Media and Persuasion — where have the last 60 years gone?

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 1959, after some 30 years of efforts of communication studies to establish that modern mass media did have terrible deleterious effects on children, could be used for propaganda, manipulated audiences into thinking what they did not want to think, had subliminal effects on audiences, etc. — 30 years, in other words, of  trying to establish the influence of media on supposedly passive audiences, this is what one of the founders of modern communication studies had to say:

this has been called the study of “campaigns”–to sell soap, to reduce prejudice, to induce the enemy to surrender–and this, I think, is what classical mass media research has been about. Even audience research or content analysis, though ostensibly autonomous concerns, my be shown to have been motivated by the problem of short-run effects. The question that best sums up this classical approach, I think, is “What do the media do to people?”

The answer, from study after study, is that the media do less than they had been expected to be able to do.

In the next 60 years or so, we’ve seen media research in audiences veer into more complex studies of the uses of media by audiences, of how communication is a multi-step process, of ethnographic local uses of media cultures, of audience activities — in other words, how media consumption is anything but passive, and how media persuasion is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon — irony, self-reflexivity, media literacy, remediation, all coming into play as audiences, young and old, educated or not, Western or not, meet media texts, flow, and cultures. Clearly, “the media”, still today, “do less than they [are] expected to be able to do.”

And yet, the media are still expected to have tremendous, hidden, magical, witchcraft-like influence on audiences. And I mean not just in the popular press, in the form of regular media panics that shape much of public discourse about media (violence in movies ! Violence in video games! the dangers of virtual reality immersion!). I mean in official, well-funded, very much public research of the kind the Guardian of yesterday reported. As the newspaper reported:

The Californian internet giant [Facebook] has published details of a massive experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and discovered that through a process known as “emotional contagion”, it had the ability to make users feel either more positively or more negatively about things without them knowing it. (my emphasis)

Cue readers’ comments about the “The Manufacture of Consent” and the evil powers of Facebook, and the vulnerability of “people” — by definition others, as said commenter has to be, miraculously, exempt from the manipulatory powers of FB :

I suppose the fact of the matter is that most people are not very self aware if not outright stupid. The problem is knowing this how some people conclude that this fact gives them license to manipulate the thought and emotions of the vulnerable or their own purposes usually commercial but often political. Again the basic problem is it works. People really are that dull and many others have no moral qualms about manipulating them.

Now, to be clear, this story is indeed a story of “manipulation” — but the only manipulation that took place is FB manipulating users’ News Feeds without their consent (not to mention the researchers’ manipulation of users’s FB News Feeds without their express consent, in itself a clear breach of research ethics). And there is clear cause for massive outrage over this, though maybe not surprise, given FB’s history of misusing users’ information.

But manipulation of emotions? “Emotional contagion”? Manipulating users’s emotions “without them knowing it”, especially as this only applies to that “vulnerable” Other who is “outright stupid”, but not me? Others who are unconsciously manipulated, but not me?

Quick check on the original research paper reveals shoddy thinking and dubious scientific basis for the original claim, which is, to quote from the research:

emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness

This the “study” achieves by manipulating the degree of positivity (or negativity) that users can read in the messages posted to their News Feed. Several questions off the bat:

  • how do you define a positive message, or a negative message? Simple: “Posts were determined to be positive or negative if they contained at least one positive or negative word”. Good luck irony, double-entendre, hoaxes, jokes and other formulations of the “I could not agree with you more” kind (is that a positive message? a negative one as it has “not” in it?). 
    • UPDATE 30.6.2014I do not have access to the data-analysis tool used by the researcher, but someone who has makes the point that this “method” is even more of a joke as the tool does not, repeat, does not detect negations! In other words, “I am not happy” is coded as a positive message ! Dear me…
  • how do you make sure that a post with a positive word will result in a positive emotion? What’s a positive emotion, by the way? Tell me forty times that I am smart and this will very likely result in several “negative” emotions: 1/ I will get bored and 2/ I will get suspicious and depressed that I am being insulted to my face.
  • how do you measures what people feel in this “experiment”? Simple: you read the posts they post and…well, you get it. Back to our first 2 objections. How sure are you that a positive message reflects or expresses a positive feeling, whatever that means?

Now, let’s ignore those “minor” complications for a second — though from the very start, confusing emotions with the expression of emotions is a huge problem as it treats media (here the media of words, but also the media of social networks) as transparent — which it never is, especially when it says it is.

So, what does our study measure, then, in terms of what it calls “emotional contagion”? This is worth quoting at length:

When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, the percentage of positive words in people’s status updates decreased by B = −0.1% compared with control […], whereas the percentage of words that were negative increased by B = 0.04% […] . Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, the percent of words that were negative decreased by B = −0.07% […] and the percentage of words that were positive, conversely, increased by B = 0.06% […].

The results show emotional contagion.

I kid you not. This is research from Cornell University, supported by the National Academy of Science in the US. A variation of, at best, 0.1% is deemed proof of “emotional contagion”. 0.1%. Or about the usual amount of people who “vote” against dictators.

Now, to be fair, the authors did recognise that maybe this result was somewhat insignificant. In conclusion:

Although these data provide, to our knowledge, some of the first experimental evidence to support the controversial claims that emotions can spread throughout a network, the effect sizes from the manipulations are small (as small as d = 0.001). These effects nonetheless matter given that the manipulation of the independent variable (presence of emotion in the News Feed) was minimal whereas the dependent variable (people’s emotional expressions) is difficult to influence given the range of daily experiences that influence mood. More importantly, given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences: For example, the well-documented connection between emotions and physical well-being suggests the importance of these findings for public health

The variation observed is laughably small, but because the network is vast, the effect is potentially big? Wait, the effect is on each individual, therefore it is not, by definition, a network effect. Oh, but wait, there is more: because there is a “connection between emotions and physical well-being”, this is important research for public health? This is how you justify this garbage? Really? Another logical jump unrelated in any way to the study? What other problem responsible for 0.1% of potential public health problem should we spend public money on, tell me?

This is shoddy work, unprincipled, and a money-grabbing initiative with zero scientific basis.

Rhetorics manipulate emotions. It’s often called art, the pleasure of making believe — and, unless you’ve never used FB or any other social network, you have to be aware that a lot of social network activity is about making believe and enjoying the pleasures of the fake — fake identities, exaggerated expressions of feelings, loose sense of “friendship”, on the spur “liking”, etc. — what Martin Barker investigates, in a recent article on online porn, as “the productive possibilities of fantasy”.

But FB cannot make you vote for Dick Cheney or buy a gun “without you knowing it”. Nor can TV, films, video games, bla bla bla. This is the modern form of the age-old dream of humanity of escaping agency and responsibility as exhibited in witch-hunts in medieval days — or, more positively, the age-old desire of humanity of believing in magic, the magic of unmediated communication of self to self. This is the magic — the magic of the agency of art and media —  that should be investigated (not “persuasion”, “manipulation”, and so on), the question that led William Mitchell to write about What Do Pictures Want? (2005):

Why is it that people have such strange attitudes toward images, objects, and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray? Even more puzzling, why is it that the very people who express these attitudes and engage in this behaviour will, when questioned, assure us that they know very well that pictures are not alive, that works of art do not have minds of their own, and that images are really quite powerless to do anything without the cooperation of their beholders? How is it, in other words, that people are able to maintain a “double consciousness” toward images, pictures, and representations, in a  variety of media, vacillating between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naive animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes? (7)

0.1%. This is how much media “does” anything to you. Researchers have known this since, at least, 1959. Audiences have known this, and enjoyed it, for even longer.


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