Follow me:  Twitter   Linkedin   Facebook

Daniel's Media Psychology Blog

Read some of my musings as I work towards my Media Psychology PhD at Fielding Graduate University.

A Return to Critical Thinking

The well-known journalist and political commentator, Walter Lippman, believed that the general population does not have the capacity nor the sustained interest and focus to extract truth from the propagandized media that they consume. He thought it was necessary for a centralized, independent panel of elite, political science experts to synthesize news and sanitize it for public consumption in order to protect democratic societies from distorted journalism, overly simplistic stereotypes, and misguided moral judgments. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman also see propaganda in media as a major threat to democracy. However, they focus more on the structural or systematic flaws within the mainstream media. They present a “propaganda model” that demonstrates how authoritative institutions process information through filters that ultimately leave it heavily distorted and skewed towards the interests of a small subset of elites. Looking through this structural lens, Chomsky has an inherent distrust of institutionalized experts, such as the ones Lippman advocates, believing that they, too, can be easily co-opted. Therefore, he looks to individual people and asks them to learn to think independently and critically in order to combat propaganda from the bottom up rather than the top down.

So how should one go about gathering valid, reliable evidence, relevant content, and diverse perspectives? What qualifies information as authentic, valid and truthful? How does one know if facts are distorted? What sort of inherent or explicit factors might lead to a source providing biased information? How can people detect when a media piece is intentionally (or unintentionally) deceitful and manipulative? Critical thinking is perhaps the best tool we have to answer some of these questions and get closer to the truth so that we can make informed decisions and be confident that these decisions are based in reality.

Intuition, Linguistics, and Lies
In studying the practice of critical thinking, my thoughts about the use of intuition have evolved and matured. I started off staunchly defending the general use of intuition, believing that we have certain primal instincts that we too often ignore. Just like with other animals, these instincts are often instrumental in warning us we are in danger or perhaps that something simply doesn’t feel right. However, intuition is often used inappropriately and treated as a mystical substitute for well-reasoned, evidence-supported arguments. Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, discusses the research surrounding intuition, summarizing when it actually works and when it doesn’t. In short, intuition can be very valuable in select environments and applications such as poker or firefighting but in other contexts, such as the stock market, it is extremely unreliable. Additionally, many people tend to use intuition inconsistently. It often takes many years to build a good intuition in a particular domain and learn how to use it correctly. Finally, how information is presented can negatively affect the way fast judgments are made and often people may not be aware where the basis for their judgments came from. In other words, they may unknowingly be relying on faulty or biased preconceptions.

Chomsky (1988) admits that defending one’s self against propaganda takes “a major effort”, however he insists that one can
“Get to the point where it’s like a reflex to read the first page of the L.A. Times and to count the lies and distortions and to put it into some sort of rational framework.”
As a linguist, perhaps he believes that one can learn and develop an intuition for detecting subtle language cues that help to identify where propaganda and manipulation exist in media, which then can provide a launching point for further critical investigations.

Police detectives and other law enforcement officials are well-trained at detecting lies. According to Vrij (2000), they pay close attention to specific non-verbal behaviors, verbal characteristics, and physiological responses. This could be valuable when watching a political candidate or other official representative speak on videotape. What about when you are reading text, however, and you don’t have any visual or audio cues? Well, Newman, Pennebaker, Berry, & Richards (2003) discovered that are particular linguistic styles or patterns that can help one distinguish between true and false written stories. For example liars use negative emotion words more often and “exclusive” words less often than truth-tellers. The authors state that
“Liars can be reliably identified by their words---not by what they say, but by how they say it.”
These linguist researchers also insist that “deception takes work.” Chomsky (1987) agrees and extends this assertion, claiming, “Any system that’s based on lying and deceit is inherently unstable.”

Controlling the Agenda
Clay Shirky, among others, has elegantly illustrated how Web 2.0 (“the read/write web”), is a major media revolution that uniquely provide many-to-many communications and tremendous opportunities for sophisticated and effective group action. Everyone now is a publisher and can easily disseminate information to billions of others around the globe, instantly! On the surface, this seems like a perfect vehicle to combat institutionalized propaganda that comes from mainstream media sources and a huge opportunity for independent or marginalized media outlets. However, there are still many challenges.

