Manipulation techniques in the media

Many people are convinced that they have their own opinions: about politics, the economy, the latest news, sports, and so on. But instead very often their opinions are not theirs: they are born, grown, and orientated, under the astute guidance of newspaper columnists, or television news producers. The opinions of people fall into a furrow that has already been plowed previously.

media-manipulation-techniques-frontIn this article I decided to collect some of the manipulation techniques that the media use to influence the masses, among those that I’m able to see, and among those that impress me the most for how sneaky and damn effective they are. These techniques are used by the media more or less always for the same purposes:

  • get attention (and therefore get money through advertisements)
  • promote the agenda of some political party or corporation

Of course the people who are influenced by the media are never aware of it -they think they have “personal” and “free” opinions- so I hope that, if you are victim of one of these manipulation techniques, this article will be useful for you to realize it. So let’s start with an all time classic:

1. Keeping figures who don’t count much constantly under the spotlight

media-manipulation-techniques-spotlight-for-irrelevant-figuresA fundamental pillar of media manipulation is to keep at the center of the stage, constantly, figures who don’t count much. Often they are figures who are likely to make “hard” declarations, racist, sexist, that easily generate indignation in the public. These figures are typically unpopular and the media are perfectly aware of it, they keep on interviewing them frequently, and their nonsenses are immediatly broadcasted in all the news generating “flames” among people, i.e. fierce arguments.

From their side, these figures who don’t count much are often pleased for the attention received, and they’re not aware themselves of being puppets that are playing in a much bigger game, a game that has the real goal of keeping behind the scenes, far from the spotlight and unknown to the mass, the faces and the names of the figures that really count a lot: bankers, lobbyists, leaders of corporations, and these certainly are much less visible in the news.

It works perfectly: people channel all their hate and insults on irrelevant figures, without realizing that the practical life they have every day (alarm – coffee – rush out of the house – traffic – office – grocery…) depends instead very very much upon the decisions of completely different figures, who are far from the spotlight, and who can use their power undisturbed.

Maybe, sometimes, even these other figures have racist or sexist thoughts, but they certainly don’t make the error of vocalising them on television: they’re smart enough not to make any declaration that could negatively impact their public image, and they are very careful not to overexpose themselves. They prefer to leave the puppets at the center of the stage.

2. Keeping places that don’t count much constantly under the spotlight

media-manipulation-techniques-spotlight-on-parliamentDo you really believe that the parliament is the place where the important decisions are taken? Rarely. The important decisions by now are taken in completely different places: in private villas, on bar tables, in restaurants. And they are taken right by those figures that are unknown to the mass, who discuss contracts worth billions without the interference of tv cameras.

In the meanwhile there’s plenty of media coverage for what happens inside the parliament: the voting sessions, the declarations of the politicians, the bagarres in the main room when the opposition gets upset, the squabbles on marginal issues, and so on.

Let’s clarify: in theory in would make a lot of sense to keep the attention on the parliament… if the parliament really was the place where the laws are made. Unfortunately in practice, and this is true for many governments, the parliament in its entirety is a machine of monstrous inefficiency, that produces a law every once in awhile. It’s not a matter of right, left, center or opposition: it’s the whole parliament that is an unproductive organ.

And in the few cases in which they really get to produce a law, often the process is not very democratic. In fact there isn’t any dialogue between the parts: each politician gets up, takes the microphone, makes his declarations that the opposers barely listen to, and sits down. The scene is repeated with reversed roles. Then everybody votes following indications arrived from the top, from the leaders of the two factions, that often are not even sitting in the parliament, or are not even part of it at all (lobbyists, bankers, etc).

So in a similar way to the previous case, a second manipulation technique by the media -very effective- consists in putting the spotlight on the parliament, suggesting the idea that that in the center of the action, leaving instead that on the tables of a bar, few blocks away, someone else is deciding the fate of the country in front of a coffee.

3. Flooding blogs and online news with trolls

media-manipulation-techniques-internet-trollsIn case you’re not familiar with the slang of internet, in the context of blogs and online news websites, a troll is is someone who comments an article with specific purposes: create divisions in the community, ridicule the author, insinuate doubts between the readers, dampen the enthusiasm.

The estabilishment understood one thing: it’s easy to manipulate people through old monodirectional media, like television. With television the propaganda is delivered to the audience, and the audience can’t do much more than absorb it. But it’s a lot more difficult to keep internet under control. Non only there is a huge variety of opposition sites that spread “inconvenient” contents, but those same opposition sites allow a bidirectional exchange: the users can comment the articles, discuss among themselves, share contacts. And all of this is extremely dangerous for those who keep the power.

