Media Distraction and Social Control


Is the “white noise” of daily media distraction deliberate social control, or just modernity out of control? Everyone has only 24 hours in a day. In many communities worldwide the sheer struggle to survive occupies most waking hours. In some others, any “free thinking time”, especially for the young, is carefully manipulated by state directed activities, propaganda and censorship. A possible third model is that ruling elites and governments may prevent criticism by distracting the main population with sports, entertainment and endless trivial ‘news’.

Thor May
Brisbane, 2015



Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about. The present piece is rather flippant in tone, but the underlying dilemma it addresses affects us all.




1. Introduction


A few years ago I was robbed on the street by a couple of guys in Vietnam. One pretended to show me some postcards, and while I was busy telling him to get lost, the other one pick-pocketed my wallet. My little misfortune is a rather neat metaphor for the politics of distraction which rulers have practiced on the ruled since at least the time of the Roman Empire. About  100AD the satirical poet, Juvenal, christened the distraction technique “Bread & Circuses”.

The beauty of “Bread & Circuses” is that the hoi polloi WANT to be distracted, amused, pampered and fed cake, rather than debate dreary legislation, or wrestle with the intricacies of war & peace diplomacy. There are, after all, only 24 hours in a day, and life is short. Difficulty arises because the hoi polloi also aspire to the deception that they live in a democracy, choose their leaders wisely, and can express random opinions on the state of the world in the expectation that the world will change accordingly. Unfortunately, the world is more complicated than that, a disaster which some of the hoi polloi admit with regret occasionally. They console themselves with the prayer that at least the wise leaders they think they have chosen know what they are doing.

2. So who actually gets to be in charge of the asylum?

The wise leaders of planet earth get to their elevated positions by a variety of paths. The roads to glory nearly all involve habits of deception, because you can’t please everyone. Once you lay hands on the kingly crown, keeping it can be a rather desperate affair since the necessary deceptions multiply. At this point, distracting the hoi polloi with Bread & Circuses becomes almost irresistible, especially if you lack to wherewithal to cower them with blood and iron.

Perhaps if the wise leaders really were superhumanly wise, and perhaps if the complexity of modern civilization were not spiraling into vortices which nobody understands, we could all settle down with football and Facebook while the great engines of state muddled through. Unfortunately the evidence is compelling that the general run of leaders have very ordinary minds, very mediocre judgement, more than the average quota of psychopathology, and all the usual human vices. In other words, it becomes downright dangerous to leave them in charge of the shop unsupervised.  

3. The wheel of history turns, but always in the same rut?


There was a time when an unseen god was supposed to be on you national or tribal team. This god would mollify the peasants with promises of better things to come, and when a king became too erratic, tip him into a snake pit and appoint a new mandate from heaven. It was a rough bargain, but they more or less got away with it in simpler societies. There are places on earth where ambitious sociopaths are still trying to pull the same trick, but it is wearing thin.

In the 21st Century, we flutter and spin in an invisible but ever present electronic web. We seem to know everything from a Google search box, but in aggregate are too time-poor to know much at all. No longer is it enough to have a single Coliseum funded by a single emperor where the hoi polloi can be kept off the streets with free wine and the spectacle of some unlucky Christians being set up to fight a lion with a pitch-fork.

4. Help! There are too many varmints out there to whack down


The human world now a crawling mass of around 7,000,000,000 bodies. That is a humongous number, beyond realistic counting. Humans are pack animals, and their hunting packs tend to self-select to a workable size. The average human is content to follow, but with 7 billion bodies, the number of emerging pack leaders is also numbing. These packs themselves aggregate into hierarchies of larger groups of bewildering variety – units, companies, associations, clubs, councils, committees, governments, and so on. Every one of these things is teeming with incipient pack leaders, itching to weasel their way to greater glory. Laws and customs are supposed to impose some order on this mess, but it doesn’t take much more than an accident or a casual betrayal for conflict to emerge.

