Today’s technology-driven world is also system-dominated. A system is any division of labor paired with productive forces and knowledge, thinks Habermas. Systems operate through instrumental reason, or ends-means rationality. The ends justify the means. Organization and the state, accordingly, can manipulate the public with publicity, diverting their attention. The government tends to focus on technical problems, replacing democracy with bureaucracy, resulting in a democratic deficit, where principles of equality and consent of the governed lose their importance to Habermas’ “technocratic consciousness,” a state of mind brought forth by increasing specialization handled by authorities, experts, and professionals, each of whom spreads propaganda under technical jargon, claiming to be “fixing” some new problem. These technical problems are those to which social, pragmatic, pressing, and vital problems are subordinated. Technological ideology is not delusionalper se, as other ideologies are, such that their believers are under an illusion, misguided and mislead, although it is ubiquitous, as other ideologies are, infectious, spreading like wildfire. As such, the technical dominates the practical, removing thereby personal ethics. When a decision is made, its ethical dimensions are not considered; it is an ends-means instrumentality. Simply put, technology is self-determinative in terms of its values, which makes it a threat to democracy (in excess, of course, as technology is not intrinsically bad).
The commercialization of the press has led to the death of intellectual journalism. Drama takes precedence over detail, personality over policy. During the election, the press notably focused less on the actual and real issues and more on the candidates themselves. Rational discussion was thereby taken from the people, from whence they were distracted. Back in the 18th century, the bourgeois educated middle class read the newspaper daily, then went to the salon to discuss it with their peers. Now, the newspaper is still read daily, although not to the same extent. Consumers watch TV for hours every day, without ever exchanging discourse. Listening to the radio, watching TV, we cannot “disagree” with the media, in a sense, because it “takes away distance,” to use one of Habermas’ phrase, by which he means that we are so close to the media, that we cannot engage with it, we cannot talk face-to-face with the television or the interviewer or host who is speaking, but are forced to sit there, inactive, passive, taking it in, unable to respond critically. “The public sphere,” notes Habermas, “becomes the sphere for the publicizing of private biographies.” News, publicity, focuses on celebrities, scandals, and politicians. It dramatizes everything they do, reporting it as news, using names to attract and tempt us, making a story out of anything they can get, in order to profit off of it. Rather than examine the policies and character of a person, the news analyzes their personal life. Habermas reflects ironically on the fact that, in the 19th century, ads in the press were considered dishonest, so they took up only 1/20 (0.05%) of the page. —How things have changed!— Take a look at any newspaper, even a respectable one, and behold how the whole page is practically take over by ads! Editorials are advertised and lose their meaning. Advertisement gives a sales pitch, clear as day, but PR is more dangerous than advertisement because it exploits the public with attention-grabbing publicity, taking cover beneath the protection of the press.
Moreover, newspapers are dumbed-down. Publishers play around with type and font, adding flashy images and illustrations that distract from it, Habermas points out. The supervisors, just figureheads for their representative companies, get to control which topics are covered, scrapping any of which they disapprove. They “serv[e] up the material as ready-made convenience, patterned and predigested. Editorial opinions recede behind information from press agencies and reports from correspondents; critical debate disappears behind the veil of internal decisions concerning selection and presentation of the material.” Debate, once a byproduct of the press, is itself commodified, restricted by formalities, aired to be watched without intervention or follow-up discussion. For this reason, debates are reduced to mere “personal incompatibilities,” trifles, minor disagreements, surrendering itself to the rampant relativism of the 21st century. In newspapers, “delayed-reward news,” valuable and informative, is vanishing, in its place “immediate-reward news,” which is tainted with too many clichés, touched up with drama, and made to sparkle with hyperbole, such that “the rigorous distinction between fact and fiction is ever more frequently abandoned.”
