news sources within a nation. While editors are likely to make editorial decisions, it is possible that certain articles could never go to print due to the stakeholders interests. Furthermore, stakeholders make a lot of money out of their media ownership and as such are less likely to be disenfranchised by the workings of neoliberalism.

But does this apply to the internet? Well, on first thought, no, not really. Anyone can make a blog or website, set-up costs are extremely low (this blog has cost $0 to set up, it only costs in time to add content), anyone can make a website and share their opinions.

But, while independent websites exist, so do independent publications. What characterises both is that they are seldom visited or read. Aside from bank websites, email, pornography, real estate and matchmaking services, the top sites visited by Australians are ninemsn and yahoo, two very much non-independent websites affiliated with two of the top rating TV stations which primarily feature news stories. You can see the top visited websites by Australians here. What I suggest from this is that there is a lot of diversity available on the internet, but hierarchies exist as well – simply put, some websites are visited more often than others. And when we look at where our online news is coming from, it’s largely from the same media companies. This is true world-wide too – on the world top visited websites, most visited include yahoo, the BBC website and the New York Times.

I think ultimately, a sensible way to look at these points is to understand that the internet frees up the exchange of information in that it’s possible for anyone to say what they like. But at the same time one has to acknowledge that some websites are simply going to have more influence than others.

Filter two: advertising.

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Mainstream media relies on advertising in order to get the funds required to keep going. Not only is advertising helpful in terms of subsiding the costs involved in making the newspapers, it helps keep the cover prices down, which means that consumers are more likely to buy it than if the cover price was very high. There are two ways this might reinforce the status quo. Firstly, advertisers want to reinforce neoliberalism so then you can buy their things – if the newspaper promoted saving money or communism or anything that meant that companies would expect a decreased revenue, this model of producing media isn’t going to work. Secondly, the content of the newspapers cannot be anti-whatever corporation is sponsoring them, otherwise the impact of advertising would be nullified altogether. There are certain incentives to be therefore uncritical of corporations.

This is less of a problem on the internet. While advertising seems to be an integral part of the internet, not all websites even have advertising, and it is not necessarily true that an independent website would need to include advertising in order to offset costs. That’s the thing though, because if there are any perceived costs whatsoever pertaining to running a website, or if the maker of the website feels like earning some money, advertising is an obvious option. However, online publications probably do rely less on advertising than print media generally, unless the website is specifically for profit.

Filter three: sourcing.

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News sources are also centralised. Often one or a couple of news sources are relied upon for reporting certain stories, this is because there are large costs associated with having reporters go all over the world to wherever the action is. Also, ‘official views’ are usually shaped by very few people. For instance, if interest rates rise, a news programme may interview an economist, they’ll say their opinion on the matter, and that’ll be all. Thus, news can sometimes be shaped by very few sources. Usually, these sources are non-radical and say whatever it is the media source wants them to say.

The internet paints a very different picture. Most blogs, for instance, give naturally quite personal accounts. After Hurricane Katrina in the US, around the world we were being informed about it and this information may have been coming from relatively few sources (although, that said, as the story was such a big event, it is likely that news companies set journalists out to report from there, thereby adding sources). However, on the internet, I can get first hand accounts of the event. As this website details, the amount of people blogging about Hurricane Katrina is huge, and while is has dwindled, it is certainly possible to access many sources about this event. More than one could possibly read!

Raw source material can also be easily accessed via the internet. For instance, political speeches and election results are all published online and people can directly see them before they have been interpreted by media outlets. For instance, after the recent Australian election, one can access the exact number of voters and votes in each electorate, data which may be ‘too boring’ to feature in a newspaper or on the news, but is nonetheless a source that people would have otherwise not been able to access and would have had to rely on media analysis, which is never perfect. For instance, there are a host of articles on how voters were moving away from labour, but very few on the fact that there had actually been swings against the liberal party in several states.

Additionally, anyone can give their opinion on the internet. As I mentioned earlier, some opinions are more likely to be read than others, however those opinions are not lacking, they can be sought. People can say things that are very much anti-status-quo.

Filter four: ‘flak’
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Certain media outlets can fear ‘flak’, which is negative feedback from others such as regular readers/listeners/viewers, the government, etc. In some cases, it is much easier to not ‘rock the boat’ to cause a great deal of upset, depending on the situation at hand. Alternatively, content generators on the internet may be less concerned about this. Their articles may not be read by people who would critique them, but otherwise criticism becomes part of a discussion, rather than a part of public condemnation – it really depends on the situation.

Filter five: anti-Communism
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This may no longer be relevant compared to the time the authors were writing, but it is an issue worth addressing here anyway. They write:

The anti-Communist mechanism reaches through the system to exercise profound influence on the mass media. In normal times as well as in periods of Red scares, issues tend to be framed in terms of a dichotomised world of Communist and anti-Communist powers, with gains and losses on both sides, and rooting for “our side” considered an entirely legitimate news practice.

Communism acted as this force that was unquestionably bad and not a concept that could be taken on. It’s probably true that communism is now a less potent filter because it no longer seems to be much of a ‘threat’ with the fall of the USSR and the days of McCarthyism long over. However, filters like Communism also come up. For instance, the motives of ‘terrorists’ are not to be explored and they are considered to be unquestionably bad. At the same time, democracy is an unquestionably good system and is not really critiqued at all in mainstream media.

The internet does carve a different path for itself. Issues like terrorism and democracy are addressed on the internet. Daniel Pipes discusses how terrorists may be motivated:

…the reasons for the violence go unexplained. Analysts, including myself, are left speculating about motives. These can relate to terrorists’ personal grievances based in poverty, prejudice, or cultural alienation. Alternately, an intention to change international policy can be seen as a motive: pulling “a Madrid” and getting governments to withdraw their troops from Iraq; convincing Americans to leave Saudi Arabia; ending American support for Israel; pressuring New Delhi to cede control of all Kashmir.

One can still ask though, do people really read websites like this?


It seems that many of Chomsky and Herman’s observations on the media can potentially hold true for internet, however the internet is still a unique form of mediation, and certainly far more diversity and far more content that challenges the status quo or which can be used to challenge the status quo exists. Much more is accessible, however one must go looking for it. Is it possible that putting the onus on the individual to look up particular content in fact supportive of neoliberal values? All of a sudden, we’re responsible for sourcing our own news, which can be quite a daunting task for those who are time poor! Additionally, given the vastness of the internet, unless a website is popular it can be difficult to find, which may mean that the diversity of its content may be offset by the many pictures of lolcats one has to avoid in order to get to them. In any case, the situation is complex and the question of my wider project is not solved here.

4 Responses

  1. […] Great Firewall of China As I have earlier alluded to in this post, the internet practically enshrines freedom of speech for people of many nations. For some other […]

  2. […] be another media system controlled by the very few, as is the case in offline media (explored in this post). He writes: a word should be said about the Internet, the two-ton gorilla of global media and […]

  3. […] C is covered in two earlier posts, here and […]

  4. […] subject to being part of a hierarchy. I’ve explored this a number of times, here, here, and here. And of course, linking to my previous sub-heading, ideas and people that face discrimination […]

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