The Optics of Media Manipulation [Part 2: The Target]

Last time we looked into the techniques and strategies that the media uses to influence perception. This time we’re going to take a closer look at the target: the unsuspecting viewers.

And a good place to start is here:

Credibility

It seems to me that the quality of something of being believable is strongly linked to how much our core beliefs are challenged by it. The more it fits into the structure of our thinking patterns, the more believable that something appears. Therefore, I would say that credibility contains an element of speculation within it, but more leaning towards the idea of something being true.

This tightly links to cognitive dissonance, which means that we tend to agree with things that support what we already believe and discard information that challenges our assumptions.

Therefore, I would say that there is a major difference between credibility and truth. Credibility is concerned with the appearances of things, truth, with facts.

Take the case of Ignaz Semmelweis. In the 1840s, pregnant women were dying in large numbers and nobody knew why. Semmelweis discovered that by washing hands before handling pregnant women, the mortality rate would drop drastically. However, when making his discovery public, he was laughed at while his published medical works were attacked or ridiculed. Then he turned to alcohol and died in a mental institution. Today he is known as a pioneer of antiseptic procedures.

So were his studies less valid because they weren’t generally approved of? Was his discovery less true because it didn’t seem credible? I imagine that this has been repeated many times throughout history in different forms.

I had my share of experience with credibility too, not that anything groundbreaking resulted from it, but still.

So this is what happened. When I was in high school I was pretty naive. I had a bit of an attention deficit disorder and I would often miss cues that something was a joke which would often make me say things that were out of place. But even though that was kind of embarrassing, it gave me the opportunity to notice that if I always took the approach that what is likely is true, then I would always be safe, because nobody blames you if you refuse to believe something that sounds incredible, right? Like how the stethoscope was invented because a French doctor was too shy to place his ear on women’s chests. Yet, that’s totally true.

So it seemed that appearences mattered. Credibility mattered. I didn’t know then that this was linked to a misapplication of consensus, as we will see.

So what exactly are the elements that create and fortify belief?

Well, the way I see it, it’s the following:

The first one would be direct experience. If we experience something and see it with our own eyes, that is solid evidence for us.

The second is secondhand experience. We also learn from the experience of others. If we can notice the cause and effect within us, we can notice it in others too.

The third is authority figures. Authority figures are always present in our lives, starting with our parents, our teachers, our superiors at work, experts in the fields of our study, politicians and even media figureheads. They are people we look up to because of the knowledge or power they possess or because they are representatives of qualities we admire.

The fourth is consensus. This is based on tribal psychology, the need to belong to a community. If everybody believes something, that gives the belief a certain momentum and makes one question their perceptions if it does not align to the one of the group. Here are a couple of great experiments illustrating this concept:

The fifth one is prejudice + probable cause, meaning cognitive dissonance. If we already believe something, new information that contradicts that belief will be explained away by assuming its probable cause. It’s because it’s false, stupid, ill-intended and so on. This ensures the preservation of the assumption.

The sixth one I have identified is an appeal to emotion. Strong emotions draw attention because they signal that something important is happening, whether positive or negative. This goes back to childhood experiences. For children, being met with negative emotions like anger or shame can be traumatic, as being loved is a survival need. That is why people tend to become attuned to the emotions of others and often try to attenuate them through various means. Moreover, negative emotional reactions often signal that some injustice took place, which draws the attention towards the victim, even though the reaction could be exaggerated or manipulative.

Now, before we go more in-depth into how these mechanisms of belief can be exploited, let’s look at the two wounds that makes a target more susceptible to being manipulated: the feeling of not being good enough and entitlement.

We all know someone who is always ready to help, who wants to be of service and right wrongs. I used to be that person, sometimes I still am. Seeing someone in distress can make a person empathize and try to fix what is apparently broken. But what happens when the person you help doesn’t want to take responsibility for their problems and instead expects you to fix it for them? Well, then you get an unhealthy dynamic.

You get one person that is perpetually taking responsibility for the other, sacrificing themselves, while the other expects this treatment and relies upon the former. This is called martyrdom or the savior complex and it can only result in conflict as it is based on a confusion of responsibilities.

The rescuer, even though her intentions are good, ends up taking away the power of the victim who could instead save herself, while the victim takes away the energy of the rescuer who could instead see that saving others is not her responsibility.

The martyrdom syndrome and the victim-rescuer-persecutor dynamic can help us better understand the two wounds mentioned earlier as we will see.

I recommend the following article on the victim triangle:

Not Good Enough

The first wound as I identified it that can be exploited is the wound of not being good enough. Actually, I’ve spoken of this before, so I’ll just share the video:

Hint: Somewhere after minute two I say what sounds like “convinced to feel it”, but I am actually saying “convinced to fill it”, which wasn’t the best choice of words, but eh.

So basically these attitudes can be exploited by appealing to ideals and good intentions, which gives the viewer a sense of purpose and the feeling of belonging by participating in a larger cause. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if it weren’t for the emotional investment, but because of the emotional investment, the cause becomes just as much about the external thing as it is about healing one’s own pain by projecting it on an outward victim.

Entitlement

This wound reminds me of the indulgent, over-nurturing mother, who always grants her child what it wants. This mother figure does not contain the child, so the child feels stronger and more powerful than any rules. Or it is the mother that showered the child in compliments of superlative values to the point that the child has a skewed perspective of what he can and cannot do. Or it is the mother that didn’t grant the child emotional support, so that the child felt like he had to extract it by temper tantrums.