By commercializing the press, the rich manage to hold onto power. They use propaganda to limit democracy. Playing the victim card, they complain that the wealthy minority are under attack from the powerless, uneducated minority. To combat the democratic instinct, they push for the “indoctrination of the youth,” a phrase actually used in official documents, emphasized by American philosopher Noam Chomsky (1928-) in his A Requiem for the American Dream (2016) to critique the abuses of the media. Institutions like schools were told to be more strict in their requirements, to create criteria for education to brainwash children. The term “brainwashing” probably conjures up connotations of conspiracy; the fact is, brainwashing is very real, and very common, a technique mastered to influence people. Institutions try to limit free-thought, in hopes of making everyone conform to a single cutout. To cite an example, Chomsky refers to the Trilateral Commissions, an organization which, responding to the 1960’s, attempted to develop a “proper” society. There was purportedly “too much democracy,” so they needed to keep the masses in check, making people conform, passive, unquestioning. In post-Cambodia U.S. in the ‘70’s, local common spaces like the library and debate hall were closed off in universities to discourage critical discussion. In other words, the government attempted to shut down the public sphere, to prevent any criticisms of the state. Anyone who critiques the government, usually the educated minority of intellectuals, who impugns the media, is denounced as “anti-American,” a term which Chomsky traces to totalitarian regimes. To reduce criticisms of “concentrated power” (the state + corporations), the government discourages critical talk, alienating them, calling them traitors to the state, much as the Soviet Union did. Journalism was stifled. The public sphere cannot engage critically or rationally.
Famously, Chomsky said, “Propaganda is to democracy what violence is to totalitarianism.” PR, then, is a method of cracking down on dissent, be it violent or nonviolent—a means of silencing and enforcing strict rules. Propaganda is more dangerous than censorship, he argues, because it, like PR, parades around as the public sphere, but is actually deceptive and misleading. Propaganda is brainwashing. This development of PR and of propaganda stems from Edward Bernays, who coined the phrase “engineering consent,” a concept studied in depth by both Chomsky and Habermas. Bernays created what one official called “consent without consent,” because with the work of Bernays, PR was able to make decisions for people. As Chomsky relates from David Hume, power lies in the hands of the people; but if the people are made to think they have none, they will be powerless, and the government powerful. So the government exploits this. Fabricated consumption, a Veblen-esque term used by Chomsky, refers to the consumer culture of today, a culture in which we are told we need things, rather than want them. The media everywhere shouts, “Look at me!” “Buy this product!” Consumption is both uninformed and irrational, when it is supposed to be informed and rational! Evidently, all this has played a role in the 2016 Election. Rather presciently, Habermas writes that, with the decline of the critical public, those who do not ordinarily vote are swayed “by the staged or manipulatively manufactured public sphere of the election campaign”—notice the use of the word “manufactured.” The presidential candidates were portrayed in a certain manner on purpose, because the corporations who owned them leaned in a certain direction. Because the media was biased and commercially influenced, it created a terrible environment, where discussion could not be grown, but rather created a desert, where no plants could grow, since there was no water, so they perished. Discussion was neither informed nor rational. Even if there were rational discussions, they were not factual, for the media reported no facts upon which to base them. This kind of political climate is poisonous, and offers no room for critical debate. “[A]n acclimation-prone mood comes to predominate, an opinion climate instead of public opinion,” declares Habermas; i.e., there is no talk about policy or the positions of the candidates; all there was was empty declarations like, “I’m voting for blah blah,” and “I’m pro so and so,” utterly devoid of thoughtfulness or decision.
