Mass Society, Propaganda and Community:

The Active Generation of a Schizophrenic Culture

February 9, 2001

            The increasing compression of geographical distance via faster means of communication throughout the twentieth-century has both expanded the primary group's sense of place in this world and diminished its sense of certainty.  The ability of public relations groups to disseminate information has lent to the first alternative; that this information is helpful to their own purposes has lent to the second.  In constructing the idea of America, for instance, George Creel's Committee on Public Information that served the government's interests in the first world war had to rely on reaching a broad base of public groups, catering to the disparate entities that were characterized by different regional affiliations, varying ethnic, gender, and age identifications, and gradient socioeconomic statuses.  Accomplishing a cohesive war movement across such a diverse spectrum of publics was conceptually problematic but practically sound as the CPI proved over the course of the war and into the peace negotiations at Versailles.  What made it possible was the mobilization of a vast and malleable communication network comprised technologically of newspapers, radio, and motion pictures, and geophysically of rail lines, telegraph cables, and automobiles.  This was the first time in history such a divergent set of resources could be brought together at once to serve the aims of a single individual in the person of George Creel or Woodrow Wilson, or a single entity in the shape of the CPI or the USA.  The American victory in that war, therefore, was just as much a victory of its communications systems as of its arms.  The legacy that war left us was the continuous and progressive use of wartime mobilization strategies on the American public, for it taught us how those strategies could be effectively mobilized in times of national crisis.  In the early twenty-first century of today's world, we find our post-modern selves the product of the image fragmentation that began with the very modern use of an assassin's bullet at Sarajevo four score and seven years ago, and the concerns of Walter Lippman's writing in 1923 of the directions in which we were then headed remain relevant concerns to our continued vision of tomorrow.

             Technology in and of itself is innocuous; it is the ends to which it is used that give it shape and meaning.  Its impact on American society is one that is conducive to generating a greater sense of national community by assisting in our ability to transcend cultural and physical barriers to our understanding of one another.  Charles Horton Cooley, for instance, "welcomed the fact that technology was destroying the homogeneity of an older America where rural isolation bred a narrow conformity.  With no barriers to the circulation of ideas, 'one lively mental whole' could now replace the enforced parochialism of the past" (Quandt 56).  He further opposed the debasement theories of writers like de Tocqueville, who "maintained that a stultifying sameness and absence of individuality followed the diffusion of culture" (56).  In its promise to develop this lively mental whole, technology was being viewed primarily in its capacity to strengthen communications networks around the country and connect the entire communicative body with itself.  We see the virtual realization of this concept mirrored in the Internet, but this fledgling interconnection between the means of production created as much an opportunity then for self-expression and individuality as it did for mass organization and the development of mass society.  The newspaper, for instance, is an illustration of this. "Printed cheaply, using technology that anyone could learn to control, written in simple language, welcoming a variety of literary genres, read together (and often aloud), the newspaper once promised to enact democracy as a way of life.  The development of newsgathering as an industrial activity voided that promise" (Pauly 295).  Pauly's point helps resolve the contradiction here[1] of whether the greater public discourse technology provides is beneficial for the diverse range of the American public.  Used in accordance with the aims of individual enterprises, technology seems to hold promise, but when technology is used to further the ends of organized mass enterprises, it seems to lead to societal engineering and mass manipulation.  In short, to further individualism, the uses of technology are good, and to destroy individualism, the uses of technology are bad. 

            Developed to improve ties between population centers and the rural countryside, communication technology quickly moved from the hands of the individual into those of cooperative interests. Unbridled individualism proves problematic for government and corporate interests in their attempts to mobilize public opinion in their favor, so when Wilson's government elected to enter World War I, it had to find a way to arrest the transmission of information unfavorable to its ends and replace that with information that would further the war effort. Propaganda, therefore, as conceptualized by George Creel, became a positive program designed to gather the disparate elements of American society in order to engender universal consent to the war effort.  Lippmann, however, defines it as being more essentially what happens when “a group of men, who can prevent independent access to the event, arrange the news of it to suit their purpose” (27).  He explicates the process by which this is done by adding that

Without some form of censorship, propaganda in the strict sense of the word is impossible.  In order to conduct a propaganda there must be some barrier between the public and the event.  Access to the real environment must be limited, before anyone can create a pseudo-environment that he thinks wise or desirable.  For while people who have direct access can misconceive what they see, no one else can decide how they shall misconceive it, unless he can decide where they shall look, and at what.  (Lippmann 28)


