Feeding the Monster

Mind map on Media Manipulation

Topic: How media manipulation and social media is playing with the human psychology

Reason for selecting:

Recently I read a book. “Trust me, I’m lying” by Ryan Holiday and that opened my eyes to many aspects of life – media manipulation, human psychology, human emotions and how social media has been successful in commoditizing humans. As written in the book and I quote, “Blogs give birth to news, the news give birth to memes which become our cultural preferences, budding stars become our celebrities and THE news become OUR news.” Intrigued, I wanted to dig deep into each of these aspects and understand mass media from mental models point of view. I am writing this assignment to be able to read more on the subject and put forward my thoughts. The reason is selfish which is by writing down; I would probably become more aware of how not to become a commodity of the modern world, myself.

Let’s start.

The sad truth is useful and positive content don’t spread much. And so, all media houses, driven by the greed of incentives, keep on publishing things that are fun, that can go viral, that are negative. Worse, they all publish the same things because digital media has made competition fierce and the one who published first wins. Journalists are making up stuff because everyone else is doing it and nobody is held accountable. Ryan Holiday, in the book, explains how news is made up by people controlling the news and how the innocent commons are subjected to massacre as we are made to believe what is published and shared is true, further fueled by the infamous algorithms of social media which only re-manifests our existing beliefs. This is where our confirmation bias sets in as we unconsciously digest news selectively.

This explanation also finds a way into the spread of fake news. It is difficult to mould a mind when it is old enough and now that most people are on Whatsapp, because of confirmation bias, out of all the news, they see truth only in the fake news.

Ryan Holiday, having worked in the media for long, explains how he and others like him have been making up news and manipulating innocent minds for profits (monetary wins and power wins of a few selected individuals).

A journalist of a big media house will place what he wants to place in a small blog with few readers and having low standards

This will be picked up by a bigger blog

This will be picked up by large media outlets, turning what didn’t exist to a very reality, to our reality discussed in tea stalls

How many times we or even the journalists try to get to the source of the news? We don’t because we are all in the race of coming first. We want to be known and appreciated and copying is the easiest and fastest route to that.  

Also, many a times, we will find a news headline saying, “This happened because of X” when actually a lot of factors go into the happening of X. This successfully takes our attention and limits our ability to think clearly because instantly our mind takes the fastest route of believing that indeed it happened because of X. We don’t try to analyze the situation from different perspectives because that takes a lot of effort. Not just effort in terms of research at that very moment but a culmination of having a multidisciplinary angle due to years of reading and acquiring knowledge. And as our Indian education system goes, how many of us read for our own interest, how many of us are taught to learn subjects in combination rather than in isolation just for the sake of acquiring marks by vomiting on the paper.

It is said that with the advent of digital, passive entertainment has turned into active entertainment. For example, passive TV watching turned into active entertainment with more control in the users’ hands with the advent of OTT platforms. But the way we have become a victim of binge watching, the way we have become opposed to breaks, are we really making choices actively? This is again something to ponder and work on consciously to not feed the monster. 

We are made to believe that consuming news on politics, sports, entertainment etc. which don’t have a significant impact on our daily lives and for our progress are necessary to be ahead of the curve and give us some sort of competitive advantage. It gives us the illusion of caring so that we can get over the guilt of actually not doing anything. But have we ever asked ourselves, “What will happen if I have not watched Game of Thrones and I am the only one in the group who has not watched it?” The question can be difficult to answer if we are a victim of FOMO. And that’s why I was happy when I learnt the concept of JOMO. I realized I have been following that for long but didn’t know the term. Funnily enough, if you can follow JOMO, it can give others FOMO. Probably, THAT’S what we all can aspire for. 

I was also surprised to learn how news also plays with our biological system. Sounds strange right? When our body finds itself in chronic stress (say for example, after a tiring day at work), news triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories release a cascade of glucocorticoid which inhibits the release of growth hormones.

The content might disappear but its consequences don’t. For example, it all started with data manipulation by Cambridge Analytica to influence the US elections. Today, we are not talking about it anymore but the consequences of a polarized nation are stronger than ever before.   