The decline of the public sphere and the commercialization of the media is no new concept, even here in the U.S. In the year 1934, the first Communications Act was passed, which formally established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). This organization was created to handle media concerns, its service to the public interest. Then, in 1949, the controversial Fairness Doctrine was passed, a policy that required all media focus on pertinent, controversial topics and give equal airtime to opposing viewpoints, so as to allow for fair, balanced reporting based on facts, promoting discussions between parties, not just parochial, sectarian biases that supported one side, saying bad things about the other. In instating this, the FCC wanted to foster rational discussions, where both sides could be heard, and then citizens could make up their minds, instead of just listening to one and forming their decision without a second thought. With the Fairness Doctrine, the pros and cons could be heard and rationalized, challenged and defended. There would be less party polarization as a result—a problem we face very much today. The problem of the policy’s constitutionality arose, and it was challenged for impinging on First Amendment rights, so it was repealed in 1987, and formally eliminated in 2011. In 1975, the Cross-ownership Rules were passed by the FCC to “[set] limits on the number of broadcast stations — radio and TV — an entity can own, as well as limits on the common ownership of broadcast stations and newspapers.” These rules stipulated that a company could not own multiple mediums. Regulation of ownership was first defined thus. Giving equal voice to all media, the FCC made these rules to reduce and prevent media consolidation—the process in which big companies, or conglomerates, buy out other media companies, and thus hold legal and economic ownership of them. Like Chomsky, the FCC wanted to stop concentration of power. This set of rules appears to be a victory for the public sphere; unfortunately, it did not last long, and tragedy struck when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was made active. Suddenly, the FCC repealed ownership regulations—hence, they deregulated the media—allowing for more companies to merge together and consolidate. From 2003-7, slowly but surely, the media was increasingly deregulated. Eventually, the Cross-ownership Rules of 1975 were null. Private concentration opened up. One of the terms stated that “whether a channel actually contains news is no longer considered in counting the percentage of a medium owned by one owner.” Companies could now hold 45% of the media market, as opposed to the previous 25% in 1985. This, the rise of oligopoly. By 1985, 50 companies controlled the media. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, over a course of several years, the number dropped infamously to five (or six, depending on the source) companies: Comcast, The Walt Disney Company, 21st Century Fox, Time Warner, and CBS/Viacom. Most recently, many an American has prophesied the “death of the Internet” as a result of a decision that took place on December 24, 2017: The FCC, after a long fight, repealed Net Neutrality. Why is it regarded as the death of a free Internet?—Because big corporations, such as Comcast, can now control data as they please. It used to be that data carriers equally distributed connection, but now, with it repealed, just like the Cross-ownership Rules, oligopoly can now thrive, meaning big companies control the market, stamping out smaller competitors, all in the name of money.
And what of fake news? What is it, and what implications has it for democracy and the public sphere? Fake news is defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” Put another way, fake news is erroneous, nonfactual information based on getting attention, often with the use of shock to attract people. It conceals its falsehood under the “guise,” or cover, of “news reporting”; it uses the authority of the media to pull of its stunts. This is an existential threat to democracy for several reasons. First, it deceives the public. The public relies on the media to get information, but the press supplies them with none—or rather, it does, but it misinforms them, about everything, seeing as it is fake. Second, it besmirches the reputation of the media. Each time we read fake news and catch it, we lose more and more trust in the media, because we know we cannot believe a word it says. Considering there are good, factual, respectable presses out there, this is disadvantageous because it means that the preponderance of fake news seems to overcompensate for the good news out there, meaning media in general loses its credible character. Third, fake news does not make for critical discussion. If it is fake, then it is not factual, and if it has no facts, no logic, then it cannot be rational in any capacity. Fourth, it signals the collapse of the public sphere and the recrudescence of feudalism, devoid of any criticism.