5. It’s a conspiracy!. They are taking us over, aren’t they?


Just suppose that some phenomenally clever bunch of conspirators, leaders or whatever you want to call them, did set out to “rule the world”, that squirming mass of human ambitions. There is a whole genre of literature, populist and intellectual, devoted to such imagined intentions. They often depict dystopias. A couple of popular examples: think of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or George Orwell’s 1984. The theme is perennially popular in the cinema too. A fairly recent contribution was The Matrix. All of these fictional accounts grow out of perceived realities or tendencies in existing societies. What the authors wrestle with most are motivations and goals, or in short, who is screwing whom as the sun sets. The answers they offer depend generally upon their political sympathies, but the theme of manipulation is mostly unquestioned. They are not about collections of people somehow muddling through, but about master elites maintaining control by force, persuasion, and above all by deception. Well, life does imitate art, so for argument’s sake think about this little quote from C.S. Lewis:

Why you fool, it’s the educated reader who can be gulled. All our difficulty comes with the others. When did you meet a workman who believes the papers? He takes it for granted that they’re all propaganda and skips the leading articles. He buys his paper for the football results and the little paragraphs about girls falling out of windows and corpses found in Mayfair flats. He is our problem. We have to recondition him. But the educated public, the people who read the highbrow weeklies, don’t need reconditioning. They’re all right already. They’ll believe anything (That Hideous Strength, Scribner 1996, p 99-100)  [see Wedgeworth 2014 in the reading list]

Wedgworth, in two reviews of the Lewis novel (Wedgeworth 2013, 2014), takes the viewpoint of a conservative Christian (conservative in the old-school British anti-technocratic sense of a J.R. Tolkien with his hobbits). In the process he draws a couple of other thoughtful quotations from the novel, which regardless of whether you agree with the author’s conclusions, do require you to think:

Don’t you understand anything? Isn’t it absolutely essential to keep a fierce Left and a fierce Right, both on their toes and each terrified of the other? That’s how we get things done. Any opposition to the N.I.C.E. is represented as a Left racket in the Right papers and a Right racket in the Left papers. If it’s properly done, you get each side outbidding the other in support of us—to refute the enemy slanders. Of course we’re non-political. The real power always is. (99)

I wonder if Rupert Murdoch of News Ltd fame sleeps with this quotation under his pillow. And some dour honesty from the character, Hingest, a research chemist (who refers to the leader of the secret police, a sometime feminist who uses pseudo science as a weapon of control) :

There are no sciences like Sociology. And if I found chemistry beginning to fit in with a secret police run by a middle-aged virago who doesn’t wear corsets and a scheme for taking away his farm and his shop and his children from every Englishman, I’d let chemistry go to the devil and take up gardening again…I happen to believe that you can’t study men: you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing. Because you study them, you want to make the lower orders govern the country and listen to classical music, which is balderdash. You also want to take away from them everything which makes life worth living and not only from them but from everyone except a parcel of prigs and professors. (71)

Well, that was a mid-20th Century British mindset, but even today not a few Britons have a sturdy view of social class levels (no wonder the British Raj fitted right in with the Indian caste system). In Australia this social class stuff is rather more ambiguous, but whatever way you cut it, and for whatever reason, there are people who like classical music and people who like pop, people who actually like to debate ideas (sometimes hard to find in Australia), and others who prefer to watch televised football. Some folk of course go for all of that. The connections to political intelligence, and any grand scheme for an elite to take over the world (why?) by opiating the masses is up for discussion.

6. Call in the media to save us! Hey, is anyone out there listening?


School teachers, as they become older and more cunning, learn that there are things called “teachable moments”.  These are those random occasions when for a fleeting moment, something dramatic tears down stubborn barriers of resistance in the minds of students and they suddenly take ownership of some stupid idea the teacher has been flogging to them for months. (School administrators think teachable moments can be timetabled, but school administrators think pigs can fly too). Truth be told, teachable moments rarely come as a blinding flash of group-think. Most of them flicker into life at weirdly personal moments. There’s that girl in the back corner of the room who sends 300 SMS messages a month and can’t spell “type”, and who suddenly gets a crush on you for a day. There’s the brat who thinks you are a complete imbecile, until one morning (as you learn months later) his mum leaves home, and he’s desperate for any kind of advice ….

