Thursday, 6 January 2011

Because It's Said A Lot: Mass Media and Mass Manipulation

We live in a world of gossip. What do I mean by that? I mean that most of the information we get is based on second-hand knowledge. Just today I have read about laws in China, military information in Afghanistan, the water scandal in Northern Ireland, all of which I have no first-hand knowledge about. All of this information, like gossip, is mediated. Information virtually never passes through a medium without that medium changing the information in some way. Even in live video coverage there is mediation, by selecting what is covered, camera angle, and how the coverage is introduced.

In such situations we tend to side with "conventional wisdom". Knowledge agreed upon by the majority of "informed" voices. For most of us those voices come from mass media. In the video below John Stewart succinctly describes the creation and result such "conventional wisdom" can have on an electorate, such as in 2004.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Talking Points
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So politicians know that they have limited media coverage, and if they can flood that coverage with talking points and easily recognizable key words, people may accept it as the conventional wisdom since that is what they get to hear the most. That's hardly a secret. Ad agencies do it all the time with their brands, governments do it with their policies, I even do it with my web page so that google will make me more prominent on their search engine (Oh, btw. intelligence of persuasion, democracy, society, rhetoric). But what impact does this have on the public discourse and individual opinions?

Talking points and key words are of necessity reductive, catchy, and represent the dumbing down of a discourse. They simplify complicated issues to a slogan, and reduce intense debates to a shout. When a politician is more concerned about pounding us with talking points than actually discussing a problem intelligently there is no room for compromise and mutual understanding, which is the very basis of a democratic society.

Apart from this, such "jack-hammering" of talking points creates the effect of bullying. A 1955 study of social psychology supervised by Salomon E. Asch discovered some disturbing facts about the pressure of conformity. Eight persons were brought into a room for an experiment. Seven had been told to advocate the same wrong answer every time and one had been told that all eight were being tested for perceptive skills. The participants were shown different objects and asked questions like "which line is longer?" and "which ball is white and which is black". Every participant would utter their opinion after each other according to where they were sitting in the circle. For the first few questions the eighth individual answered according to his own perception, but by the fourth question he was getting unsure and frustrated. Did the rest really see things so differently from him? Could they all be wrong each time? From then on the eighth participant answered the same answer as the rest of the group. He even said a white ball was black and that a black ball was white.

A full summary of the study can be found here:

As a conclusion to the study, Professor Asch wrote:
"Life in society requires consensus as an indispensable condition. But consensus, to be productive, requires that each individual contribute independently out of his experience and insight. When consensus comes under the dominance of conformity, the social process is polluted and the individual at the same time surrenders the powers on which his functioning as a feeling and thinking being depends. That we have found the tendency to conformity in our society so strong that reasonably intelligent and well-meaning young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern."

There is a real danger that we as individuals will allow ourselves to conform to views, values and opinions that are neither personal, factual, or moral. Just like the participant in the study we may cave in to the pressure of conformity. Ask yourself, next time you are watching a movie, a political ad, or the news: "Do I agree with this representation of the world? What values is this movie promulgating as good and acceptable? What evidence does this person have for that claim? How is what this person is saying making me feel?"

In asking these questions we may very well choose to agree with what is being presented to us, but the difference is that we then make a moral choice rather than just taking the default option.