So the most effective technique they found to manipulate people -also on internet- is to flood these sites with trolls. Trolls who, as soon as a new article with potentially “dangerous” contents is published, get to work and fill it with comments loaded with skepticism, pessimism, sarcasm, or simply insult the other real users creating flames, so that, if nothing else works, at least they divert the attention away from the original theme that was discussed in the article.

Trolls are difficult to identify, especially because thanks to the anonymity typical of internet they can appear with different names, and seem numerically many more than how many they actually are. The effectiveness of their work stands on the fact that many people have a natural tendency to let their opinions align with the collective opinion (or at least that they perceive as the collective opinion).

In spite of this, with a little training you’ll develop enough sense to be able to unmask them with ease, and at that point you will also realize which are the sites that do real opposition to the estabilishment, because usually they’re exactly those where the troll infestation is more severe.

4. Distracting people with the rights

media-manipulation-techniques-pinkwashingMedia use different strategies to distract the audience, taking the general attention away from important themes and repositioning it on minor themes. A good example is the great relevance that they give to the “rights”, and of these a very popular case are the rights of women and homosexuals.

A word that explain this technique extremely well is pinkwashing, or in other terms “pink” brain washing, that is realized on people by governments and corporations. Media are full of examples of pinkwashing: food products that sponsor the research against breast cancer, interviews to politicians who repeat like a mantra the importance of having gay marriages, countries that promote LGBT tourism and encourage events like the gay pride.

All great causes obviously… if it wasn’t that these governments and corporations often are so friendly with women and homosexuals for convenience more than anything else (after all it’s a strategy that doesn’t cost much and brings great results in terms of reputation), but even more if it wasn’t that while as facade they are so sensible to the problems of these categories, behind the scenes they use horrible practices, that range from “not very ethical” to “criminal”.

In fact, from one side a food corporation remarks the importance of prevention in women’s health, on the other side behind the scenes they fill their snacks with chemical additives that cause addiction (often even carcinogenic…) and use marketing models that are destructive for the environment. From one side a government broadcasts frequent pro-gay spots on television and in the name of equality, on the other side behind the scenes they colonize foreign territories and practice racial segregation. And so on.

There’s a strong emotional component, that of women and homosexuals, that is exploited to manipulate the public. Among the people who belong to these categories, that often historically have been disadvantaged, and that more often have been victims of abuses, there’s a strong desire for validation. And those who control the media understood this well: they provide this validation by pushing constantly the button of their rights, so that then they can trample on the rights of many other categories without too many interferences.

5. Distracting people with meaningless problems

media-manipulation-techniques-meaningless-problemsA second technique that the media use to distract people is to discuss meaningless problems, and among these a case that I like to mention often is the case of dog abandonment.

In my country, Italy, it’s a great classic which is re-proposed every summer (probably each country has its own peculiar case). Looking at the coverage given to this “problem” in the national news, it would seem like every year the roads of the country are invaded by thousands of cruel people, who drive back and forth searching for a street pole at which they can tie their animal. The idea is ridiculous, but unfortunately it works very well because it takes advantage of the emotional component of many people who are passionate of domestic animals.

Obviously, we all agree that abandoning a domestic animal is a terrible practice, but giving so much coverage to this theme, that is numerically irrelevant, means to take room away fron the possibility of showing real problems, much more impactful for the life of people.

Unfortunately the method works, and the result is tragic and comic at the same time: while the parasitic banking system causes unemployment and debt, while in the middle east thousands of people are brutally tortured and killed, while there’s an epidemic of problems linked to the lifestyle, like depression and food intolerances… the news viewers and the readers of newspapers get angry and emotional for the abandonement of pets.

6. Demonizing the real opposition

media-manipulation-techniques-demonizing-real-oppositionThe estabilishment uses the mainstream media to neutralize the real opposers, those who reveal the abuses and start to gain enough consensus to represent a serious threat, with a simple but centainly effective strategy: they give them little coverage, and when they give them coverage, they sling mud at them.

It doesn’t matter that a politician, activist, journalist, philosopher, has a flawless past. If he’s identified by the establishment as a target, there are a thousand different ways to depict him in the media to make him appear as extremist, dishonest, immoral, crazy.

