Democracy’s Greatest Vulnerability: A Fahrenheit 451 Analysis

The media serves as one of the most fundamental, yet vulnerable pillars of democracy. In the novel, Fahrenheit 451, author Ray Bradbury not only questions the consequences of rapidly developing technology but the sheer power of corporate media itself. Within the story, the vast majority of citizens are disturbingly complacent with the violent, totalitarian nature of their government and even go as far as to immediately report anyone that may blur their window of ignorance.

The protagonist, Guy Montag, finds a deep resentment for propaganda and the state’s treatment of the population only after he breaks through the indoctrination. Today, a subtle form of propaganda continues through the expanded accessibility of media that is controlled by a handful of corporations, which has played a major role in molding public opinion over the past few decades.

In today’s society, mass media, made possible through the fruits of technology, is plagued by corporate control, advertising, and censorship, proving Bradbury’s prediction that mass media would manipulate public opinion and thought while crippling democracy.

The rapid development of technology throughout the 20th and 21st centuries has created a valuable opportunity for media to be spread more efficiently to the population while also enabling more top-down culture over public opinion. In the article “Archival Domination in Fahrenheit 451,” author Joseph Hurtgen analyzes the role of mass media and notes that “citizens consume audiovisual media rather than explore the world around them… [or] think for themselves,” hence enabling a “corporate-based social control of American society”(3-4). It is clear that corporations and the totalitarian state utilize advanced technology and work in unison to create a reinforced structure of power that prevents citizens from having the freedom they deserve.

Much like in today’s society, corporations and governments use convenient, audiovisual platforms to influence public opinion as they both often have similar ends to achieve, which incentivizes them to work together in order to maintain a concerning degree of control over the general population. The mass media doctrine has not only allowed corporations and governments to hold a tighter grasp over public opinion, but it has also had a profound cultural impact as well.

After Montag’s wife, Mildred, almost overdoses on her sleeping pills, she wakes up the next morning to make breakfast with her “Seashell ear-thimbles” without even bothering to remove them when speaking with a traumatized Montag about her near-death experience (Bradbury 16). Mildred’s utter disconnect from reality and the severity of her situation is enabled by her consumption of advanced technology—isolating her from the most elementary of human values. The ear-thimbles also closely resemble a recently-developed technology commonly seen today: wireless Bluetooth earbuds.

These earbuds have not only moved many further away from reality but also acts as yet another input for mass media to be channeled into the general population. Today, it is painfully apparent that rapidly-developing technology has been used to firmly reinforce the dark structure of mass-media dominance in society that could only be demolished through an organized, democratic awakening amongst the population.

Alongside technology’s role in making mass media more effective and convenient, it has also caused disturbingly dense ownership of media sources, allowing corporations and governments to assert more centralized control over public opinion. The state’s totalitarian control over every aspect of life is made apparent when even the machine that was “suck[ing] out all the poisons” from Mildred’s stomach “had an Eye” that led Montag to question “what the Eye saw” (Bradbury 12).

Every product and resource is under centralized government surveillance, made possible through its monopoly power of military and economic force. Such crippling control in the most personal moments of life symbolizes not only the sheer power and dominance the government must assert over the media but puts into perspective how degrading and demoralizing such authority can be.

Unfortunately, such intense control over media can be seen through ownership of major media sources in America. In the book “Media Ownership and Concentration in America,” author, professor, and telecommunications expert Eli Noam notes that “information and media industries are… oligopolies” in America and that this concentration of ownership has been getting progressively worse over the years (5). The core role of media is to serve as one of the fundamental checks and balances over the overwhelming power the government and even corporations contain; it is meant to diligently protect the public interest no matter the risks.

Concentrated ownership is its own issue given the fact it grants too much power to a few individuals, but those who preside over this overwhelming degree of influence are to be of even more concern. By the nature of their profit motive, corporations have an inherent incentive to protect their own interests, and when such control over the media is granted to them much like what is already present in modern society, they are bound to twist the public opinion towards their favor. Unchecked centralized power in any aspect of life acts as chains severely restricting the freedom of the people and it is clear that the public in today’s society, much like what Bradbury predicted, has fallen victim to such oppressive control.

