Propaganda fought by free information

I recently made a late-night trip back to the University campus in order to view a film. The film in question was not a Hollywood blockbuster, nor was it one of those spunky independent films about which we hear so much. This film fell into a category of cinema that many college students dread to an almost visceral point: documentary.
Wait a minute! Don’t flip back to Network quite yet. This documentary is perhaps one of the most important films ever made, for it concerns every man, woman and child in this nation of ours.
It was called “Manufacturing Consent,” and its surprising subject was the propaganda with which we are all bombarded daily. The movie’s central figure, MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, has been described by the New York Times as “perhaps the most important intellectual today.” Many of you are probably asking yourselves what the ideas of a mere ‘thinker’ have to do with you. After all, you’re not slaves to a propaganda machine, right?
Chomsky convinces us that, yes, propaganda influences the way we live every day, molding our lives into the forms someone else wants.
But what does this mean? Isn’t propaganda a tool of oppressive regimes like fascist or communist, totalitarian states? Chomsky’s answer may shock you. He argues that such regimes don’t need to use extensive propaganda because they have compelling military forces at their disposal to shape the ideas of their citizens. Rather, it is in democracies like ours that propaganda is crucial. The agents who find the most use for propaganda are the corporations, media and government institutions which hold power over the dim, unwitting masses.
This might sound like some grand conspiracy theory, but there is a real danger at its heart. Those who use propaganda in America might be called conspirators, but a true conspiracy is not taking place. These are not organized efforts with a coordinated goal. Instead, these institutions are so deeply entrenched in habitual exploitation through propaganda, that such behavior occurs without thought or worry, merely operating naturally in the world.
Consider the mainstream press. Chomsky observes that newspapers and news services around the nation tend to focus on atrocities committed by other countries, devoting little time to the atrocities carried out by the U.S. government. Activities such as the U.S. military operations in Central America and Indonesia were only briefly mentioned in the media.
If you were to ask an editor at the New York Times why this is the case, he might respond that his newspaper with its limited time and resources simply does not have the time to cover every little story. In fact, practical limitations play little role in these situations. The real reason for tunnel-vision coverage in the media is a tacit agreement with the government requiring them to only cover those stories that involve outside forces.
Don’t believe it? It is a fact that the United States sponsored the mass murder of people in East Timor during the 1970s, and the scale was almost as great as the terror instigated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Yet these events received scant attention in the press of the time.
Chomsky concludes that people must begin searching for the facts about a larger range of topics than are covered in the traditional media. Community participation and activism are the essential sources of information that are not controlled by the propaganda machine. These days, the upstart, community oriented center of activism is the Internet, one of the best new sources for information.
But if the government has anything to say about it, the Internet may not remain a warehouse of free truth.
There was a lot of talk a few months ago about the Communications Decency Act, which sought to limit the content on the Internet. Freedom of speech advocates immediately organized resistance to this bill, and consequently it never made it through Congress. However, this issue is not dead; Hillary Clinton, the supposed herald of free speech, has come out in support of restrictions on the content of television and the Internet.
Look at these attempts closely. In light of Chomsky’s terminology and principles, this is the government trying to quench a resource that is outside of its control. The fact of the matter is that anyone can print anything they like on the Internet, including damning evidence of the misdeeds of our own government. The Internet is a place to which average people can go for information and data on any topic they choose. I would encourage people to go to any of the search engines available on the Internet and look for articles and information on East Timor. It is a horrible story, and not enough people know about it.
Some readers will probably be flustered by Chomsky’s ideas. It is comfortable to think that the pillars of our society, the entrenched institutions, are benevolent toward the interests of the majority. But the sad fact is that this is not the case. Increasingly, the average American has become isolated from the larger community through the efforts of the media and the propaganda of the government. We are a nation that feeds on sound bites, generalizations, and summaries. The Internet, in contrast, allows individuals to dig deeper for the truth.
Many people have mixed views about the Communications Decency Act and similar proposals. There is certainly material out there that is unsuitable, immoral and just plain false. However, should we allow institutions like the U.S. government and the mainstream media to restrict what we can and cannot view? Will we all be better off if, in order to prevent access to unsuitable content, we are only given the same propaganda that we already receive from traditional sources? No. Any regulation of content on the Internet must be placed in the hands of individual citizens. Filtering software exists for just this purpose, allowing the average person to decide what is acceptable in his or her own home.
The Internet is a step toward a better, more Chomskyan society. This valuable resource cannot be put under the control of any institution that has historically worked to keep information from the public. It is truly the next frontier. How it develops must be left in our own hands, individually and as a community.

Martin Pease is a College of Liberal Arts freshman majoring in classics.