First of all, the mainstream media still has much greater access to “official” sources, which, for many media consumers, are the most influential because of their authoritative status. According to American Reporter correspondent, Andy Oram,
“Elites control the critical sources of information and hand it out very selectively. This will not change if you’re on the Internet.” 
He goes on to say that the public has been “disciplined to accept certain forces as expert and to reject others.” Many elites in government and private enterprise have exploited this public conditioning even further by interviewing supposedly independent “experts” who happen to have corporate or lobbyist ties. Sebastian Jones wrote an article in The Nation about “The Media-Lobbying Complex.” He claims that mainstream media outlets have not done enough to adequately disclose these conflict-of-interest connections and questions why they are even being given such substantial airtime in the first place, considering their lack of objectivity. Often, these guests are introduced and identified by their last official government position rather than pointing out that they now presently work for a particular military contractor or lobbyist firm. Jones quotes Jeff Cohen from FAIR: "Gephardt will always be the former majority leader of the House. Period.... These guys know they won't be identified by what they do now but instead by what their position was years or decades ago.” By the very nature of who is paying them, it is reasonable to assume that these compromised, biased expert officials are much more likely to offer up political opinions on various issues such as health care or banking bailouts in a manner that favorably represents their corporate affiliations.

This introduces another major challenge. The mainstream media and its army of “official sources” still set the agenda as well as establish the talking points and boundaries of the debate. This manufactured debate usually translates directly over to the web. According to Ray Greenslade, a journalism professor at City University London,
“This kind of net activity goes on all the time. It is not transformative. The agenda is being set, as before, by mainstream media with the Net in the background… The net is still a political echo chamber, and not yet an influential democratic forum.” 
Thus, the debate is still defined by the corporate media and as Oram points out (referencing Chomsky), this power is often used to focus the public attention onto trivial and divisive personal issues and distract them from the more central, institutional problems at hand. As Chomsky says, “Public attention is diverted to overzealous patriots or to the personality defects of leaders who have strayed from our noble commitments, but not to the institutional factors that determine the persistent and substantive content of these commitments.” Sebastian Jones reinforces this agenda-setting idea in his Nation article. He interviews Janine Wedel, who states,
"When there's a whole host of pundits on the airwaves touting the same agenda at the same time, you get a cumulative effect that shapes public opinion toward their agenda."

There are a few exceptions where independent media sources on the internet have managed to break through the corporate media firewall and temporarily disrupt this top-down agenda by presenting something so damning, sensational, and compelling that the mainstream outlets are forced to respond and cover it. WikiLeaks is one such example. As Glenn Greenwald discusses in Salon, has managed to obtain and leak official documents, video footage, and other materials that expose shocking and controversial behavior by the CIA, the military, and other government organizations. These leaks have included propaganda campaigns targeted at allied European countries and footage of American soldiers killing unarmed Reuters employees in Iraq. Such material is provided to WikiLeaks by anonymous whistleblowers, which Greenwald calls, “One of the last avenues to uncover government and other elite secrets.” Not surprisingly, WikiLeaks has recently been heavily targeted and harassed by a number of government and corporate entities around the world.

The New Media Challenge
Spending the past couple of months learning and applying critical thinking techniques has given me the opportunity to look at media, both on and off the web, in a whole new light. This experience has taught me invaluable lessons about how to read and consume media in a much more skeptical and empowered manner. It has shown me how media and advertising can be used to manipulate our emotions and dramatically influence our decisions. The Frontline episodes we watched illustrated how PR and marketing are becoming more sophisticated and targeted (i.e. “narrowcasting”) as data harvesting technologies become more advanced and psychoanalysis, linguistics, and behavioral research are applied more aggressively. I also have discovered how to detect faulty arguments and recognize propaganda more quickly and effectively.

As Will Richardson strongly advocates, we need to become active readers rather than just passive consumers. He believes that as educators and parents, we must model these behaviors for young students both inside and outside the walls of the physical classroom. Chomsky agrees. He states that
"Citizens of the democratic capitalist societies should undertake a course of intellectual self-defence to protect themselves from manipulation and mind control."
As media psychologists at Fielding, we must utilize critical thinking to responsibly conduct research and evolve our expertise in an overall effort to help people inform themselves more accurately, communicate more empathetically, and organize more effectively. Only then will people be able to reach the top rung of Shirky's social ladder where they can use collective action to set their own national and global agenda that preserves human rights, advocates social justice, and celebrates diversity.
View Comments

Social Media: Harnessing the Power of "Social Objects" and Constructivism

Climbing the Social Ladder
Clay Shirky spoke at Harvard Law School two years ago and proudly proclaimed, “Group action just got easier.” He discusses a “ladder” of group interactions that begin with sharing. On the first rung of the ladder, someone begins sharing media online, sometimes for a specific purpose and other times just for fun. This shared artifact implicitly attracts people from diversely remote locations, often times strangers, and brings them together around a particular media piece (text, picture, music, video, etc.). At this point, the media content suddenly transforms into what cartoonist and entrepreneur, Hugh Macleod, calls a “social object”. According to Macleod, “The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else.” He goes on to state that, “Social Networks form around Social Objects, not the other way around.”

