MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulation

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Public mind and media

The effects of the media system on the individual's mind and the social mind are evident, and have been well studied. It is more than evident that media manipulation involves mental manipulation.

Joost Meerloo, a Dutch doctor and psychoanalyst, argued that the mechanization of modern life has influenced man to become more passive and to adjust to formality. Meerloo claimed that man no longer thinks about personal values, following his own conscience and ethical evaluations; man thinks more and more about the values brought to him by the media.

The media manipulation through the headlines in the morning newspaper gives him his temporary political vision, the radio throws suggestions into his ears, the television keeps him in constant fear and passive fixation[1]. French philosopher Jaques Ellul points out that the average citizen does not have time to be informed and sometimes does not have the capacity to do so.

One sees then the citizen wrapped in a kaleidoscope where thousands of images follow one another. Each image deals with a different subject, to disappear as the following image appears [2]. This passivity, this incapacity, and this dependence on the media make the individual the perfect target for the propaganda war that takes place in the media. The individual in a hyperconnected world is unable to escape media manipulation.

Television, as the majority medium, generates a false sense of social relationship with the characters it presents. Television is an ideal tool for media manipulation and propaganda promotion; television becomes that little father who is always there[3]. Television had become the "one-eyed babysitter" of the American people [4], and therefore, of the Western public mind.

London University Professor Des Freedman explains in his article Paradigms of Media Power that media power is the power of the media to impose a discourse. Media power is a relationship between institutions, actors and contexts, which represent economic, political, technological and cultural forces. Four paradigms of media power emerge from the relationships between these actors and their forces: consensus, chaos, control, and contradiction [5].

Des Freedman points out, as other authors suggest, that access to the media is somewhat unequal. More authors have presented media models, Hallin and Mancini, Curran, and many more have turned their attention to media models and how their content is chosen, broadcast or published.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky developed a model of media system called the "propaganda model", based on the media manipulation of the United States.

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationLike all models it has its imperfections, but it serves as a paradigm for understanding the synchronization between private media and factional and institutional powers. To shape the model they looked at the routes where money and power were able to put news on the agenda, able to marginalize the dissident, and allow government and groups to be able to disseminate their messages to the public.

Herman and Chomsky argue that the news is filtered through the media owners, the companies that pay for advertising in the media and the source of the news [6]. There are more theoretical models of media, but the one provided by Herman and Chomsky gives a broader view of the powers that be in the selection of media content. In fact, the model goes beyond the political assumptions of the authors.

Psychology and Media

"Our era is the first era in which many thousands of the best and most highly trained minds have the full-time job of penetrating the collective mind. Entering the mind with the aim of manipulation, exploitation, and control is the goal now. And generating heat, not light, is the intention. Keeping everyone in the state of helplessness engendered by prolonged mental activity is the effect of many advertisements and entertainment programs alike. [7]

This is the preface to The mechanical bride: Folklore of industrial man by Marshall McLuhan, one of the great theorists of the media system. Written in 1951, the book is a collection of essays on the ominous relationship of the media, with symbolism, with corporations and with the audience. The media manipulation is an evidence from the very emergence of the mass media.

It was neither coincidental nor the result of abstract lucubration that McLuhan wrote the quote; Edward Barrett, director of the Office of War Information, wrote in 1953 that;

"The social network of former partners with roots in the psychological warfare experience goes beyond the social sciences; former OWI partners include the editors of Time, Look, Fortune and several newspapers; magazine editors such as Holiday, Coronet, Parade and Saturday Review, editors of the Denver Post. New Orleans Times-Piscayune, and others; the heads of Viking Press, Harper & Brothers, and Farrar, Straus and Young; two Hollywood Oscar winners; a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner; the chairman of the board of CBS and a dozen key network executives; President Eisenhower's chief editor; the editor of the international editions Reader's Digest; at least six partners from major advertising agencies; and a dozen leading social scientists.[8]

Nelson Rockefeller was one of the most prominent promoters of psychological operations during the war and was Eisenhower's advisor in this field during the years 1954-55 [9] . The link in the United States and England between former professionals of propaganda and psychological warfare and the private media is very well documented.

Media manipulation has since been linked to intelligence service professionals. It is probably the reason why the audience in the United States is less aware of government influences on news content. This is because propaganda is camouflaged as news and the audience is given the illusion that there is freedom of the press[10].

