What is the Magic Bullet Communication Theory and is it Really That Relevant Today?

The magic bullet/ hypodermic theory is a communications theory that “suggests that media messages are immediately received and fully accepted by the audience” (Lowery, 1995). The theory got the name “magic bullet” theory as well because it is the idea that media messages, resembling bullets, are fired into the receiver’s ‘head’ from the ‘media gun’ (Berger, 1995). In general, it is a look at the media’s relationship with the audience. It puts a lot of power with the media and that they inject the audience with what they want to believe, and the audience is passive. The audience just soaks up what they are told from the media and accept it right away as fact.

This theory originally looked at propaganda and how people received it. Countries wanted to see if people were taking in the propaganda and if they were generally receiving it. This was typically reviewed during wartime. A current example could be that a commercial convinces you that one restaurant is better than your current favorite and you believe it right away because that is what the commercial is telling you.

World of the Wars response by the public

While I think that people can still be passive and just accept what the media tells you, I think I am more perceptive to the two-step flow theory. This theory states that the media says one thing and then thought leaders that we generally trust or agree with (think Stephen Colbert) give their opinion on what the media says. We then go on to listen more-so to the opinion of that thought leader than what the media said.

A break-down of the two-step flow theory

My first example would be a recent episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He discusses the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade. He discusses that the fact that the right to privacy in Roe v. Wade doesn’t exist and that could lead us down the road of losing the right to gay marriage, inter-racial marriage, etc. This is obviously an opinion piece that is extremely passionate, but it is something that plenty of people agree with and disagree with.

Opinion and response from thought leader Trevor Noah

Going off that opinion above, Marjorie Taylor Green who is also a politician, shared that the Supreme Court’s decision is a win for God. This is basically speaking to the extremely religious people and really driving home that this decision is good for those who are believers in God. This isn’t what the media is saying, but it is what an opinion leader like Marjorie Taylor Green is saying and people will side with her on it for sure. People will believe her due to the religious aspect when the decision by the Supreme Court is not a religious decision and there needs to be a separation between church and state.

Another opinion that is more of a funny story is that there was an extremely sarcastic TikTok going around about not wanting to work. Tucker Carlson, a fox news correspondent, took that TikTok out of context and shared it on his talk show as a serious video. The TikTok was shared in fury around Facebook even though the video was made to be funny and a joke. This showed how quickly something can be taken out of context when a thought leader share is the wrong way.

Overall, while I mostly agree with the two-step flow theory being more relevant today than the hypodermic theory, there was probably a time 100 years ago that people absolutely listened to everything presented to them on the radio or in the newspaper. When there wasn’t as much access to thought leaders, I am sure the media on the radio was considered a “thought leader”.

Berger, Arthur (1995). Essentials of Mass Communication Theory. doi:10.4135/9781483345420. ISBN 9780803973572.

Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (1997). Media/society: industries, images, and audiences. Pine Forge Press. ISBN 9780803990654.

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