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How to Combat Manipulative Media

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Introduction: What is Manipulative Media?

Corrupt political operatives have long used manipulative media tactics to spread disinformation campaigns. Governments, corporations, political parties, rogue regimes, special interest groups, unethical “journalists,” and others have used media manipulation techniques throughout history.

Status-hungry individuals have powerful incentives to get data about the groups they seek to persuade.

Disinformation helps:

  • politicians dominate the public conversation and sway audiences to act in their favor.

  • media manipulators reach people both inside and outside their target audience.

  • elites persuade as many people as possible to advocate for power, economic, and political outcomes on their behalf.

Political media manipulators report and advocate for one side of an issue, as opposed to presenting stories objectively. They scrape data about our emotions, lifestyles, preferences, and search histories to get us to make emotional decisions instead of rational ones.

Once these functionaries possess valuable information about us, the

rest is smooth sailing. They can then use our data to suppress or enhance social movements and influence voting behavior.

These rogue influencers use tools, technology, and emotional appeals to manipulate users into accelerating the distribution of harmful material on other sites.

Cambridge Analytica’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a famous example of this. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed that Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign used Cambridge Analytica’s data to deter Facebook’s Black users from voting. There is no way to know how many millions of Black people did not vote because of disinformation they saw on Facebook that told them to stay home.

Important Critical Thinking Skills for Detecting Manipulative Media

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Analyzing the media and spotting manipulative messages requires sharp critical thinking skills. These skills help us understand the intention and context behind each message.

They may also help us assess how a message may mislead and what its overall impact on society might be.

The more refined our critical thinking skills, the better able we will be to detect manipulative messages in the media. This will help us make more informed decisions about what we consume and share with others.

These decisions should be based on learning and understanding, rather than giving in to efforts that poison how we interpret the arguments we see and hear.

Logical Fallacies Used by Those Who Manipulate Media to Trick People

The following are some of the most common logical fallacies that crooks use to position disinformation campaigns in our newsfeeds.

False Cause Fallacy

A Fallacy of False Cause is the misallocation of causation. It attributes the cause of a phenomenon to something superficial. sa

For example, hate crimes committed against people of Asian descent have risen since Trump called COVID-19 the “China Virus” on Twitter.

Calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” because doctors discovered it in Wuhan mis-allocates causation. It assigns blame to people of Asian descent because the virus’s origin isn’t clear. People worldwide have spread coronavirus, not just Asians.

Bandwagon Fallacy

An argumentum ad populum, or Bandwagon Fallacy, is an unsound and fallacious argument that says something is real or better because most people believe in it.

The prevailing belief until 1492 that the earth is flat didn’t change the fact that it is round.

Appeal to Emotion

An Appeal to Emotion is an effort to win arguments, without facts, logic, or reason, by manipulating the emotions of the audience.

J.D. Vance’s emotional tribute to his family in his book ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ presents his own experience as emblematic of everyone growing up in Appalachia, yet it lacks the unique perspectives of people of color and members of the LGBT community living in the region.

Appeal to Authority

In an Appeal to Authority, one attempts to support their own argument by citing a respected and knowledgeable person’s previous judgment.

Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. However, the dogma of the Republican party of the 1860s differs from the Republican ideology of the 21st century.

Citing Lincoln’s party affiliation to bolster the image of today’s Republicans ignores many liberals’ switch to the Democratic party, and conservatives’ move to the Republican side after Democrat Lyndon Johnson supported the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Hasty Generalization

When one makes a Hasty Generalization, they claim something is true based on an evidence base that is too small.

Straw Man Argument

A Straw Man Fallacy occurs when someone distorts a person’s argument or point, exaggerates it, and then attacks the exaggeration like it was the original claim.

Saying that “Black Lives Matter” equates with “White lives don’t matter” or that “not all lives matter” demonstrates this type of argumentation fallacy.

Begging the Question

The Begging the Question (Circular Reasoning) Fallacy occurs when an argument’s premises assume the truth of its conclusion.

The statement “American meritocracy is legitimate because Harvard scholars say it is,” is an example of this type of fallacy.

Red Herring Argument

A Red Herring is an argument that uses confusion or distraction to lead one away from the truth.

Trump’s statement that injecting disinfectant may cure coronavirus was a Red Herring to divert public attention away from how his administration was handling the pandemic.

How Can We Fight Against Efforts to Engage in Political Manipulation?

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In the age of misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda spreading in milliseconds, it is more important than ever to step out of our own filter bubbles and insist on information integrity.

Disinformation campaigns have become more sophisticated because social media now drives traditional media. In the past, traditional news outlets monopolized what we saw and heard.

Today, social media drives the news. By the time of broadcast on cable news outlets, the reported false information has already spread.

With information spreading at such a furious pace, it's nearly impossible to determine where a piece of information originated. There is often no way to know whether underlying political motives spurred someone to create and spread the content using media manipulation tactics.

There are several ways that you can prevent the spread of disinformation and stop manipulation efforts in their tracks.

Check the sources.

Search for whether any credible and data-driven sources back up the articles, YouTube videos, podcasts, or other forms of communication you encounter.

The fewer credible sources you can find to support the assertions, the more likely it is that the content is false.

Here’s a list of resources you can use to conduct your own fact-checking.

Be skeptical of sensational headlines.

If a headline sounds too sensationalistic, it probably is. Check to see if there are other, more credible platforms publishing the same facts.

Determine whether the author or publisher is credible.

If you see an article from a site or individual whom you don’t recognize or don’t consider reputable, check their credentials to determine whether you should take their assertions seriously.

Conclusion: You Probably Have More Control Over Disinformation and Propaganda Than You Think

Disinformation and propaganda are not new. They date to classical antiquity at least, as evidenced by physical objects like clay tablets. However, the sheer scale at which false information can spread in our era would likely have delighted even Cleopatra.

The internet has made it easier for anyone with a computer and internet connection to publish their own content. This has spurred an explosion in the number of media outlets, making it harder for people to sift through the proverbial “firehose of information.”

Identifying and checking the accuracy and truthfulness of every single piece of content we encounter on the internet can feel overwhelming.

But there is hope! Media manipulation isn’t going anywhere, but each of us can decide whether to turn a blind eye to it or address it head-on.


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