The Media Manipulation is Real

Our human operating system is vulnerable to belief-based hacks and it’s being exploited at a scale humans have rarely ever seen before.

Over thirty years ago I took an advanced undergraduate class in crisis management in public relations. I don’t remember too much about the class, but what I do remember is pretty frightening. It taught us exactly how to manipulate public opinion. And it was taught by a successful PR exec who had returned to teaching after a career influencing (spinning) messages we are all familiar with… one of the most memorable was the Tylenol scare.

Here’s how it goes: If you want to spin a message and manipulate people, hit them on the level of beliefs. Not on the level of logic. Craft messages that target emotions, and align to “god” words that evoke positive identification. Attach “devil” words to the thing you want to distance from and discredit.

This is a powerfully effective shortcut to manipulating public opinion. It creates a very useful polarization dynamic in large groups, and is a proven way to influence people.

And there is a technique to it. We were taught how to find the beliefs of an audience — in this class it was the masses who were the target of manipulation — affectionately known as “Joe and Mary Sixpack.” We were taught to craft our soundbite messages for them in terms that fourth-graders would understand. Even if they had plenty of education. Complex words invoke thinking, not emotion.

Joe and Mary were talked about in pejorative terms; powerless, non-thinking pawns who were to be fed a carefully crafted story to generate a specific outcome. We learned how to use demographic data to get inside their heads and a prescribed recipe for targeting messages to trigger people.

That was thirty years ago. I’ve since been in and around the media business, in some of the largest media companies in the world. The practice is alive and well. I can say I am deeply disappointed in how some of those companies have acted with hidden intent. I am also proud to be a part of those that did not.

And now, with all of the data available, and the ability to micro target messages, you can imagine how effective this approach is today. It’s not a conspiracy theory that we are all being manipulated by people in power or people who have something to gain. It’s a fact, there are proven techniques and they were taught in colleges before the Internet touched consumers.

The effect now is that modern people are endlessly subjected to highly targeted, industrial-grade gaslighting.

Why do I write this today? Because I am hyper-aware of the extent of the manipulation we’re all experiencing. Our country’s people have bought into this biased, polarized reality we’re being presented, hook line and sinker. We are mindlessly accepting the agenda-driven manipulations that are hacking our opinions… bypassing our intelligence. We’re being instilled with fear, hate and anger because some media company, politician, PAC, or party benefits from triggering us.

More fear leads to more media dollars. More polarization leads to more votes. This is not a conspiracy theory. This is how it works.

Intelligent, educated people are believing the manipulation and repeating the mindless soundbites written (as we were taught in school) to be understandable by someone with a fourth grade education.

Our personal integrity has been breached and we are all compromised to some degree, with soundbite viruses hacking our operating systems at the root level.

What’s the answer?

First of all we have to see it. In the 60’s it was all about challenging authority. In the 20’s it’s now about challenging soundbites and sources. The way we do that is by seeking data. What are the REAL facts? What are the best sources? How can we put those in context to understand them? If you are not building your own perspectives and opinions on facts derived and interpreted from original sources, I guarantee you’re a pawn in someone’s intentional spin.

Secondly, we have to be open to what we find. Beliefs are hard to change. It’s hard to admit we’ve been used, or that we’ve had a perspective that we now disagree with. It’s even harder to dig underneath those beliefs and change them. Especially when our manipulators have been so good at polarizing us to believe the “other side” is evil. Hint: if beliefs include a lot of black/white, right/wrong thinking, that’s a sign of effective manipulation.

Third, check beliefs against core values. Values are harder to manipulate.

So, here we are, heading into elections. The manipulation machines are going full-tilt, generating agenda-driven spin to trigger us to act in their best interest. Not ours. Real humans… people who would otherwise be acting on their core values of kindness, empathy, a drive for happiness for ourselves and others — are suffering from fear, anger and hate. We’re blocking friends and becoming more and more polarized. We’re pissed at “them” and are completely convinced “they” are the problem.

Once you see it you can start to change. Once you understand this media manipulation is all intentional, that it’s carefully crafted to trigger you in order to deliver some power or money to someone who is pulling your strings, you may even get a little bit pissed.

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