(Edward Cromarty is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other article in this edition is New Memorial Honors Lives and Works of those at Jonestown. His previous writings are collected here. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
For thousands of years, face-to-face communication was the traditional form for learning, news, debate, and opinion among the general population. The personal richness of face-to-face communication included the classroom, public gatherings, town meetings, street corners, churches, friends, and family. The multidimensional nature of these traditional two-way forms of communication provided for public access and discussion of new ideas, but – by definition – it was limited to an immediate and ephemeral audience.
The invention of the printing press in 1439 is considered such a milestone in human development because for the first time, there was a means to make information accessible on a large scale. From posters and public notices, to books, newspapers and magazines, the general public suddenly had much greater access to news, information, and opinion. The power of knowledge that previously had been concentrated in the elite noble classes now resided with the people. It also came with its own inherent disadvantage: while print allowed for public expression of ideas and opinion, it could also be used for mass persuasion and to limit debate.
A new era of one-way social communication began with the introduction of radio and television. These media are both methods of one-way communication that may be used to persuade mass populations, neither of which allows for response, debate, or contradiction. This type of communication is expensive and concentrates power into the hands of the select few having the resources to afford the required infrastructure. These methods of communication are effective at reaching mass audiences, but their immediacy carries the potential – often exploited, and sometimes consciously so – of distorting facts, and creating illusions and threats. Illusory threats may be used to create fear, and fear inhibits the human ability to reason and think critically.
Radio broadcasting was developed in Italy and corresponded with the growth of fascism in Europe. This was not a coincidence: one-way communication was an effective media for the spread of propaganda that could be used to manipulate the thoughts of mass populations and eliminate the rights of the individual.
The Roman Catholic Church developed the concept of propaganda during the Inquisition and the Protestant Reformation. Napoleon considered the press to be the “seventh great power,” and Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, called radio the “eighth great power” (Goebbels, pp. 197-207, 1938). During World War I, Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information making the USA the first modern government to use propaganda to influence populations on a mass scale. In 1922, Walter Lippman sought to counter the propaganda of Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin by adopting a propaganda policy that specialized in the “manufacture of consent” (Gore, pp. 93-96, 2007).
American, Soviet, Chinese, and German experimentation into propaganda, psychological control, and mass persuasion was heightened during both world wars. Following World War II, both the USA and Soviet Union imported Nazi mind scientists to work in universities, hospitals, and government facilities. This was known in the USA as Project Paperclip which eventually evolved into the infamous MK-ULTRA experiments and similar projects. It was an Austrian – and the nephew of Sigmund Freud – named Edward Bernays who created the science of mass persuasion, the manipulation of the subconscious to influence social behavior. Before long, American industry began to capitalize on this new science. Using mass persuasion, Bernays’ partner, Paul Mazur sought to shift the mentality of Americans from a needs culture to a desires culture. This was the beginning of modern marketing.
Joseph Stalin used both radio and television to effectively enhance his “cult of personality” and achieve political objectives. The “cult of personality” surrounding Jim Jones was a concern raised by Soviet Embassy representative Feodor Timofeyev in consideration of the proposed move of Jonestown to the Soviet Union.
Jim Jones understood this well. “Even when he changed his message, he didn’t change his style,” J. Alfred Smith wrote in his essay, “Breaking the Silence.” “People responded only to the style of preaching instead of what he had to say.” This is indicative of the change in style of communication that was taking place across America and much of the world. The older multidimensional communication that depended on content and the richness of personal interaction was being replaced by the impersonal mass one-way communication of radio and television. Style had become more important than content, and debate of ideas was no longer a viable option for most.
Peoples Temple had grown in its early years in Indiana and Ukiah through interpersonal two-way communication between Jim Jones, his congregation, and the community whose needs it served. Through two-way interpersonal communication, Jim Jones and Peoples Temple reached out to the community; through this complexity of human communication, Jones received feedback from the community and responded to serve its needs. While most congregations of the time were only concerned with quantitative growth, Peoples Temple focused on listening to ideas from its congregants, discussing them face-to-face, and learning how to serve the community’s needs and concerns. This could happen only through interpersonal communication. Acceptance of ideas from the community – especially the poor and minority community it sought to serve – was essential to Peoples Temple’s early success.