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationThe relationship between media and psychology has reached such a point that within this academic discipline a sub-discipline called media psychology has emerged, linking the science of communication and psychology.

Like other disciplines that have emerged from psychology, media psychology was born out of the need to apply psychological knowledge outside the academy[11]. Clinical psychology applied to media manipulation is a political weapon in the arsenals of all governments.

One of the first applications of psychology in the media was propaganda; at the beginning of the 20th century these were very direct techniques, later on propagandists learned to use psychological techniques that allowed them to achieve their purposes with more subtle means, such as as associating personal feelings with the exposed propaganda[12] .

The media system can introduce values into society and modify its behavior; it has become an educational tool[13] . Society is educated through media manipulation.

David Giles points out that there is an assumption that suggests that there are social stereotypes that influence their representation in the media, but in reality it is the media system that ends up influencing social stereotypes. The media influences our psychology so much that it is the media stereotypes that influence the social reality of the identity of groups and individuals[14] .

Men, Giles gives as an example, learn what it is to be a man by the media representation of men; the media representation of man is based on previous media representations, not on real men. The same happens with other social groups.

On the other hand, the fiction of serials and movies is so real today that it causes reality and fiction to be confused in the mind of the audience. This causes the audience to identify with extravagant fictional characters, creating irrational responses from the audience in their real life [15] . The audience tends to mimic the social behaviors they observe in the media, without realizing that these characters are exaggerated fictional creations.

Media Effects Studies

The analysis of the relationship of the media with the population has been the subject of study since the day when there was population and media.  It is not only pioneering academics such as Lasswell, Parker, or McLuhan who have analyzed the processes of mass communication.

Already in the 1930s the American government established the Hays Office's Production Code in order to safeguard public morale. There was already empirical knowledge about the mimicry between screen and audience. Years before, a private entity had financed a series of studies that analyzed the effect of films on children and adolescents: the Payne Fund Studies.

These studies were four years of socio-psychological research developed by academics from seven different universities. They investigated the effects on the ideals, health, emotions and sexual behavior of the audience.

The studies provided the basis for the analysis of effects arising from exposure to media content[16] . On the other hand, the Rockefeller Foundation held secret seminars where they discussed ways to shape American public opinion by designing propaganda to prevent the audience from falling into the hands of foreign propaganda discourses.

The foundation recruited many academics who had specialized in psychological warfare in World War II[17]. The foundation chose Harold Lasswell's thesis of manipulating the feelings of the population through the use of the media to avoid the propaganda effect emanating from the National Socialist and Soviet regimes [18] .

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationAnother of the academics related to the Rockefeller Foundation was Daniel Lerner, who after having been an officer of the Psychological Warfare Division, dedicated a good part of his academic career to demonstrating how media manipulation was capable of shaping society [19] .

The Rockefeller Foundation concluded that the effects of media propaganda had not been as decisive as had been believed to date, but that the power of the propaganda broadcast was considerable [20] .

Paul Lazarsfeld conducted one of the first studies on the effect of radio on the population for the foundation. Lazarsfeld analyzed Orson Wells' program, War of the Worlds. The conclusions showed that variables such as social class, education or critical thinking skills influenced the effect of the broadcast on the population [21] . In fact, the people who believed most in Orson Wells' speech were those with the least education [22] .

Lazarsfeld had shown that socioeconomic variables influence the effect of credibility on media exposure; the lower the educational level, the more credibility they had with what they heard. The study had also shown that the mentality of the radio audience and the print audience was different; the radio audience was more likely to be suggested by the information it consumed[23] .

Magic Bullet and minimal effects

The first theory about the effects of media on the audience was the magic bullet theory also known as the hypodermic needle model. It is a basic theory of stimulus-response (S-R) that presupposes the individual as isolated from the rest of the members of society allowing a direct and unpolluted relationship between the sender and the receiver.

In this model, media manipulation would have a direct influence on the recipient individual. This is the model that emerged from the first analyses of propaganda and the media of organizations described in the previous paragraph. The second theory about the effects of mass media would be that of minimal effects or two step flow.

This second model arose from the study of psychological experiments developed during the Second World War. These experiments exposed American soldiers to propaganda films in an attempt to change their opinions about the war; the films made soldiers more informed about the reasons for the war, but opinions about it did not change, as if the first model of media effects suggested[24] .

