Although it seems to be a matter of contemporary importance, in particular, freedom of expression has always been a point of great interest. As a social species, much of our identity is based on our individual feelings, thoughts and opinions. They reflect our personal history and our individual set of norms and values. This, in turn, shapes our behaviour. The ability to freely express these feelings, thoughts and opinions enables us to further develop these and to enter into dialogue with others, which can enrich our lives. However, with the many different societies in the world with distinct sets of cultural assets, the number of different voices is just as high as the degree to which their content can differ. On topics where people hold firm beliefs, opposing thoughts can offend those people, as they feel personally attacked. This is a recurring situation in discussions about religion. Repression of the right of free expression is most commonly known in this context. However, there is a lesser-known form of repressing the freedom of expression: manipulation.

Between Euphemism and Weapon

In an ideal world, every person would think in the same way we do. Everybody would want everyone else to hold the same beliefs and preferences and live in the same way we do – otherwise, we would not be holding those beliefs and live in that way ourselves. Because of that, we tend to seek relatively like-minded people to surround ourselves with. This facilitates our daily communication with our social surroundings, but also gives us the feeling of comfort and fulfilment, as it helps us to consolidate our identity. If we could, and given that we do not have to satisfy more basic needs, we would try to convince more people of our normative ideals. People, who are in a situation where there is no more material needs to satisfy, tend to start to convince others of the usefulness or rightfulness of their very own feelings, thoughts and opinions, as they believe that they are beneficial to others, too. In such a case, we can call this endeavour dialogue or mission, depending on the degree of mutuality in the exchange. In situations where there is a stark power difference, people tend to resort to means that are strongly unilateral and forceful in a non-physical way, which we would call manipulation. It is a form of expression and, therefore, defended by those more powerful people. They argue that they are free to express their feelings, thoughts and opinions, as long as they do not physically force others to adapt their behaviour. However, resorting to non-violent means of manipulation equally compromises the freedom of expression of others. This has been done throughout many millennia. Especially in politics, people were, and still are, subject to manipulation. However, with the rise of corporations and oligarchic structures, media has become a private force that manipulates societies in a big way. Of course, they do not do it completely independently from the state, as media channels more often than not serve as government vehicles to manipulate public opinion, but private actors today hold previously unseen powers that they use to further their own agenda.

With the advance of behavioural sciences, these actors can more efficiently target societies and impose their norms and values in very sophisticated ways. Next to very obvious strategies, like agenda-setting in the transmission of news, powerful actors target the subconscious of people by meticulously designing seemingly unrelated content to create an environment in which the core premises blend in perfectly, in order to create a common sense around certain aspects. For example, the music industry plays a big role in transmitting norms and values that are in accordance with the interests of oligarchic circles. While the quantity increases and transforms music into a good of consumption, the quality decreases, which pushes the artistic purpose of this aspect of life into the background. Television shows transmit values through content, setting and the choice of actors (among many other factors, of course). While there will seldom be scenes where a political statement or a belief system is openly expressed, the composition of actors already subconsciously influences the viewer. As an example, we can think about societies, in which the vast majority of people are not colourless. However, the majority of actors in television shows display the phenotypical characteristics of Westerners. By that, the white person subconsciously becomes a symbol of beauty, prosperity and human development. The export-oriented western economies profit from this, as the demand for their products increases. But also on the political side are the white states gaining, as they are viewed as being more powerful. Maybe they are, because they could assert such normative dominance in the first place, but this directly conflicts with the freedom of expression, as people are manipulated.

The Solution

It would be foolish to assume that we could alter the behaviour of any state, corporation or media outlet to be fair in their communication with society. There is no such thing. Wherever there is enough power that can be exploited to influence people, it will be used to further the own interest to alter peoples feelings, thoughts and opinions, which, in turn, leads to altered behaviour. Accordingly, every individual needs to protect herself from this, in order to preserve her freedom of expression. But how? We must be aware at all times that every single piece of information, that reaches us, represents the interest of another individual. In essence, every piece of information’s purpose is to influence others. Even the works of Essydo Magazine are intended to transmit information, in order to alter people’s behaviour. This very paragraph sets out a recommendation on how to behave and how to deal with flows of information. However, since there is no power discrepancy between author and reader, that the author could use to target the subconscious of the reader, the communication here can be described as a mission, as defined in the first part of this work. The ideas, norms and values are transmitted openly and display that the freedom of expression of the readers’ feelings, thoughts and opinions are respected. However, we can only arrive at this conclusion (and maybe you have arrived at a different conclusion), if we are aware of what the purpose of flows of information is.

Being aware of the fact that no song, no television show, no series, no advertisement, no news article, no documentary, no speech, no social media trend and no celebrity appearance happens just like that, but is intended to transmit norms and values, helps us massively to protect ourselves from being entangled in a political agenda or societal trend that in essence might be contrary to our genuine feelings, thoughts and opinions. Freedom of expression, therefore, is neither a right nor a duty. It is an asset that we can only obtain ourselves by constantly reminding ourselves of the above. It does not mean that we need to be outright sceptical. We can still consume every piece of information to our liking, but being aware of what it is intended for will hinder the information to fulfil its manipulative purpose, while we can still have fun consuming the music, show or videos on social media.