There are many issues that U.S. citizens need to understand if we are to retain any democratic machinery in this country. It is crucial to have informed citizens to support candidates that will work to maintain livable environmental standards and to maintain (or gain) economic stability. Especially with the consolidated corporate ownership of our media, we need to consider what is really involved in modern communication.
We humans tend to be highly resistant to new information if it is in contradiction to what we already believe. We follow our existing paradigms, and information that doesn’t fit into current models tends to be disregarded. For this reason, media persuasion attempts to tell target audiences what they are already inclined to believe.
The book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winning psychologist, looks in detail at what makes things seem believable to people.
The main factor is familiarity. If an idea comes to mind quickly, it seems true. That is why often repeated propaganda becomes believable even to those who know the truth of the matter.
Another issue is that we humans create internally consistent, conceptual models of the world around us. If we succeed in creating a model that fits the pieces together, it feels like we have figured out the truth. If new data comes in that doesn’t fit well into our models, it may make us feel very uneasy.
All of the factors that we know about an issue must be compatible with our theory, and make sense to us. It takes mental effort to formulate our models. When information comes in that doesn’t fit into the paradigm we have created, we may wish to ignore it, since it would take a lot of mental effort to rebuild the model. We humans are resistant to doing all the work of building a new paradigm.
An issue that we all know about is that people become very attached to their opinions. It has often been noted that people believe what they want to believe. When people find information that supports their beliefs, they accept it, often without checking the sources. If information is provided that tends to refute our existing worldview, our sense of identity feels threatened. We become very “identified” with our beliefs and attitudes.
What a person believes is often not logically based. People often “believe in” certain things to demonstrate their loyalty to their tribe. Political views and climate change beliefs often fall into these categories. The more solid the data is that is employed in attempting to prove to people that their existing opinions are incorrect, the madder they get! The issue is not logic. The issues involved are more likely to be the defense of their identity and the showing of support for their side.
Besides paradigmatic thinking being a barrier in itself to educating the public about the life and death issues that are engulfing us, there are no standards for truth in the media. A media outlet or website can say whatever it wants to, including knowingly making completely false statements.1 If persuasion is well designed, it tells the target audience exactly what it wants to hear, and then frames its messages to its targets to seamlessly weave into the fabric of what is already believed. If done right, the new attitude or belief will be uncritically accepted and incorporated into the group identity of the target audience.
The public relations and advertising industries therefore wish to understand exactly how various groups of people feel about various subjects, so that precise messaging can be developed. The human brain has been mapped in great detail, and is routinely appealed to through the subconscious mind. Neuroscience tools are for sale and being developed by companies like Nielsen.2 Images on a screen, which a person has no awareness of, can have a powerful effect on his / her attitudes.
Even though we live in an “age of information,” we are in an information crisis. The information available to us is a morass of slanted information, disinformation and strategic omission, stylized to mesh with the opinions of the various target audiences that make up the general population.
It is critical for us to examine everything we are told, and to understand where our current opinions come from. Question everything put before you. Look deeply to find out who is actually talking to you, and why they might want you to believe what they are saying. Try to discover who is paying to have the information put in front of you. Follow the money.
The exception to being able to say whatever you want is that it is dangerous to say anything negative about those with the wealth and power. A person may face a lawsuit for speaking the truth. Even if the information is well documented, those with the money to sustain a prolonged legal battle will be able to greatly impact those who aren’t.
Media & Communication Action Project