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:


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.


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…]

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…]