Regardless the case, signs of entitlement in society are restrictions on what you can and cannot do, what you can and cannot say or at the opposite pole, expectations of special treatment. This is a projection of the need for a mother figure who tries to protect the child by being over-protective and who doesn’t allow him to develop his own autonomy and sense of boundaries. Now, there is definitely a fine line here. We can all agree that calls to violent action towards people should be sanctioned by law, and they are! The problem is that with entitled behavior, the aim is to sanction the potential of what words can lead to.

Even though they appear to be motivated by good intentions, such as protecting the vulnerable, what they really are is attempts at fulfilling unmet needs by looking for solutions externally, towards a mother substitute that nurtures and allows everything. The state thus becomes this mother substitute that enables the entitled behavior. It’s offering to be the mother you longed for while at the same time enabling you to see the problem out there and not in your history. But I’ll get into that later.

Moreover, this overprotective instinct extends to other areas as well, eg. censoring information because of what it may lead to. Remember Good Intentions in the Propaganda chapter? Remember the Martyrdom Syndrome from earlier? It is a classic example of confusion of responsibilities, taking away the right of others for deciding on the truthfulness of what is being witnessed. It’s like if experts decided that the vegan diet is the best and so you’re not allowed to eat any meat from now on. Or reverse that if you’re vegan.

The thing is that truth doesn’t need to be defended, it speaks for itself. It has proof on its side. Questioning it is what makes it stronger, because it stands the test of doubt.

I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect. That is my point of view, and I adhere to that absolutely and unconditionally. Truth, being limitless, unconditioned, unapproachable by any path whatsoever, cannot be organized; nor should any organization be formed to lead or to coerce people along any particular path. If you first understand that, then you will see how impossible it is to organize a belief. A belief is purely an individual matter, and you cannot and must not organize it. If you do, it becomes dead, crystallized; it becomes a creed, a sect, a religion, to be imposed on others. This is what everyone throughout the world is attempting to do. Truth is narrowed down and made a plaything for those who are weak, for those who are only momentarily discontented. Truth cannot be brought down, rather the individual must make the effort to ascend to it. You cannot bring the mountain-top to the valley. If you would attain to the mountain-top you must pass through the valley, climb the steeps, unafraid of the dangerous precipices. 

– Jiddu Krishnamurti

Going back to before, entitlement is basically a need for the external to be a certain way in order to feel safe or happy and it can be a sign of trauma. The sense of self is somewhat extended to the outside world and so there is a confusion as to what is under one’s control and what is not. For instance, I once saw a video of someone who was in a large conference room with many people who took a microphone and asked everybody not to be loud because it triggered his anxiety attacks. And while I can empathize, because I struggle with anxiety too, it was his responsibility to do what was within his power to get his needs met, in that case, leave the room or do some self-soothing exercises.

I mentioned temper tantrums earlier. Emotional reactivity ca be a sign of immaturity. I’m not talking about righteous anger here. Each negative emotion has its proper place but it can also be misapplied due to emotional wounding. A wound is triggered and then the trigger is mistaken for the cause which actually resides within the self. With a sense of entitlement, however, everything negative is thought to originate from the outside which orients the attention towards combating what is out there. This is called projection and it means attributing wrong values to external circumstances, whereas the pain and the anger originate from a denied aspect in the self. We tend to attribute to others the things that we do not see or admit in ourselves.

To illustrate this, I’ll tell you about a workmate I once had that really annoyed me. The reason she angered me as I saw it was because she didn’t take responsibility for her work and I always seemed to end up doing it for her in the end. That exhausted me and irritated me but I didn’t do much about it as I tried to make everything work for everyone (#MartyrdomComplex). Then one night I dreamt I was in my room, dressed in a black dress and when I looked in the mirror, I saw… her! As my reflection!

That horrified me and I woke up in distress! That was the last thing I wanted to see, myself as the person I disliked most.

But… upon reflection I figured… I was a lot like her. I too felt helpless and continue to feel helpless occasionally. I too didn’t take responsibility for many things in my life, I too engage in people pleasing and so on.

The more time passed, the more aspects of her turned out to be within me too. It was like many parts I had denied in myself for a very long time came together within her, like she was the embodiment of my shadow come to wake me up.

It wasn’t that she was wrong or bad, it was that I had poor boundaries. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t take responsibility, it was that I took responsibility for her. And it wasn’t so much that she asked for a lot, it was that I didn’t know how to say no.

And that’s how projection works. Sometimes we don’t see things within ourselves, but we may observe them in others, in the emotional reactions we have to them. Entitlement acts as that barrier that prevents us from seeing the source of our distress and instead directs our vision towards the external world and trying to remove the trigger. Quite an optical illusion.

The last thing I want to add here is in relation to the Drama triangle mentioned earlier. One important aspect of this dynamic that I want to mention is that those that perceive themselves as victims tend to feel entitled to the help of others due to their perceived powerlessness or to punish those that they perceive as persecutors, sometimes alternating between the two.

You know that Nietzsche quote?

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Well, that captures the essence of it.

I guess it’s clear by now how this can be exploited. Whether it’s misdirected anger or an expectation of preferential treatment, this can be channeled into social change, censorship or new laws and restrictions.

But of course, you need a good cause or a good problem for that. But maybe that is a subject for next time.

[To Be Continued…]