“I retweeted a story about President Biden requiring the VA to withhold benefits from unvaccinated veterans, saying ‘if true, this is insane.’ The story and website is obviously satire and makes a powerful point. President Biden’s executive orders about COVID-19 have been classic examples of government overreach and these days the unbelievable has become reality.”
The parody included fake quotes attributed to Biden:
“You are willing to fight and die for your country. You are willing to take a bullet in the head for next to nothing. Get blown to bits over in Afghanistan. But you won’t let us pump some mRNA molecules into your arm?” the president continued. “It’s time to get real. Some of you are behaving like some real wise guys here, some real dummies. Wiseguy dumb-dumb boys, as my father used to say. Enough is enough. So sit down and get the dang shot. Do what we tell you to do and continue your service to this great country. Or go without your healthcare benefits. The choice is yours.”
Delaware Ohio News warns viewers that everything “on this website is made up.” Nevertheless, people mistook the report for real news, expressing their disgust with the phony veterans vaccination decision. Here’s a screenshot:
This story emerged on the day an article by Michael Bugeja appeared on the Poynter news site about Americans being unable anymore to tell the difference between news and opinion.
A Media Insight Project survey found only 43% of respondents being able to easily sort news from opinion in online-only news or social media. They were more confident differentiating news from opinion in local TV news, “which usually contains no formal commentary.” Even when a news publisher labeled opinion as such, many people still could not tell the difference.
In the interview I warned, “Read before you retweet!” Any person with a constituency has an added obligation to check the validity of the source before affirming what might turn out to be an embarrassing topic or fake post. Parody takes no prisoners. While Democrats were the target of the parody, the piece ensnared mostly Republicans who believed it to be true.
Founded in 1851, the newspaper rose in prestige through the decades, beginning with coverage of the Titanic in 1912 and continuing with publication of The Pentagon Papers in 1971, changing the course of history and helping establish First Amendment freedoms in the process.
As of August 2021, the Times listed 16 op-ed columnists, including Maureen Dowd, Thomas L. Friedman and Paul Krugman.
Arguably, these and other columnists have shaped the newspaper’s reputation as much as the phalanx of reporters on the ground around the world, with many Americans still believing the Times is a bastion of liberal thought.
Media Bias/Fact Check rates the newspaper as moderately left of center, with highly factual reporting “considered one of the most reliable sources for news information due to proper sourcing and well-respected journalists/editors.” The analysis did find false claims in reportage with timely corrections made as soon as new information was available. Further, the site adds, “failed fact checks occurred on Op-Ed pages and not straight news reporting.”
The Times also was noted for its efforts on impartiality. For years it hired independent public editors to address newsroom bias. In “Why Readers See The Times as Liberal,” Liz Spayd, the sixth and last public editor, recommended “leaving editorials on the editorial page, banning campaign ads from the home page,” and diversifying political values in the newsroom.
Having the role was a sign of institutional integrity, and losing it sends an ambiguous signal: Is the leadership growing weary of such advice or simply searching for a new model?
I am going to recommend that model — an opt-in newsletter for anyone willing to pay for op-eds. I am focusing on the Times because the newspaper already is moving in that direction. The model works for any major newspaper with a digital website.
Fact or factoid?
Many Americans do not know the difference between news and opinion.
A Media Insight Project survey found only 43% of respondents being able to easily sort news from opinion in online-only news or social media. They were more confident differentiating news from opinion in local TV news, “which usually contains no formal commentary.” Even when a news publisher labeled opinion as such, many people still could not tell the difference.
Miller detailed efforts to delineate news from opinion, such as labeling and page design. She cited an editorial page editor explaining to the audience that op-ed writers are “paid to opine” and a content director videotaping interviews with columnists about their opinions.
All nice. All ineffective.
The situation has become alarming in recent years. A report by the Pew Research Center, “Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News,” tested people’s ability to “recognize news as factual — something that’s capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence — or as an opinion that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”
The study found that a majority of Americans could identify three of the five statements as news or opinion. “But this result is only a little better than random guesses. Far fewer Americans got all five correct, and roughly a quarter got most or all wrong.”
That was published on Sept. 6, 2021. The Times front page that day had comprehensive reports on a new abortion law in Texas, COVID-19 deaths, Afghan refugees, a Napoleonic general, and Nicaraguans who fear President Daniel Ortega — hardly content of a left-wing Democratic mouthpiece. But that is precisely what a federal appeals judge believed about the Times and The Washington Post (among others) in a dissenting opinion about an unrelated defamation case.
