Free choice vs media determinism

Media determinism

By Lawrence Davidson

Most Americans believe they have a range of choices in their daily lives and that they may choose among them freely. That is, they intuitively believe that their choices are made autonomously and without outside interference. They would probably be surprised to learn that what they take for granted in this regard, the exercise of what is called free will, is a hotly debated topic among learned men and women in fields of study as widely separated as physics, philosophy and theology.

For instance, many physicists are convinced that if one could know the position and momentum of all the atoms in the universe, one could accurately predict the future behaviour of those atoms (including the ones that make up you and me). Of course, one cannot acquire that sort of total knowledge, but the proposition does call into question free will in principle. Philosophers, in their turn, have debated whether free will is compatible with a natural world where cause and effect is the prevailing physical mechanism. And theologians have spent an equal amount of time trying to figure out how free will can coexist with their assumed omniscient and omnipotent God.

Media determinism: commercial

One doesn’t have to have a graduate degree in physics, philosophy or theology to question the notions that people have a wide range of choices and the unfettered will to choose among them. A close consideration of our social and cultural milieu reveals strong deterministic influences, particularly the mass media and its engines of advertising and selective news dissemination. How many individual daily decisions are determined by some degree of media manipulation? Well, for many they can include what we eat, what we wear, how we entertain ourselves, how we groom ourselves, even whether we feel safe or unsafe (and buy or don’t buy that burglar alarm).

A close consideration of our social and cultural milieu reveals strong deterministic influences, particularly the mass media and its engines of advertising and selective news dissemination.

Those that use the media to try to sway our behaviour declare that they are simply providing information that allows informed choices: “advertising ensures that we don’t have to settle for second best. It helps us exercise our right to choose”. However, this is problematic. Advertisers seek to restrict choice, not broaden it and ultimately they want to determine the choice for you. So, generally, what you see as a range of choices is really limited options within a predetermined context – the context of the marketplace. And your freedom of choice? Your choice may well be made on the basis of which product sponsor is most effective in manipulating your perceptions.

This is media determinism in action and it has proven very successful. US businesses spend some USD 70 billion a year on TV advertising alone. And, as one advertising executive comments, “companies would not invest [that much money] in something they thought didn’t work”. This is discouraging news for those who believe in the everyday consumer’s freedom of choice, though indeed this sort of media persuasion leads to death and destruction only occasionally (think anorexia). There are, however, other categories of our lives where media determinism is much more likely lead us right off the proverbial cliff.

Media determinism: political

Given the ubiquitous presence of the media and their influence, the use of persuasive advertising has long since found its way into the realms of politics and policy promotion. Once again, the object is to limit choices, in this case by shutting down debate, and thereby sweep you along with enthusiasm or resignation.

You would think that when it comes to choosing political leaders and deciding between war and peace, the public would deserve information approaching objectivity. This is exactly what they never get. For instance, political campaign promises and party platforms are almost never scrutinised by the media, nor do the media point out that they are only rarely translated into post-election blueprints for action. Instead, the media present manipulated information, mostly in the form of expensive campaign advertisements, as data upon which to base voter choices. Millions are swayed by these advertisements and millions more, recognising the vacuousness of the undertaking, opt out of the political process altogether. The former play a manipulated game which has severely limited choices. Yet such is the power of the myth of democracy that the charade is ongoing.

…the object is to limit choices… by shutting down debate, and thereby sweep you along with enthusiasm or resignation.

In times of emergency the practice of media determinism gets worse. What little critical inclination might exist among journalists is suppressed in the name of national unity. The press rallies around a government position or storyline. This can be seen in the follow-up to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. An investigation as to why these attacks were carried out was suppressed. Therefore, any possibility for the public to examine the ongoing US foreign policy in the Middle East – a policy that indeed provoked the 9/11 tragedy – was also shut down. The official line was that such critiques were attempts to blame the victim. In the same way, any option for the prevention of future attacks was limited to a military one rather than seriously considering diplomatic or policy change alternatives. The president’s approval rating at this time had reached 90 per cent.

The alliance between government and media can be seen in what soon followed. President Bush’s determination to attack Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, led to an orchestrated campaign of misinformation. In March 2003, as the invasion took place, polls showed that between 72 and 76 per cent of Americans supported the president’s war. In doing so, did they exercise free choice? Most of them would probably have told you that they did. Yet a strong argument can be made that because of the misinformation given them in the run-up to the war – for instance, misinformation about the Iraqi people’s desire to be rescued from Saddam Hussein and the notorious issue of weapons of mass destruction – they were in fact victims of media determinism.

It turns out that it is difficult for the media to sustain a campaign of misinformation in the face of gross contradiction. Thus, when US troops were not welcomed with flowers as they invaded Iraq, and the weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found, the administration’s approval ratings took a dive. But by the time the events revealed the misleading nature of government-media information, the damage had been done.


Despite having been shown to be misleading, the role and style of media news presentation has not changed much. Today, external issues vital to the nation’s future, such as the dangerous alliance with Israel, deadly drone campaigns, the catastrophic potential of global warming and the deteriorating relations with Russia, as well as internal ones, such as the need for more aggressive economic regulatory enforcement, the expansion of health care reform and increased taxation of the wealthy, are little discussed in the media or, when mentioned, come to us in suspiciously biased form. Objective information is hard to come by and the encouragement of debate is absent.

So what is real, free choice or media determinism? The picture sketched above suggests that the former is significantly limited by the latter. This appears to be the case when it comes to mundane things as well as matters of life and death. How many of us understand this to be the case? It has to be very few, for if very many realised the situation, they would surely demand that the media break its alliance with the powerful. Without objective information, there can be no meaningful free choices.

Print Friendly