Some schools have been teaching news literacy to middle school and high school students for a few years now. Including news literacy in a school or university curriculum would surely be one of the telling signs of having one of the best education systems in the world in just a few years. Knowing how to tell if an information is misleading, especially in this age of misinformation is a critical skill. This expository essay will expose media manipulation that is present in different platforms of media.
Media manipulation campaigns have been posing a threat to different organizations, individuals, and institutions for some time now. It has become widespread and unstoppable. The problem of detecting and debunking all types of media manipulation – including disinformation and misinformation – is not getting easier. Those who manipulate just create new ways of presenting manipulated information so that people will have a harder time checking the facts. This is why it is important to know and to understand what media manipulation is so that each individual will know how to battle it.
Is it possible to be manipulated by media? How can I avoid being manipulated?
The Media’s Job
Media – or at least news media – is responsible for sharing information that is timely, relevant, and most importantly, reliable. People turn on the news if they want to know what is currently happening in their local or in the whole world. Even if some news outlets present soft media, or those relating to entertainment, arts, lifestyle, and is presenting opinions, news media is expected to present truthful news that could be properly evidenced.
If that is the case, then why do sensational news outlets exists? Some journalists or news outlets tend to dramatize, exaggerate, or tweak the news that they present. Some distributors of information tend to fabricate even the most crucial of data just to produce something that will get the people talking. This may be matters concerned with a country’s economy, the stock market, politics, celebrities, a brand, or history.
Obviously, the media’s job is to deliver the truth and nothing but the truth. They are supposed to distribute information that is truthful and unbiased. The media should not be reporting news that is based on rumors or allegations alone – they should find credible evidences to back up the information they gathered before presenting it to the world. Mere statements made by the media people that is interlaced with sly innuendos is all it takes to bring down a large corporation, a person with high status, and organizations.
Especially in this era where internet is prevalent, news is distributed in a faster way where social media users can easily use their social media accounts to make a statement or image viral with just a few clicks. Even individuals who are not journalists can use their platform to spread information that is usually unverified and unreliable. Because of this, media outlets are finding it hard to expose the truth, as some information had already been leaked on social media, and is hard to reverse even if they have the power to change one’s perception.
However, the technology available to news outlets nowadays make it all the more easier for them to do their jobs – to bring the truth to light. Even if the saturation of posts in social media made it hard for most people to distinguish what is true from what is not, solid evidence may be gathered from social media like video clips and photos that had not been doctored and will help news outlets present the information to the people in a more formal and organized manner.
And as people are becoming more wary of what they see on the news and on social media, often the people want to be presented with facts like statistics, studies, surveys, and data that are released by renowned organizations. If the people are not immediately presented with evidence as they are witnessing the news, they are less likely to believe it. That is why it is the media’s job to clarify and make needed information known to their viewers as they are presenting the news.
What is Media Manipulation?
Misinformation in the United States, specifically in social media, is prevalent. It is why some states in the United States have started to introduce a news literacy subject in their curriculums in their schools. Some studies also show that there is a significant number of American adults who are news illiterate. This is very alarming because people now rely on social media too much and most do not even bother to check if the information they are being fed is legitimate. This proves that society can easily be manipulated especially through the use of media.
So, what is media manipulation? This term can be better understood if the term is discussed separately – that is to first define media, and then define what manipulation is. Media, in its most basic definition, refers to communication outlets that stores and delivers information or data to receivers. Those receivers may be an exact group of people or individual, but the message the media delivers can also be addressed to the general public.
Media takes on many platforms like news, publishing, broadcasting, cinema, advertising, and social media. These platforms are then used by professionals or the general public to disseminate information in the form of text, photos, videos, audio, and could be a combination of these elements. Media can be traditional or digital, or again, a combination of both as print media usually has a digital counterpart these days.
Media has been created for the purpose of easily communicating information to a number of people. This is where the problem poses itself. The information is left for interpretation by the receiver, and it is quite impossible for everyone to interpret the message the same way. Because of this dilemma, some people deliberately choose to adjust the information they share in order to achieve their desired effect or interpretation they wish to instill on people.