To combat such stereotypes, some newspapers have taken steps beyond labeling and design considerations. For instance, The San Diego Union-Tribune has a “News vs. Opinion” site, defining a news story, an editorial, a column, an analysis, a letter and an op-ed.
The Chicago Tribune responded last year to reader complaints with a multi-pronged approach, labeling op-eds “Tribune Voices,” developing headline standards for commentary, and revising the design of print pages with all columns in one place.
“Finally,” wrote then editor-in-chief Colin McMahon, “we are experimenting with other callouts we may add as we strive to be as transparent as possible with readers about what we do — particularly amid what is by all accounts a raw and hyperpartisan political environment.”
McMahon stepped down Aug. 10, 2021, “after a challenging 18 months at the helm of Chicago-based Tribune Publishing’s flagship newspaper.”
Every newspaper is experiencing challenging times, in part, because people increasingly do not believe legitimate news. Many Americans associate newsmakers, events—and even the pandemic—with partisan politics.
Consumers get free political news from websites, blogs and social media. That diet has consequences.
It’s time to opt in.
The case for newsletters
The New York Times has three types of email newsletters: briefings, personalized alerts, and subscriber-only. Briefings are free but point to the Times’ paywall. Personalized alerts build viewership in the same manner, attracting people passionate about a topic, writer or trend.
Some 19 out of 50 Times newsletters are now available only to subscribers. Nieman Lab staff writer Sarah Scire quoted Alex Hardiman, chief product officer at the Times, promoting newsletters because they attract people who “are far more likely to pay and to stay.”
Opinion writers reportedly are the anchor of newsletters, incentivizing recruitment and retention of subscribers.
Krugman, in fact, is mentioned as a particularly valuable asset to the newsletter format. You can find his columns in newsletters and on the Times’ digital website.
The Times should make one more adjustment to its model, removing Krugman and other opinion writers from the digital edition and including them only as opt-in newsletter headliners.
No doubt Krugman et. al. would dislike the option as it diminishes influence. That’s the point here. By all means, retain op-ed writers in print editions because readers readily can distinguish viewpoints from news.
This reverses a common marketing strategy that aligns viewpoints of columnists with the perceived psychographics of the target audience. This practice has blurred the line between news and opinion, exacerbated now because some current and former opinion page editors operate as digital engagement editors.
In “It’s time to rethink the opinion section,” media reporter Chris M. Sutcliffe makes the case for change when voices of columnists undermine reportage, often because news outlets promote commentary on social media.
“There is considerable incentive for columnists to be controversial or deliberately strident on some arbitrary issue, because they are rewarded for driving views,” Sutcliffe writes. “That controversy may be good for newspaper businesses in the short-term. However, when it undermines trust in the news side of the house, it undermines the business as a whole.”
In sum, newspapers should adopt all of the methods cited here:
Fact-check op-eds and require corrections for any fabrication, half-truth or exaggeration.
Survey audiences to see if they can tell the difference between news and opinion.
Create stand-alone digital and print pages, defining a news story, an editorial, a column, an analysis, a letter and an op-ed.
Clearly label op-eds, using “Opinion:” or “Guest Essay:” as the first words in the headline so that the term also appears in social media links.
Revise the design of the website and print page so that columnists are clustered in one place.
Hire or assign audience engagement editors with reporter rather than opinion credentials.
Consider an opt-in newsletter for op-eds, removing columnists from digital but not print editions.
Society and social media are awash with opinion, and we are paying the price, with people no longer believing in democracy, science and each other. Publishers need to do more so journalism regains its lost allure and people new respect for the demanding, dangerous and yes, impartial, jobs of reporters.
Otherwise, the lack of trust and perceived bias will taint reputations and decimate subscriptions.
Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences, is author of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press) and Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis)
Fake news involves sources, commentators and journalists disseminating lies. Datafication involves algorithms and social media that affirm preconceptions rather than inform us. Mass surveillance involves covert technologies that mine our data and track us.
Grech and multiple authors document the impact of falsehood on our psyche. “Readers are challenged to question their own role in perpetuating certain narratives and to also understand the lived context of people on all sides of a given debate.”
In recent years we have lost trust in government, democracy, elections, science, media, vaccines and each other. America’s 600,000 COVID-19 deaths and the Jan. 6 insurrection stand as testament to consequences.
