Of Media and Manipulation

In the run-up to the 2015 UK general election in May, all sorts of private interests have been seen oozing out of the woodwork. The direction which our society takes and is seen to take is determined to such a large extent by the information that we have access to and the bodies who control that access, that it can be the very factor which can determine whether your fictional society is holding together or falling apart.

The news this week has broken that media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corporation (and by extension a huge chunk of the UK’s news media) has commanded his staff to increase attacks on the Labour Party and its leader, while shining a more positive light on those of the Conservative Party in an effort to swing the election to their favour.

British newspapers have a long tradition of declaring their support for one party or another, and these allegiances can have profound effects on the outcome of elections – the unexpected Conservative victory in the 1992 was proclaimed as a victory by Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, with the now-notorious headline “It’s The Sun Wot Won It”, but at what point does partisan media and spin cross the line into straightforward propaganda?

In our fictional world, much hangs on a similar idea of the availability of information. Is the information available impartial, or is there a power controlling what the people hear?

Example: A world of extreme integration between computer communications and human interactions, and each person receives their daily news update through an earpiece from a central source. Each person has access to the same information on a full range of topics, and it is felt that this equality of access to information allows everyone to make the best decisions of how to live their life. However, which items are included and excluded from this update is determined by an independent body which has been infiltrated by a clandestine anti-technology group.

So we can see in this example that our fictional world’s media can have an effect on the way our population sees the world. Stories about the failures of technology or negative consequences of computerisation, strategically inserted into daily news updates can increase the visibility of their cause and make the issues appear bigger and more important than in reality they are. Our population would become more knowledgeable about the news stories and discoveries which support one viewpoint than the alternative, and more likely to support that view as a result.

Now say that there’s more than one news outlet, and that these different outlets are divided by demographic – perhaps female citizens receive a different mixture of news stories, with a different set of emphases than male ones. How might that affect the roles that these groups play in relation to one another, the values that they place on things, and their goals in life?

Example: In a caste-based society, members of the wealthy highborn caste receive all of their news from military and financial advisers, focusing on the stability of the social order. Lowborn peasants, however, receive their news from religious scholars who emphasise piety and the rewards which come from obedience to one’s superiors.

How might we expect this society to act? Are the highborn likely to consider the plight of their subjects and the difficulties they face? Are the lowborn likely to question their position in the social order or hear about uprisings in other provinces? It seems like the answer would likely be “no”, and each group would happily settle into their prescribed roles with little conflict.

Say we change this dynamic, however, and replace the religious scholars who inform the lowborn populace with a band of travelling revolutionaries, spreading the word about uprisings and abuses of power in neighbouring provinces. How might this change the social dynamic between the two groups?

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