Of course, Lippmann was writing with half a decade of analysis behind him on the deleterious effects of wartime propaganda at the moment in time when corporate interests were beginning to pursue aggressive public relations programs using the help of post-war graduates of the CPI.  Jackall adds to this perception that

the war reported in American newspapers was the war that the CPI wanted the American public to see, a moral struggle against cruel tyranny, barbarity, and imperialist expansion with no hint of commercial motivation.  After the war, large organizations and individuals of every sort became skilled at placing their own news, that is, issuing their own propaganda. (Jackall 24)


By then, of course, counter-propagandic programs like the newsreading movement were being effected to help students develop critical awareness of newsprint propaganda and effective means by which to approach it.  Ironically, as Pauly points out, "newsreading programs are themselves the sort of corporate promotional campaigns about which the newsreading movement originally hoped to warn students" (294).  So, the point is that propaganda feeds on itself as much as it feeds on the public it tries to affect, and when that public starts to believe the press it generates concerning its own place in the machine of society, it changes from a community of publics to a society of masses, and a mass society is much more easily led than is a public community.

            Foremost, a mass society can be defined as a dependent clustering of individuals in the Tocquevillean and Orwellian mold of a bland, cultureless groupthink.  Daniel Bell's definition[2] of the process by which a mass society forms is worth quoting here at length because it explains the tie between collective dependency and technology:

The revolution in transport and communications have brought men into closer contact with each other and bound them in new ways; the division of labor has made them more interdependent; tremors in one part of the society affect all others.  Despite this greater interdependence, however, individuals have grown more estranged from one another.  The old primary group ties of family and local community have been shattered; ancient parochial faiths are questioned; few unifying values have taken their place.  Most important, the critical standards of an educated elite no longer shape opinion or taste.  As a result, mores and morals are in constant flux, relations between individuals are tangential or compartmentalized rather than organic.  At the same time greater mobility, spatial and social, intensifies concern over status.  Instead of a fixed or known status symbolized by dress or title, each person assumes a multiplicity of roles and constantly has to prove himself in a succession of new situations.  Because of all this, the individual loses a coherent sense of self.  His anxieties increase.  There ensues a search for new faiths.  The stage is thus set for the charismatic leader, the secular messiah, who, by bestowing upon each person the semblance of necessary grace and fullness of personality, supplies a substitute for the older unifying belief that the mass society has destroyed.  (Carey 18)


A mass society, therefore, is one that is created by a breakdown in communication at various levels of society.  There are two theories as to how this occurs, the first, a conservative critique, along the lines of which Bell seems to adhere, considers the mass society to be the result of a shattering of the critical standards of the educated elite to the effect that the public loses its moral compass.  The second, a radical critique, focuses "on the demobilization of the masses, on their exposure to manipulative control, and on the intent of domineering elites to contain any movement aimed at radical change" (Carey 19).  This view is championed by Hannah Arendt[3], who argues

that the masses grew out of the fragments of a highly atomized society whose competitive structure and concomitant loneliness of the individual had been held in check only through membership in a class.  The chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships.  Coming from the class-ridden society of the nation-state, whose cracks had been cemented with nationalist sentiment, it is only natural that these masses, in the first helplessness of their new experience, have tended toward an especially violent nationalism, to which mass leaders have yielded against their own instincts and purposes for purely demagogic reasons.  (Bramson 35)


In the first case, it seems, mass societies are created by the lack of leadership at the top, and in the second by the imposition of leadership at the top.  In either case, there is the concern of the loss of effective leadership, and this creates a sense of helplessness that makes us feel lost ourselves.  Mills writes that four points distinguish a mass society:

(1)     Far fewer people express opinions than receive them; for the community of publics becomes an abstract collection of individuals who receive impressions from the mass media. 

(2)     The communications that prevail are so organized that it is difficult or impossible for the individual to answer back immediately or with any effect. 

(3)     The realization of opinion in action is controlled by authorities who organize and control the channels of such action. 

(4)     The mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions penetrate this mass, reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion.  (304)


That these distinctions can be made regardless of how the mass society occurs says a lot about the ways in which we deal with one another, for the effect is the same regardless of the causes that bring it about.  Mass society, therefore, is one in which propaganda is easily disseminated because people are numbed to their leadership and therefore more easily led.  That being the case, America during the first world war was mobilized into a mass society by the standards of the ease by which the propaganda machine was put into place, and that would make it no different in kind from the mass society organized around German National Socialism because the causes do not seem to have any relevance to the effects.  Both Germany and America acted in similar ways under the aegis of mass direction and government censorship of the means of information production.