Another consequence of oligopolistic control over media is that it has enabled other firms to abuse the direct connection, influence, and surveillance over the population in order to bombard consumers with advertisements that remove them from the ability to form rational thought. When Montag makes an effort to truly focus in the subway, he is ambushed by a wave of advertisements that repeat “Denham’s Dentifrice” in an almost brainwashing fashion, leading him to plead for the audio to “shut up” in front of everyone on the train (Bradbury 74). Mass media not only plays a role in influencing public opinion, but it is also a gateway for various companies to plague the general public with useless information about their products.

The nature in which advertising is conducted prevents many from thinking for themselves, further debilitating the public’s ability to form meaningful thought. Consequently, media firms have a comfortable relationship with advertisers since they are not only a significant source of revenue but also assist in their main objective in preventing the population from thinking for themselves. In today’s society, media companies and advertisers have significant control over one another and the relationship between the two has only grown stronger in recent decades given the rise of the internet and more convenient sources of information.

Advertisers are able to cut off funding to media entities that broadcast content or ideas that could potentially dent their profits while providing financial support to firms that are more complicit with their demands. Bradbury’s portrayal of the repetitive, brainwashing nature of advertisements emphasizes how significant of a role it plays in crippling public thought while the relationships between advertisers and media firms further reinforce the dungeon of totalitarianism.

Much like how advertisers are able to cut off funding to media firms that share content or information against their interests, the mass media also has an effective system of censorship that plays a crucial role in silencing political dissent. Montag’s original occupation was a fireman, someone who burned forbidden books and played a key role in the state-sponsored censorship of any unapproved information or ideas. The severity of this censorship is made apparent when it is revealed that history itself has been modified, “Benjamin Franklin” is named as the “First Fireman” and a woman burns to death with her books rather than turn herself in (Bradbury 32-37).

The utter brutality the state utilizes to punish those who dare step out of the traditional programming of the mass media demonstrates just how threatening any form of resistance truly is. Once people are introduced to ideas that break through the boundaries of mass media dominance, it could quickly send the whole unjust government crumbling down. The power of political resistance and dissent even in the most brutal, oppressive governments is a beautiful testament to the power and strength of democracy, but in many countries, such resistance is nearly impossible to organize.

Although the internet is perceived as one of the liberating tools of free speech and press, the article “Media Censorship in China” by Beina Xu reveals that countries such as China have “more than a dozen government bodies” that are highly effective in ensuring that content on the internet “promotes party doctrine” (2). This system of advanced censorship ensures that the Chinese government remains popular amongst a vast majority of its citizens, eliminating much of the risk of serious political dissent.

Although the United States does not have such a dystopian form of censorship on the internet, secret algorithms and highly concentrated broadband ownership pose a major threat to a freedom many take for granted. Despite seemingly major advances towards a more free, interconnected society made possible through the internet, many oppressive governments have already demonstrated political dissent can still be crippled. Bradbury’s haunting prediction of how institutions within mass media would be able to censor content and therefore hold an even tighter grip over public thought has unfortunately become a reality that only fervent democracy can dismantle.

Despite the incredible damage propaganda through mass media has done to democracy, its indoctrination is far from invisible. Human history has consistently proven that resistance to unjust, tyrannical structures of power is inevitable and that there are strict limitations to the influence of propaganda. It is for this reason that monopolies over media are often coupled with the violent suppression of dissent; a desperate attempt to silence those who offer opposing ideas. The only solution to centralized mass media control is direct democracy.

It is only through the will of the people can there be a serious, societal transformation within modern society. By wielding the inherent democratic power granted to the people, a new world without the mass indoctrination of the media can begin—whether a great reset event such as the one towards the end of Fahrenheit 451 is required for this transformation to begin is up for the people to decide.

F451 Works Cited: Bradbury, Ray, and Neil Gaiman. Fahrenheit 451. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2018.
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Damjan Nastic

Hello, and welcome to my blog! I'm Damjan Nastic, an economics major aspiring to encourage democratic participation amongst my fellow students through this page. I hope my page can offer a different perspective on pressing issues throughout the world.

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