New Technology Renews Old Fears of Manipulation and Control

In the first half of the 20th century, Americans gained a new awareness of the malleability and manipulability of the human mind, and the result was a wave of concern over “propaganda” and other techniques of influence. Today we may be seeing a new wave of similar fears as we begin to wonder whether the ways we use and rely upon technology today are making us susceptible to new, dangerous forms of manipulation.

The first wave, in the 20th century, resulted from a number of factors. These included the discovery of a passionate, irrational unconscious by Freud and Jung, and a reaction against the seemingly mindless march toward slaughter in World War I, both of which fed into a broader disillusionment with the enlightenment rationalism of the 19th century and its faith that humans were ultimately orderly, rational beings. Other factors included the increasingly modernized advertising industry and its surprising success in manipulating consumers, and later the use of propaganda techniques by the fascists and communists in Europe.

The sudden awareness of human vulnerability to manipulation was embraced by some, but also sparked fears that the government would use it to control the beliefs of the population, rather than reflect those beliefs as it should in a democracy. Edward Bernays, considered the “father of public relations,” wrote a highly influential 1928 book entitled Propaganda, in which he argued that human manipulability was a good thing . He wrote,

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. 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.

Bernays had the unrestrained faith in expertise and government that was characteristic of the era’s Progressives, but many were not so sanguine. In the first decade of the 20th century, fierce controversy and opposition was sparked by the hiring of press agents by government agencies (first by the Panama Canal Commission and then by the Forest Service and other agencies). In 1913 Congress banned the executive branch from using funds to employ “any publicity expert.” Later that decade Congress also enacted the Anti-Lobbying Act of 1919, which barred agencies from using funds “intended or designed to influence in any manner a Member of Congress to favor or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation or appropriation by Congress.”

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