Now multiply classrooms to countries, students to whole populations, and your faithful teacher to a tumultuous multitude of media portals all clamouring for attention. Suppose you are a hack journalist working for one of these media portals. Maybe you are an earnest fellow looking for the whole truth, whatever that is. Maybe you are a grub, a shill in the secret pay of some political party, industrial enterprise, a gambling mogul, or a billionaire who wants to remake the world. It really doesn’t matter. Your chances of persuading all of your readers or viewers to be led by the nose are next to zero. So you convince your patron or your conscience that it is all a percentages game, and that hooking 2% of the idiots out there is worth more money than hooking 0% of them. The rest, well they don’t have the time or the interest to get past a headline, or even to read a headline. This is your dreary, daily reality as a hack journalist. Once or twice in your career, maybe, you will stumble into a magic confluence of time and place. You are the guy of the moment, and millions will follow your words avidly (before they are distracted again by the football). You have chanced on a teachable moment and your reputation is made.

We know that the manipulation of mass media, or at least exposure to it, is craved by every ambitious politician. In fact, every commercial establishment, and every institution which collects people for some common purpose has its own internal politicians. In their own corners, these “little politicians” are equally avid to public politicians in pursuit of some media exposure. It would seem to follow almost as a tautology that the kings and queens of media empires hold the ring of power to rule them all. Or, to view the reversal of that fortune in another way, any earthly king who can command the barons of the media world can surely be a supreme puppet master (?).

Well, they try, they all try. That is, some wannabes try to restrict information by intimidating media outlets, or blocking sources like the Internet outright. They have some success, but it is a leaky strategy. Some try to flood the media-sphere with good news stories about their own virtues and deeds. Name the politician or VIP who doesn’t have a publicity officer. At the national level the political media machine will work on broad themes with tireless repetition to induce a public consensus in this direction or that. For example, we are flooded with fake or slanted “economic analysis”, written on behalf of economically illiterate politicians by economically illiterate journalists for an economically illiterate population (see Warrick Smith 2015 for a nice takedown of this stuff). As with any kind of voodoo, it is the outcomes induced by the incantations that count, not the objective truth of what they are saying.

However, all the official opinion makers and hopeful rulers of the universe have a bit of competition when they try to influence the tribal masses who might vote for them or spark a riot. For starters, each human atom in the tribal masses has a private life filled up with the usual cares and worries and self-indulgences. Catching any one of them at a teachable moment rates not much better odds than winning the lottery. Most of the time, you have to run them over with a tank to get sustained attention.

Then when your human atom does quixotically decide to seek out a little more information about the world, where will he or she turn? Well, he or she might turn to friends, neighbours, workmates. Or they might turn to a blog. A blog? Gaille (2013) tells us that in 2013 there were over 152,000,000 blogs on the Internet. I don’t know how he counted, but it is surely a vast number, and – here’s the rub – their opinionated authors tend to be more believed than all of those very expensive professional publicity hacks.  

7. So what is a would-be ruler of the universe supposed to do? 

Mind-manipulation of the masses seems to be a losing strategy for the millions of hopeful human pack leaders, especially the biggest and nastiest of them. If you are selling “health food” to the hopeful and credulous, you have a chance no matter how much sugar is in the packet. If you are a politician selling national glory, it is getting harder (Naim 2014). There is, however, a kind of alternative. If you can’t engage and win an argument with a billion people, perhaps you can send them to sleep. If seven billion, or a billion, or any fraction of that number, are political sleep-walkers, you don’t need to argue with them. You can get on with robbing or reinventing the universe according to your own agenda. This is the old, old “Bread & Circuses” routine. It works, kind of, for some of the time, for some of the pack leaders.

In the early 21st Century the Bread & Circuses trick seems to be working less and less well. Why?

a) Firstly, in the early 21st Century vast numbers of people have an education and some influence in a in a rather unpredictable personal network which is partly electronic . This is pretty new in history, especially for women. Much of this education is like a scrambled and obsolete genetic code, but there is enough of it around to create significant friction when a demagogue of the moment tries to make a total fool of everyone else.

b) Secondly, a large and increasing fraction of the world’s population has access to instant information of infinite variety. This is not just who won last night’s tennis grand final, but (for anyone who happens to ask) why, say, twenty million people died in China’s Taiping Rebellion in the 19th Century and how it could happen again. In other words, significant numbers of people will assemble informed (or uninformed) research to challenge any proposition whatsoever.

c) No matter how ambitious, or how ruthless you are, there are countless others with the wherewithal to thwart your intentions (good or bad). Resistance may be passive or active, you may win a few personal battles of the moment, but if you are a serious impediment to other's dreams, sooner or later opponents will wear you down. OK, so you charm, bribe or threaten your way into a hot seat. You are President of the United States, or China, or Russia. Do you have a free hand? Of course you don’t. Those squirming millions out there will curse you under their breaths, and weasel a way to get on with their own immensely important lives.



