Wednesday 6 November 2013

Probabilistic Needle Theory

It is generally concluded that media content has effects on those it comes into contact with but there is no consensus on how or to what extent media can affect people. In this post I’ll cover three top-down theories of the relationship between the mass media and society, point out the main criticism of such top-down approaches, and then provide a way of sidestepping this criticism.

In the interwar period, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School wrote an influential essay about how the standardization and homogenization of cultural output had led to the erosion of cultural values and standards. They decried the way that popular culture no longer possessed any creativity whatsoever, how it had transformed into the established powers of society’s way of systematically spreading and reinforcing the dominant ideology. The arts had openly turned into businesses: the movie industry, the music industry, the radio industry, … As a collective, they labeled these businesses "The Culture Industry."

I think there are two main reasons why cultural goods are becoming more and more identical:

  1. In meeting their shared objective of maximizing profit, they all try to appeal to the widest possible audience. If lots of media producers are trying to reach the widest possible audience, then we should expect there to be a lot of overlap in the methods they employ to do this.
  2. The established powers of the present thrive in a certain kind of political, economic, and cultural environment. It is in the best interests of the multimedia corporations and the other organizations (such as the advertising agencies that influence their content) to promote conservative and capitalist values. We should expect all of these corporations to produce ideologically similar content in their rational attempts to cement the environment that is best for their corporations.
Cultivation theory views television as a system of coherent memes and messages that perpetuate the ideological status quo. According to George Gerbner, the father of cultivation theory, media content has demonstrable cultivating effects on viewers. He and his followers performed empirical research to try to discover how media content might alter the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours of viewers. The cultivation theorists were specifically interested in how exposure to mass media might influence people in the direction of the dominant cultural ideology.

The Propaganda Model of the mass media proposed by Herman and Chomsky argues that the structure and dynamics of the media fosters a systematic right-wing bias and a reduction of possible discourses. This model tries to show how the combination of ideology and power perpetuate a system that is biased toward certain types of media content that have specific kinds of effects on cultural learning, social practices, and ultimately, behaviour. Herman and Chomsky focus on how populations are manipulated by biased media messages to favour some policies over others.

The Frankfurt School, Gerbner, and Herman & Chomsky’s views of media influence are top-down because they envision the people at the top of the capitalist food chain as passing down controlled messages through the media and succeeding in controlling public opinion in this way. This idea has been pejoratively labeled the “hypodermic needle” or “magic bullet” theory of media influence, as it portrays media consumers as passive individuals that accept the ideas in their favourite programs without questioning or rejecting them (almost as if the ideas are injected into them with a needle or fired into them like bullets from a gun). In reality, people actively engage with the media around them. That’s why a movie can glorify violence without transforming the people that enjoy it into criminals. Unlike food, medicine, or bullets, people are able to consciously filter media information on its way into them, making the prospect of media influence much harder to pin down.

This argument seems to have buried top-down theories of media influence, but only in favour of other theories that are less clear-cut and more difficult to work with. It might be easier to simply reform the old theories so that the hypodermic needle criticism no longer applies. I have yet to come across the proposal of a probabilistic needle theory that sees media influence as manifesting itself across a large sample of people, even if any one individual might be unlikely to show a noticeable change. Probabilistic needle theory looks at media effects on the scale of a culture, rather than on the scale of the individual. A given artwork might have a 10% chance of influencing a single person, or a strong chance of influencing 10% of the public. This is what sociologists call a collective phenomena: an effect that can be noticed in groups of people, but not in individuals. In this reformulation of the old theories, there seems to be no reason to reject a top-down understanding of media influence provided that it is adequately sophisticated.


  1. These theories strike me as implausible if they presuppose conscious design of a propaganda system. Rather, it looks like media content evolves with a life of its own, absent a series of masterminds who make it that way. For example, TV ratings are the bread and butter of producers, and companies that don't heed them will decline. This suggests that most of media content seems to be driven by what people want to consume, not by a top-down master plan. There may also be some influence of, say, the intellectual backgrounds from which the content producers come, as well as a desire to stay within certain journalistic bounds (sometimes).

    As far as your hypotheses for the convergence of cultural goods, #1 seems spot on (c.f., Hotelling's law), but #2 seems dubious, because unless there's robust collusion among many parties, the selfish value of preserving capitalism is tiny compared with the prospect of more profits for you specifically. It's like the tragedy of the commons. If anti-capitalist media would sell well, some big media company would start doing that.

  2. There doesn't need to be a formal conspiracy. We only need to believe that (1) the world's major corporations have similar interests and (2) they wish to act in their own best interests.

