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During the troubled decade of the 1930s, one of the first communication theorists, Harold Lasswell, proposed a theory that attempted to explain disturbing events of the times. Lasswell argued that the worldwide economic depression and political strife had made people particularly vulnerable to propaganda conveyed by the mass media. He posited that the power of propaganda was not so much the result of the substance or appeal of specific messages but, rather, the result of the vulnerable state of mind of average people.

Unlike the Magic Bullet Theory's prediction of rapid and powerful persuasive effects of the mass media, this Propaganda Theory said that mediated propaganda conditioned the audience slowly over time. Propaganda works through projection of master symbols, emotioncharged images (for example, a national flag). Lasswell's depiction of the working mechanism of propaganda was especially prescient in Germany. The National Social Party (Nazis) under Adolph Hitler took control of the German government in 1933 and launched a systematic campaign of propaganda to win popular support for its policies. Joseph Goebbels Propaganda Ministry produced propaganda films to promote the party's militarism and anti-Semitism. A network of carefully-crafted Nazi master symbols included the swastika, the "Zeig-Heil" gesture, German ascendancy from a mythical Aryan race, and a fictitious Jewish conspiracy. Reinforced by terrorist tactics of the secret police, the propaganda helped to firm a Nazi grip on the highly educated German people.

The Propaganda Theory ascribed great persuasive power to a technocratic elite. Influential newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann, author of the first book on public opinion (1922), thought that propaganda so threatened democracy that the mass media must be censored to protect the public from their powerful influences. Later theorists decided that people are not so gullible and that the 1930s was a unique era.

3.3.3 Lippman’s Theory of Public Opinion Formation

The theory stressed the inability of average people to make sense of their world and make rational decisions about their actions. Eric Alterman quoted and summarized Lippman’s position that average citizen can be compared

to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row. He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen. “He lives in a world he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”…No one expects a


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steelworker to understand physics, so why should he be expected to understand politics?

Lippman did not believe in the Libertarian assumptions of the rational audience; he thus advocated the placement of control of information gathering and distribution in the hands of a benevolent technocracy- a scientist elitethat could be trusted to use scientific methods to sort fact from fiction and make good decisions about who should receive various messages.


How powerful is the bullet theory? Why is it referred to as all powerful?

3.4Social-Scientific Theories (Limited Effects Theories)

Social scientific theories are generalisations derived from systematic observation and objective analysis of mass media variables, by employing methods associated with empirical research in the social sciences. Methods such as experimentation, field surveys, content analysis, focus group etc are used. The social scientific approach to investigating the effects of the media led to the emergence of limited effects theories. The theories include the following:

3.4.1 The Post Stimuli-Response theory

The Individual Differences Perspective

It argues that because people vary greatly in their psychological compositions and because they have different perceptions of things, media influence differs from person to person. In other words, people learn attitude, values and beliefs in the context of experience and this result in differences in the way they understand and perceive media messages.

The Social Category Perspective

It assumes that members of a given social category will respond to media stimuli in more or less uniform ways. In other words, people with similar backgrounds {e.g. age, gender, and income level, religious affiliations} will have similar reactions to that exposure.

The Social Relations Perspective


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It posits that people’s reaction informal social relationships friends, social groups etc.

to media messages is modified by their with significant others like relations,

3.4.2 The Two-Step Flow Theory

It states that media messages pass through opinion leaders to opinion followers. It was discovered during election campaign that many people had little exposure to the mass media, such people obtained their information second hand from people {opinion leaders} who got it from the media and also shaped it as they passed it down. The people’s voting decision was based on their second hand information which has been modified by the opinion leaders.

The Two-Step flow was later modified to Multi-Step or N-Step flow theory, since opinion leaders also have opinion leaders and so on continuously.

3.4.3 Dissonance Theory (Selective Processes)

Dissonance theory further corroborates the fact that the media are not all-powerful as the belief was in the mass society era. The idea in dissonance theory is that any information that is not consistent with a person’s already-held values and beliefs will create a psychological discomfort (dissonance) that must be relieved; this is because people generally work to keep their knowledge of themselves and the world consistent with their preexisting beliefs. What may happen at times is for a person to try as much as possible to make some things that are not psychologically nor consistently aligned (consistent) to his values and


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beliefs through a variety of ways. The ‘ways’ of doing this have become known as the selective processes.

Some psychologists see selective process as defence mechanism used to protect ourselves {and our ego} from information that would threaten us, while others consider it as a normal means for coping with the large quantity of sensory information that constantly bombard us. Whatever it may be, there is no doubt that it functions as complex and highly sophisticated filtering mechanism that screen out useless sensory data while it identifies and highlights those that are useful in the data.

Klapper (1960) explains that selective process helps media content consumers to cope with media’s impact. Generally, people tend to expose themselves to those mass communications that are in accord with their existing attitudes and interests; while they consciously and unconsciously avoid communications of opposite hue. However, when exposed to such communications, they often seem not to perceive it, or recast and interpret it to fit their existing views.

Selective Exposure

This is people’s tendency to seek out information that supports their interest, confirms their beliefs and boosts their ego while avoiding those that are contrary to their predispositions. In other words, receivers choose exposure to ideas that reinforce and confirm already held beliefs and attitudes e.g. As a christian, you may have the tendency to read books or watch films that support your religion while you avoid another religion’s materials, say Islamic religion.

Selective Attention

As a result of too much barrage of information that bombard us, we tend to attend to media messages that we feel are in accord with our already held attitudes and interests, while we filter those ones that do not cater for us.

Selective Perception

This is the mental recasting of a message so that its meaning is in line with a person’s beliefs and attitudes. It is a psychological process, which involves decoding of communication messages and ensuring that they align with your previous experiences and current dispositions – needs, moods and memories.


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Selective Pretention

This is the process by which people tend to remember best and longest information that is consistent with their pre-existing attitudes or interests.


Why are the Social-Scientific Theories referred to as the Limited Effects Theories?

3.5Theories of Media, Culture and Society

The theories under consideration here offer cogent and insightful analyses of the role of the media in both culture and society. These theories argue that the structure and content of our media system both reflect and create our overall social structure and our culture. They include the following:

3.5.1 Agenda Setting Theory

This posits that the mass media determines the issues that are regarded as important at a given time in a given society. That means that the press is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion; and though it may not be able to tell its readers what it thinks, it does successfully tell them what to think about. In other words, our perception of the world is dependent not only on our personal interests, but also on the map that is drawn for us by the media.

Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) corroborate the agenda setting theory by their research. They posit that:

In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position …The mass media may well determine the important issuesthat is, the media set the ‘agenda’ of the campaign. (p.176)


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