References & Reading List


Adonis, James (January 8, 2015) "We love being dumb and dumber". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Allingham, Philip V.(2008) "England and China: The Opium Wars, 1839-60". [relevance: a population deliberately drugged into impotence by a foreign power] The Victorian Web website, online @

Blumberg, Antonia (12/25/2014) "Honoring 100 Years After The WWI 1914 Christmas Truce In Our Own Time Of War". [relevance: actions governed by the white noise of propaganda Vs actions governed by direct human experience] Huffington Post online @

Chomsky, Noam (1988, 2002) "Manufacturing Consent". Youtube video @ . Book co-authored with Edward S. Herman avaible online @

Chopra, Samir (January 5, 2014) "Sports, the Distraction from the ‘Main Game’". Samir Chopra blog, online @

Cohen, Dave 06/03/2013) "The Compliant Personality". Decline of Empire blog, online @

Christian (July 2011) "Noam Chomsky - Top 10 Media Manipulation Strategies". The International Coalition website, online @

Eagleton, Terry (16 June 2010) "Football: a dear friend to capitalism - The World Cup is another setback to any radical change. The opium of the people is now football". The Guardian online @

Emanuele, Vince (December 13, 2011) "Give the People Games: A Brief Essay on Distractions ". Veterans Unplugged website, online @

Evans, Richard (June 18, 2014) "9/11, Moon landings, JFK assassination: conspiracy theories follow a deep pattern". Sydney Morning Herald online @

Figone, Rebecca (March 19, 2012) "The Media, The Government, and The Theatrical Art of Distraction…." [both sides of politics tend to believe that the the population is being distracted from dire truths. In this link, it is an extreme conservative commentator] Ole Glory News website, online @

Fordham, Judith & Steve Roast (2012) "Muddying the Waters with Red Herrings: Jurors, Juries and Expert Evidence". website, online @

Foyster, Greg (19 April 2013) "Against Advertising: The new and improved argument". The Wheeler Centre website, online @ 

Fraser, Matthew (March 1, 2005) "Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire". [hardcover book] Amazon online @

Gaille, Brandon (Nov 20, 2013) "How Many Blogs are on the Internet". WPvirtuoso blog, online @

Grubb, Ben (January 2, 2015) "Security bolstered on myGov website after dire warnings". Brisbane Times online @

Herman, Douglas (n.d.) "False Flags Unfurled". [conspiracy site. Read with caution. But then, who knows? ... that's the point] website, online @

Hume, Pat (January 6, 2014)"Breaking Through the White Noise of Content Marketing". Business2Community blog, online @

Ingebrigtsen, N (2014) "Understanding Information Overload". Inforgeneering blog, online @

Information Overload Research Group (2014). IORG website online @

Joel, Mitch (September 30, 2010) "The White Noise That Is Twitter". Six Pixels of Separation blog, online @

Kasperkevic, Jana(11 January 2014) "Poor Americans are less likely to vote and more likely to distrust government, study shows". The Guardian online @

Krieg, Gregory (8 January 2014) "If You Can Answer These 3 Easy Questions, You Know More About Politics Than 87% of America". blog, online @

Mathews, Kevin (February 2, 2013) "Are Sports Just a Distraction?". Care2 website, online @

Miles, Kathleen (01/06/2015) "Why Mark Zuckerberg's First Book Club Choice Makes Total Sense". [references Moisés Naim's "The End of Power"]. Huffington Post online @  

Minus273 (1 February 2005) "Chomsky on Sports". [read for the scathing comments from "real Americans"]. Free Republic website, online @