This experiment with films, called Why We Fight, changed the notion that media manipulation produces homogeneous effects in society, and introduced the notion that other variables such as level of education or initial opinion influence the outcome of exposure to propaganda[25], as Lazarsfeld already suggested.

Years later, Bernard Berelson and Paul Lazarsfeld's The People's Choice: How the Voter Makes Up His Mind in a Presidential Campaign revealed that the message conveyed in different media formats did not have a direct effect on the audience, but that influence was exerted when the message was conveyed by opinion leaders, thus creating a two-step effect on persuasion[26].

The effect crystallized in 1955 with the study Personal Influence and Joseph Klapper years later suggested that exposure to the media reinforced previous opinions rather than changing them. Klapper also suggested that there were variables in the audience's environment that could alter the outcome of the effect [27]. With this proposal, media manipulation, if any, was conditioned.

Klapper had introduced the Phenomenistic approach. This approach gave us a series of generalities that would mark the study of the effects of the media in reference to the inability of the media to influence the audience by themselves [28].

For the author, a monopoly on propaganda, seen as a single vision represented in the media without response, could only occur if the audience was predisposed to that opinion and if the opinion leaders shared it.

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationKlapper also suggests, as we have seen, that persuasion in the media reinforces previous skills rather than changing them [29]. While the direct effects model gave us a basic Stimulus-Response (S-R) model with a passive audience, Kappler's model gives us a complex Orientation-Stimulus-Reasoning-Orientation-Response (O-S-R-O-R) model with an active audience. This last model of audience is in line with the model of audience proposed by Gabriel Tarde and Robert Parker, where they drew a deliberative and discursive audience.

Kappler was an advisor to the Presidential Commission on Obscenity and Pornography as well as an advisor to several agencies dedicated to the study that television exerts on audience behavior. Also the author worked as a researcher for the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS).

Klapper testified before the National Commission in the United States after the assassination of Robert F Kennedy. The reason for the appearance was to avoid regulations on the media industry on issues such as tobacco, sexuality or violence[30] . Klapper assured the court that the violence represented in the media is not the main cause of crime and delinquency.

Klapper's working life, as well as his effects model, were the subject of suspicion from the beginning. However, Klapper only suggested that in order to analyze the effects of the media it was more necessary to analyze the psychological predispositions, the social context where the message was received, and the belief structure among the audience. The author never spoke of a minimal-effects model[31].

Years later new empirical studies on the media, and on television mainly, would give new models of the effects of media manipulation on the audience, pointing in the opposite direction to that proposed by Klapper.

Even so, one of Klapper's most important contributions was the selective exposure, by which an individual tends to expose himself to media that report information with which he previously communicates. With this element, he pointed out that media manipulation was something that could be developed in a voluntary and chosen way.

This, together with Lazarsfeld's studies that indicated the influence of propaganda based on socioeconomic variables, allowed propagandists to get closer to the social groups chosen as targets.

Selective media exposure depending on personal predispositions is valuable information when designing psychological or propaganda campaigns. Knowing what kind of person uses what kind of media because of what kind of reasons, is the perfect way to be able to achieve the desired effect by the audience through personalized advertising designs.

Back to the remarkable effects

Criticism of the minimal effects model was not long in coming. Authors critical of the model argued that the experiments that came to formulate the minimal effects model were based on surveys and quantitative methods that measured the effects of the means in the short term, and were also based on the observation of changes in a particular position or skill [33].

On the other hand, Paul Lazarsfeld had indicated that the mentality of the radio audience differs from the mentality of the print audience. In this sense, Neil Postman, an American sociologist, points out how television has changed the public discourse.

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationPostman points out that how we communicate affects our way of thinking, the content of thought, and the culture. Postman explains that members of oral cultures think about and communicate issues differently than members of cultures where there is print communication.

In print cultures, the emphasis is on logic, linearity and exposure. Continues Postman, television works with images that evoke emotions; the image has more hierarchy than the plot. The evening news are unrelated and unconnected pieces of information.

As in the mass society, Cartesian linearity has fallen in the presentation of news, preventing the audience from having coordinates that allow them to reflect[34] . For Postman, television responds to the principle of entertainment; even the news is a spectacle.

