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The view that the media has the ability to mesmerise, influence and even control its audiences has its roots firmly in the early 20th century. Then new communication technology in the form of moving pictures, the gramophone and radio expanded the mass media previously occupied by newspapers. It might be argued that the First World War was also the first war fought using the media. During a period when public opinion became crucial, the media was used to drum up morale and support, and Britain even established a Ministry of Information to produce the necessary propaganda. The Russians, Germans, Italians and Spaniards deployed similar methods of mass persuasion. In the intervening years between the two World Wars (1918-1939) this ability of their leaders to seemingly “brainwash” citizens using the media was explained using the “hypodermic needle” (sometimes known as the “magic bullet”) model. This model was very much rooted in the dominant notion of behaviourism, most famously represented by Pavlov’s experiment where a dog was trained to salivate at the ring of a bell.

In the hypodermic needle model, the concept of conditioning was applied to the mass audience who were seen as passive recipients of whatever message that was injected (or shot) by the media, and who can be manipulated to react in a predictable, unthinking and conditioned manner.

The classic case study cited to support this view is the famous radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds by Orson Welles on Halloween of 1938. In this episode of a radio drama series aired by Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), the programme was “interrupted” by an urgent announcement of a Martian invasion in progress. The realistic portrayal of the story had purportedly sparked widespread panic throughout the country, and was taken as further proof that the media had the power to control audiences. However, the lack of empirical studies led some scholars to question this model, which was based on many assumptions unsupported by research. Using the example of The War of the Worlds critics pointed out that there was no actual empirical data on how widespread the panic was and suggested that the newspapers that reported it could be exaggerating.

Next: the minimal effects model in the post WW2 years.

Discussion Questions

There are many examples of wartime propaganda in New Zealand as elsewhere, but what about peace time events such as 911 and subsequent  institutional responses and attempts to influence populations.

Do Local disasters such as bushfires in Australia and earthquakes in New Zealand present another opportunity for ‘brainwashing’ or in any way influence the local populations? Is any perceived ‘panic’ over New Zealand building construction standards driven by the media as well as political agendas, and if so, to what degree are audiences reactive or passive receivers?

See this account of the Forgotten Silver (New Zealand) hoax and compare it with Orson Welles and ‘The Martian landing’ of 1938. Are audiences any less gullible?