In the capitalist economic system, the ruling class uses a number of tools to mediate class conflict and safeguard its private property. One of these tools is the mass media, which, by definition, are the communication technologies that have the potential to reach large, distant and anonymous audiences. The mass media are among the entities that comprise the cultural superstructure of society and thus play a critical role in shaping dominant ideologies, beliefs, values and attitudes. Their effectiveness in spreading dominant ideologies lies in their omnipresence, financial support and general influence of media images. This essay will unpack these reasons in an effort to fully explain why the mass media are so effective in circulating dominant ideologies.
The mass media are inescapable in today’s world. Society is awash with media images and messages that ultimately reinforce the prevailing power structures. The ubiquity of the mass media is key to their ability to spread hegemonic, or dominant, ideologies. Unlike non-mass media, mass media are capable of reaching a critical mass and can thus inculcate the masses with hegemonic ideas and beliefs. And whereas non-mass media generally carve out a niche audience, the mass media reach the general populace, including people of various backgrounds and political affiliations. The mass media are thus capable of shaping majority opinion, and as people generally take their cues from others, that opinion carries weight. The mass media’s omnipresence is driven by its large financial backing. The ruling class uses its power, money and influence to construct large media conglomerates that dominate the media landscape, and in turn the narrative, and marginalize alternative media outlets. And by commanding the media landscape, the mass media can bombard us with images and messages that underpin hegemonic ideologies and ultimately regiment public opinion in accordance with ruling class interests. Non-mass media are generally unable to significantly challenge or debunk mass media images and messages due to their smaller audiences. In addition, by having access to the best equipment, sets and talent and drawing the largest audiences, the mass media gain prestige in the eyes of the masses. The mass media are seen as professional, impartially reporting on the most pressing events of the day, whereas non-mass media are often depicted as biased and amateurish and, in recent times, are looped in with fake news sites. In sum, the mass media’s vast reach, financial backing and prestige are some of the driving forces behind their ability to effectively spread hegemonic ideologies.
In addition to education and religion, the mass media are one of the foremost socializing institutions in American culture. Socialization is the process by which persons, both individually and collectively, learn, adopt and internalize the prevailing cultural beliefs, values and norms of a society. As noted above, the mass media’s ability to reach critical mass undergirds its socializing influence but its ability to effectively instill hegemonic beliefs and values into the general populace lies in the general influence of media and its role in society. In our highly segregated and atomized society, mass media provide a window into the lives of others, most of whom one may not come across in day-to-day life. Thus, mass media play a significant role in shaping one’s perception of others, particularly members of oppressed communities. For example, many American citizens have no Muslim friends and thus draw on the mass media’s representation of Muslims to form their opinion of them. Americans thus tend to develop a particularly negative and hostile opinion of Muslims, as the mass media routinely portrays the Muslim community as backwards, barbaric and anti-American. The mass media circulates negative stereotypes – misleading or reductionist views of cultural groups – and myths – sacred stories that reaffirm and reproduce ideology – concerning Muslims and Islam in order to promote the interests of the elite. By dehumanizing a group of people sitting on oil-rich land, the potential for resistance when the ruling class wages war on these people to steal their resources is significantly reduced. Again, the hegemonic ideology supports the dominant class.
In addition, the enormous influence of the film and television industry cannot be overstated. Storytelling has the ability to move perceptions in a way that raw numbers and data never can. Stories are how one makes sense of the world and the people populating it and thus hold immense power. Recognizing this power, the ruling class feeds narratives and story arcs, often through the State Department, to the film and television industry. These storylines inevitably reinforce dominant ideologies in American culture, such as capitalism, individualism, orientalism and imperialism. For example, the director of the film Zero Dark Thirty, which was widely panned by leftists for justifying torture, received classified intelligence files whilst making the film. The director had also received input from the Defense Department on another film of hers titled The Hurt Locker, which glorified the United States’s criminal invasion of Iraq. Thus, the mass media’s ability to shape one’s perception of others and the world, particularly through storytelling, is a crucial component of its effectiveness in spreading dominant ideologies.
In sum, the mass media are among most influential entities of the cultural superstructure of society. The ruling class utilizes the mass media to circulate hegemonic ideologies in order to uphold its role and promote its interests. The effectiveness of the mass media in spreading these ideologies lies in their omnipresence and prestige, bolstered by heavy financial support, and their role as a socializing agent and storyteller. The ubiquity of the mass media enables them to reach a critical mass of people, while the stories, and the images and messages underpinning them, effectively ingrain hegemonic ideologies in the national consciousness. The mass media are thus a powerful tool of social control and watching with a critical eye is essential to resisting hegemony.