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.

The Internet of Things is coming – Philip K. Dick, 1969

February 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969):

Back in the kitchen he fished in his various pockets for a dime, and, with it, started up the coffeepot. Sniffing the — to him — very unusual smell, he again consulted his watch, saw that fifteen minutes had passed; he therefore vigorously strode to the apt door, turned the knob and pulled on the release bolt.

The door refused to open. It said, ‘Five cents, please.’

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. ‘I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. ‘What I pay you ,’ he informed it, ‘is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.’

‘I think otherwise,’ the door said. ‘Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.’

In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.

‘You discover I’m right,’ the door said. It sounded smug.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

‘I’ll sue you,’ the door said as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, ‘I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.’


The Artist dies childless, mark my (Baudelairian) words

March 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not for Flycz to cross swords with the great Joseph Natoli, especially as I agree with lots of points he makes about The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011) in his recent musings on the film’s popular success at Senses of Cinema, notably:

  1. it is NOT, by a long shot, the best silent film you’ll ever see; in fact, it’s not even in the conversation. It’s an odd mix, this Artist is, of technically brilliant black-and-white photography and irregular shooting rhythm (which gives a jerky feeling to the image) that actually serves a zero of a story, such as would not even pass 1st-draft scenario conference in any given year in the 1920s : brilliant star becomes obsolete and spends 3/4ths of film time wallowing in self-pity. Melodrama means action, not waiting around. It’s a far cry, indeed, from the psychotic complexities of Norma Desmond in Sunset Bld (Billy Wilder, 1950).
  2. The popular success of The Artist is due to its being an “anomaly”:

All this only serves to indicate that the artistry ofThe Artist has no exceptional claim on our attention. Its claim lies in our reactions to its very existence as a silent movie in the age of Twitter. I mean thatThe Artist shouldn’t be here; it’s a shadow of the fading of our own senses, emotions and imagination in a new Millennial world in which they have been steadily “outsourced” to new technology.

I’d push that point a bit more than Natoli does, concerned as he is with Baudrillard-like problems of mystifying technologies and the “outsourcing” of our imagination to our technological helpers (more on that later), as the “high concept” of the film is this very “anomaly”, namely its projection of its own nostalgic take on film as its selling point. The Artist (like all other Hazanavicius OSS films, by the way) is a self-conscious “derivative” (yes, I too can handle the capitalistic metaphors :-)). It trades in nostalgia, it uses the silent medium as a conscious throwback to another (read: better) era of Hollywood filmmaking — making it a shoe-in, indeed, for Oscar celebrations, which are anyway about Hollywood celebrating itself. “Films,” this film suggests, “were better before” (even though that film is not better than the films that were made before). Its claim to originality is to present itself as a self-consciously obsolete product into today’s color, high-octane, video game-induced, teenage-oriented action Hollywood spectaculars, a product that’s a mishmash of derived influences and self-proclaimed “homages” — plagiarism’s most advanced trick (“it’s not copying, it’s quoting without quotes!”). And you’ve got to hand it to Hazanavicius and his team, they have managed to frame the reception of their film, for most people, and for the time being, in their own terms: vide the Oscar for (for crying out loud!) “best original score” (yep, the angels did weep on that one, I’m pretty certain).

This ignores, as Natoli does, too, that there are lots of other people using the silent film medium today to original purposes, that it’s been done at least since Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie — surprisingly, very few reviews of The Artist seem to reference Brooks’ much more original, and funnier, film set in today’s color world of Hollywood. Everyone talks about The Artist as if Hazanavicius had single-handedly reinvented the silent medium, when lots of other artists have been asking much more difficult questions to the medium recently (I have a post where I try to list all modern attempts to breathe life once more into the silent medium, with The Artist maybe the only one so dependent on the crutch of nostalgia).

And so I’m rather dubious about the claim advanced by Natoli that somehow The Artist pleases as it evokes a more naive, “natural”, return to our imaginary –unmediated, as it were.

And yet, why be drawn to The Artist, reversionary and primordial as it is, unless its very presence reminds us of the real pleasure of bumping into the world with our own imaginations.

