The topic of media manipulation is probably one of the most under-examined, yet most influential phenomenon of the digital era. We, as digital media consumers, are bombarded with advertisements, celebrity updates, and viral internet sensations in addition to whatever it is that we may be intentionally seeking when we access social media or news and information outlets.
One major way in which we are subject to manipulation is via the deliberate restriction or complete denial of access to certain information. This is part of the Net Neutrality debate, though it typically receives less attention than the financial implications associated with relinquishing power and control to ISPs. In a state of no Net Neutrality, ISPs can filter out media outlets and can directly influence the way that search engines function. The end result is that we may be cut off from social attitudes, from relevant information about events in the global community, and from ideological cohorts with view which clash with or undermine the desired world-view narrative.
Lets assume complete innocence on the part of ISPs and operate under the assumption that they are not actively attempting to alter public opinion in a deliberate and meaningful way. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt in this regard, it is clear that they do possess such a power (in the absence of any governance or regulation concerning net neutrality) and we will likely be influenced by this phenomenon even if manipulation were not deliberate. And if, in the event of deliberate manipulation, the intended outcome is purely altruistic, which is unlikely as there is no incentive to promote such altruism, it would still be an effort to undermine the autonomy of citizens. Any such manipulation creates a framing effect – which interferes with our ability to judge potential risks, relative payouts, and overall expected utility.1
What if we consider situations in which this kind of manipulation is unmistakably intentional? We have a significant pool of evidence pertaining to information disruption campaigning on the world stage. An example of this is the efforts of the Russian social media groups to influence American democratic elections and to sow discord between already politically polarized American citizens.2 This form of manipulation proves so effective because it is on such a large scale that we perceive it as normal, typical, or an indication of a prevailing world view.
I would term this phenomenon as ideological inflation – an exaggeration or oversimplification of social and political attitudes. Good examples of this might be the idea that all liberal Democrats want to ban all guns or that all conservative Republicans want to shut down Planned Parenthood. While these attitudes are undoubtedly held by some on each end of the political spectrum, these extremes fail to accurately represent the complex nuances surrounding the issues or the diverse attitudes of individuals in either group. Stereotypes and tropes are propped up and perpetuated by media outlets on either side of the aisle and then are used to reframe the issue in the minds of viewers. Instead of providing or promoting a social environment wherein serious issues are discussed and debated by passionate, by reasonable interlocutors, media manipulation serves to distort our world view of others with competing ideologies.
Another serious outcome is social media insulation. This happens when we find ourselves exposed only (or mostly) to others who share our values and world view. This filter bubble3 also produces a framing effect as we are seldom challenged by our peers on our thoughts and opinions, and we are rarely exposed to competing ideologies. This leads to a false, or inflated, estimation of individuals within one’s community, country, or around the world who share the same values.
Of the potential dangers of digital media manipulation, probably the greatest is our cognitive blindness to it’s influence over us. Some manipulations are more obvious. Advertisements are recognized as being targeted at influencing us to spend money on some product or service. But despite our awareness of them and their intended design, we are still affected by them. When we are wholly unaware of a force framing or altering our world view, we are more susceptible to it. For this reason, initiatives to protect Net Neutrality are of crucial importance. Citizens cannot make competent, informed decisions if their access to relevant local and world news is impeded of cut off entirely.
Additionally, we should look for ways to police mis-information and identify fake news. Some sources, such as Snopes.com and Politifact.com, have been doing this with much success already. An organization called New Knowledge has undertaken the mission of “defending public discourse.” While such initiatives are admirable, it is still ultimately the responsibility of each individual to verify sources and investigate skeptically. We must push against our filter bubbles and reach out to individuals with differing political opinions and world views. Perhaps most importantly, we must be willing to evaluate ourselves critically and accept that we are not immune to cognitive blindness toward forces which frame our perception of reality.