In a study done by Media Matters, Facebook was found to be one of the leading sources behind fake news circulation. Due to its algorithms, Facebook works like this: The more likes or views an article gets, the more it circulates, the more it spreads. The circulation of news is an active engagement; the more we interact with it, the more it interacts with us. Like a hot agent, the more it spreads, the more hosts it enters, which, in turn, spread it more, multiplying exponentially. Just clicking on the article, just coming into contact with it—this tells the system to send it to more people. The code says, “Oh! this must be popular, seeing as many people are clicking it; I’m sure everyone else will like it…,” and so sends it to more and more people, who then send it further. Worst of all is the fact that fake news is not ideological but commercial. Fake news is not necessarily for promoting a party, supporting one candidate intrinsically; rather, it is all for money, not surprisingly. One might find this fact hard to believe, as there were countless pro-Trump or pro-Hillary (and vice versa, anti-) articles. But the fact is, these fake articles that spread rumors or intentionally provocative comments are advertised not to gain support for either candidate, but to pander to their supporters, and so to make money. Yes, the advertisements were sent to respective supporters, but it was not to help them grow, but to, by the very essence of the article, make them click on it, thus making them money. It is not unknown that Facebook sells private information about its users. Millions of private accounts have their information sold to companies for large sums of money. Once the companies have our private information, they can manipulate us; they can manufacture our consent. If I were to put on my account that I supported a particular candidate, and if my information, which is kept private, concealed from public view, were to be sold to a company, then they could look at my profile, see who it is I support, and send me advertisements and articles supporting that candidate, or denouncing the other candidate, and I would not be able to resist: After all, we love to engage our subconscious biases. Any contrary information strengthens our resistance. Large companies, then, do us a disservice, pandering to us, selling us what we already like and know, entrenching us in our beliefs, leading to confirmation bias, ultimately making them lots and lots of money. Facebook has ads absolutely everywhere. Hence, they make money off of us. Going back to the threat of fake news, the biggest problem is its evolution. Originally, fake news used to be intentionally false, provocative, and contentious, designed to make its readers drawn to it, interested in finding out about the latest scandals, even if they were believable or not, obviously fake, with the purpose of entertaining. An example would be some kind of conspiracy, like “Hitler still alive in secret bunker in Africa.” This is “sensational” news. Fake news is now a disguised predator, a sheep in wolf’s clothing, preying on us gullible readers, presenting itself as real, authentic news. See, whereas sensational news was meant to be explicitly entertaining and false, fake news is more believable than it used to, meant to mimic real news, to pull us in with facts; it looks real, but is deceptive, too good to be true. Taking up the mask of real, credible news sources—which, notwithstanding, are fake—these sites adopt media names, like “San Francisco Chronicle Gazette” or “Denver Guardian.” The president of Media Matters, Angelo Carusone, remarks, “These sites actually capitalize on people’s inherent trust in the news media.”
We pride ourselves on our democratic freedoms of speech and press, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Today is the age wherein left becomes right, up down, and right wrong, when everything we have come to know is flipped upside down, every fact we have accepted needing to be checked, then re-checked, just to make sure it is not “fake.” Such is the time we occupy. We cannot trust our media. There is a fundamental lack of discussion. Silent, powerless yet powerful, we have the power to make a change, if we want to. I am sure none of us would like to live in a country where the media purposefully obscures the news, covering up the government’s actions, adding glitter to it, to keep it from appearing as it is. And yet, we live in one. It is not so distant from a totalitarian state as we might think. Chomsky thought Orwell would be impressed, impressed beyond horror, at the extent to which we as a civilization have abandoned truth and honesty in our coverage of the government. The public sphere as we have come to know it, has faltered, trampled beneath our feet, like a clerk on Black Friday, as we insatiable consumers burst through the doors, indiscriminate, hungry, willing to feast on whatever is presented before us on a fancy platter. Bibs fastened around our necks, knives and forks tight in our fists, we voluntarily feast on the shiny and tasty-looking desserts placed in front of us, instead of eating our vegetables, salutary, good for us, though not as inviting. We have failed the public sphere. Rational discourse has been abandoned. But if we take the time to talk with one another, engage in discussion, and do our research, reading up on the latest news, attentive, then we can bring back honest, intellectual journalism. We must make our communication authentic.
 Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, p. 171
 Id., p. 169
 Id., p. 170
 Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, “The Manufacture of Consent (1984),” p. 136
 Habermas, op. cit., p. 214
 Id., p. 217
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fc5yayLkI0&t=1s (9m10s)
 Id., (9m18s)
For further information:
The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere by Jürgen Habermas (1991)
Introduction to Critical Theory: Horkheimer to Habermas by David Held (1980)
The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory by David Macey (2000)
Chomsky on Democracy & Education by Noam Chomsky (2003)
A Requiem for the American Dream by Noam Chomsky (2017)
Dictionary of Sociology by Nicholas Abercrombie (2006)
The Chomsky Reader by Noam Chomsky (1987)
Social Imaginaries by Charles Taylor (2005)
Consolidation of Media
Facebook and Fake News