            America did not remain a mass society, however, as it has fallen in and out of various societal consciousnesses over the past century.  I would argue that America more closely resembles an aggregate of publics knitted together under the appellation "society."  Each of those publics represent a particular community of participants, brought together by a common purpose, heritage, or social identification.  Moreover, the publics are fluid Venn diagrams in which any given member can also belong to other publics within his or her social, class, economic, ethnic, corporate, educational, and so on, career.  Mills defines a given public as being comprised of the following qualities:

(1)     Virtually as many people express opinions as receive them. 

(2)     Public communications are so organized that there is a chance immediately and effectively to answer back any opinion expressed in public.  Opinion formed by such discussion .

(3)     Readily finds an outlet in effective action, even against--if necessary--the prevailing system of authority.

(4)     Authoritative institutions do not penetrate the public, which is thus more or less autonomous in its operations.  When these conditions prevail, we have the working model of a community of publics, and this model fits closely the several assumptions of classic democratic theory.  (303-4)


Within a public shaped like this, then, there is a great deal of room for communication between participants that leads to high interdependence and high affiliation between members of the public.  Dewey defines the process of active and healthy communication as being "an active process of community creation and maintenance" (Carey 26), which indicates that a society comprised of these attitudinal elements will necessarily form a community given greater progressive developments in communicative exchange that will lead to a greater sharing among cultures.  Mills draws a clearer distinction between publics and masses by examining their dominant modes of communication. "In a community of publics," he explains, "discussion is the ascendant means of communication, and the mass media, if they exist, simply enlarge and animate discussion, linking one primary public with the discussions of another" (304).  That is what I believe is presently happening in American society with the introduction of more accessible and more efficient means of communication.  But there is a danger to my assessment.  Technological advances like the Internet increase the speed and efficiency with which information gets conveyed, but they do not necessarily take the place of Mary Follett Parker's idea of face-to-face communication, nor can they replace the dynamics of physical human interaction.  Online communication is efficient but impersonal, for instance, leading to misinterpretations of intent between individuals who have yet to develop an online rapport.  The medium is also cacaphonous, requiring often a guided tour by way of introduction to the communication opportunities it realizes as a result of its not having a systematic catalogue of sites other than the various means through which search engines manufacture reference positions based on the sometimes awkward keywording in search fields.  That it is possible that such difficulties might lead us back into being a mass society is not out of the question, and arguments predicated on Mills definition of a mass society as being one in which "the dominant type of communication is the formal media, and the publics become mere media markets: all those exposed to the contents of a given mass media" (304) are not too far afield from where we could end up if we allow ourselves to remained governed by our next encounter with ineffective leadership. 

            Aside from these concerns that still range into the present, if researchers of today's society think that the media continue to help foster propaganda, then they will more than likely frame their 21st-century questions around issues similar to those discussed by researchers in the early 20th century.  The only variables that will change are those concerning the means by which communication is exchanged, and I think palm pilots, cellular and pcs telephones, laptop computers and other personal communication devices will be have to be the first areas of focus because their accessibility ultimately precludes the censorship of information along the model applied by the Committee on Public Information.  For that reason, it would take another mass delusion of national consciousness to effect such rigid social mobilization as the CPI was able to accomplish in 1918.  Of course, the first place I would start in researching the effects of media propaganda would lie in the realm of cultural perception to ensure that we truly are the community we claim to be and avoid the censure of theorists like John Dewey, who claimed that "the Great Society created by steam and electricity [read silicon and glass] may be a society, but it is no community[4]” (Quandt 25).


Bramson, Leon.  The Political Context of Sociology.  New Haven: Princeton University Press, 1961. 

Carey, James.  "The Chicago School and the History of Mass Communication Research." James Carey: A Critical Reader.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997: 14-33. 

Jackall, Robert and Janice Hirota.  "Advertising the Great War."  Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000: 11-35. 

Lippman, Walter.  Public Opinion.  London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1965. 

Mills, C. Wright.  The Power Elite.  1956. 

Pauly, John J.  "Interesting the Public: A Brief History of the Newsreading Movement."  Communication, 1991, Vol. 12: 285-97. 

Quandt, Jean. From the Small Town to the Great Community.  1970. 

Sproule, J. Michael.  "The Progressive Propaganda Critics."  Propaganda and Democracy: The American Experience of Media and Mass Persuasion.  London: Cambridge University Press, 1997: 22-52.

[1] …and also gives me kudos for working it in J.

[2] "The Theory of Mass Society" (1956)

[3] Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

[4] The Public and Its Problems (1927)