Media manipulation

Posted: January 28, 2007 at 6:48 pm in media

This semester, I’m taking a class in “Managing Emerging Technologies”. One of the points of the class is to consider not just the technology itself, but all of the social and cultural and political ramifications of the technology. To illustrate this point, we watched the movie The Future of Food in class last week, which examines some of the issues surrounding genetically modified seeds made by Monsanto, including the intellectual property battles that Monsanto waged against farmers, etc.

The thing that struck me as I was watching the film was the rampant use of framing to tilt the dialogue. Here are just a few examples that I can recall without consulting my notes:

  • When the film reviewed the history of man’s use of technology in agriculture, they showed people with gas masks spraying crops down with insecticide, presenting the frame of insecticide as poison.
  • In a similar vein, they repeatedly showed planes cropdusting fields, using angles and sound effects to evoke bombing runs.
  • When talking about how the recombinant cell technologies work, they used the term “cell invasion techniques” to frame it as a foreign invasion, rather than a recombination of existing genetic material.
  • They made sure to play up the angle of the one lone farmer fighting against the charge of patent infringement filed by the multinational corporation Monsanto, framing it as David vs. Goliath. Of course, they failed to mention that the way IP law works right now, if Monsanto does not protect its patent in all possible venues, it loses the right to that patent in all venues.
  • It mentioned a ballot initiative in Oregon which would have required genetically modified foods to be labelled as such. The ballot lost due to, according to the movie, an advertising campaign, despite polling that was 90% in favor of such an initiative, also according to the movie. It wasn’t that voters disagreed with the initiative – it was that they were weak-minded and could not resist the evil companies

I mean, the interesting part is that I agree with the thesis of the film for the most part – that the ramifications of genetically modified food are manifold and we should probably be more careful before deploying them. But the presentation of the material was so overtly manipulative that it completely turned me off. It reminds me of DocBug’s idea that Advertising is a form of violence, because I did feel attacked during the movie and became very defensive.

Ironically, part of the reason I’m so sensitized to framing issues and the use of tilted propaganda is because of the extensive work of the left to make me aware. Between Lakoff’s work, AlterNet, and organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, I am all too aware of the omnipresence of media bias and have learned to distrust it. So even when such techniques are used in support of positions I agree with, I react against the techniques.

I’ve mentioned this before (also here), but what I’d really like to see is more training done in the area of media literacy, of teaching people how to see the frames and either ignore them, or at least distrust the sources that rely on framing. One of the things that really bothers me is the last item in that list above – that our citizens may actually be influenced enough by the media that advertising will overwhelm their ability to vote for their interests. That’s a truly depressing thought. And, unfortunately, bombarding them with propaganda using those techniques, even in the name of good, will only reinforce their herdlike mentality and inability to think for themselves.

Of course, a populace that can think for itself is a threat to pretty much all of our currently entrenched powers, from politicians to corporations to even non-profit organizations, as they are all designed around the principle of being able to scare us into obedience. So none of those powers have any incentive to teach such media literacy, which means we’re pretty much doomed. Eit.

P.S. Man, I keep on meaning to post more, but I was down with a cold last week that pretty much kept me muzzy-headed all week. I left work early on Friday afternoon, and then didn’t leave the apartment for forty-plus hours, and slept for a large percentage of that. But I think I’m mostly better now. Of course, now I’ve got to do homework for class. Eit again.

Became very defensive: I never saw Fahrenheit 9/11 or An Incomplete Truth for a similar reason. I knew I already agreed with the basic gist of those movies, and watching them would only anger me against the filmmakers because they were designed to be overtly manipulative.

One Response to “Media manipulation”

  1. Christy Says:

    We saw that movie as well; it definitely made me roll my eyes quite a bit, but made a couple of points I see as quite valid. Of course, it then proceeded to focus on the emotional points instead of the interesting facts, so I was back to the eye-rolling.

    For the record: I’m predominantly interested in maintaining genetic diversity in the parent species, and against patenting classic seeds. Those points were the important ones, and they really got lost.

    Excuse me while I run off to read this week’s NYTimes Magazine piece by Michael Pollan.

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