The aim of this guide is to help society and its individuals recognise the misguidance in mass media. In doing so we will see the impact of the misguidance is global, and that we all must apply ourselves to a response which is both systematic and intentional if we are to avoid despair and conflict. Whatever shape our response is, it will definitely involve changing how we consume of mass information from a passive to an active activity, if indeed our response is to be effective. No longer will we become mere audiences, vulnerable to all sorts of enticing messages, but empowered human beings placed back onto its two feet of rational and critical engagement. Each step of this guide will outline a different type of misguidance, how to respond to it, and the platforms on which it is prevalent.
Firstly, why is this guide necessary? There are three reasons:
i) Mass media is all encompassing –it produces messages affecting every area of our lives. News will tell us about our world; social media about our friends and new trends of social engagement; advertising about news products; and entertainment about ourselves (our passions and escapes) and history. That’s on one level. However, there are secondary messages which are subtle in nature, and that are inherent in the messages produced. They include our definitions of happiness, good relationships, politics, history, body image... I cannot think of an area or topic of life and our world that is omitted from the messages in mass media.
ii) Mass media is ubiquitous – the average person in The West views an average of 5000 media messages a day. One can barely image life without it. This means that if mass media does indeed have profound negative effects on individuals and society, which I will argue through this guide, one cannot simply bypass it altogether or find a suitable alternative. We may be able to limit our exposure to it and manage what types of mass media that we use, but we cannot get round it. Mass media is now as much a part of our world as clothes and food. If we are to find a solution to its problems it will either be through changing its content, or protecting ourselves from its misguidance.
iii) Mass media is not driven by truth – the reason why changing its content is unlikely is that the production of mass media is not primarily driven by truth but by financial and ideological incentives. These incentives are not subordinate to truth. Think of the news. Sensational headlines yield more traffic to their websites. Dull news, however informative, simply isn’t worth the news companies’ time and space to publish. This means that our picture of the world and its events will more than likely be misguiding in a way that causes fear and anxiety because it only highlights the extremes. Think also about entertainment. A classic Hollywood movie in the 1930’s, full of song, dance, and innocent romance, seems so boring compared to what film-makers need to produce in order for us to be entertained. Movies now need to be darker, include more graphic violence, be more sexually explicit, be simpler in its humour, and unrealistic in its depiction of both natural and bodily beauty.
So what? What makes all this such a problem? After all, aren’t these just some of the consequences of the liberal world that most people want to live with? Perhaps this just a manifestation of a larger problem of capitalism where profits are sought at huge ethical expense, in this case, truth? Aren’t there more important things to worry about in the world like climate change, pollution, terrorism, poverty, war, etc?
My answer is that the problem of misguidance in mass media exceeds all these problems in both scale and consequence, and the reason why it is not appreciated as such is that it is both an abstract and obscure problem. Problems of social injustice and pollution, for instance, are more or less self-explanatory and vivid. If someone doesn’t understand why child exploitation is wrong, or sex trafficking, or pollution, many would challenge their moral intuition first before actually debating whether these things are wrong or not. Whether exploitation and pollution are morally good or bad is, more or less, a closed question. What is open is how important these problems are relative to each other and each on the scale of their manifestation. Only philosophers will actually challenge this question by using whichever ethical calculus they wish, and even then, ethicists know full well that intuition must trump theory. If their calculus tells them that exploitation is good, they have to dump the calculus and its theory rather than claim that exploitation is considered good because the theory says so.
Misguidance in mass media is the problem of our time because it affects what we believe about everything. It sounds completely innocent, especially because it is a mechanism for liberal values like freedom of expression. Misguidance affects our beliefs. All human actions, except those of impulse and reaction, come from belief. The problem of misguidance is that if the beliefs are wrong, our actions will lead to MISTAKES. What determines whether a belief is right or wrong, true or false? – here metaphysics grants us an intuitive theory of truth. A statement is true or false if and only if it corresponds to reality. ‘Snow is white’ is a true statement if and only snow is in fact white. It’s quite simple really. Say I have a condition of the eye such that the colour white triggers some kind of damage to my retina because of some condition I’ve had since birth. Then my friend tells me that it’s alright to go outside because snow is orange, and I act on that information, I would have made a false belief, and consequently, a MISTAKE.