Once the shared social object has a motivated social network surrounding it, people may then use their common interest in the object to discover related common interests, objectives, and goals. Ultimately this can encourage temporary collaborations that remain active until the mutual objective or goal is reached. At the top of the ladder is collective action. According to Shirky, collective action requires the highest level of individual commitments. Shirky believes that simply publishing media in the first place often reveals a desire or motivation for action. The interesting part, however, is how publishing initiates a social process in which the media attracts, inspires, catalyzes, and engages other like-minded individuals so that they may become sufficiently motivated to join the call for action. The most difficult factor will likely be maintaining enough sustained motivation and commitment to complete the collective task at hand and fully achieve the common goals of the ad-hoc group before the group naturally dissolves.

Moo-ving into a Virtual Collaborative Space

With all the hype and press surrounding the new opportunities that Web 2.0 provides for two-way-interaction and online collaboration, it’s easy to assume that virtual social objects and social networking are new concepts. However, researchers have been experimenting in this space since the dawn of the internet. For example, the MIT Media Lab introduced MediaMOO, 17 years ago, back in 1993. According to Amy Bruckman & Mitchel Resnick, MediaMOO is “a text-based, networked, virtual reality environment designed to enhance professional community among media researchers.”  It was designed to allow researchers to extend relationships and collaborations that are initiated at physical conferences into their daily lives. It was based on the concept of MUDs or Multi-User Domains, in which users navigate a physical world via text commands. These environments initially became popular among Dungeons and Dragons players and other fantasy crowds, where the virtual worlds were designed for role-playing and interactive fiction. The first widely-used MUDs, Adventure - Colossal Caves and Zork, emerged in the 1970s. If you are curious, you can still explore these MUDs today:
  1. Play Adventure
  2. Play Zork

It didn’t take long for others outside of the gaming world to realize the benefits of MUDs. Bruckman & Resnick used MediaMOO to test out the theory of constructivism within a virtual social space. The theory of constructivism is popular among teachers and often used when teaching children. It asserts that “people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences.” Basically this means that people learn better when they are active participants, partnering with the teacher to think critically, problem solve, and build artifacts. This is why shared activities in MediaMOO often included construction of even the virtual world itself. Bruckman & Resnick discovered that interactions among media researchers using the MUD were much more beneficial when users participated in a shared activity and everyone had the ability (and responsibility) to build the virtual world in the manner that they saw fit. Today, MUDs are big business as they have morphed into more visually sophisticated graphical MUDs such as World of Warcraft and Second Life. Many groups and businesses, including IBM recognize the potential value of such environments and have put significant resources toward setting up virtual space inside these worlds. Using Wikipedia as an example, Shirky illustrates just how powerful and successful the theory of constructivism can be when applied on a massive scale

Let's Build Something Together!
Will Richardson recognizes the same benefits that Bruckman & Resnick did with today’s “Read/Write Web”, his nickname for Web 2.0. He is encouraging educators to play the role of co-learners with their students as they actively work together to break through the traditional walls of the physical classroom. Richardson believes it is important that teachers help students expand their collaborations and learning activities into a more global virtual world through the medium of Read/Write Web tools such as blogs, forums, wikis, podcasts, etc.  He sees classrooms as “media centers to the world”.

What I personally find interesting are all the potential media applications of constructivism and virtual social objects in politics and civic affairs. For example, Hervé Glevarec looked at youth radio in France as a “social object” in one of his studies. In this article, he shows “how radio is a medium particularly able to exploit its dual nature as both conversation and device, text and frame, conversational exchange and social interaction.” Glevarec inquires about what various radio programs represent for youth listeners within a social, interactive context. Clay Shirky, in his Harvard Law speech, discussed how one passenger who was stuck on an NWA airplane out on the tarmac for 7+ hours co-opted online media to canvass and assemble other frustrated passengers. These passengers collaborated to generate a non-partisan, populist petition that ultimately led to an airline “Passenger Bill of Rights” being signed by congress in 2007.