“The Big Lie” typically refers to the claim that former President Trump won the 2020 election in a landslide. He garnered 74 million votes, which eclipsed Barack Obama’s popular vote record; but President Joe Biden did better, with a staggering 81 million votes.
My book chapter, “Fact to Fake: The Media World as It Was and Is Today,” discusses how journalism contributed to big lies, with outlets downsizing newsrooms and investing in partisan “analysts” rather than reporters.
We have not yet lost trust in business, the lifeblood of a capitalist system, providing social mobility, wealth and well-being to millions. Nearly two-thirds of Americans still trust business, conferring to CEOs “a pivotal new role to play in rebuilding public trust in information and bridging the United States’ growing partisan divide.”
Nevertheless, business leaders worry that our culture of lies eventually will undermine capitalism.
According to an Industry Week op-ed, “Living in the Age of the Big Lie,” we face “an era of unprecedented public dishonesty, blurring the lines between fact, opinion and noisy speculation. This is bad for America and American business: Democratic capitalist societies require truth and transparency for their institutions to remain viable.”
Stephen Gold, CEO of the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation, warns that social media lies erode corporate stock value. Worse, he adds, “When people see no moral obligation to be honest, they will use deceit to undermine businesses with policies or practices they oppose.”
Why do people lie?
Typically they do so to avoid embarrassment, escape punishment, spare others of hurt or embarrassment, and avoid confrontation. They also resort to falsehood to benefit financially, personally, romantically and professionally.
For more than 25 years, at Ohio University and later at Iowa State, I surveyed media ethics students about why they lie.
Falsehoods have consequences. Small lies lead to bigger ones; half-truths and exaggeration mislead the public. Details of a lie change with each telling, but the truth remains the same.
Keeping a lying journal
My students keep “a lying journal” with these instructions:
For a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others.
Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you.
Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet or appropriate way).
In your journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.
On average, students underestimate the consequences of their own lies but overreact when they catch others in lies. They tell some 36 lies per week and catch others in lies about 11 times. They are tempted to lie but tell the truth a mere six times per week.
In anonymous comments, students share experiences.
“Throughout the lying exercise,” one student writes, “I realized I lie a lot without even noticing. At first, it was hard to catch myself lying, but as the week went on, I paid more attention to what I was saying and what others were saying to determine if they were lying to me.”
Another student notes, “One thing I learned from this exercise is I do not think about telling a lie before I do. The only reason I caught myself in the last week was because of this exercise. Usually, I would not have stopped and told the truth.”
Take the lying journal challenge and see how often you lie — face-to-face and digitally — in one week. Then track the consequences of those falsehoods, half-truths, exaggerations and white lies.
You may make important self-discoveries.
We all have the obligation to restore truth in society. Just as little lies eventually lead to bigger ones, small truths lead to significant ones that enhance character and career.
With sexual assaults, racism and anxiety spiraling on college campuses, such warnings are needed now more than ever, argues Michael Bugeja.
By Michael Bugeja, Copyright 2021 by Inside Higher Ed
YUKIPON/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES PLUS
I know what you’re thinking: we’ve covered trigger warnings for more than a decade, and you don’t need a refresher. Some of us use or refuse to use them, and you can find reasons to do either.
Pro-warning rationales: they prepare students for content that might distress them. Students are still responsible for the material, and we can best solve individual issues during office hours, one on one. We cannot risk classroom disruptions with students crying and leaving class while others espouse ignorant or hateful views.
Con-warning rationales: they coddle students, who need to be exposed to challenging topics. You cannot excuse some while requiring others to know the material. Disruptions are a fact of life. We shortchange students deleting controversial content from lectures and lesson plans.
Indeed, a mental health pandemic (Links to an external site.) is occurring on America’s college campuses, exacerbated by COVID-19. Recent statistics show an estimated 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed with or treated for a mental illness. Worse, 73 percent of students with mental health conditions have experienced a mental health crisis while on campus.
According to a 2015 report (Links to an external site.) by the National Coalition Against Censorship, trigger warnings are defined as alerts to students that course material might be emotionally upsetting or offensive. The coalition states the origins were associated with content about sexual assault but now include “materials touching on a wide range of potentially sensitive subjects, including race, sexual orientation, disability, colonialism, torture and other topics.”
The organization also notes that requests for trigger warnings often come from students and that many (but not all) educators believe warnings have an adverse effect on academic freedom.
Another report (Links to an external site.) by the American Association of University Professors also states that trigger warnings are a threat to academic freedom: “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual.”
