Saturday, October 31, 2015

Managing Media Manipulation

Cartoon credit: Bruce Beattie
Many people are concerned about media bias. That’s a good issue to be aware of, however less often considered but just as important is the influence of media itself.
One important concept that the media and its backers realize, but that many viewers don’t, is the following truth: The media can’t control what you think, but they can control what you think about. In other words, watching television (even biased television) probably won’t change your views. That’s good news to people who think the airwaves are being corrupted by conservative propaganda from FOX news, or liberal propaganda from CNN/MSNBC. The presence or lack thereof of such stations is doing little to change the political leaning of the country. However, what media does tend to affect are the discussions people have around the water cooler at work or around the dinner table at home, what people forward in e-mail or share on Facebook, and so on. For example, a news story about a terrorist attack will stir up many people and get them emotionally demanding change in one way or another. They may say we should increase security, or they may say we should engage traditional enemies and stop our own abuses, but either way they’ll be talking and sharing their (usually very strong) opinions on the matter.
Similar to the above is how both scripted and reality television shows attract viewers: They create and showcase controversy. For example, consider the recently cancelled reality show “Meet the Duggars”, about a fundamentalist Christian family with 19 children. The producers of the show and others like it generally don’t care which contestant is right or wrong, or whether a character is good or evil. They just showcase the controversy, and let people argue about things like how the planet is overpopulated, or how Western society should return to classic family values. Either way, the produces are happy knowing that everybody on both sides will be tuning in next week.
In other words, some organizations and governments try to control both sides of an issue. It’s like owning both horses in a horse race: Either way you win. All you need to do is stir up enough interest and involvement in the race itself. In considering reality television again, some contestants in elimination shows such as “Survivor” do well when they stir up conflict between other contestants. It doesn’t matter who wins the conflict, because either way an opponent gets taken out and the original instigator benefits. Similarly, the producers try to cast “interesting” contestants who are likely to take strong stands, or cast people from opposite sides of a controversial issue, and then throw them together and film the fireworks. Some suggest governments create sensational issues to distract people’s attention from real problems. That indeed happens occasionally, although usually a government merely takes advantage of a situation that presents itself, as opposed to being truly sneaky and malicious, and say hiring terrorists to create a distracting story in the first place.
In addition to speaking in support of one’s beliefs, some get cunning and speak in support of beliefs they actually oppose, but in an intentionally sloppy or extreme manner to make people supporting such beliefs look bad. For example, some say that conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh is actually a liberal, or at least was in his younger days. However he acts like a raving conservative because he has success in working with that particular demographic, and fulfills a particular role. Similarly, Pieter BoevĂ© of the Netherlands created a Marxist-Leninist party with hundreds of members, however the whole thing was made up and he was actually a Western intelligence agent. His fake leftist party enabled him to track communists, gather intelligence on Mao Zedong and actually meet him in person, and so on. Governments have the potential to do this themselves with “false flag” operations, such as conducting a terrorist attack themselves but making it look like somebody else did it, so they can justify going to war against them. There are a few actual examples of this, which is unfortunate because it makes it more challenging to determine what’s true, and it inflames the conspiracy theorists by causing them to suggest the same is true for numerous other events.
News media and entertainment programs can still be positive, if approached properly. The news can be useful, if we realize that a source may be biased and that there are often two (or more) sides to every story. Entertainment can be enjoyed for what it is, if we don’t forget there are important things going on in the world. We can be skeptical to the right degree, so we avoid being a mindless follower, but also avoid being overly depressed or paranoid about the state of the world and about information that’s presented.