Saturday, 30 April 2011

Can representative democracy still foil the manipulation of public opinion?

Greece was the birth of democracy, and obviously the Ancient Greeks were the first to realize that forms of direct democracy had to be replaced by representative democracy. The reasons were self-evident 2500 years ago as they are now, and may be summarized in two main factors – cost efficiency and prevention of demagogy. It is costly and unnecessary to have the entire population drafting, discussing and approving all the laws. Likewise, elected representatives can be selected to support the views of many groups of people and can be trained to avoid being deceived by eloquent rhetoric.

For many centuries the art of rhetoric has been taught as one of the fundamental human arts. But, starting with Aristotle, many have since tried to regulate its application in law and politics to prevent it from following Plato’s negative definition of rhetoric as “the persuasion of ignorant masses within the courts and assemblies”. During Enlightenment many thinkers attempted to make language a neutral, transparent medium of communication, but in the 20th century there was a renewed focus on persuasion.

This was associated with developments in the science of psychology, which led to its association with other forms of opinion making. The most disastrous use was in the field of psychology of masses. Fascist, Communist and Nazi movements were the first to resort to the combination of rhetoric with martial music and marches and the exploitation of hate and similar low sentiments in relation to perceived or invented enemies among outsiders.

In democratic societies the new knowledge of psychology was channeled for pacific aims and used mostly for commercial purposes by an emerging new industry of advertising. This industry later extended to politics.

Meanwhile, a more dangerous form of manipulation through public relations has also extended from business to politics. PR is a more deceitful practice than advertising because it hides its sponsors and true objectives by combining many independent groups and opinion makers (often even unaware of being using) to construct the desired public perception. In particular, the fact that some organizations set up multi-million-dollar public relations and advertising campaigns to try to reframe the debates and shift the focus away from their responsibilities, gives them a powerful form of propaganda and manipulation.

So, how can representative democracy cope with this plethora of rhetoric, mass psychology, and advertising and public relations tools? The solution must be two-fold.

First, following on Aristotle’s ideas, these entire industries must be made transparent and well regulated while working on political issues. In particular, the PR industry must be carefully scrutinized.

Second, the relations between political parties and those industries must be also tightly regulated. In a context when the traditional media and journalists are being starved of resources, they are prone to succumb to ready-made news and articles prepared for them by PR agencies. Likewise, when elections are becoming more costly and competitive to get voters attention politicians are also an easy prey for richly-funded PR campaigns.

In the past representative democracy has been able to survive these threats. We believe it will be able to continue doing so. The alternatives – chaos or dictatorship – are simply not acceptable.

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