Media Mind Control
In the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” we witness a self-absorbed woman experience the titular event, driven by her plummeting reputation on a social network that has the power to control everything from what flights you get to whether or not you have a job.
In the 1976 film Network, a dying news show gets a boost when anchor Howard Beale announces that he will commit suicide on live television. This launches a chain reaction of events in which international politics and network deal-inking play out through the media, as Beale becomes a populist hero.
In the novel 1984 and its film adaptations, the government has imposed Newspeak, a restricted language that encourages complacency and obedience. Behavior and thought are controlled through devices called telescreens, which combine broadcast, communication, and monitoring.
Science fiction has long explored, and warned of, our obsession with media and its power to control our thoughts. As propaganda efforts successfully encouraged complacency among citizens of Nazi-led Germany, as countless Americans today willfully consume fake news, these concerns seem justified. Even Black Mirror has done its part to control our behavior, making some of us (ahem) sit for hours to finish the episode “Bandersnatch.” It appears that we’re simply unwitting sheep dragged along by the crook of mass media.
But does propaganda really motivate people to do things they wouldn’t normally do? Can people really not tell the difference between reality television and reality? Do violent video games cause shooting sprees? Can someone be programmed with a musical trigger to assassinate someone? Are we being controlled by social media?
Let’s find out.
The Role of Propaganda
Few films have had as large an impact on filmmaking as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a powerful, gorgeous, and very effective propaganda film. The film re-appropriated the popular “mountain film” genre’s symbolism to demonstrate German power and portray the Nazi Party as an affirmation of German heritage. With its dramatic, immersive cinematography, Triumph of the Will successfully motivated many Germans to support the Nazi Party, and the film was one of the top-grossing releases of 1935.
But did The Triumph of the Will really convert the disbelieving or the apathetic into die-hard Nazis? Not by itself, but it did tap into prevailing attitudes and implicit bias that helped motivate people to justify their allegiance to the Nazi Party. It did so through emotional manipulation. Try watching the film and see if you feel impressed. Now imagine being in 1935 Germany and seeing a film that dramatically portrays a nationalist leader promising to protect your heritage. Uh-huh, that’s what I thought.
Is This Real Life?
If you’ve watched a sitcom, you’re likely heard a laff box or its digitized successor. Laugh tracks are a persuasive technique not unlike Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematography: they’re designed to tap into your emotions and give you what’s essentially FOMO — you don’t want to miss out on the scene that everyone’s laughing at, do you? The original laff box contained 320 laughs that ran on 32 tape loops, meaning that a lot of laugh tracks ended up sounding alike. Strangely, this enforced the effectiveness of the device by creating a cultural marker of humor that subconsciously encourages you to “enjoy” a show, even if the joke is terrible.
Audiences have indeed been fooled by media-driven social experiments, such as Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast that sent America into a panic. However, consumers of reality television are generally aware that it’s not real. In fact, that’s why they watch it: they enjoy being voyeuristic and seeing people who haven’t achieved the elite class of “actor” gain the privilege of being on TV. By the same token, consumers of fake news are usually aware that it’s fake; in fact, they more accurately identify it when it aligns with their political views, and are more likely to share it because fake news is emotionally persuasive in that way. It’s not necessarily that they believe it’s true, with some exception. That said, people seem generally befuddled by satire, which is generally more nuanced and subversive than straight-up fake news.
Do Violent Video Games Cause Violent Behavior?
Since the first school shooting, experts have wrung their hands over the plausible threat of violent video games. It’s tempting to imagine that those games could explain how these innocent boys who “wouldn’t hurt a fly” suddenly become mass murderers. And honestly, it’s a legitimate concern.
First of all, there is ample evidence that prolonged and early exposure to violent media can lead to aggressive behavior. It’s foolish to pretend that violent video games and movies don’t have an effect on children’s minds. This doesn’t mean that violent video games cause them to become murderers, though. Here’s the thing: we all have aggressive tendencies that occur within our social environment. And so our consumption of violent media interacts with our upbringing, our psychological tendencies, and if applicable, our Cluster B tendencies — psychopathy, sociopathy, and narcissism.
So yes, violent video games influence aggressive behavior, but not in a vacuum, and not to homicidal levels. However, according to my research, in which participants watched videos of both physical and emotional bullying and then answered questions about who was to blame, viewing bad behavior on the screen makes one more conscious of it in the real world. Those who watched the bullying videos (some of which were physically violent) were more likely than the control group to assign blame to the victim. This attitude can lead to the perpetration of further violence if one is so inclined.
Is the Manchurian Candidate Real?
The concept of an assassin primed by a song or image has been popular in fiction and was even the legal defense used by Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, but this premise relies upon hypnosis to work. And hypnosis isn’t a means of mind control. If anything, it’s a dressed-up version of mindfulness practice.
It’s true that people can be “brainwashed,” meaning they’re primed and conditioned to respond certain ways to certain triggers, but in general, they can’t be convinced to do anything they wouldn’t otherwise do. It’s a sobering admission of the darkness hiding inside many of us, but those who commit murders and then claim hypnosis are full of it. They may have bought into some propaganda or allowed their aggressive side to come out, as discussed above, but if they kill, they were already willing to kill.
The Addiction to Social Media
Social media is definitely addicting, no doubt about it. It’s designed to be that way, with its colorful icons, endless scroll, and notifications that give you a sense of validation and popularity. And if you’re not careful about what you post on social media, it can certainly turn off potential employers or ruin friendships.
Thankfully, it’s not (yet) powerful enough to control our entire existence, unless we allow it to do so. The bigger issue is that social media platforms are happily collecting our personal data for their own purposes, and we’ve handed it over without really thinking about what that means. And in the future, we might find that our existence is heavily reliant upon, if not controlled by, what we posted on Facebook.
The media plays a significant and complex role in our lives. To say otherwise is naïve. However, it’s also not accurate to claim that we are simply sheeple, moved to action by what’s on the telly. Our experiences, socialization, education, political views, and economic situation are all factors, and how we interact with mass information can also change by the medium: We are more likely to internalize what we hear on talk shows as guiding ideas than what we see in violent video games, for example. We recognize propaganda and other persuasive techniques more than we realize; we’re simply too emotional to resist. And we’re capable of identifying the purpose of the media we consume. Ultimately, it falls upon our choice in what we do with that information.
Rachel Wayne is a writer based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology and film studies from the University of Florida.