Debates in practical reasoning and psychology may contend whether beliefs or desires are the final cause that leads to an action. What is not in contention is that belief plays a necessary part (unless the action is of impulse). Beliefs have the power to direct the passions and prevent them from being the sole cause of action. Core to this is the notion of responsibility. Since passions are irrational and arbitrary, we cannot control whether or not we have them. What we can control is whether we allow them to proceed to actions. If we do, and they have immoral consequences, the rational agent is deemed responsible, and it is upon such maxims that our understand of justice stands. There is no justice without responsibility, and there is no responsibility without rationality.
How then do we ensure that we avoid MISTAKES? The simple answer is that our beliefs must be true. Now consider the three reasons given above as to why mass media is our generation’s problem. If mass media communicates messages about all aspects of our lives, and these are messages which we cannot escape, and they are messages which systematically produce misguidance for reasons of profits or ideology, then it is very likely that our lives will be full of MISTAKES. These MISTAKES will include how we spend our money, how we vote, what we believe about ourselves as individuals, what we believe about identities and the identities of others, what we believe about famous people, how public opinion is formed about certain events, what expectations we have about happiness, relationships and friendships, beauty, and the list goes on. The problem of climate change, or pollution, or poverty, is not so much that it goes on, but to what extent people believe that it is is a reality or not. What happens if the media stopped caring about these things. That will be the death of public awareness (certainly of its inertia to find solutions) regarding these problems. We would never know about climate change.
What about politics? If all I read in the newspapers is stories that public services are underfunded then I’m far more likely to believe that this is the defining issue on which I should base my next vote on. In a sense, the newspaper has the power to decided what the public thinks is important or not, regardless of what nature or society actually deems important.
Then there is advertising. If so many of our ads display photo-shopped models and they appear as frequently as they do in the public information space, then I’m far more likely to make judgments about my body image and about others, and forge associations between body image and the product advertised. In time, what is considered normally beautiful becomes unattractive.
Now, the reason why the problem of misguidance is so obscure is that no one is actually doing anything wrong. Newspapers produce sensational news because, well, that’s what we like to read. We also like to watch movies that shock us in their graphics, language, violence, and sex. In fact, think of pornography. A few decades ago it was nothing but close-ups of penetration. Now, any bizarre, unnatural fancy, regardless of whether participants actually enjoy it or not or how young or old they are, are top of the search engines. I used to think watching porn was wrong many years ago. Now I almost feel righteous because I’d watch more ‘old school/ boring porn’ than what most people watch today. Why do porn producers go to these extremes? – because people get bored easily and want to see something more interesting regardless of how realistic or ethical it is.
This is why the problem of mass media is obscure. No one is really to blame. We can’t really blame ourselves for wanting entertainment, and we can’t really blame producers of mass information for producing what is more likely to yield profits. Yet, all the while, misguidance escalates and we, as individuals and society, forge more and more false beliefs and make more and more MISTAKES.
I will give another example but more vivid this time. During my time in pastoral care at university I came across several cases of sexual abuse, and over the years the number of cases rose. Contrary to common conception, only one of the cases involved full-blown rape. All the other instances involved either myself or my colleagues, walking into a meeting room with our warden, sitting next to a policeman, a young man who had hitherto displayed nothing but the most civil and lovely traits, and on the opposite side of the room was often a girl, usually in tears. What was most disturbing was that these lovely boys almost always gave the same claim – ‘I didn’t know’, ‘she never said ‘no’’, ‘I thought she would like it.’ The response in my head would usually be ‘What on earth would make you think she would like that?’ The answer comes to my head whenever I go to schools either to deliver courses and find groups of boys in their lunch breaks watching hardcore porn on their phones. They are given a picture and expectation of sex which they find very entertaining, but is nevertheless completely misguiding and dangerous. I look at the boys across the room in these heavy meetings, ridden with guilt, and saw in their eyes that they meant what they said and showed the level of remorse proportional to the harm they had caused. I found it hard to blame them completely. They just had false beliefs about sex, and it led to devastating MISTAKES.