    Also, with advertising increasingly becoming the dominant source of revenue for many media outlets, advertisers have an increasing amount of control over content. A newspaper might be in favour of printing a story, but one of its major advertisers might threaten to leave them if they print it. Many media outlets are dependent on their advertisers and thus require their approval. I heard in one of my classes that there at least used to be rules for television along the lines of "if a businessman is ever portrayed in a show, he has to be a good guy." (Again, no formal conspiracy, just a few people at the very top trying to protect their lead.)

    That being the world's culture isn't being lorded over by some small group of billionaires. Those billionaires possess a lot of power but in addition to having a top-down probabilistic needle view, I think we need a bottom-up theory of how the masses can make a difference.

  3. "(1) the world's major corporations have similar interests and (2) they wish to act in their own best interests."
    But they don't all have similar interests. If there were a new media company that could appeal to the supposed anti-capitalist masses, it would succeed and prosper in spite of hatred from the other corporations. Indeed, there are small companies of this sort, but the fact that they're not bigger suggests something about their audience size.

    Good point about advertisers. That said, one could imagine a media outlet that accepted money from half of the advertisers and then badmouthed the other half. Indeed, competing companies could get ads in competing media outlets. Maybe there are norms that help prevent this, but it seems like a theoretically stable possibility.

    1. I don't want to come off as saying that only pro-capitalist and conservative messages exist in the media. Rupert Murdoch, the owner of NewsCorp, is strongly associated with conservative views yet he also owns a lot of individual publications known for their liberal views. The fact that he is a conservative comes second to the fact that owning a diversity of media outlets that express a diversity of views will help NewsCorp make profit. On the whole though, NewsCorp expresses conservative values and even it's "liberal" publications are conservative by the standards of some other countries, and they certainly don't express anti-capitalist or even anti-consumerist values. This could be a form of "manufacturing consent" or it could just be good business sense.

      Without knowing anything about a given society, we should expect the radical and anti-norm media outlets to be smaller. I think that is partly because it is in the best interests of small companies to signal opposition to the structures that keep them small. Large corporations have no reason to complain about the current system. We should expect, either by "intelligent design" or by "natural selection," for the major media outlets to express status quo and uncontroversial beliefs, while smaller media outlets push for more radical social change.

    2. Without knowing a detailed backstory, my guess for the Murdoch case would be that he personally has enough power over his franchise to steer it in directions he prefers. People are not wealth maximizers. However, if there were profit to be made from appealing to different audiences, other people should enter and fill the void that Murdoch left. So what's relevant is the distribution of opinion across all media outlets weighted by their influence/popularity.

      The selection effect seems to be the best explanation for the observation. Suppose stance X was actually very popular. Then it the major media outlets would pick it up and go along with it. That they don't go along with it suggests that it's not widely popular. Of course, the influence goes both ways and can be self-reinforcing. A little perturbation either from the bottom up or the top down could lead to a slightly bigger push in that direction, leading to a slightly bigger push, etc.

      Of course, many factors ultimately all contribute to the distribution of media, but it seems like the prevailing one is likely to be what people actually want.

    3. Agreed, but "what people actually want" is only understood vaguely and there's sometimes a lot of room for variation in catering to that want.

    4. Yes, some of the dynamics are random, e.g., some new charismatic figure espouses a view and convinces many other people of the view. There's also the fact that those who succeed will tend to have more appreciation for capitalism and therefore like it more. But I think a hypothesis about explicitly favoring the status quo for strategic reasons (rather than just because the elite like it emotionally) is implausible, because no single corporation has so much control over national politics to outweigh the temptation for higher short-term profits.

  4. I think major corporations make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains pretty regularly, but not for ideological reasons. Amazon has huge revenues but loses money each year. They're powerful enough that they can offer prices so low that they lose money - in the hopes of putting their competition out of business, so that they can then dominate the industry. Google also bought YouTube despite not having a way to monetize it. I think they're still losing money from YouTube.

  5. Amazon trying to put competitors out of business is an example illustrating that companies defect in a corporate tragedy of the commons. The companies would all be better off with agreed-upon higher prices but instead choose to defect for selfish gain. Similarly, a media company that could promote anti-capitalism and thereby acquire significant market share would do so.

    1. Yep. Would you not expect their views to gradually shift more conservative as they gain popularity?

    2. Yes, but it would be a "new" conservative. :) A lot of conservative / liberal disputes are not about "keeping things the same" vs. "changing things." You could keep liberal policies the same.