Charlton BG. The paradox of the modern mass media: probably the major source of social cohesion in liberal democracies, even though its content is often socially divisive. Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 67: 205-8.

Editorial – The Paradox of the modern Mass Media:
Probably the major source of social cohesion in liberal democracies,
even though its content is often socially divisive.

The modern mass media (MM) is often regarded a mixture between a trivial waste of time and resources, and a dangerously subversive system tending to promote social division and community breakdown. But these negative evaluations are difficult to square with the fact that those countries with the largest mass media include the most modernized and powerful nations. It seems more plausible that the MM is serving some useful - perhaps vital - function. I suggest that modern mass media function as the main source of social cohesion in liberal democracies. The paradox is that this cohesive function is sustained in a context of frequently divisive media content. This media function evolved because modern MM produce an excess of media communications in a context of consumer choice which generates competition for public attention both within- and between-media. Competition has led the media to become increasingly specialized at gaining and retaining public attention. Social cohesion is the consequence of the mass media continually drawing public attention to itself, and to the extremely large, internally-complex and interconnected nature of the MM system. The means by which attention is attracted are almost arbitrary, encompassing both novelty and familiarity and evoking a wide range of emotions both positive and negative. Driven to seek competitive advantage, modern mass media produce a wide range of material to cater to a vast range of interests; thereby engaging a great variety of individuals and social groupings. The consequence is that media content is typically self-contradictory and includes content which is offensive and potentially divisive; since what grabs the interest of some may offend or repel others. For instance, young men must be socially engaged, since they are potentially the most violent social group, yet the interests of young men include material that the majority of the population would find excessively aggressive, disrespectful, subversive or sexual. If the mass media is effectively to perform its crucial function of enabling social cohesion among a diverse and differentiated population, then modern liberal democracies need a broad margin of toleration and a widespread psychological capacity to endure dissent and disagreement.

* * *

Doctors and scientists in liberal democracies will be familiar with the experience of mass media (MM) reporting of their subjects being selective, distorted, and sensational [1]. Furthermore, it is not unusual to come across media content which is apparently socially divisive – tending to promote anger, fear, disgust, revenge and other negative emotions. One common view of the mass media is therefore that it is trivial, potentially dangerous, or both. Another view is that the mass media constitute a form of (mostly indirect) ideological propaganda on behalf of the ruling powers [2].

But, I will argue here that the modern mass media has in fact a neglected but vital role in promoting social cohesion. It is probably the modern MM that enables liberal democracies to dispense with a great deal of the coercion, propaganda and censorship which was required to hold-together complex societies in the past [3]. The cohesion induced by the MM is based upon attracting attention, and therefore depends intrinsically upon a wide range of media content to appeal to many social groups and divisions. Since it is inevitable that material which attracts and engages some individuals and groups will repel and offend others, modern liberal democracies depend upon toleration to strengthen social cohesion.

Evolution of the mass media

The mass media have changed their function over the past few centuries, mainly as a consequence of increased competition within-and between-media.

In traditional societies [3, 4] the MM essentially functioned as an instrument of ideological control, producing heavily censored ‘propaganda’ on behalf of the ruling powers who controlled the media – and this situation continued through the earlier stages of industrialization before the evolution of the modern mass media. This was possible because the MM faced little or no competition: books were expensive and copying text was technically difficult, while early broadcast media comprised only a handful of channels. Therefore, mass media of feudal, totalitarian and theocratic societies were essentially monolithic in their communications and manipulative in their intentions [2, 3].

But the modern mass media are different. Although printing was invented in the Middle Ages and had a massive impact – allowing much larger and more complex societies to be administered [5, 6] - the first modern mass media were probably delayed until there was an excess production of printed communications such as cheap newspapers and stories, relative freedom from censorship, a mostly-literate population and also effective consumer choice between media. Since that time media-providers have increasingly needed to compete for limited public attention both within media (eg. competition between radio stations, or between channels on TV) and between media (eg. competition between the news on TV, radio, newspapers and the internet).

When media-providers need to compete for public attention this greatly limits the effectiveness of propaganda and other forms of centrally-controlled indoctrination; because consumers are able to switch their attention to more interesting content elsewhere. Increasing competition also diminishes the role of the earlier MM in providing information that is potentially useful in understanding society in general [7]. Useful information (for example medical information, or explanations of scientific concepts) is still produced by the MM for minority interest groups, but is increasingly swamped by more primarily attention-attracting content.

The effects can also be seen within the professional scientific literature, where a few prestigious journals (including Nature, Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet) have over recent decades specialized in publishing top-quality science which is also media-compatible. Consequently, the mass media ignores virtually the whole of the vast medical and scientific literature excepting these few hybrid media-science journals where they can find a pre-selected pool of high status scientific publications, chosen for their potential for grabbing public attention.