Time for Something a Little More Flashy
In truth, virtually any political issue may be turned into a social object that can then be used to recruit and network activists. Frank Luntz learned that by simply renaming something, such as the “Estate Tax”, using words that are more emotionally provocative, a person can generate mass interest in an issue and leverage that interest to get people to collaborate and/or take collective political action. Some feel that Luntz’s application was a rather deceitful and an unprincipled use of this strategy, but nevertheless, the results were quite revealing. These various case studies inspire me to explore how social networks might be generated by citizens to rapidly respond to government and corporate actions that are deemed unfavorable and undesirable by particular groups of constituents who are adversely affected.

Shirky, in his Harvard speech, also describes how kids in Eastern Europe used Bill Wasik’s satirical flash mob idea for real political purposes to help them expose and document their government’s oppressive actions. In the same vein, if random flash mobs can so easily be organized, why couldn’t symbolic “flash boycotts” and “flash protests” be organized in the wake of company policy announcements that consumers find to be unfair or inappropriate?

A More Perfect Union
Workers have often relied on collective organization and action through the use of unions. Historically, this was easier because they usually shared the same physical space (i.e. a factory or store). It was a straightforward task to recruit these workers since they all were employed within the same organization. However, until now, it has been much more difficult for widely dispersed and unrelated consumers to come together and “unionize” in order to challenge companies who have overstepped their boundaries. The citizens of Wells, Maine proved the effectiveness of such online collective action by using web media to stop Nestle from unfairly extracting water from their municipal ground sources.

This is the real power of the Read/Write Web. When social objects are used to harness the power of social networking, it can bring passionate and motivated individuals together to collaboratively learn and forge real relationships. Just like the researchers in MediaMOO, the gamers in Zork, or the students in Richardson's future classrooms, frustrated citizens and consumers can now work together to actively construct virtual worlds that will ultimately lead to the construction of new, and hopefully better, physical worlds.
View Comments

Consumer Psychology: When Will the Villagers Grab Their Pitchforks?

The word “advertising” has a rather benign and practical definition. According to Merriam-Webster, advertising is “the action of calling something to the attention of the public especially by paid announcements.” It is a practice that has been around since the beginnings of civilization to help individuals or groups sell themselves or their goods. However, 20th century modern advertising is an entirely new beast and it has increasingly become more invasive, ubiquitous, and psychologically potent. The shift of focus in advertising from tangible products and services to abstracted, emotionally-centered branding concepts has led to a widening gap between the reality of what is being sold and the broad-brush, euphemistic ideations that are used to represent them. This week’s materials took a deep look at the cultural and societal impact of modern advertising and whether Madison Avenue has gone too far. They left me questioning whether the misleading messages and manipulative techniques implemented by marketing consultants have crossed moral boundaries, significantly damaging the integrity of both business markets and our democratic, political system. Moreover, I began to wonder if the most heavily targeted audiences will eventually revolt against consumerism, and if so, what form such a revolt might take.

Attack of the Clones
In the Frontline Episode, “The Persuaders”, we learned about two individuals who exploit behavioral and social psychology research to help their clients manipulate mass audiences and ultimately control their buying or voting behavior. Clotaire Rapailles used his work with autistic children to come up with a formulaic and questionably effective strategy for “cracking the code” of various consumer cultures, product categories, and brands. Rapailles claims to hunt for peoples’ primal urges, attempting to discover their “reptilian hot buttons” that compel them to action. Frank Luntz is a political consultant who generally works for various conservative candidates and special interest groups. He does research on test groups in order to learn the language, information, and isolated facts required to frame an issue or ideology so that people will go along with it. He teaches politicians and advocacy groups how to talk about an issue and the most effective emotional buzz words to use (e.g. "Death Tax", "War on Terror"). Both of these individuals have used their craft to become rich and powerful within the highest circles of business and government. However, they actually owe much of their success and ideas to a man who was around long before them.

Edward Bernays has often been referred to as the “father of public relations” Author Larry Tye went a half-step further, coining him as “the father of spin”. Bernays was the nephew of Sigmund Freud, the legendary founder of psychoanalysis. Combining his uncle’s work on the unconscious, primal mind with Wilfred Trotter’s theories of crowd psychology, he came up with PR techniques that manipulated public opinion through subconscious channels (Wikipedia). According to the New York Times, he “helped shape public relations by favoring the use of endorsements from opinion leaders, celebrities, doctors and other ‘experts’.” Adam Curtis illustrates this strategy in his documentary Century of the Self: Leveraging feminist spirit and rhetoric, Bernays hired a group of young debutantes and staged a seemingly grassroots-driven “torches of freedom” event, ultimately helping the American Tobacco Company reset societal taboos surrounding female public smoking virtually overnight. Over 70 years later, similar techniques were templated by Madison Ave and used to help Sprite turn its brand into a hip-hop music icon.