This mainly occurs because our life (the reality) is generally boring but news is exciting. We are unwilling to handle complications. Rolf Dobelli said, “We are not equipped with the sensory organs for relevance. It doesn’t come naturally. News does because it’s new.” Bollwood masala is exciting. We sit down to work on our computer. 15 minutes later, we are on our fifth video of talking babies. Self-control has got nothing to do with it. Not when the clip was deliberately made more attractive with a click-bait title. Not when the length of the video is carefully calibrated to be precisely as long as average viewers are statistically more likely to watch it. These kinds of pieces give us instant gratification by transporting us to a world of imagination, we only wish to aspire. 

Incentive Bias at the centre of media manipulation

If I have to describe incentive bias in one line, I would quote, late American writer Upton Sinclair who said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” One main source of income for news channels and blogs is ads which are funded by government and big businesses. And since you don’t bite the hands that feed you, they don’t have the incentive of asking the right questions. Although blogs earn through ads, the real money lies in selling it to a larger company. This can be done only if one has significant traffic and that comes only when one is constantly publishing. Feeding the blog with more content makes it more valuable, just how platform businesses work and doing so, we sell our attention, hence, feeding the monster. As for these blogs, when speed of publishing stops working, they shamelessly turn into scandals because that’s what sells.

The other way in which users, readers and viewers are deceived is through thumbnail cheating. We see a video with an attractive picture on the thumbnail but that is nowhere to be found when we watch the whole video.

Moreover, we are all a victim of link economy simply because that’s how the algorithm of world’s most popular search engine is designed. It encourages blogs to borrow from each other through back links to appear on the top search results. No verification is being done. They just need to add their commentary, give credits to the source and voila, a new content is developed in no time! Although, the algorithm is taken from the idea of peer reviews in academic research papers to build trust, it is difficult to obtain peer reviews without having created value. Such is not the case with blogs and websites. This way, instead of trust, what gets fuelled is a blame game because the article is adopted so many times that now everyone can say that he/she was not the first one to say it. Now, you dear reader, do your homework to find out the source!

Apart from this, hours are spent to decide headlines which will sell the most. They are twisted to appeal to maximum number of people. Provocative statements ending with a “?” can make a statement look like a lie while also not leading to accountability because that is not a statement after all!

Talking of ad revenues, they come to websites because they have the data about their users by using trackers. According to a study conducted by the Princeton researchers on a million websites, it was found that news websites use the maximum number of trackers.

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The ones which are on the lower end mostly have external sources of income outside ad revenues while for those at the higher end of the spectrum, their main source of income is ads and that’s where the conflict of interest rises! News websites on average have 40 trackers. They don’t have a choice but we do. We have the choice of abandoning them and only consume news selectively from high-quality sources, even if it means paying for them.

The changing paradigm

Recently, I came across a news which said that a lot of multinational companies were stopping their ad spend on TV news channels because of their irresponsible behavior of making every small thing a sensation and not performing ethically. I was very happy to know that but the sad truth was some other companies, equally unethical found their way to cheaper advertisement slots and the channels lost nothing. But I still think that it is important to set examples and it was done quite well!

Now coming to another example of The-Ken, a subscription based news platform which I have subscribed to, it is a perfect example of how journalism can be viewed as a big responsibility. First of all, they don’t talk about politics, controversies and anything that can create polarization. They don’t talk about a startup raising funds but reports the analysis of a startup’s business model to uncover the good and the shaky parts. The website contains deep analysis of business scenarios and deep journalism puts forward the whole picture from all perspectives. Even the comment section is so informative that it’s being used as contribution to add value to the existing article by subscribers who are quite matured, educated and learned. I think that’s because they have been able to target the right set of audience.

The future of media in my view

By this example, I wish to point towards the future of media which is going to be paid, informative and niche blogs where people would be willing to pay, not just to get access to quality knowledge but majorly to be able to cut through the noise, understand the importance of time and not becoming a commodity oneself. Also, I believe opinions will find deeper penetration and awareness will help people to read both sides of the coin. Reporting on any important and deep subject matter would be less of a game of who does it first but who does it more accurately and more intuitively. Journalists will have to become more of storytellers and copywriters who will engage their audience as the span of concentration is going down significantly as time passes by. 

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