Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie

On March 25, 2015 Professor Stuart Ewen discussed why Edward Bernays’ theories on public persuasion — 20 years after his death — continue to live on.

In 1928, Edward Bernays described the public relations counsel as someone who could bring public opinion in line with the interests and goals of leaders in business and government. The role of the publicist, Bernays believed, was to understand the mental life of the masses and use that understanding to efficiently manage the workings of democracy.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.... In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons... who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Essential to Bernays’ vision was the belief that—if shrewdly employed—the modern apparatus of communication, the media of mass impression, could stealthily “influence the attitudes and actions of our fellow citizens.” Central to this faith was the supposition that the media could be managed from the top down in order to shape the terrain of public perception. 

In today’s social media environment the physics of communication has changed in fundamental ways. Ordinary people, employing affordable devices connected to the Internet, have become their own publicists, their own media makers, altering the dynamics ofAmerican democracy in significant ways, and implicitly challenging many of Bernays’ bedrock assumptions.

In “Edward Bernays and the Century of the Selfie” Stuart Ewen excavated the panorama of individual self‐promotion that permeates the Internet today and explored the extent to which it may, invisibly, continue to bring people’s opinions into cooperation with the goals and interests of those in power.

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as well as Toni Muzi Falconi, Chris Atkins, Don Bates, Patrick Ford, Peter Debreceny and Rick Gould.