Moola, Max (Tuesday 29 April, 2014) "Government wages war against ice-cream". bMag [Brisbane Magazine], online @

Naím, Moisés (01/23/2014) "Power Has Become Easier to Get, Harder to Use and Easier to Lose". Huffington Post online @

Quiggin, John (25 September 2014) "Missing in action? Bill Shorten's 'small target' strategy is his only option". The Guardian online @

Rassokhina, Maria (December 2013) "White noise : mass media, public awareness, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in St. Petersburg, Russia". University of Texas Digital Repository, online @

Rational Wiki (2013) "Consumerism". Rational Wiki website online @

Ricketson, Matthew (October 2010) "Not muddying, clarifying: towards understanding the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction". TextJournal website, Vol 14 No 2 October 2010, online @

Rosen (December 18, 2012) "Weapons of Mass Distraction - Why we have lost the ability to focus". Psychology Today online @

Suarez, Bernie (August 19, 2013) "Sports, The Greatest Hypnotic Distraction? How sports distraction may be single-handedly preventing mass awakening". Activist Post website, online @

Shields, Bevan (January 4, 2015) "Abbott government spends up big on media monitoring". Brisbane Times online @

Shin, Laura (14 November 2014) "10 Steps To Conquering Information Overload". Forbes magazine online @

Smith, Warwick (9 January 2015) "Repeat after me: the Australian economy is not like a household budget - Our political and economic thinking has been warped by bad analogies to the point where we can’t see the real economy. The Abbott government in Australia is happy to play along - National governments with their own currency bear absolutely no resemblance to a household or a business." The Guardian online @

Smith, Warwick (27 August 2014) "Part 1: Why politicians must lie – and how selling ice-creams is like an election campaign. Politicians must choose to either stand up for what they believe or maximise their vote. To put it bluntly: they either lie or they lose". The Guardian online @,

Joo-Hyun (December 9, 2014) "Distraction, if consistent, does not hinder learning". Brown University, U.S.: source: J.-H. Song, P. Bedard. Paradoxical Benefits of Dual-Task Contexts for Visuomotor Memory. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614557868. Online reference Science Daily @

Sourcewatch (2010) "Distraction". [a recommended reference for government by distraction] Sourcewatch website online @

Sparrow, Jeff (2 January 2015) "In the end, we forget the anarchists, bombers and 'lone wolves'. But the hysteria they provoke stays with us ". The Guardian online @

Tokarski, Mark (ugust 19, 2011) "An ingenious system of government by distraction". Piece of Mind blog, online @

Tromp, Stanley (19 September 2012) "Open Government? The Dangerous Distraction of Faux Transparency". website, online @

Wedgeworth, Steven (September 5, 2014) "Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction". Wedgewords blog, online @

Wedgeworth, Steven (24 February 2013) "The Politics of N.I.C.E.". [an interesting review of the C.S. Lewis novel, That Hideous Strength, which examines an information dystopia (Sci-Fi) through the lens of a rather sophisticated conservative Christian worldview]. The Calvinist International website, online @

Whitehead, John (September 3, 2014) "The American Delusion: Distracted, Diverted And Insulated From The Grim Reality Of The Police State". Mint Press News online @

Whitelaw, Tracy and Dr Donna Henson, Bond University (2014) "All that I'm hearing from you is white noise': social media aggregation in emergency response". Australian Journal of Emergency Management, Volume 29 Issue 4, 2014. Online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Manufacturing Consent". Explanatory review. Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Don DeLillo's Novel, White Noise". Wikipedia review online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Propaganda". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Information Overload ". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Perception Management". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Public Opinion". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Bread and Circuses". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Collective Narcissism". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2014) "Media Manipulation". Wikipedia online @

Wolff, Richard (27 September 2013) "Recovery hype: American capitalism's weapon of mass distraction". The Guardian online @

Žižek, Slavoj (14 July 2014 ) "How capital captured politics - WikiLeaks has shown us that western democracies are now ruled by market forces that debase the very notion of freedom". The Guardian online @

Source of this essay

meetup group: Brisbane Active Thinking Meetup

topics already discussed:

comments: Thor May -



Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).


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discussion: Thor's Unwise Ideas at

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Media Distraction and Social Control (c) Thor May 2015

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