All they have to do is to take a long speech given by the opposer, maybe hours long, and from that speech extract a single phrase that can be misunderstood, and then publish it everywhere in the news. And simply in terms of images, the opposer can participate to a public event and talk almost always with a relaxed expression, but from the recordings of that intervention the media can extract anyway a single frame in which the oppositor had a scowling face, or was frowning, and place that on the first page with an insinuating title.

Obviously, if the person we’re talking about doesn’t have a flawless past everything becomes easier. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover that some governments, or various groups of power, have created entire offices dedicated to search for fiscal errors of the opposers, to try to tap them on the phone, and in general to dig trying to find their mistakes. If they made the minimal error, almost certainly it will be exposed sooner or later and will be published everywhere in the media.

7. Giving coverage to the fake opposition

media-manipulation-techniques-coverage-fake-oppositionThose who control the media know well that there is the need for opposition, at least one.

Many people “in the mass” often are not able to see the main causes of many of their problems (i.e. the parasitic nature of the banking system, the corporations that encourage consumerism, the government that works for itself and the lobbies rather than for the citizens), but this doesn’t eliminate the fact that they can feel the pain consequent to these causes: the frustration due to the lack of free time, the boredom/stress due to meaningless jobs, the unhappiness due to too many objects and too few human relationships.

The elite that holds the power understands well that this negative feeling needs a vent valve, otherwise there would really be a revolution that would change the system. And so they provide it, but setting up a fake opposition.

And it really doesn’t require a lot of work: there are many figures that spontaneously fit well the role of the fake opposers, it’s enough to keep them frequently under the tv cameras. Politicians who, in the interviews, declare their contrariness to the actions of the government (and then behind the scenes make agreements with it) or politicians who are really contrary to the actions of the government, but have such bizarre personalities and ideas that they almost succeed in making the main party of the government appear like the “lesser evil”.

8. Giving positive names to crap

media-manipulation-techniques-language-gamesAnother classic manipulation technique, used a lot in the media, is all based on language: they use names to which people instinctively associate a “positive” connotation to call some big crap produced by the corporations and the government.

A simple example, easy to recognize, are the commercials on television (note, to understand if a product/service is garbage you can apply this simple but practically infallible criterion: if it’s advertised on television then it’s garbage). There’s an enormous variety of snacks full of colorants, preservatives, various toxic sludge, whose names contain the words special, happy, diet, light, natural.

But then there are other examples of higher level manipulation, like many actions taken by the government, that are not as evident to the general public. War missions in foreign countries and military occupancy become missions of peace. Tax increments are included in plans for the recovery or treaties for stability. In my country the institute for fiscal monitoring is called equitàlia (from equity). And above everything else there is it, the nonsense word that clogs the news and is repeated everywhere in the media like a mantra: growth.

Political leaders and leaders of corporations continue to repeat everywhere the importance of having economic growth, and people often don’t realize what’s really behind this message, just because often to the word growth they associate something good.

The reality is that pursuing infinite growth -of the economy, the production, the population- on a planet with finite resources is a nonsense and dangerous. It would make more sense, in my opinion, to talk about development, but this words is never used in the media. The reason why the leaders of politics and corporations insist instead with economic growth is that growth generates taxes, and taxes pay the salary to the politicians themselves (who then re-distribute in cascade the money to the corporation “friends”), and allow them to do what they want to do.


Let your opinions be really yours

Many other techniques can be discussed, but these that I described in this short list are definitely among those that I “feel” more, and against which I consider more useful to keep the attention bar high.

It seems to me that there are evident effects of the media manipulation in many people, who have the habit to talk regurgitating someone else’s opinion, rather than talk giving voice to their own opinion.

media-manipulation-techniques-regurgitate-someone-elses-opinionsThe best method to avoid to fall in this trick, and to avoid that your opinion falls in the pre-packaged, pre-plowed furrow of the media is to apply critical thinking. Don’t believe a story simply because everyone else believes it, or because the source is an authority. Become aware that most media are constantly hunting for attention (“attention whores“), and that consequently they intentionally publish many news that generate strong reactions -rage, indignation, excitement- exactly with the goal of capturing the audience.

And always ask yourself, each time you listen to the news or read the newspaper, if the intention of the person who is spreading that news is really to show unaltered facts to inform the public… or instead his intention is to manipulate the publis, at his own advantage.


Notes:

Related: What is the “system”?, How to free yourself from the system

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