Once media are competing to gain attention from an expanding range of people and groups, and have evolved mechanisms to hold this attention over time (such as the ability to generate daily news [7]), then this progressively increases the psychological fascination of the mass media as a whole. More people will devote more attention to the diversifying and growing mass media system.

Mechanism of social cohesion

The modern mass media is a very large, complex, densely-interconnected social system which attracts increasing attention from ever more of the individuals and social groups which compose society. My suggestion is that it is precisely this focusing of attention on the MM which generates social cohesion in modern societies. The fact that the modern mass media have evolved to become perhaps the major source of social cohesion is therefore an unintended consequence of increasing competition for public attention.

The MM system in modern democracies now functions as the major source of social cohesion, but this function has evolved due to competition for attention and is therefore unselfconscious, unintended and unplanned. The paradox of modern mass media is that while the media system tends to bind society, the content often appears to promote breakdown and division.

This happens because the means or mechanisms by which public attention is attracted and sustained is almost irrelevant to the modern MM – which is therefore extraordinarily multi-faceted, indeed self-contradictory, in its content. Some media content attracts attention by its familiarity, other content by its novelty. The emotions evoked may likewise involve opposites: both pleasant and unpleasant feelings, positive and negative moods, beauty and horror, socially-harmonious and socially-divisive impulses. This internal inconsistency arises simply because the specific content of media is subordinated to the guiding necessity to attract and sustain public attention in a competitive media environment.

So, unlike the top-down enforced ideological uniformity of traditional and totalitarian societies [3], modern societies are importantly held together by their arguments and differences. Indeed, in liberal democracies it is often the disputes which provide the attentional-focus around which society coheres.

Toleration strengthens and expands social cohesion

The paradox is that the mass media promotes overall social cohesion by means which often generate social strife. The strength of social cohesion depends upon the strength by which the MM is able to attract attention. Media in competition are continually trying to attract attention more strongly from more people and groups, by generating wider choice. People differ; their preferences vary according to age, sex, region, religion, politic, hobbies and countless other special interests. No two members of the public will attend to precisely the same elements of the MM, and the evaluations of any given media item may be multiple and oppositional.

The modern MM therefore cuts-across and tends to break-up many traditional social groupings (groups which used-to be important for social cohesion) and leads to a society of unique individuals. Indeed, the uniqueness of modern individuals is defined in public terms as their one-off profile of consumption and lifestyle choices from the surplus of possibilities produced by the MM. The modern media therefore simultaneously generate typically modern individuals, and enable these individuals to cohere.

The social cohesion of these unique individuals depends upon their personal toleration of the fact that other individuals will make different choices. Doctors and scientists have to tolerate twisted media portrayals of their activities, just as all citizens must tolerate media content which is legally-permitted but of which they disapprove. The MM’s capacity to engage a diverse population requires that attention-grabbing material be produced to cater for a vast range of interests. But the ability of media content to attract and hold attention in one person often entails causing insult or repugnance in another.

For instance, all societies must engage young men, since they are potentially the most violent group. However, the spontaneous mass media interests of young men include material that the majority of the population would find excessively aggressive, disrespectful, subversive or sexual. Such content will seldom find general approval – but probably needs a broad margin of toleration if the mass media is to perform its function of social cohesion.

Of course, if the media generates too much dissent, then this may become an immediate threat to social cohesion – for example leading to riots or revolution. So, the MM cannot be completely free from control and censorship, and limits to toleration must be defined and enforced. On the other hand, the more media provocation that can be tolerated, the better. Because, so long as short-term dissent does not lead to actual breakdown, it will tend to strengthen long-term social cohesion by engaging more people more strongly. For liberal democracies the situations was encapsulated by Nietzsche: ‘What does not kill us will make us stronger’.

The paradox of modern mass media is that divisive content is probably intrinsic to maximizing its effectiveness and inclusiveness. The cohesion of liberal democracies therefore depends on a widespread psychological capacity to endure a permanent state of dissent and disagreement. The presence of endemic media provocation and controversy does not always make for a comfortable life. Yet, the greater the social toleration - the stronger and broader the social cohesion.

Acknowledgement: Thanks are due to Peter Andras whose conversation and comments contributed greatly to these ideas.

1. Andras P, Charlton BG. Democratic deficit and communication hyper-inflation in health care systems. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 2002; 8: 291-297.

2. Chomsky N. Necessary illusions: thought control in democratic societies. London: Pluto, 1989.

3. Gellner E. Plough, sword and book: the structure of human history. London: Collins Harvill, 1988.

4. Charlton B, Andras P. (2003) The Modernization Imperative. Imprint Academic: Exeter, UK.

5. McLuhan M. The Gutenberg galaxy: the making of typeographic man. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962.

6. Wright R. Nonzero: the logic of human destiny. Pantheon: New York, 2000.

7. Luhmann N. The reality of the mass media. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000.

Bruce G Charlton

Editor-in-Chief – Medical Hypotheses
School of Biology and Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne



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