Manipulation is done when someone skilled enough to twist words with the goal to control the emotion of those who perceive the information seen in the media uses their skill to their advantage. This is where the manipulation aspect in media manipulation comes in. Media manipulation involves disinformation, misinformation, concealing information, and many more. Media manipulation refers to creating and distributing tampered information to the masses with the intention of causing confusion or conflict.
There are many media manipulation tactics that those who create media manipulation strategies use. They could hide the identity of the source of the information, photo or video they are sharing, they can use (ro)bots, they can change what a person actually means, give fake infographics, doctor photos and videos, etc. Every day, media manipulation strategists think of news ways on how to manipulate people. They may choose to manipulate those involved in politics, the stock market, celebrities, authority figures, and others.
Media manipulation campaign creators or strategists plan how they will manage to capture the attention of the public and even ensnare the journalists to their trap. A set of techniques is needed for media manipulation to work, but sometimes, mere contextualized information is all they need to sway the perception of people. Media manipulation can be done due to different purposes; some may be good for the good of many but some are meant to gate keep people from crucial information.
As hoaxes and fabrications emerge from left and right, people are encouraged to learn and be equipped on battling media manipulation as this can affect the way they think and ultimately their daily lives. There are trolls, organizations, and individuals behind all of the media manipulation that is prevalent especially in social media. And if the media is in control of the information they wish to divulge, is it not harder to identify a media manipulation from what is not?
Detecting, defining, classifying, verifying, and debunking media manipulation takes a lot of effort and guts for those who try to disprove media manipulation are usually up against more powerful opponents who have the means to cover up what they have done. Media manipulation is one of the biggest problems that the world is currently facing. Understanding the pattern in the activity of the media manipulation strategist is the first step towards identifying and exposing media manipulation.
Identifying when a media is manipulated is considered a skill as countless people have fallen prey to media manipulation tactics through the years. While this may be difficult to pull off at first, media manipulation tactics can be observed and studies. On that note, a team of researchers who analyzes how different groups utilize technology for the purpose of communication, joined together to create a digital research platform focused on identifying media manipulation.
The Media Manipulation Casebook
The Media Manipulation Casebook has been created to equip researchers – and the public – with key definitions, theories, case studies, and methods regarding media manipulation. The Media Manipulation Casebook is headed by Joan Donovan, PhD, from Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center where she also serves as a Research Director. She leads The Media Manipulation Casebook team in examining media manipulation campaigns found in social media.
The Media Manipulation Casebook provides interested people with a “life cycle method” that media manipulation commonly employs. The Media Manipulation casebook shares the variety of methods that they use for their case studies and the research team also produces newsletters, webinars, and research articles to further share their knowledge on media manipulation.
The Media Manipulation Casebook keeps track of past media manipulation cases as early as the year 2013 up to the present. This is done in order to help the public, researchers, and educators understand how to detect media manipulation and even debunk them. So far, there are 18 media manipulation cases that have been listed in their website. All the necessary information needed to understand the media manipulation strategy like the date it started, its target audience, and employed media manipulation tactics have been given in each published case study article.
The Media Manipulation Casebook Case Studies
The Media Manipulation Casebook presents different case studies tackling various media manipulation tactics that has been used in previous media manipulation cases throughout the world. Contributors present media manipulation tactics that have been used like information leaks, distributed amplification, recontextualized media, impersonation, and the likes. This part will discuss a few case studies that the Media Manipulation Casebook shared in their website.
The Yan Reports by Joan Donovan and Jennifer Nilsen
Recently, after the world welcomed 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic, an article saying that the COVID-19 virus was created in a laboratory in China was suddenly released. Because people – including scientists – were looking for answers as to where the virus came from, people clung to this information and accepted it without question. This media manipulation campaign planted misleading evidence in order to confuse those who are interested in the origin of COVID-19.
The media manipulation campaign included planting seemingly scientific evidence by using scientific jargons and graphs which is most of the time enough to grab the people’s attention. Over time, The Yan Reports reached news media outlets and was being reported on a global scale. It was not long before scientists and universities debunked what was stated in the Yan Reports and killed the narrative circulating social media. However, The Yan Reports appeared once again after what looks to be a press release – to make it look more legitimate – has been uploaded on social media back in November 2020.