Then there is the 2016 letter (Links to an external site.) by John Ellison, dean of students at the University of Chicago, which sparked a national discussion about intellectual safe spaces. “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
Some evidence supports his stance. A 2019 study (Links to an external site.) published in Clinical Psychological Science suggests that trigger warnings do little to reduce stress in the classroom. Experiments exposed students to graphic videos, and some students were shown a trigger warning about the contents being disturbing while others did not view the warning. Afterward, participants reported emotional distress. They responded similarly whether or not they saw a trigger warning. Researchers concluded that trigger warnings had little effect on stress levels.
So why am I all in?
Measuring distress in a clinical experiment is one thing; encouraging discussion about distressing topics over an entire semester is another. Warning an incoming class about the absence of intellectual safe spaces is one thing; providing those spaces is another. Concerns about threats to academic freedom is one thing; exercising freedom responsibly is another.
Trigger warnings are as much about class discussion as graphic content. Professors who use or respect the use of trigger warnings typically are on alert about risks of discussing distressing content or reiterating racial slurs. They approach those conversations with sensitivity and decorum. Others who do not have been suspended (Links to an external site.) or fired (Links to an external site.).
Further, reports and studies conducted years ago fail to consider the audiovisual and multimedia nature of today’s engaged classroom. We show a lot more than PowerPoints. As noted earlier, we employ video, audio and multimedia platforms that recreate and, at times, reactivate intense experiences.
A case in point: in my media ethics class, we discuss how bystanders with mobile phones are changing attitudes about race with on-the-scene videos of discrimination and brutality. Those videos have had more impact in society than many news reports. Students also explore timelines of Black deaths at hands of law enforcement, like one the BBC recently published (Links to an external site.).
Previously cited demurrals about trigger warnings have one flaw: they indirectly affirm the professor’s viewpoint rather than the student’s.
Campus crime alerts do the opposite. When my institution issues such an alert, it begins with a warning: “Any recipients of this notice who have been a prior victim of sexual misconduct or assault should be aware the following message could invoke an emotional response.” It also states the intended outcome: “to provide information that promotes safety; facilitate individuals being able to better protect themselves; and describe details regarding the date, location and type of crime involved.”
Institutional review boards use similar language when approving surveys that might trigger intense emotions. The perspective of human subjects outweighs that of researchers. At Iowa State University, our review board’s purpose is “to ensure that the rights and safety of human participants in research are protected,” advising investigators to design projects “that minimize potential harm to participants.”
That is the goal when it comes to students.
Words of Warning
In 1995, I started assembling information in advance about possible triggers in each media ethics class. Data are collected in our “trigger word game,” conducted electronically now via Zoom. You can see responses here (Links to an external site.).
Using the anonymous chat function, students send me a word or short phrase that evokes an intense positive or negative emotion. I’ve instructed them to use proper nouns rather than lowercase words that might harken to past personal experiences. Capitalized terms can be traced to culture, pop culture, government, media, social debate or “other” category. That’s instructional. (Links to an external site.)
I compile a comprehensive list of words from the entire class. We use the chat function again, asking students if each term also constitutes a trigger for them. After all votes are tabulated, we compile a “Top 10 Trigger” list.
Here’s one from spring 2021:
Black Lives Matter [social debate]
#MeToo [social debate]
George Floyd [social debate]
[Iowa governor] Kim Reynolds [government]
Kamala Harris [government]
Planned Parenthood [social debate]
We cover Nos. 1 through 6 and 10 in my ethics classes. That gives me knowledge about where warnings may be warranted.
As instructor, I am obligated to ensure that everyone still knows the material. To do so, I provide a schedule of each lecture with description of content and digital study guides covering material needed for exams.
In media ethics we deal with several sensitive topics. As such, you will see trigger warnings on segments that require such. You can miss class during these sessions and view website content on your own. You also may decide not to view that content but instead access a digital study guide without certain multimedia to acquaint you with concepts that may be covered in exams. If you decide to miss class, just send an excuse email stating that you will view the study guide.
Before class I send out an email reminder about content of the day’s lecture. Here is one that contains a trigger warning:
Lecture #22. Temptation. Temptation is something we all live with, as part of human nature. It involves ethical choices, especially ones we make in our personal and professional lives. Case studies illustrate risks. Trigger Warning: Content deals with conflicts of interest, Iowa State Daily coverage of sexual assault, and information about alcohol and misconduct. Note: You don’t have to attend class if the content elicits an uncomfortable emotional response. Just send an email about the absence and view this study guide: https://myethicsclass.com/temptation-edited/ (Links to an external site.)
