The Optics of Media Manipulation [Part 1: The Fundamentals]

“It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

– Mark Twain

Media Manipulation can be difficult to expose because it is so consistent. If it were made up of thousands of unconnected lies it would be much easier to dismantle. Its strength, however, lies in the many connections that would collapse if one lie was exposed. And since those connections are vast and ramified, it seems preferable to the mind to doubt the instance rather than question the integrity of the whole. It would be like pulling one key piece in Jenga and collapsing the whole structure.

The question is, do we want to preserve the structure or do we want to find out the truth?

In psychology this is called Cognitive Dissonance and it means holding opposing views within one’s mind. This friction needs to be resolved somehow, whether by discarding the new information, or by questioning the views we already hold, as the mind does not like inconsistency.

One way or another, the new information needs to be dealt with. And our attitudes about having our views challenged are an important factor as to how this inner conflict will be resolved. Are we comfortable with the thought of having been wrong or are we attached to our views? Do we hold our opinions lightly or do we fight to defend them?

Ultimately this boils down to two attitudes:

  1. The intention is to seek truth.
  2. The intention is to be right or to prove wrong.

The former is an anchoring to a higher principle which makes it immune to the hooks of conflict. The latter is emotionally entangled with its views and so it can be hooked into the traps of inferiority/superiority or the traps of fear/anger.

In order to understand media manipulation, we need to look at both the manipulator – the media and the manipulated – the unsuspecting viewers. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.

Manipulation Tactics

A good place to start is to look at the strategies people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder employ as they are very apt at emotional manipulation. The most important strategies they use are:


Gaslighting means making your target doubt their own perceptions and adopting your own. This creates a sense of safety for the NPD person as they cannot be held accountable for their actions.

In the media this is done by demonstrating the “appropriate” reaction to things, encouraging a sense of superiority in those that agree with their views, discrediting dissent, using labels.


Projection means not admitting wrong and instead always blaming others for your mistakes, always spinning things in such a way that the other is always to blame for your mistakes.

In the media this is done by character assasinations, discrediting dissent, not admitting to error, not taking responsibility.

One such example can be seen in the great documentary The War You Don’t See by John Pilger, which is a documentary about the media’s contribution to the invasion of Irak based on the false claim that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction. It is evident that the journalists that were interviewed for this documentary refuse all responsibility for their errors in reporting.

Abstractions and Ambiguity

Abstractions and Ambiguity are used in order to distract and confuse. The purpose is to keep the conversation away from concreteness, knowing that the subject will fill in the gap with their own interpretation of what these abstractions mean. Word salad is also used for the same purpose of evading accountability as well as generalizations which are meant to hide nuance or create either/or thinking.

In the media this is done by using euphemisms, being deliberately vague, using passive voice, and generally using language tricks which are the opposite of evocative and concrete.

Discrediting the Opposition

This strategy is meant to suggest that the opposition is not to be taken seriously due to reasons that have nothing to do with the ideas they propose. This takes away from the point that is being made and instead moves the focus towards the personality.

In the media this is done by name calling, by discrediting dissent, by appealing to emotion, by assuming the reasons of the opposition (deciding it is motivated by stupidity, hate, xenophobia, etc.), by mixing ideology and identity, by shaming, ridicule.

Boundary Testing and Hoovering

This strategy is meant to gradually cross the boundaries of the other person without it seeming obvious. It is meant to condition the other person to accept the new demands, to become accustomed to the new status quo, the “new normal”. In persuasion psychology this is called Mere Exposure.

Mere exposure is the reason why that song on the radio gets stuck in your head or why you remember the slogans on the commercials on TV. It means that the more we are exposed to something, the more we grow to like that something. And that includes ideology! But more on that later.

In the media mere exposure is the way that boundary testing is done by gradually promoting certain ideas, not by going on full campaigns from the beginning, but by incrementally bringing them forward in the public consciousness.

These are the strategies I consider most important when it comes to psychological manipulation. For more information on NPD tactics I recommend the work of Shahida Arabi:

Now that we got manipulation tactics out of the way, there are two more things we need to look into: propaganda and language.

Let’s start with propaganda.


“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. …In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

– Edward Bernays, Propaganda

This quote belongs to Edward Bernays, also known as the “father of public relations”. He was also the nephew of Sigmund Freud which would later influence his trajectory as we will see.

Bernays graduated with a degree in agriculture, yet he decided to pursue a career in journalism and was later involved in advertisement for major corporations and institutions. He even took part in propaganda efforts to justify the entry of the United States in WW1 during the Woodrow Wilson administration.

The work of his uncle gave him great insight into the minds of potential buyers which was the source of a new approach in advertisement: know your customer. If before the selling process relied on the persuasion skills of the merchants and on the qualities of the product they sold, now the paradigm had shifted to persuading the customer that they needed the product.

What Bernays understood was that the reason for buying a product were irrelevant, and that moreover, they could be borrowed, suggested, insinuated. That’s where propaganda came in.

Here are a couple of examples:

Torches of Freedom

In the beginning of the 20th century, smoking was regarded as promiscuous in women, and that represented half the population, half of potential buyers. What an opportunity to change this!

Bernays saw this opportunity and knew that the commercial success of cigars had nothing to do with smoking itself, all that mattered was the perception people had on it. Promiscuity was not an easy place to start, but so what, Bernays had many tricks up his sleeve.

So what could he do? Well, a few things! He hired models and had them parading for the freedom to smoke in New York. He had actresses photographed in magazines holding cigars. He linked smoking with the emancipation of women and he denounced the opposition as prejudiced. And most prominently, he called cigars Torches of Freedom which was of a strong emotional impact.