Now to an example that most people in the UK may relate to. A good friend of mine wanted to vote Leave in the Brexit referendum and would always justify his positions to me as friend. He would not do it in public. When I asked why he said he could not let people know that he actually wanted to vote Leave he said that people would think him an anti-immigrant bigot. I told him that was ridiculous and surely only reflected a small proportion of people on the fringes of society. He told me to think again. After that I paid particular attention to how Leave voters were portrayed in the media, and he was right. From the left and centre news companies that’s almost all we got – ‘look at how intolerant these people are’, ‘look at how stupid they are’, ‘look at how narrowly they think’. It was no surprise that whenever I spoke to Remainers, that’s usually how they talked about Leavers. What did this do to the moderate Leaver? – it made them feel supressed, insulted, and unheard. The result is that many hardened their beliefs and drove them to be more extreme. The same thing happened to right-wing media focusing on problems of EU corruption and immigration. Thus, it was not only the politicians who polarised society (for the British public are generally distrustful of politicians anyway), but we must also acknowledge that the public narrative was largely produced, selected, and steered by mass media. What almost everyone will tell you about that campaign is that the debate was not healthy and that there really wasn’t room in the middle ground to think clearly about both options. Why not? – because those who produce public information had far less incentive to produce healthy news. Juicy news was always going to be more extreme and biased. The same thing happened to America in the Trump election, and is happening around Europe today. Just think about the voter who did not really believe in leaving the EU but voted Leave out of protest. Would they have voted differently if they knew how many Leave voters were paying lip service to Remain to avoid be denigrated as bigots? Would they have done the same if they knew how close the vote actually was? MISTAKES!
So that is the problem of the mass media. It produces much of our beliefs about the world and ourselves; it is not driven by truth; and it leads to enormous MISTAKES at an individual and social level. When we set up ThinkCitizen two close friends told me bluntly that it will never be an influence because people don’t want truth but entertainment instead, to read sensational news, to buy and listen to things that make them feel good about themselves. My rejoinder is always ‘Yes, people do want to be entertained etc, but they don't want to make MISTAKES either. We are now at a point in history where we need to squarely face the cost of our dependence on mass media and its content - unfulfillment, conflict, and despair. Surely, the cost of being entertained should not be this severe on everyone .’
This guide is the sort of thing that I image a person would both want and not want to read. They will want it because it is empowering beyond what conventional education can give. The guide will genuinely put you above the primary persuasions of mass information so that one stops being a passive receiver of information and instead becomes its judge. They will stop saying ‘That’s incredible!’, ‘How interesting!’, ‘How beautiful!’, ‘How terrible!’, and instead say ‘I see what that’s trying to get me to feel and believe about this or that.’
The reason the reader may not want to read this guide is because it will significantly affect their ability to be thrilled and entertained. I say the price is worth paying. It is better to be bored but happy than to be entertained and suffer MISTAKES which lead to all manner of problems – despair, brokenness, social conflict and war, mental illness.
Remember, misguidance is not necessarily intentional and is hardly ever explicitly portrayed. In fact, often wonder why there is so much noise made about fake news. All you need to know is whether it is fake by doing a bit of cross-checking, and that’s it. However, misguidance in mainstream news is far more powerful because it is usually trusted, and the misguidance is far too subtle to detect without hard work. That is why I call this a guide. It will never fully take you to ultimate truth in mass media, but it will point you in the right direction.
See you next week for our first step in the guide.