Is the Hypodermic Needle Theory Still Relevant in 2021?

Have you ever heard of the Hypodermic Needle Theory? Or maybe the “Magic Bullet” theory? Well, if you’ve never heard of it, you’ve probably seen it in action. The Hypodermic Needle Theory is a linear model of communication and talks about media’s power on audience. The message, in this theory, is said to be like a magic bullet which enters the minds of audience and injects a particular message. The theory explains how media controls what the audience views and listens to and the effects, which can be immediate or later in future. This theory is essentially propaganda influencing the mass media intake to large portion of the population.

Hypodermic Needle Theory.

Members of society who are to be impacted by this communication model may be vulnerable or easily influenced by news outlets or opinion leaders. Speaking for myself, I really don’t think I’m included in this portion of society. I’d like to think I’m self aware and since I’m a graduate student studying social media, I’ve become pretty knowledgeable on what goes on in the media industry. It’s not that I’m resistant to the media influence, I’m just living life with the understanding that everything I read or hear, especially from major “news” outlets, should be taken with a grain of salt.

But just because I feel that way about myself doesn’t mean that’s how the rest of the world operates. Although the Hypodermic Needle Theory was popular in the 1920s & 30s, I believe the theory is more prevalent in the current media landscape than ever before.

Fearing Ebola, Nigerians drink & bathe in salt water

Let’s take the salt water drink/bath incident during the Ebola virus outbreak in 2014 for starters. Because of a viral message on social media which said that drinking or bathing in salt water could prevent the spread of the Ebola virus, several people were dead and many were hospitalized in various hospitals in Nigeria after consuming excessive amounts of salt and bitter kola. One social media post became so influential in a negative way, and the impact was deadly.

Misinformation on COVID-19

Other current examples of the Magic Bullet theory can be related to the spread of misinformation around COVID-19. In April of 2020, a conspiracy theory set social media ablaze after suggesting that 5G radio waves are the major cause of the Covid-19 pandemic and has caused shockwaves and overreactions across the globe. Around the same time at an American news conference, President Donald Trump wrongly suggested injecting disinfectant as a potential treatment, leading the makers of Lysol to release a statement saying “under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route).” To this day, although vaccines are readily available, members of society are continuing to believe false information about the spread of the virus and ways to combat it. Major news networks and opinion leaders can be the parties to thank.

You would think that with so many sources of information available today through a variety of media outlets, people have more control than ever over the messages that influence them. But it’s clearly not the case.

News Sources

And if I haven’t convinced you enough yet, I’ll leave you with this last thought: The difference between the l930s and the contemporary digital age seems to be to the glory of the bullet theory. First, in the 1930s only few people had access to television sets but in contemporary digital times countless people have access to television program contents through their laptops, iPods and cell phones. It therefore suffices that many more people ought to be influenced by the persuasive media contents.

Graduate student at the University of Florida