Studying the Media with Gustave Le Bon

By Toa Lohe (@Toamatapu) | 4 min read

The mainstream media informs, educates and rallies their audiences. Gustave Le Bon’s book The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind helps viewers today better understand how the mainstream media views them. If viewers feel that they are looked down upon and served misinformation, Le Bon proves them right. In age of the Internet, citizens may be encouraged to look for alternative sources but they must be aware that the popular mind has successfully moved to the digital sphere with platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Purchase the book here. 

The Era of Crowds

To understand why mainstream media feels the need to shepherd us, we need to remind ourselves that historically, people have not ruled governments. The concept that citizens participate in their leaders decisions is an entirely new concept that the world is wrestling with and will decide whether to accept or reject. Le Bon writes, “the divine right of the masses” has replaced “the divine right of kings.”

Another reason the mainstream media plays such a significant role in our lives is because they view themselves as objective, even-keeled observers of our nation and the world. To have a better sense of their perspective, go to a football game and watch the crowd. Watch how the crowd can be joyous one minute and frustrated the other. The emotions of the crowd depend on victory and defeat. This exemplifies to the mainstream media that a crowd is incapable of leading. Any leader that bases his or her emotions on particular moments in time would be viewed as unfit for public office. Le Bon writes that the crowd “never [shapes] their conduct upon the teaching of pure reason.” We need to be conscious that news shows and articles distributed by the mainstream media are attempting to wrestle the “public authority [that] has fallen into [our] hands” from us. The mainstream media is an “invisible regulator of existence” since crowds are viewed as “only powerful for destruction.” People are not viewed as participators in the news that is disseminated. Instead, viewers are believed to be idiots that need to be told what to think.

There is a great degree of elitism in the mainstream media and it’s members believe themselves to be part of a “small intellectual aristocracy.” Citizens may believe they can combat this nobility in elections but elected representatives lack “initiative and independence.” They usually are “reduced most often to nothing else than the spokesmen of the committees” that helped them get elected.

For the media-outlets to achieve their ends, their tactics are paradoxical. Le Bon explains that “dissimilar things” are made similar and matters that demand detailed analysis become an “immediate generalization.” The mainstream media will invite “specialists in different walks of life” to draw conclusions for viewers. But the specialists “are not sensibly superior” to what “a gathering of imbeciles” would discuss. There isn’t “logical argumentation.” Ultimately, the current top-down approach of news dissemination has severe negative consequences.

The Use of Images

Images play a very important role in the dissemination of news stories and how they are consumed. A quick glance at a picture is deemed by many to be a strong enough piece of evidence. There is never much time spent on the angle, the photographer, or what was happening outside of the photograph. That is why the pictures and videos embedded in our news stories are incredibly important. “The images evoked in their mind by a personage, an event, an accident, are almost as lifelike as the reality.” Since we depend on images to inform us about events occurring around the globe, they are highly impressionable. Our minds are aroused and encourage us to act. Le Bon says that “it is only images that terrify or attract them and become motives of action.” The information we read can make improbably claims about the world that we may not second-guess which demonstrates the limiting factors of following a crowd psychology. Crowds are “incapable both of reflection and reasoning.” Aside from the news we consume, look at the shows we watch both nonfiction and fiction. Remember “the unreal has almost as much influence on [the crowd] as the real. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.”

Crafting Words

Holocaust. Investigation. Russians.

Each of those words conjured up a particular image in your head. Now think about when those words are in a emotionally-charged headline juxtaposed with a picture. Your imagination goes nuts. “The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is quite independent of their real significance.”

Democracy. Equality. Liberty.

Those words have been thrown at us by politicians so many times that their meanings have become “so vague that bulky volumes do not suffice to precisely fix it.” But we must consider that “words whose sense is the most ill-defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence.” And these words can even give us the sense that they contain “the solution of all problems.”

Imagine words like the “button of an electric bell that calls them up.” The images linked to them have a mysterious power that can never be ignored. “Reason and arguments are incapable of combating certain words and formulas. They are uttered with solemnity in the presence of crowds, and as soon as they have been pronounced an expression of respect is visible on every countenance, and all heads are bowed.”

Popularity and Subjectivity

One favorite technique employed by reporters in video and print is to interview witnesses of an event. This is problematic since “to say that a fact has been simultaneously verified by thousands of witnesses is to say, as a rule, that the real fact is very different from the accepted account of it.” Facts shouldn’t be based on interpretation because “the ways in which a crowd perverts any event of which it is a witness.” This approach to news gathering has allowed for the spread of “improbable legends and stories.” With distorted facts the plain evidence will be ignored and the suspicions surrounding a particular event will become “incontrovertible evidence.” Objectivity never is attained with the crowds “blind submission” to half-baked news stories and the “fierce intolerance” against opposing narratives. The mainstream media can be blamed for confusing, misinforming and shepherding its viewers but “the invisible masters that reign in our innermost selves” can be blamed as well. We worship leaders, fear the powerful, blindly obey commands, fail to discuss complex dogmas, and consider others to be enemies that do not agree with our way of life.

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