You have no doubt heard the charge. The media is biased. Perhaps during debates, you have forwarded a news article to friends to support your point only to have them discard it out of hand. “This is so slanted. The author obviously has an agenda.”
We want objective news, right? Give me the information without bias so that I can make up my own mind.
Journalists are humans, however, and you’ve probably been human long enough to know that people are not rational, robotic, data-crunchers. People have a lens through which they interpret the world, and this biases their view. Even if the only thing journalists did was provide you data from which you formed your own opinion, their biases skew what information they consider essential and what events are worth reporting.
People, even the most highly educated journalist and scientist, can only speak from their perspectives. We are all biased. Bias is not the problem with our media.
Manipulation versus Persuasion
We all have different views from one another. Much of our social interaction, therefore, involves communicating our unique perspective, persuading others to adopt it, or revising our understanding based on others’ arguments. I do not feel there is anything wrong with politicians, news media, or your friends trying to persuade you to their cause. The problem occurs when, rather than persuade, they try to manipulate you.
When I look at news media these days, I see a preponderance of manipulative tactics in play. Rare are those who rely on persuasion. In the remainder of this week’s post, I will outline the tools of manipulation. Next week, I will contrast those with methods of persuasion. In the end, I hope to convince you that the former is corrosive to our society while the latter is valuable. I will then close next week’s post with some thoughts on how we might shift the conversations around us away from manipulation.
Tools of manipulation in the media
Amongst the means of manipulation, there are those that are easy to spot (if you’re looking for them) and those that are hard. In the examples I provide below, I draw on passages from actual news articles in reputable papers. To avoid a dumpster fire in the comments section, however, I will paraphrase direct quotes and redact the names of people, organizations, and issues so that we might look at the text objectively (wish us luck!).
Easier to spot tactics
The tactics I see most often that are easier to notice include ad hominem attacks, divisive language, and appeals to emotions.
Ad hominem is fancy Latin meaning someone is attacking the person rather than their ideas. For example, a recent news article opened with the following.
[A competing news outlet] is mostly written by writers who use an authoritative tone to convince readers that its writers know more than they actually do.
What’s so bad about this? The above criticism is irrelevant to the ideas the competing news outlet was presenting. Even if the above passage were correct, the ideas those writers advanced might have been sound. An idea’s strengths rest on its merits—what goals does the idea strive for, what evidence does it use to support its conclusion. The characteristics of the individual or group stating the idea have no bearing on the strengths of the argument they are advancing.
I see ad hominem attacks used to avoid discussing people’s ideas or to taint an idea by biasing readers against the person advocating it.
If you see insults and pejorative terms used to describe someone with a different point of view, then the speaker is using an ad hominem attack. They are trying to manipulate you into disagreeing with the other person without putting in the effort to explore that person’s ideas.
Divisive language creates the illusion that you are a member of a group that stands in opposition to another group. For example:
[This is] yet one more foreign voice demanding we sacrifice our wellbeing while the rest of the world prospers.
This creates an us-versus-them mentality. The outsider wants to hold us down. We are in danger.
What’s so bad about this? Sometimes we are in danger.
Social Identity Theory helps explain. Humans naturally form groups. We define part of our identity through the groups to which we belong (e.g. I am a liberal/conservative/libertarian/Pastafarian). Since this group forms part of our identity, we have a natural tendency to view our groups favourably compared to others.
Social identity theory predicts that when we feel our group is under attack, in-group loyalty increases. Criticizing members of our own group become acts of betrayal while we dehumanize and stereotype members of the other group. Perhaps you recognize some of these behaviours in our current political discourse.
This divisive language leads us to cling closer to our group, discourages us from questioning our actions, and blinds us to the validity of the other group’s ideas.
When media use appeals to emotion, they seek to supplant reason with feelings. For example:
[Our group] remain the most persecuted religious group on the planet, and heart-breaking stories of violence and hostility occur on a regular basis, [followed by several such stories].
What’s so bad about that? As I’ve argued before, emotions are a useful form of rationality. The brain, however, can generally either feel emotion or critically reason. We are not wired to do both simultaneously. Introducing an article with stories that generate strong feelings temporarily dampen the part of the brain that reasons, leaving you less likely to recognize the other tactics of manipulation.
There are, naturally, many more such tactics. I have linked to a video that shows more.
Harder to spot tactics
Several tactics require expertise in the subject under debate to identify. This makes them hard for the average layperson to catch. For example, I have found the odd article in matters I have expertise in that cherry pick data.
Cherry picking data occurs when someone selects data that proves their point but omits evidence that confounds it. Through this, they create the illusion of reason. The use of data creates an air of credibility. The small sliver of data they show you, however, leads you to a conclusion that the entire body of data does not support. This can be quite insidious because unless you know the whole body of evidence, you will be unaware that the writer is leading you astray.
There are many (many!) other tricks media uses to manipulate our thoughts. I have linked to a list of them here.
What are we to do?
As I argued in the introduction, I believe there is value is expressing our ideas and convincing others of their merits. Tactics of manipulation seek to trick you into an agreement, but not everyone who wants to change your mind is trying to fool you.
Tools of persuasion, where we use reasoned arguments to support our conclusions and criticize other ideas, have the potential to strengthen our thinking and solve complex problems. I will discuss these tools next week.
Our stories have power
They are how we understand and change the world. In what ways have you seen the media or groups seek to manipulate your thoughts? Please share your stories in the comments.
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