We're Not Crazy, We're Local!
Just like “the merchants of cool” (i.e. Disney, AOL Time Warner, Viacom, etc.) are constantly looking to co-opt what teens presently consider “cool”, top advertisers are now attempting to deceitfully leverage the most current social-political sentiments surrounding such populist trends as anti-globalization and eco-friendliness. One great example of this, is what many are now calling “localwashing”. This is a strategy by large corporations to exploit the sudden rise of the local food and sustainability movements (i.e. “localvores”) who strive to support and build self-reliant food economies that “integrate the environmental, economic, and social health of their food systems in particular places.” Companies such as Whole Foods, Pepsi, and Walmart have all been recently pushing ad campaigns in which they dubiously claim their products are local (see here for a slideshow of examples). Starbucks was so brazen that it decided to open a location in its birth town of Seattle, thinly disguising the coffee shop as a small, independent business called “15th Ave Coffee and Tea.” Perhaps the most ridiculous perpetrator of “localwashing”, however, is the Venezuelan-owned oil company, Citgo. As a part of one of their current ad campaigns, they are putting up billboards across the country with the absurd slogan, “Local. Loyal. Like it should be.” They also have an entire page on their website sappily devoted to a massive, neon sign that resides next to Fenway Park in my beloved city of Boston. On this webpage, they praise the Citgo sign as a “majestic” landmark that citizens fought tirelessly to save. They even include an anonymous, supposedly “well-know Boston quote” that equates the sign to Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower.

Don't Take it Personally
The “localwashing” efforts described above illustrate another phenomena discussed extensively in the documentary, The Corporation.  Many multinational companies, in recent years, have essentially managed to personify themselves (both symbolically and legally). Noam Chomsky once stated in an interview with CorpWatch:
“Corporations, in other words, were granted early in this century the rights of persons, in fact, immortal persons, and persons of immense power. And they were freed from the need to restrict themselves to the grants of state charters.”
It seems predictable that these corporations would now use localwashing to try and create a personal bond with consumers, acting as if they are truly members of our local community and family. As discussed in “The Persuaders”, top advertisers have also extended this personification into the world of entertainment media as well. Thanks to a growing alliance commonly referred to as “Madison & Vine”, advertisers have managed to insert their brands, front and center, into popular TV shows and movies, even portraying them as sympathetic heros. Such was the treatment of FedEx in “Castaway”.

Escaping The Matrix
It is now quite clear that advertisers plan to continue inserting themselves into our lives, crowding and imposing on our cultural identity and personal space. For them, they believe it is vitally necessary to “break through the clutter” that they created in order to simply survive. This is at least how NYU professor, Mark Miller sees it. Miller fears that our American culture is in great peril under the threat of such aggressive marketing:

“Once a culture becomes entirely advertising friendly, it ceases to be a culture at all. It ceases to be a culture worth the name.”

As Acxium harvests more and more personal data about us and “narrowcasting” becomes more pervasive, we will be segmented, categorized and stereotyped at ever more granular levels. This will likely provide advertisers with endless opportunities to target each and every one of us and feed us the messages they hope and pray our “reptilian” brains will instinctually react to.

The big question is when will consumers finally revolt? Is there a breaking point where consumers will simply become so over-saturated and over-stimulated that they simply grow deaf to all of the noise? Cable bills and movie ticket prices continue to skyrocket, yet the product is arguably getting worse. How many ads can be stuffed into a sitcom or a movie before it becomes so manufactured and contrived, so sugary and fake, that people finally just turn the television off all together and stop going to movie theaters? Independent and amateur content is becoming more and more sophisticated every day, as the tools for producers become cheaper and easier to use. Web-based podcasts are gaining steam and quickly becoming more innovative and intriguing than the reality TV flood that has washed over all of the old media airwaves. Ad-based traditional media is failing because advertisers recognize their investments are reaching a level of diminishing returns, but as they attempt to co-opt the creative content itself, they might just inadvertently kill the “cool” completely. If that happens, perhaps we will all learn to rediscover the rebellious teen identities still hiding deep down inside and tear away to build our own, democratic media world, leaving the middlemen and former authoritative sources behind. Clay Shirky’s vision of “Mass amateurization” might just be the undercurrent that finally breaks our consumer culture free, as we enter a new age of read/write interaction and cooperative, collective endeavors.
View Comments
See Older Posts...