Tag Archives: media

The Labelling of a Mass Society

I don’t know about you, but I know that I don’t consider my perspective of the world as identical to everyone else’s. I don’t interpret information in the same way, and I certainly don’t come to the same conclusions. And yet when society is addressed in terms of cultural studies, and especially in the study of propaganda, we begin to hear the term “the masses.”

What is meant by mass society? Propaganda is often defined as a way of manipulating “the masses.” But with this description comes the assumption that each person is receiving and responding to information in an identical way. Given, it is valid that propaganda campaigns address people in this way. But the use of the term isn’t limited to this argument.

When we hear about “mass media” and “mass culture” as they appeal to a mass society, we are essentially being told that within society there is this uniformity, this simplistic structure that simply doesn’t exist. While there are definite similarities in terms of lifestyle (sources of information, entertainment, basic behaviors and decisions), this in itself does not mean that each individual is one and the same.

When analyzing any given society, it needs to be considered that each individual makes decisions and assumptions based on personal experiences and beliefs. Simply because the sources of media and culture are generally similar, this doesn’t mean that people derive meaning in the same way. One needs to consider differences in personality and experience, both of which inevitably affect how people look at the world.

This also applies to the perception of perceived enemies, considering that in wartime the generalization of an enemy’s people is a common way of removing the humanity from those people. It is interesting that this removal of humanity extends to the interpretation of our own culture.

It all comes down to the issue of reception…

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A Perspective of Public Opinion

Public opinion polls in themselves don’t mean much. But they can provide insight into the way the government relates to the public.

Professor Justin Lewis made an interesting argument for this in the filmConstructing Public Opinion: How Politicians and the Media Misrepresent the Public (clip below), which is based on his book by the same title.

The premise of his argument was that the polls are designed as a way for politicians to respond to the needs of the public, which they clearly don’t do. One reason for this is that the way polls are worded. Lewis suggests that people tend to support vague conservative themes, but shift to a liberal perspective in terms of specific policies. For example, people will support a business’s right to control its use of land. However, when government regulation is framed as part of environmental protection, people will generally favor this policy.

Another argument is that most people are more liberal than the supposedly liberal politicians. Issues of education, health care, the environment, and poverty are generally considered important to the public. However, even the Democratic politicians tend to favor more conservative policies (note Clinton’s passage of NAFTA.)

And when these issues are addressed by the media, they are addressed in ways that favor conservative solutions. For example, when traffic becomes a problem, the solution isn’t to improve public transportation, but rather to build more roads or improve technology that makes traffic updates readily available.

The way that tax dollars are spent is one area where this becomes most evident. The funding devoted to the military is exponentially higher than that devoted to these social issues. At the time the film was made (2001), the amount of spending was equivalent to that during the Cold War. That number is more than likely higher today. The next leading spender was Russia (a U.S. ally,) and even when potential enemies’ spending was combined, it was outnumbered by the U.S. and its allies by 33:1.

These were definitely valid points. The way that tax dollars are spent is essential to understanding whether public interest is being addressed. And clearly the way polls are worded is going to affect their outcome.

Of course, Lewis did not address the fact that polls themselves are inaccurate and do not address the degree to which a person holds any given belief. Or that the selection of people being polled might have favored a certain group. Also, he naturally, like anyone else, selected information that supported his claim (who knows what media coverage was omitted.)

However, the perspective is at least worth considering as a study of propaganda and the increasing rift between the public and the elite.

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The Nature of Dichotomies

One noticeable pattern when it comes to formulating an argument is the use of binary thinking. In its most extreme it boils down to an “us versus them” mindset, at its least as “both sides” of an issue.

This is something that I know I’ve been guilty of. It’s probably impossible not to be. How often are political issues framed as conservative versus liberal, or Republican versus Democrat? In the mainstream media, one might argue almost exclusively. Clearly it isn’t this simple–there are always more than two ways of looking at an issue. And even between any two perspectives there is a spectrum.

This isn’t a new revelation. But at the same time, it’s difficult to perceive the world in such a complex way. Social psychologists have suggested some possible reasons for this. One is the need for self-image maintenance–the need to feel individual or unique, or in cases of prejudice, to boost self-esteem. Another reason is simply the need to sort information in a way that can be processed quickly. Easier to come to conclusions based on two possibilities than, say, a potentially infinite number of possibilities that would be involved otherwise.

But what happens when the majority of opinions are overlooked? It’s not surprising that people feel alienated and misrepresented by what is considered mainstream. And no wonder people are conflicted. How can we expect otherwise?

A set of dichotomies is applied to so many of the topics we hear about. You’re either for or against, say, abortion. Or war. And that’s what gets reported. The same thing when it comes to countries. It’s the U.S. versus whoever the given enemy is at the time. By overlooking commonalities, the humanity is removed from an entire group of people. And this is no way to resolve a dispute.

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An Exercise in Framing

Okay…this isn’t the most PC way of presenting this argument, but I think it makes a valid point. Anyone who has ever taken a shot at editing film or video knows how easy it is to manipulate content. Simply by selecting where to cut (and how to make the cut as subtle as possible), information can be selected in a way that supports one’s argument.

Videos like this probably aren’t new to most people. But by the same token, is it as easy to recognize this when watching “fact-based” information? The evening news isn’t supposed to operate in this way. But to fit stories in between commercials and into a given time slot, it’s impossible not to.

And what about documentary film? That’s clearly not immune to this either, although there are people who believe that the medium was designed to communicate “the truth.” While some sources are more obvious than others about it, it’s more or less impossible not to frame information in a way that is to some extent personal.

