The Manipulation Of Significant Symbols

It seemed at best an innocuous Tweet, at worst boring, directing the reader to an link called ‘Who Says What to Whom on Twitter’. The only reason I opened it was the sender, Dr Ves Dimov. Now Dr Dimov, who tweets as @Allergy and @DrVes, is an allergist, immunologist, internist and Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago. He produces by far the best allergy educational Twitter site in the world, with over 5000 followers. His Blog, ‘Clinical Cases and Images: Casesblog’, is very good, indeed superb, but I feel the best description would be that it is generous. Generous of his time, and of his knowledge. So when I receive his Tweets, I always open his links. ‘Who Says What to Whom on Twitter’ was, I knew, going to be disappointing. Dry, statistical stuff that would do nothing for me. Boy, was I wrong.

They say that a book editor can read one page of a submitted novel and make a decision – reject or read on. The introduction did it for me; ‘…media communications research is encapsulated by what is known as Lasswell’s maxim: “Who says What to Whom in What Channel with What Effect”‘. Who was Lasswell? Why hadn’t I heard of this before? It was so relevant to medical education, indeed any education. I printed the paper and got to work with the pink highlighter. Wu from Cornell and three other authors from Yahoo! Research introduce us to ‘mass’ communication and ‘interpersonal’ communication, and then morph us into the microblogging platform of Twitter. They then attempt to answer the question posed in the title of the paper, and their calculations are fascinating. There is a lot to absorb, but in brief they studied five categories: media, celebrities, organizations, bloggers and ordinary. They found that half of the media information passes to the masses via a layer of ‘opinion leaders’. They found that 50% of consumed tweets are generated by 20,000 elite users or 0.05% of Tweeters. They found that the longest-lived URLs that are Tweeted are generated by bloggers, and the longest-lived content are music and video. What they didn’t, actually couldn’t, study, was the Effect of Twitter as a form of communication.

Inherent in their study question was this quote from Lasswell, again, in full, “Who says What to Whom in What Channel with What Effect’. Harold Lasswell, who died in 1978, was a political scientist who studied in the 1920s at the same institution as Dr Dimov, the University of Chicago. He was part of the so-called Chicago School of Sociology. Some of his writings are readily accessible, and I found a stunning treatise he published in the August 1927 edition of The American Political Science review. It’s called ‘The Theory of Political Propaganda”. His final statements are strangely pertinent to our day: “The ever-present function of propaganda in modern life is in large measure attributable to the social disoganization which has been precipitated by the rapid advent of technological changes‘ (my italics). He goes on: ‘Literacy and the physical channels of communication have quickened the connection between those who rule and the ruled’. Dare I breathe the word Libya at this point. But I have left the best to last, Lasswell’s definition of propaganda as ‘the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols‘. Symbols drawn by the pen, by gestures, by the voice. Can we add ‘and by Twitter’? Should we extend the analysis of Twitter to determine whether it can ever fit his definition of propaganda? I think so.

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