“Manufacturing” or “engineering” of consents – A follow up on my previous post

30 June, 2011 at 08:18 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Web 2.0, Wikipedia policy | 4 Comments
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This is a follow up on my previous post about the 25-January Revolution in Egypt and the way it was introduced into Wikipedia. First of all, I saw that post was cited by the Wiki-Watch blog in German. My German is very basic, so I had to consult some friends and machine translation tools in order to read it, and I might not have got all the content accurately. In any event, I appreciate this reference and the initiative to start a broad discussion about this issue. I also stand corrected, the term “manufacturing consents” was coined by Walter Lippmann, later to be used and redefined by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman.

I learned Chomsky’s theories from Tanya Reinhart at the Tel Aviv University. Perhaps, I should play fair and say in advance that I am rather reserved about many of Chomsky’s, as well as Reinhart’s, ideas, and yet I value some of their observations. I totally reject some of the moves Noam Chomsky took as an implementation of his theories, but then again there is a huge gap between any theory and its implementation, and it is important not to judge a political theory or an ideology only by the attempts to implement them, because other practical interpretations of the very theory might also be feasible.

Edward Bernays - "Engineering of consents"

Edward Bernays - "Engineering of consents" (Image via Wikipedia)

The lessons taught by Tanya Reinhart at the Tel Aviv University about Noam Chomsky’s political theory were recorded and printed after her death in a short book in Hebrew. The English title (every book published in Hebrew has an English title for the sake of foreign catalogs and libraries) is “Written in the Paper, Language Media and Ideology“. It was edited by Tanya Reinhart’s disciple Ran HaCohen. In this book (page 12) Reinhart mentions the term “Engineering of Consent” coined in 1947 by Edward Bernays. Apparently, he thought of this process, which might as well be called propaganda, as a positive, even vital, part of a democratic discourse. According to this book, Chomsky heavily criticized this approach, and claimed that the academy and institutions of scholars were used to preserve the mainstream political positions, hence limit the democratic liberal debate.

In my opinion, this is a terrible exaggeration. After all, Bernays wasn’t that wrong. “Engineering of consents” is legitimate and part of any democratic society, if (and only if) it is done in a fair manner, namely without brainwashing and without limiting the right and opportunity of others to make their own “engineering”. But, coming back to the issue of Wikipedia, the academy has lost much of the power Chomsky and others attributed to it during the 1950s and in the later decades of the 20th century. In the late 20th century (not so long ago, actually), television was considered the “devil” that can turn people’s opinions from one side to another, and many times this was the case indeed. The Web 2.00 “revolution”, brought a promise of decentralization that would render the “engineering of consents” a thing of the past, but that was too much to hope for. People with interests simply learned how to use this new medium in order introduce better “engineering” of this kind. Wikipedia, despite its initial attempt to be a scene of creating factual objective accounts through dialogs and negotiations among people who bring various pieces of knowledge, is gradually turning into a new, somewhat more sophisticated scene, for “manufacturing consents” or “engineering of consents”. The main problem is the fact that Wikipedia is left alone in this arena. It has some competitors, but for most of the world, especially the vast English-speaking world (including countries where English is spoken as the main foreign language), it is the main source of knowledge for the past five years or so.

True, Wikipedia offers the opportunity to use its texts as a basis for new texts. Namely, I can alternate and manipulate the texts of Wikipedia and create a new source that would better reflect my views, as long as I give reference to the original text. This is a great opportunity to create fruitful debate, and this is the essence of “free content” or “copyleft”, and yet no one seems to seize this opportunity. Instead, people with special interests do their best to penetrate into Wikipedia and manipulate it from within.



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  1. Very Interesting! So now “manufacturing consent” is an option for anyone, not just for people who controls media, since anyone can, at least in theory, control Wikipedia … interesting!

    • The words “in theory” are very relevant here. If indeed anyone can edit Wikipedia, and if indeed Wikipedia’s version is the result of a productive negotiation among people of various points of view, then you have a good point. The question remains – Is it indeed the case?

      • > The question remains – Is it indeed the case?
        The optimistic, deterministic and techy part of me would cite Linus’s Law “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” but of course we both know we are not speaking of “bugs” in Wikipedia but of different points of view.
        I would say that on many pages it seems to work but of course it works less well on pages where at least 2 parties have very different points of view …

        Thanks for your insightful posts!!!

  2. Referring to your last point, are you aware of Levitation? https://github.com/scy/levitation The idea is basically “everyone keeps a copy of the entire Wikipedia, as in GIT, you edit your own wikipedia and other people can pull parts of your wikipedia into their wikipedia”. Interesting, and of course this can easily go into “echo chambers” as I was saying at the end of http://www.gnuband.org/papers/trust_metrics_on_controversial_users_balancing_between_tyranny_of_the_majority_and_echo_chambers-2/

    Of course Leviathan is just one of many different proposed attempts to decentralized Wikipedia 😉 See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:HaeB/Timeline_of_distributed_Wikipedia_proposals

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