A walk, for Natoli, in a wordsworthian park — the point being that we, unlike Wordsworth, fail to celebrate Nature for its sake as we are at the same time glued to our multiple screens and glued to the profit motive that now governs (tsk tsk! pooh pooh! the bogey man he returnth) our capitalistically-alienated lives (down, down, shades of Debord!). Wordsworth, somehow,

wrote a brilliant poem a few miles from Tintern Abbey. To do this, he relied on a fusion of all his own faculties without the crutch of technology. No profit is made; the walk into Nature was free, the imagining was his, and his consciousness roamed beyond a 140-character tweet.

I have not read enough in wordsworthian studies, but I’d be ready to bet the house that Wordsworth, too, needed to eat. That he, too, needed to turn poetry into cash. That Wordsworth minus the publishing industry of his day equals Wordsworth a schoolteacher, not a poet–that, in other words, a profit was made — and that there was a technology mediating the walk in Nature (the technology of writing, the medium of words, the schemata of literature, the myths of culture, and so on). In other words, there is no Eden, and there is no Hell — there is no “purity” of “free” imagination to which The Artist (or silent movies in general) returns us. And I hasten to add that because a profit was made does not mean that profit was the only motive, or because Wordsworth, walking in Nature, is mediating the walk through his technology of poetry does not impugn the freedom of his imagination. What I am reacting to, indeed, is the misguided notion that there ever was a media Eden that we mysteriously would have fallen out of, an age of innocence and purity that our “over-stimulated” age has ended (when, exactly?) — the age-old conservative and condescending battle-cry (for the record, ever since the invention of movies, critics in our societies have screamed bloody murder about it, and claimed that youth was being corrupted, over-stimulated — sexually — and so on. Somehow, we’ve survived though. Most recently, Facebook is now accused of turning our youth into narcissistic monsters–because teenagers before were not narcissistic ? Then they were not teenagers, methinks). Media, indeed, is media: an inscription of technique into societies, an encounter of work with public(s). And what The Artist offers is not a “primordial” return so much as the marketing of the primordial.

The role of the imagination in transforming the world reaches a level of over-stimulation that overwhelms. The Artist has drawn back and gone in the opposite direction.

Yes, that film underwhelms — not because it is technology-light (the work on the film tone, color, jerkiness, and so on is very advanced reverse-engineered technology usually put to good use in the restoration of films), or unmediated (by now it should be clear that my point is that, if anything, it adds an extra layer of mediation with its nostalgic screen), but just because it’s a rather average film (mostly, it’s inconsistent. It does not follow on its own occasional flashes of brilliance, and it does not showcase skills either — Dujardin’s hoofing is, frankly, an embarrassment). Inconsistent, unoriginal, unsure of itself, sure only of the one-off banking commodity of nostalgia, it will therefore die childless — but there is just so much money that can be made trading the pining for the good ol’ days.

Distraction, shifting

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Have social media displaced TV as the realm of the distracted gaze ? Jason Jacobs, in an intersting piece at CST, thinks so:

Television (…) seems more and more to reward our concentration rather than corrupting it.  But one of the problems with viewing it on hybrid devices like laptops, phones and tablets is that their connectedness tends to encourage proximity to the fleeting slices of immediacy that Facebook, Twitter, email etc offer. No doubt it is partially true to some extent that television helped socialise us in the forms of attention that social media now encourages as well. But if what you want to do is appreciate the achievement of the television that you admire, the best way to watch television  (especially long form episodic television drama), is continuously –  one after the after –  and without the distraction and interruption of the new videot media.

Large-screen technologies and Tivo-like pause-and-rewind capabilities now offer (nay, demand!) TV viewers the possibility of an engaged gaze that Jacobs finds as engrossing (if not more) than what the movie experience of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia now offers.

Why, I wonder, the quest for concentration? Haven’t we systematically been missing the point of the multi sensory, highly distracted, inter-connected (both textually and socially) pleasure that media has been offering popular audiences since the end of the 19th century? By projecting notions of literary concentration (continuous reading of a coherent text, the coherency of which has become even more central to its enjoyment) onto media enjoyment, are we not, generation after generation, missing the fact that even enjoying a film in a theater has always been a highly distracted, multi-level, splintering experience ?

I’m not sure that alienation, in other words, is key to the description of media experience — whether that’s film in the 1910s, TV in the 1970s, or new media today.

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