The hypodermic needle theory was first proposed by communication theorist Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War. The hypodermic needle theory is a communication model suggesting media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences.
Understanding the hypodermic needle theory
Lasswell developed the theory after observing the effect of propaganda during the First World War. During a period where public support for the war was critical, the media was used to increase morale and drum up support. In the United Kingdom, the government even established the Ministry of Information to create the necessary propaganda. This mass persuasion strategy was later imitated by the Russians, Germans, Spanish, and Italians in subsequent conflicts.
In the intervening years between war, the ability for world leaders to influence their citizens using the media then became known as the hypodermic needle or “magic bullet” theory. This theory was rooted in behaviorism, a psychological movement that considered human behavior as something that could be manipulated.
According to the hypodermic needle theory, a mass audience passively receives whatever message is being communicated by the media. The theory argues that this audience can be manipulated in a controlled and conditioned way.
The classic supporting example of the theory is the now-infamous radio broadcast of The War of The Worlds by Orson Welles in 1938. In one episode of the radio-based drama series, the program was interrupted by a fake announcement of a Martian invasion. The announcement caused widespread panic across the United States, with many suggesting the audience had been conditioned by the messages told in the story until that point.
Criticisms of the hypodermic needle theory
Despite its apparent efficacy, the hypodermic needle theory is based purely on assumptions about human behavior. Common sense would suggest that the theory only works if the individuals comprising a mass audience shared similar traits, experiences, beliefs, or prior knowledge.
Studies suggest social media literacy is one way modern consumers can easily avoid the passive consumption of media messages. These users are more likely to question the validity or credibility of claims made by the media. What’s more, they tend to form their opinions based on prominent social media influencers and other thought leaders.
Modern applications of the hypodermic needle theory
The hypodermic needle theory has experienced a revival in recent times.
Today, big data analytics is used to identify user preferences and send many tailored messages to audience members as a linear form of communication. This more personalized approach subverts the role of a social media influencer, which means individuals in a target audience are more likely to be conditioned by traditional forms of media.
While there is no single generic message as there was in Lasswell’s time, big data allows the communication process to nonetheless occur en masse and as a result, has the power to exert influence on a large group of people.
- The hypodermic needle theory is a communication model suggesting media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences. It was developed by communication theorist Harold Lasswell in the 1920s.
- The hypodermic needle theory posits that a mass audience passively receives whatever message is being communicated by the media. It is rooted in behaviorism, a psychological movement based on the manipulation of human behavior.
- The hypodermic needle theory is based on the assumption that every individual within a mass audience will behave the same way. This may hold true if the group is relatively homogenous, but in most cases, people react to media messages in different ways and many will use social media to form or validate their opinions.
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Where is Hypodermic Needle Theory applied?
Harold Lasswell in his 1927 book Propaganda Technique in the World War explained how the hypodermic needle theory of communication suggests media messages are inserted into the brains of passive audiences. This theory was developed especially to explain mass media communication. Thus, this linear model of communication might have worked with mass media like TV, and Radio, when they could be centrally controlled for channeling mass communication and developing propaganda.
Is the Hypodermic Needle Theory still relevant?
While the hypodermic needle theory is still relevant today, it’s more relevant with centralized mass media like TV and radio, which message can be manufactured, controlled, and broadcasted to millions of people. This linear model of communication is harder to apply in a digital communication world that follows more non-linear communication logic.