This created an either/or scenario in the public consciousness, where the only apparent options you had was to either support smoking or else be considered prejudiced. Pretty clever!

Bacond and Eggs

Another campaign that belongs to Edward Bernays is making Bacon and Eggs a trademark of the American breakfast diet. Who would have imagined that something so trivial could be the result of such an organized effort?

The pork industry needed a boost in consumption so an image was crafted of how Bacon and Eggs for breakfast was part of the ideal American lifestyle. This image was associated with a happy family and national identity, so it was framed in a larger context and coated in glamour. Kind of like the opposite of that Stoic exercise of stripping things of their embellishments so that they can be seen as they are.

Even today, the propaganda techniques that Bernays proposed are still very relevant:

So how do they work? Well, I have identified a few common denominators:

  • Ideals, Strong Positive Values and Good Intentions: like Freedom, Empowerment, Happiness. Associating smoking with the idea of freedom. The rational mind needs to be convinced and ideals represent great tools of persuasion.
  • Powerful Symbols and Imagery: Torches of Freedom, Happy Family. A symbol for victory and empowerment. The subconscious mind doesn’t know how to argue. If the conscious mind accepts an idea, the subconscious will grow it.
  • Single Perspective: Heavily focusing on a single aspect of an issue like in the case of women smoking being linked with emancipation to the exclusion of all other considerations.
  • Appeal to Emotion: The public needs to be emotionally invested to care.
  • Authority Figures: People we can look up to that can take a leadership role.
  • Powerful Words and Slogans that refer to superlative values.
  • Associations: Linking the product that is to be promoted with an ideology or a powerful image.

By themselves, these are not necessarily bad, as they can be motivated by good intentions. However, if they take away from the facts, from the full picture on an issue and if instead they appeal to emotional reactivity, especially to fear, anger and self-righteousness/entitlement, that can definitely be a red flag.

I recommend the following article on this topic:


Now let’s have a look at language. And what better place to start than George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language?

George Orwell was deeply interested in the power language has in influencing perception. In fact, this was one of the major themes of his most popular novel 1984. In it, the world is split into 3 totalitarian superstates. The main character lives in one of these superstates, Oceania, where his job is to alter historical records to the version of the truth that the state wants. Those that do not comply with the rules of the state mysteriously disappear without any evidence of having ever existed. People are under constant surveillance and they cannot exhibit independent thought without terrible consequences. Yet it is not only due to fear that this is the case.

In order to prevent rebellious thought – which is thought that challenges the government – a new English language is created, called Newspeak. In it, the original language is heavily edited, words are removed and meanings are changed, to prevent even the possibility of wrongthink. And thus, limiting the capacity for thought becomes limiting the capacity for and scope of action.

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

– George Orwell

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell identified two major faults of the English language, staleness of imagery and lack of precision. If the first dulls the mind, the second confuses it, both of which reduce clarity of thought.

“If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

– George Orwell

So let us have a closer look at the bad habits of the English Language as Orwell identified them:

Dying Metaphors

According to Orwell, dying metaphors show mental laziness, as if not even the writer or speaker is interested in what he is saying. They don’t have any evocative power, which means they don’t engage people’s imagination. Some examples are: stand shoulder to shoulder with, no instant solution, wide range of options, the fact of the matter is, time and time again and so on.

Dying metaphors are high level abstractions and they fit under the NPD tactic of abstractions and ambiguity.

Word Salad

This makes the listener lose interest and not pay attention to what is being said. If attention is overwhelmed, it loses its focus. This is actually an NPD tactic whose purpose is to confuse and distract. Some examples are: make itself felt, exhibit a tendency to, play a leading part in or render inoperative.

Passive Voice

This is to say “something was done by me” instead of “I did something”. Or even worse, to say “something was done”. The difference is that with passive voice the focus is on the action, while with active voice the focus is on the subject.

Politicians often use passive voice to evade accountability, creating the perception that whatever happens is due to unfavorable circumstances. Here are some examples:

It is also important for the people of Iraq to know that in a democracy everything is not perfect, that mistakes are made.

– Bush

Mistakes were made here by people who either did it deliberately or inadvertently.

– Bill Clinton

Abstractions and Ambiguity

This might ring a bell from the NPD chapter. The deception lies both within the language and the intention with which it is used, which is to distract and confuse, as well as avoid accountability.

“The whole tendency of modern prose is away form concreteness.”

– George Orwell

“Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

– George Orwell

This also links into what we mentioned earlier in the Propaganda chapter about Ideals which explains the success of political campaign slogans.

Here is an example from an Obama speech:

“As I said yesterday, the details of this deal matter very much. That’s why our team worked so hard for so long to get the details right. At the same time, as this debate unfolds, I hope we don’t lose sight of the larger picture, the opportunity that this agreement represents. As we go forward, it’s important for everybody to remember the alternative, and the fundamental choice that this moment represents.”

– Barack Obama

Notice the lack of evocative power? The abstractions, the lack of concreteness, the ordinary phrases?

Pretentious Terms

Politicians often use pompous terms in order to appear knowledgeable and authoritative in front of their listeners. This creates the impression of competence and diplomacy, yet it is just another way to confuse the audience and make it tune out, because if the language is dull, the mind goes on autopilot unless it makes a conscious effort to pay attention. Here are some examples that Orwell gives: phenomenon, element, objective, liquidate, utilize, inevitable, triumphant.


That is diminishing the importance or the impact of an event through language. This method prevents people from visualizing the horrors referred to, which distances them from reality.

“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

– George Orwell

I highly recommend this bit by George Carlin on Soft Language and Euphemisms:

To wrap up this chapter, here are Orwell’s reflections on the effects this kind of language has on the speaker:

“A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.”

– George Orwell

More here:

[To Be Continued…]

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