Students also know that those attending class will engage in spirited debate as my syllabus includes a free speech statement, required by my institution, upholding “open inquiry on a diversity of ideas.” Students are not penalized for germane viewpoints conveyed in an appropriate manner.
By adapting the traditional trigger warning model, you can enhance learning with a detailed schedule about content, email reminders about that schedule, advance notice of sensitive material, modification of attendance policies and alternative venues and study guides. Yes, that’s a lot of work on part of the professor. But it accomplishes one of the best practices for student learning: organization (Links to an external site.).
Trigger warnings respect the student’s viewpoint. Study guides allow students to opt out of a session while still being responsible for material. Free speech and civil discourse are encouraged. Content of lectures in syllabi puts everyone on notice that sensitive topics will be discussed on a particular day and in a particular manner, helping to maintain classroom climate.
I adopted this standard during pandemic Zoom sessions. I had always used trigger warnings on my websites and in-class lectures and videos. But several students asked me to do more, providing detailed schedules, study guides and advance emails about content.
I listened to them and revamped my course, understanding their concerns about this tumultuous time in our history and improving my instruction in the process.
As we aright ourselves economically and, perhaps, politically, it may be time to reacquaint ourselves with high moral principles: forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, empathy and grace.
Those emotions are associated with consciousness and conscience, terms often used interchangeably but that have distinct philosophical definitions:
Consciousness: A sense of awareness, involving how our interactions affect or influence others and ourselves. By expanding our perception, we can foresee consequences of our actions before taking them and minimize harm.
Conscience: An intuitive knowledge of right and wrong, involving how we choose to live among and view others. It is a tiny voice inside us, informing us about what to do and avoid and when and how to act under pressure.
We have much to forgive as individuals and as a country. According to an NPR report, political polarization has reached a peak. A recent survey indicates nearly 80% of Americans have only a few friends, or none at all, across the political aisle.
Forgiveness involves a conscious decision to let go feelings of anger against a person, thing or group that has caused harm, whether or not the other is worthy of it. Once you opt to forgive, the conscience is uplifted, along with your spirit.
America has exceeded 611,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Worse, hundreds of thousands of those died alone without family because of fear of infection. The Biden administration is paying up to $9,000 for each person who died of coronavirus at an estimated cost of billions of dollars.
While some may argue about cost, the gesture symbolizes the conscience of a nation. As we end social distancing, perhaps we can express sympathy anew to surviving families and friends.
Compassionis a response to suffering. As happens with sympathy, the conscience feels the plight of others. Now, however, consciousness kicks in, sparking the desire to do something and ease the physical or spiritual pain.
An article in the Lancet titled “Compassion in a Time of COVID-19,” states that people are motivated to act “because the phenomena we observe are unjust, not worthy of the world we would like to live in.”
Empathy unifies us in times of crisis. The conscience grasps that we are fellow travelers in a shared world regardless of our nationality, sex, race or social class.
According to Forbes Magazine, “empathy is our desire and willingness to see as others see and to feel as they feel” and “is the single most important leadership skill that outshines all others.”
Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison, is regarded by many as our country’s first celebrity. The National Endowment for the Humanities notes that her qualities of “empathy, warmth, and courteous consideration account for both her enduring fame and her historical legacy.”
When the British burned the White House in the War of 1812, she gave instructions to rescue the portrait of George Washington, concerned what the enemy would do with it if the painting ever fell into their hands.
The highest ethical value is grace. The emotion raises consciousness and deepens conscience, inducing insight into the human condition.
Grace incorporates forgiveness, sympathy, compassion and empathy in one transcendent act.
Unfortunately, many never experience grace, but those who have might recall a time of crisis, when something happened, distorting awareness and chilling conscience. A person feels lost, confused. Abandoned. Finally, they go to a parent or partner, fearing rebuke. They confess an act or thought, only to have the other reach out in loving embrace, acknowledging the human condition.
We are a fallen species, perhaps, but worthy of redemption.
The power of grace is transformative and often at the heart of great literary works, such as Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”
We’ll end with an excerpt from that work, which promises “the advance from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsity to truth, from darkness to daylight, from blind appetite to conscience, from decay to life, from bestiality to duty, from Hell to Heaven, from Limbo to God.”
