Crowd manipulation is the intentional use of techniques based on the principles of crowd psychology to engage, control, or influence the desires of a crowd in order to direct its behavior toward a specific action. This practice is common to politics and business and can facilitate the approval or disapproval or indifference to a person, policy, or product. The ethical use of crowd manipulation is debatable and depends on such factors as the intention of and the means used by the manipulator, as well as the ends achieved.
Crowd manipulation differs from propaganda although they may reinforce one another to produce a desired result. If propaganda is “the consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group“, crowd manipulation is the relatively brief call to action once the seeds of propaganda (i.e. more specifically “pre-propaganda“) are sown and the public is organized into a crowd. The propagandist appeals to the masses, even if compartmentalized, whereas the crowd manipulator appeals to a segment of the masses assembled into a crowd in real time. In situations such as a national emergency, however, a crowd manipulator may leverage mass media to address the masses in real time as if speaking to a crowd.
Crowd manipulation also differs from crowd control, which serves a security function. Local authorities use crowd-control methods to contain and defuse crowds and to prevent and respond to unruly and unlawful acts such as rioting and looting.
Edward Bernays, the so-called “Father of Public Relations“, believed that public manipulation was not only moral, but a necessity. He argued that “a small, invisible government who understands the mental processes and social patterns of the masses, rules public opinion by consent.” This is necessary for the division of labor and to prevent chaos and confusion. “The voice of the people expresses the mind of the people, and that mind is made up for it by the group leaders in whom it believes and by those persons who understand the manipulation of public opinion“, wrote Bernays. He also wrote, “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.”
In brief, manipulators with different ideologies can employ successfully the same techniques to achieve ends that may be good or bad. Crowd manipulation techniques offers individuals and groups a philosophically neutral means to maximize the effect of their messages.