Television has changed our way of seeing reality[35] . To such an extent has television changed reality that the distinction between entertainment and news has become artificial; everything is part of the television show, interspersed with advertising from the same advertisers[36] .

The mentality of the television audience was more sensitive to the information they received than the radio and print audience. The cognitive process for less capable people is more suggestible through the emotional impact of the images. Therefore, media manipulation is more evident in television viewers.

Media construction of reality

Denis McQuail, a British sociologist and scholar of communication processes, suggests that the mass media have an influence on political and commercial campaigns, on the creation of reality and social norms, on generating social reaction, on provoking institutional changes, as well as cultural changes[37] .

The author believes that the media can be a powerful tool for those who can control it, as it can draw attention to issues that are convenient, while omitting others. The media confers legitimacy, the media are channels of persuasion and mobilization, the media can establish audiences and maintain them, and they offer psychic rewards through uses and rewards.

The author goes on to say that the media is a fast, flexible, and relatively easy tool to plan and control[38] . From World War II to the present day, televised political campaigns point out that in the United States (and by extension to its sphere of influence) they have accepted slogans, blunt images, and emotional appeals as if they were useful information when judging government or lifestyle. But in reality they were only tangible examples of media manipulation.

During the Second World War, posters tried to explain the complexity of war by means of emotional induction [39]. Propaganda repeated over and over again over time and through multiple channels came to shape reality and to limit the belief that there might be other alternatives.

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationImages have become a tool for reporting on events around the world; they can make sense of things. Images create points of reference for the public[41] . The visualization of journalists wearing gas masks in the Persian Gulf War did not influence the reality that there was no gas attack; the image imposed that the attack was real.

And, as reflected above, on the screen the cognitive hierarchy begins with the image, followed by the also visual written headlines, then the audio.

The nature of television impedes depth and reasoning, the images are what permeate the audience. [42] . The main effect of media content is to replace the real world with hyperrealistic simulations of the world. [43] Media manipulation has turned the media into a demiurge of false reality.

A sentence attributed to an Israeli minister of information reads "Without television, a war cannot be won" [44].  This is why McQuail proposes a fourth stage of media effects; the stage of construction of reality.

And within the construction of reality, the constructivist paradigm indicates that each person constructs his reality based on the media content he consumes[46], although it is difficult to escape the general guidelines of the mass media. One of the most terrible effects of the media is that media manipulation is capable of defining the social reality in which individuals live.


Since Gabriel Tarde defined the public mind as an audience, as a psychic community of deliberative media, new theories have been developed about the relationship of the audience to the published or broadcast facts.

Walter Lippmann already realized that the audience's experience with the facts was not direct and that in the communicative process the cognitive development of the public mind could be altered, a fact known today as perception management.

There have been many studies trying to prove that the media has no effect on the audience, other empirical studies have confirmed the opposite. The mimicry between published symbolism and social behavior is an observable and contrastable fact since the beginning of the diffusion of the media system.

That's why the different power groups first try to control the information disseminated in the media, Antonio Gramsci called it cultural hegemony. The Frankfurt School already analyzed in detail the media manipulation and the structure of values.

MEDIA MANIPULATION - mental manipulationTheories showing empirical data on the mimicry between symbolism in the media and society soon came to light. Cultivation theory or Agenda Setting, would show years later how the media system, mainly television, has strong effects on the psychology of the audience.

These theories shape a third model of media effects on the population; Cumulative effects.  This model suggests that the repetition and consistency of central messages through the media system influences the audience, without the possibility of avoiding the messages by changing the communication channel.

Repeated exposure to the same message leads the audience to assume it as their own reality, not artificially created by the media [47] . In this model, the audience is not the focus of attention; the model assumes that the media content is so pervasive that it is impossible to avoid it. This model assumes that there are no direct effects, but that there are long-term and lasting ones [48]. Media manipulation is long-term brainwashing.

These theories of the relationship between communication technologies and population generated the field of study of media ecology [49] . The mind of the audience is one of the most analyzed elements on the face of the earth. To control the public mind is to dominate an entire society through suggestion, coercion is relegated to marginal use with dissent. Media manipulation is going to be exercised in all kinds of media and platforms that emerge from the new technologies. The media manipulation is the mental manipulation of society, and the suggested mind is the one that will accept a false reality as real.

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