That is grace. May we all experience or remember it as we emerge from isolation and interact with each other again.
It just might save us all.REPUBLISH
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.
Michael Bugeja is the author of “Living Media Ethics” (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and “Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine” (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of “Living Ethics.” MORE FROM AUTHOR
In a new documentary about the late celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, he is heard discussing his life shortly before committing suicide. “You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?”
Questions arose about Bourdain’s voice. He wrote those words in an email, and people were wondering how the filmmaker purloined an audio clip.
As it happened, director Morgan Neville used “deep fake” technology in his film, “Roadrunner.” He resorted to voice cloning because he could not find adequate and authentic audio for the story he wanted to tell.
In journalism, we used to call this lazy.
When movie critics learned about this, they panned Neville’s use of deep fakes, currently being deployed to deceive viewers on social and multimedia, especially in political ads.
Neville claimed he was not manipulating the audience. “We can have a documentary ethics panel about it later,” he quipped.
We can do so now.
The term “documentary ethics” is oxymoronic. Neville believes deep-fake technology is a storytelling tool. It’s not. It’s manipulative.
I have no doubt the technique in due time it will become acceptable. We’re living in a post-truth age.
In one generation, media ethics went from differentiating between interviewing a source in person or by telephone to via email, tweet or text message, and now to deep fakes.
Neville argues that he wasn’t putting words into Bourdain’s mouth; he was just inserting audio.
That is true, in a sense; but it ignores the importance of tone. You can ask, “Are you happy?” in an introspective or infuriated voice.
Voice cloning not only is being used by filmmakers, but cybercriminals, too.
In one case, a chief executive officer’s voice was cloned to trick him into transferring $243,000 into the criminal’s account.
Cybercrimes are classic examples of manipulation, defined as attacking a person’s mental and emotional states, thereby creating an imbalance of power to gain control, benefits or privileges at the expense of the victim.
Manipulation that bypasses reason, such as subliminal advertising or hypnosis.
Manipulation as trickery, such as advertising that promotes false claims or induces false beliefs.
Manipulation as pressure, such as scam phone calls warning about costs if demands are not heeded.
Watch out for deep fakes in political ads
Voice cloning has the potential to combine all manipulative types. You can anticipate its wide use in mid-term election political advertisements.
Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, wrote this ominous quote in 1928:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. … It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
Little did Bernays realize his methods would be used years later by dictators.
In “The Manipulation of the American Mind,” Richard Gunderman, Chancellor’s professor of medicine at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, writes that Bernays used fear to sell products. “For Dixie cups, Bernays launched a campaign to scare people into thinking that only disposable cups were sanitary.” Bernays even founded the Committee for the Study and Promotion of the Sanitary Dispensing of Food and Drink.
“Bernays sought to turn citizens and neighbors into consumers who use their purchasing power to propel themselves down the road to happiness,” Gunderman writes.
If we change the words “purchasing power” to “votes,” we can see how manipulation plays a role in political advertising.
The news magazine, The Week, compiled some of the most manipulative political ads of the 2020 election.
One of the worst was titled “Meet Joe Biden’s Supporters,” showing riots and mayhem associated with Black Lives Matter and culminating with hellish music and a maniacal laugh.
Biden hit back, turning the tables on former President Trump in an advertisement titled, “You’ll Never See Me Again.”
The ad is only 10 seconds and shows Trump speaking at one of his rallies, stating, “If I lose to him, I don’t know what I am going to do. I will never speak to you again. You’ll never see me again.” Then we hear: “I’m Joe Biden, and I approved this message.”
To understand manipulation on a personal level, take an inventory of your deepest desires, convictions, fears, values and beliefs. Manipulators target them in a strategy to make you do something you ordinarily would not do.
When you respond emotionally to a political ad, positively or negatively, remember you are the target voter. You can still hold your political beliefs while acknowledging that the video, audio and voice is manipulating you.
This is true even if that voice is one you recognize and admire— Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris, Trump, Mike Pence, Mitch McConnell — because you no longer can trust what you see or hear.
Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.
In 1996, 77 college students kept a diary of their social interactions every day for a week, noting all the lies that they told, whom they told them to, and their reasons for telling them.
According to an article titled “Lying in Everyday Life” published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, students told two lies per day on average. That translated into about one lie in every three encounters. In general, women told as many lies as men, but those tended to differ in substance, with women tending to lie to make people feel better and men to make themselves look better.
