Instinctually, humans are driven to find others who share similar views and to relate with those other humans. This innate desire to relate can be seen on many different planes: social groups, shared interests and dislikes, political ideology and opinion. It’s healthy and normal to have an inclination towards others that agree, but it can be easily taken advantage of in many ways: like gossip as a means of bonding, but namely in the media. There are many media platforms used in our day to day lives, and each make a good use out of their knowledge of human psychology. Social media uses specific algorithms to provide content that the user would likely enjoy. News channels direct their messages towards specific groups of people. Newspapers vary their messages depending on the region to which they are delivered. Every media source has an agenda.
A group of Stanford professionals explored the extent of propaganda in the media and its implications. They coined the term “the Dune Affect,” (after the movie Dune) explaining that “those who control and have access to media have access to and potential control of public opinion” (Media’s Use of Propaganda to Persuade People’s Attitude, Beliefs, and Behaviors). They found that often, the media’s use of propaganda is subliminal. Generally messages aren’t said overtly, but delivered in a way that evokes different thoughts and feelings so that the reader believes that they constructed the idea themselves. This way, media corporations are less likely to be called out on any messages delivered in the text. Additionally, things that aren’t favorable to the cause and agenda of the company can be misconstrued or completely omitted. In doing so, outlets contribute to the polarization of public opinion.
This lack of diversity in portrayal gives readers a filtered view of the issue at hand. From one news channel, social media account, or newspaper to the next, each article or post about the same circumstance is illustrated under a different light. The Stanford group recognized this trend, and studied the media’s portrayal on the development of French nuclear power versus the portrayal of that of Pakistan. They hypothesized that “propaganda would exist in the American media that portrays the powerful nuclear technology of France significantly more positively than that of Pakistan.” (Media’s Use of Propaganda to Persuade People’s Attitude, Beliefs, and Behaviors). This is because the existing relationships between France and the United States had been generally positive, and with the development of NATO ties were only growing stronger. In relation to Pakistan, however, there had been conflict over support for Israel and the US did not benefit from a strong Pakistan. Therefore, the French development was displayed as an act of strength, and even diplomacy: “The explosion placed France in a better position to conclude agreements with the world’s atomic powers leading to nuclear disarmament” (“France Sets Off A-Bomb in the Sahara” 13). On the other hand, Pakistan was painted as a nation not worthy of nuclear power due to their instability, and further established as a global threat by manipulating quotes to insinuate ties to Islamic terrorist nations. Certain articles misconstrued a quote from the Iranian Foreign minister congratulating Pakistan, despite the Pakistani government repeatedly making clear that they do not intend to share their technology: “From all over the world, Muslims are happy that Pakistan has this capability.”
So in the face of extreme and normalized propaganda, the question rises: how should media propaganda be combated, and who is at chief responsibility to make changes? Facebook is pursuing a range of new measures, such as “providing additional context on newsfeed articles, with information on publisher, dissemination and additional perspectives.” (Public opinion and the social media crisis). In relation to digital political advertising, US lawmakers have proposed the Honest Ads Act, obligating medias to follow “standard rules on advertising transparency” (Public opinion and the social media crisis), but critics worry that it could be too limiting in regulating content supporting and opposing election candidates without considering more general content. Others have suggested that companies make an effort to promote calmer content with pop-ups to link away from more hostile content, but this worries others with the question of who gets to be the “arbiters of truth”. So while outlets could and should make small efforts to be less biased and provide more education on certain subjects rather than opportunity for readers to buy into a certain message, the ultimate solution lies in the hands of the consumers. Ultimately, companies realize that increasing polarization with charged messages will bring in more revenue, as readers try to further distance themselves from the “other side” and find more and more media content to relate to. Consumers need to educate themselves on what propaganda is, the devices that corporations use to implement it, and how to search for truth rather than validation.