In terms of propaganda, it’s not that uncommon for one source to use their enemy’s propaganda in a self-serving way. For example…

Exhibit A: During World War II, Frank Capra was commissioned to make the Why We Fight series…a collection propaganda films supporting the war effort. At one point, Capra uses clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film The Triumph of the Will (which was originally edited in a way that made Hitler into a god-like hero) to show Hitler as the dangerous and violent dictator that he was.

Exhibit B: Of the slew of anti-Michael Moore films that have been made, one thing that many of them have in common is the way they select clips that make Moore seem ignorant, obnoxious, and self-involved (similar to the way he frames the powerful and wealthy, more often than not a key member of the Republican party.)

The list goes on.

It all come back to the idea that words taken out of context lose their meaning, and that when considering the validity of any argument, what’s left out is just as important as what isn’t.

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Constructing the Truth

I leave a lot out when I tell the truth.  The same when I write a story.”

                                                                                          -Amy Hempel

 

Is the truth still the truth once it has been edited?  Every day we are presented with an abundance of information.  We read it, we observe it, we watch it on TV.  This is where we receive our cues on how to function effectively in the world.  And we expect these cues to be, for the most part, true.

 

Often times they are.  We don’t turn left on red.  We add the right amount of flour.  We leave our message after the tone.  This system works.  Why on earth would we question it?  But then there are the things that run beneath the surface, the things that can’t be reinforced by our own observations and behaviors.   

 

These are the cases when we rely on outside information the most, whether it be from the media, academia, the government, or the general powers that be.  We expect these sources to know what they’re talking about, and even further, to be looking out for the public’s best interest.

 

Of course, information can be deceiving.  We interpret it based on our personal biases and assumptions about the world.  And we remember it in the same way.  In a recent New York Times article, Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt explain this phenomenon:

 

The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.”

So essentially, what we remember can be considered memories of memories of memories, repeating as conductive of the number of times recalled, and in turn reducing our ability to examine them critically.  Self-deception is something that we all experience, often without realizing.  Is a fish story still a lie if we don’t recognize our distortion of the truth?

This extends to the information we receive from other people.  Of the numerous complaints about media bias, governmental deception, and corporate control, whether framed as conservative, liberal, or otherwise, the primary concern is that the public is not receiving the truth.  And this is huge.

But then again, what is “truth?”  Is “the” truth different from “a” truth?  Is truth the same as reality, or are these two completely separate concepts?  And in any case, is truth with a capital “T” even a tangible, plausible construct that we can observe and understand?  More on this.

When we receive information from outside sources, we receive it in a very fragmented way.  First of all, we need to trust that our source got the story straight.  Then, we need to trust that they are remembering it in its entirety.  This is something that is extremely difficult, if not impossible.  Because really, these sources are thinking in terms of their own biases, sorting details based on what they find important.

Of the number of stories that could potentially be reported by the press, it has been said that 75% are never printed by the average local media, with a much higher percentage for national media.[i]  So what’s left out?  Why is it left out?  And is it important in the broader scope of being well-informed?

Then there is documentary film.  Critics of the genre often argue that ethical “rules” for filmmaking require “objectivity,” or the presentation of “both” sides of an argument in an unbiased way (this is why Michael Moore is often discredited as a documentary filmmaker.) 

First off, what is meant by “both” sides?  Where did these sides come from?  For any given issue there are likely to be multiple perspectives.  The belief that “black and white” analyses are accurate and thorough is extremely misleading.  I can’t think of anything that doesn’t have some grey area, and generally “black” and “white” are two perspectives that lie on either side of a spectrum.

Secondly, is it possible to be unbiased?  Documentary films present information as perceived by a specific ideology.  Whether depicting historical events or attempting to persuade, this information is presented in a way that is relevant to the ideology of the filmmaker.  Certain details are inevitably going to be left out.  And even inadvertently, certain details are going to be overlooked entirely.  Why did the filmmaker select the sources they did?  Are these sources credible?  Why is the footage edited in the way that it is?  And of the hours of footage that were likely recorded, why was this hour or two chosen? 

The more these questions are considered, the more a tangible argument can be identified from the source.  And often, this argument is suggesting that this is the truth. 

So, of what is the truth?  Is it objective fact?  Or can there be subjective truths that exist as a microcosm of the greater whole (in other words, this is a truth that is relevant to this particular perspective?)  If this is the case, then each merit granted to any given argument qualify as a truth about the issue being addressed, combined with the other truths that dissenting opinions hold.  This can get confusing and nonsensical very quickly.

Are truth and reality one and the same?  Or can reality be socially constructed, serving as an assumption of what the truth is?  What each of us sees as real is naturally going to contain some degree of fallacy.  And if a society operates under these fallacies, then they inevitably become real to the people within that society.  They serve as the cues by which people make their decisions.

Take Soviet Russia for example (or any society operating under heavy propaganda for that matter.)  History itself was falsified to benefit an ideological agenda, but to the people studying it, this was history, and it became real to them.

I know I shouldn’t trust what I see.  And I know to an exponentially greater degree I shouldn’t trust what I hear.  Because I personally am going to filter that information in a way that makes sense to my perspective, and I am going to unconsciously remember that information in a generalized way as a result.  Then, if I share that information with someone else, who knows what will be missing.

Ultimately, it’s like a game of telephone.  While both deliberate and unconscious omissions still leave part of the original whole, is this still credible?  And is it truthful? 


[i] Pratkanis and Aronson in Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion—note that this news includes anything from spelling bee results to international armed conflicts.

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