When that article appeared in June 1996, I had been doing a similar diary exercise for about six years in my media ethics classes at Ohio University. Students received these instructions:
In a personal journal, for a period of one week, keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that you say or indicate to others. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
Keep track of all the white lies, half-truths and falsehoods that others say or indicate to you. Under each incident or item, briefly note the immediate, future or possible consequences of the lie.
Keep track of times when you wanted to tell a white lie, half-truth or falsehood … but caught yourself and told the truth or declined to answer the question (doing so in a polite, discreet, or otherwise appropriate way).
In your personal journal, write about what you learned from the exercise.
I continued this exercise through my tenure at OU, ending in 2003. On average, students told between two to six lies per day underestimating the consequences, caught others in a lie every other day dispensing swift consequences, and were tempted to lie but told the truth about once or twice a week. Essentially, that meant students were interacting in an environment of lies as many went undiscovered with liars seemingly escaping consequences.
Zyglis’ first panel features a soldier holding a rifle above his head as he wades in a rice paddy. A sign states “Vietnam.” The second panel features an aged veteran with U.S. Army cap. He holds a cane above his head, with medication in his pocket, wading in water. A sign states “V.A. Waiting Room.”
Written satire paints with words. Its title is simple but contains a double meaning. The “voice” (or sound we hear on the page) is unreliable, too, stating one thing but meaning the opposite.
George T. Conway III, a frequent critic of former President Trump, wrote a scathing satire about the first impeachment trial in 2020. At first glance, not realizing this was satire, Conway’s title in a Washington Post op-ed, shocked his followers: “I believe the president, and in the president.”
That title meant the opposite, which became obvious in the first paragraph:
“I believe the Senate is right to acquit the president. I believe a fair trial is one with no witnesses, and that the trial was therefore fair. I believe the House was unfair because it found evidence against him. I believe that if the president does something that he believes will get himself reelected, that’s in the public interest and can’t be the kind of thing that results in impeachment.”
In sum, Conway simply took every defense by the President’s lawyers and restated them. The cumulative effect was devastating, revealing a truth that many Senate Republicans were reluctant to admit.
Without unreliability, in title and text, written satire may fail and be misinterpreted, often appearing inappropriate or even offensive.
An example of that is Jonathan Swift’s satirical masterpiece titled, “A Modest Proposal.” That title, of course, is unreliable because his proposal is anything but modest.
Swift’s 1729 piece had a subtitle: “For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public.”
Those who first gleaned title and subtitle believed this would be commentary on poverty. That notion was reinforced by the tone of voice that Swift used in the opening paragraph of the piece, that of a royal lord:
“It is a melancholy object to those who walk though this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms.”
Soon, however, as this civil voice continued, readers began to perceive what Swift was up to:
“I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”
As you can see, this idea would have been vile had it not expressed a truth that few in England were willing to admit about Irish poverty. Swift made that point in this sentence: “I grant this food will be somewhat dear and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.”
Only satire can have this impact. It remains one of the best vehicles to express an uncomfortable truth.
The television show “Saturday Night Live” is known for its biting satire, forcing us to laugh and then feel guilty about laughing. This clip from December 2015 has been viewed almost 30 million times. Its game-show title is simple: “Meet Your Second Wife.” Then, as male contestants are interviewed, we get uncomfortable insights into so-called “May-December” relationships that abound in celebrity news.
One final note. Satire’s cousin is parody, an imitation of a person, celebrity or thing, revealing a seldom-discussed character trait or fatal flaw.
Sure, we know all about falsehoods — fake news, hoaxes, half-truths, exaggerations and so-called “white lies” — and can identify each with little prompting.
Did you know that Politifact has been tracking the top U.S. lies since 2009? Its 2020 “Lie of the Year” involved reports that denied, downplayed or outright fibbed about COVID-19 fatalities.
Americans are told between 10 and 200 lies per day. We believe many of them, perhaps because we overlooked the primary colors of authenticity.
This column will reacquaint you with them. To know them is to practice them.
SUBJECTIVE TRUTH is based on the limits of your perception, feelings, emotions, biases, experiences, etc. It is considered a “truth” because most human beings have critical faculties and can reason with varying grades of awareness. Also, experience can be a great mentor of validity.
OBJECTIVE TRUTH is knowing the limits of your perception, assembling facts from a variety of sources, and seeing the world as it is rather than as you wish it were.