As Peoples Temple grew and evolved, so did the social communication techniques used by Jim Jones. He became more concerned with conveying ideas to persuade the Temple population and achieve his objectives – whether social welfare or, later, political – in comparison with his early years in which he successfully incorporated feedback from the community. His message of apostolic socialism turned from one that was developed by community discussion to one that was delivered from the pulpit without discussion, much less dissent.
The one-way communications of the 1960’s and 1970’s also created a fertile breeding ground for the growth of Peoples Temple. Mass communication via radio and television helped to provide the environment that fostered social awareness and the desire to improve the lives of people. While the liberal movement did take advantage of these new modes of communication, by its very nature, liberalism had thrived in the interpersonal human environment that created Peoples Temple.
At the same time one-way communication also created the hostility that eventually led to the downfall of the Temple. While one-way communication spread awareness of social need and encouraged people to try to improve the world, it was at its foundation a means of communication developed by wealthy conservative interests to preserve the status quo of corporate wealth and power, and to suppress the general population, particularly minority and impoverished segments which were perceived as threats. There are innumerable examples of how conservatives used one-way communication to discourage the ideals and goals sought by the likes of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple, such as the race riots of the mid-60’s in Watts, Newark, and Detroit. Mass communication broadcast via radio and television of these riots created awareness of racial and economic inequality that needed to be addressed by the nation. It also created fear and hostility toward the African-Americans and poor whites who comprised the rioters in these communities. Peoples Temple was able to take advantage of this new awareness, but it also had to face the accompanying hostility. It is interesting to note that the three communities that suffered the most from these riots – Watts, Newark, and Detroit – have not fully recovered from the social impact and fear created by slanted mass communications and press misinformation that followed to protect conservative interests and to hide the underlying social reasons for the riots.
The change in communication that occurred in Jonestown after the move to Guyana was even more radical. Radio towers played constant propaganda in the form of selectively chosen news and speeches by Jim Jones. He also controlled community meetings – especially the “White Nights” – and dissenting ideas were increasingly discouraged, mocked and even punished. Education in the schools and community was defined as furthering the political objectives of the Jonestown leadership. A contributing factor was that this all took place in the Guyanese jungle which further isolated the community from new ideas. This isolation caused the Jonestown community to lose focus on existing social norms, and resulted in the creation of new social norms to fill the vacuum.
Multi-dimensional communication allows the development and discussion of ideas from the larger global society. Without such communication, new social norms have a tendency to lose grasp of reality, and the isolated community may develop its own concept of “good” and “bad.” Creativity of thought may be lost, and new ideas are not generated or critiqued. Whether by design or by consequence, this happened in Jonestown. Placed under the stress of constant indoctrination via one-way communication, the most effective element upon which Peoples Temple had been established – the ability of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple to communicate with the community in an interpersonal multidimensional way and respond by serving community needs – was lost forever.
The end result was that Jonestown became what Jim Jones feared the most. Mass persuasion, in the form of one-way communication, was developed for the establishment of a corporate elite in which the wealthy few indoctrinated the masses to preserve the status quo for their own benefit. One-way communication was developed to preserve corporate power and limit the freedom of the people by making the general population subservient to the profit motives of the corporation. Once Peoples Temple lost its creativity and ability to communicate on a multidimensional human level it had entered the final stages of its organizational life cycle.
Gore, A. (2007). The Assault on Reason (pp. 93-96). New York, NY: The Penguin Press.
Smith, J. A. (2004). “Breaking the Silence: Reflections of a Black Pastor.” In Moore, R., Pinn, A. & Sawyer, M. (Ed.), Peoples Temple and Black Religion in America (pp. 137-157). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.