The Yan Reports utilized cloaked science as their media manipulation tactic. The media manipulation tactic cloaked science is when those who manipulate use scientific jargon to make people believe that the information can indeed be trusted. Apart from scientific jargon, scientific data like graphs, charts, and scientific terms are used to solidify the people’s perception of them as being credible.
Biden “Voter Fraud Organization” by Emily Dreyfuss
This media manipulation incident happened in the last two weeks of the 2020 presidential elections of the United States of America. This is a very controversial media manipulation incident that is still on going as of writing. A video of then candidate President Joe Biden was spread and was recontextualized a s only a small part of a longer interview has been taken and recontextualized. President Biden’s statement was taken out of context as it was recontextualized to be interpreted as him claiming about running the “biggest voter fraud organization this country has ever seen.”
Many people have quickly noticed that the video that is circulating the news and social media is misleading and so the media manipulation incident of the “Voter Fraud Organization” has quickly been debunked. Although, former US President Donald Trump’s supporters would not back down and have insisted on amplifying this video to gain traction for their claims of President Biden lacking integrity.
The Biden “Voter Fraud Organization” media manipulation incident used memes and recontextualized media – in this case, video. Trusting that the public will not take the time to fact-check, the media manipulation campaign operators continue to redistribute the video and even create memes out of the clip. This media manipulation campaign spread so much disinformation that some voters had indeed been confused about the integrity of President Joe Biden.
As a form of media manipulation tactic, recontextualized media is taking a photo, video, or audio clip out of context so that it can be used to their advantage. Recontextualized media is rarely doctored by media manipulation campaign operators as they typically use the organic file and only take the content itself out of context. There is usually no need for editing anything as they could just reframe the media into something that is false but is still believable enough for those who will see it.
The Origins of Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts by Erin Gallagher
In the year 2017, there emerged a number of parody antifa accounts that aimed to discredit the anti-fascist movement in the United States. They caused chaos and confusion and even up to this day, some journalists are still being confused due to the sheer amount of parody accounts that posted seemingly credible statements and media. This media manipulation move was done by extremists and mere pranksters.
This media manipulation strategy successfully divided antifa, liberals, and those who support the Black Lives Matter Movement. The troll or parody accounts posted statements like the antifa members were not to be associated with Black Lives Matter Movement as they have caught wind of how they were being attacked by the latter. After a few months, antifa began tracking and denouncing the fake antifa accounts on social media.
The media manipulation tactics used here are forgery, impersonation, keyword squatting, memes, and viral sloganeering. In media manipulation, keyword squatting means creating social media accounts and producing content that leads those who will search a particular term to the pages that the media manipulation campaign operators have created in order to deceive or spread disinformation. The media manipulators make use of search engine optimization for keyword squatting.
In viral sloganeering, catchy phrases are used to capture the viewers’ attention. This media manipulation tactic intends to cause division by highlighting it and even provoking such a huge number of people that it leads to being covered by news media. Viral sloganeering even goes as far as getting ahead of credible news coverage. This move ensures that the people will lean towards the media manipulation unknowingly as they have been the first to break the news.
Media manipulation is a dangerous thing to which most people could fall prey for. For untrained eyes, media manipulation tactics are indistinguishable and immediately believing it without checking its legitimacy can be damaging. Media manipulation can be used to confuse and divide people, to such an extent that even comrades begin to fight each other. News literacy – and media manipulation – can easily be learned.
The key to avoiding media manipulation is to be a responsible social media user and fact-checking what has been seen or heard to verify its validity first before jumping to drastic conclusions. If one is concerned about not having enough resources to learn how to distinguish media manipulation, always keep in mind that the internet is a very handy tool where information is immediately accessible for all. If media manipulation strategists can use the internet to their advantage, then so can people who seek the truth.
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Case Studies. (n.d.). Media Manipulation Casebook. https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies
DataJournalism.com. (2020, October 20). The Lifecycle of Media Manipulation. https://datajournalism.com/read/handbook/verification-3/investigating-disinformation-and-media-manipulation/the-lifecycle-of-media-manipulation
The News Literacy Project. (2017, September 10). The Sift Archive. News Literacy Project. https://newslit.org/educators/sift/
Vanderwicken, P. (2014, August 1). Why the News Is Not the Truth. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/1995/05/why-the-news-is-not-the-truth