CIVIC VIRTUES are truths that the founders of the United States believed would balance immense freedoms in the Bill of Rights. They include equal opportunity, shared interests, concern for future generations, responsibility, respect for views of others, and conviction no one is above the law.
MORAL RELATIVISM claims that there are no definitive truths because virtues always are pegged to a particular culture or historical period, meaning that no assertion of truth should be believed over another assertion.
MORAL ABSOLUTES purports that some things are clearly right (keeping promises, being respectful and generous) or wrong (lying, stealing, tormenting, humiliating, thinking only of yourself). These truths are not subject to serious ethical debate.
ARCHETYPAL TRUTH is both mythic and personal, revealing “timeless truths about the yearnings, fears, and aspirations common to every individual.” There are two types, one involving the body and the other, the mind:
Peak Experience is a transcendental moment of joy, wonder and elation generating intense bodily sensations.
Epiphany is a moment of sudden and complete clarity or revelation when one’s consciousness seems at one with the universe.
UNIVERSAL TRUTH posits that all moral values can be condensed into a “protonorm” — the sacredness of life — which comprises human dignity, truth and non-violence.
One could write a book about each of those categories. For the sake of brevity, below are summaries.
According to Psychology Today, subjective truth is based on perception and hence occurs entirely in the mind. Conversely, reality exists outside of the mind. “To conflate perception with reality is to reject the Enlightenment and harken back to the Middle Ages.”
Objective truth occurs when our perception aligns with reality. Case in point: Three inmates escaped from their Omaha cell in 1978. Their method was to hone perception. Each time the jailer opened their cell with a key, they drew its perceived dimensions on sheets of paper. When the drawings aligned, they made the key in metal shop. It worked.
For generations, Americans have strived to uphold civic virtues, especially equality. First Lady Abigail Adams admonished her husband John, our second president, to empower women. In 1776 she wrote, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Moral relativism has its limits. We can state categorically that human beings cannot survive on Mars without space suits. So there.
Moral absolutes have limits, too. Most truths are subjective or contain varying degrees of fact-accuracy. Surveys show truth depends on the circumstances; hence, philosophers espouse “situational ethics.”
Peak experiences and epiphanies are highly personal. Spend time recalling them, from your first kiss or athletic triumph. How did your body react? Epiphanies set your life on a new path. How did your mind react? Perhaps you recognized your soul mate or decided to divorce. If you jot down those moments and turning points, you will discover your deepest held truths.
Finally, there are two polar opposites precepts about truth. One, by the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), concerns the “categorical imperative,” in which we always must tell the truth, no matter the situation, whom it hurts, or the inevitable consequences.
The other is “inappropriate disclosure,” otherwise known as oversharing, especially on social media, in which users come to regret imparting intimate truths about themselves, family, friends, coworkers and acquaintances.
For better or worse, knowing the various genres of veracity may enable you to detect more lies. You even might become a “truth wizard,” detecting falsehoods at least 80 percent of the time.
Conspiracy theories have grown and continue to multiply as newsrooms downsize and more people rely on social media to fill the void.
This is the belief of Dr. Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
“Journalism is not dead but on life support. Social media dominates civic, political and familial debate, offering snap judgments to affinity groups,” Bugeja adds in a recent commentary.
Bugeja, an author, scholar, ethicist and journalist, lays much of the blame on the rise in conspiracy theories, at the feet of a news industry that has lost its way.
As use of social media as a news source has risen, the reliance on mainstream balanced journalism has plummeted, according to Bugeja.
In a recent commentary for “Poynter,” a journalism think-tank, Bugeja said: “…conspiracy theories have less to do with breakdowns in social machinery, weaponized politics or reason vs. intuition. Polarization materialized as millions of Americans googled answers from affinity groups, increasing screen time while mainstream media downsized newsrooms.”
As newsrooms have cut back reporting staffs, the need to fill a 24-hour news cycle has increased. However, mainstream media cannot fill the void. So, instead, it is filled by bloggers, social media and affinity groups pushing wild theories.
Newsrooms need to hire more reporters, editors and producers, according to Bugeja, and more clearly delineate their content as objective reporting versus analysis.
He also says that we should require courses in “media and technology literacy” in our schools and he is a strong proponent of non-profit localized news models to supplement mainstream media.
He concludes his Poynter commentary by saying: “We must replenish newsrooms, create more nonprofit outlets and require social media payouts, or conspiracies will continue, eroding what is left of democracy and the public’s ability to differentiate between fact and factoid.”