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 Football World Cup for Smart People – 3 – Bernard-Henry Lévy, 2006

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Bernard Henry-Lévy, “Zidane”Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2006

really shouldn’t be in here: this is a straight red card for grandiose use of metaphors and for name-dropping (Abbé Pierre!  Mother Theresa! Mandela! Machiavelli! Dostoyevsky!) over the 2006 World Cup Final and Zidane’s head-butt. But Zidane as Achilles, Domenech as Agamemnon, Makelele as a Myrmidon — this is irresistible. Also, as a reading of the football hero as convoking narrative tropes of the mythical figure of the Homeric Hero (is Zidane Achilles or Ulysses now?). Mostly, though, this piece deserves to be on our list for proposing to read Zidane as the media icon that rebels against mediatisation (“I am not this idiotic, empty hologram”) — maybe a uniquely French perspective on global media (resist!)?

On the take that the headbutt is in anyway good as it shows resistance to the powers of marketing (end of the post), hmm, excuse-me? However symbolic you want it to be, a head-butt is a head-butt. Even a semiotically-charged head-butt has got to hurt…

On our list, then, with BHL at his usual best with good dribbling skills, excellent vision of the game, and some good on-goal opportunities —  but a red card in the end.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 2 – Umberto Eco, 1978

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Umberto Eco, “The World Cup and Its Pomps”, an essay written in 1978 but most easily available in the collection Faith in Fakes: travels in Hyperreality, Vintage, 1995.

a variation on the “panem et circenses” tradition, football as offering easy mediated reconciliation for traumatised nations (written at the time of the Red Brigades in Italy and dictatorship in Argentina, hosts of the 1978 World Cup), and revolving around the intriguing question : “is revolution possible on a football sunday?”

A good question, to which common intellectual sense would have us answer a resounding NO, but it turns out that in West Africa, at least, football sunday made the revolution possible

— with a whiff of Swiftian irony in the celebration of the deaths and injuries football may inflict on fans and players alike (“I consider the passion for football providential…”).

Football as “everyday unreality… the absence of purpose…the vanity of all things” — it doesn’t get more Virilio-Baudrillard post-modern than this.

Also, if you are looking for the source of the comparison between football fans and “sex maniacs regularly going to see couples making love”, look no further.

On Eco’s essay, there is by the way a nice collection of visual essays by artists from Liverpool who think, with Eco, that “soccer has never loved me” (come play with us on Sundays, there is no love lost there !)


The Football World Cup for Smart People – 1

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Now that the serious fun starts at the World Cup, with qualifying groups almost over (at least for England!) and “win or go home” games about to start, I’ll be compiling here a list of “serious” (but fun!) readings about the World Cup for people who want to sound smart while enjoying their football (hint: don’t scream “what a shot!” at the TV screen, but remark snidely “this is like watching porn!”). I will be looking, you’ve guessed it, for scholarly writing with bite.

This list will attempt to round up the scholarly market on writings dealing with the Football World Cup as media event, in line with my interest in media ethnography and cultural history, ancient and current. Is there, then, a way out of the postmodern domination of the ‘image’ that media scholarship of sports events warns against at regular episodes (more on this below)? Anything else happening in the mediatisation of the World Cup but a shallow pre-fabricated hollowed-out consumption spectacle? Where is the power of the game in all this media analysis?

In the spirit of fair play and competition, I will attempt to produce as complete a list as possible by the time it takes this World Cup to reach the Final on July 13 (which will be Brazil vs. Argentina, as you probably know UPDATE JULY 9: Oops, 7-1..). Think of this post, then, as an on-going, though very short-term, bibliographic enquiry.

Think of it, too, if you wish, as a game:

  • the pitch: the football World Cup in media studies;
  • the time: play will take place during the next 2 weeks and a half — and no water break every 30-minute sort of nonsense, no sirree;
  • rules: anything not on the World Cup of football is offside (sorry no general studies on football–for more smart readings on football and the World Cup, check issue 13 of The Blizzard, h/t Put Niels in Goal);  any lazy intellectualising is a straight red card, so is jargonizing;
  • a referee: me!
  • number of players: hmm, potentially, limitless.

And, yes, contributions, as usual, are most welcome :-).

To build this list, I have notably used Steve Redhead, Post-Fandom and the Millenial Blues: The Transformation of Soccer Culture, and his list of scholarly writings (as of 1997 then), John Turnbull, The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (2009) ; The Guardian in 2008, and the blog The global game: football as second language maintained by John Turnbull of Columbia University between 2003 and 2010.

First up: Umberto Eco’s 1978 essay on “The World Cup and Its Pomp”, and who better than a French philosopher to make sense of a French football player losing his head at a World Cup Final?

Still to come…:

John Williams, “Sport, Postmodernism and Global TV”, Postmodern Studies no. 9, 1993 — Edward Buscombe ed. Football on Television London: BFI, 1975 (TV programs as not so much records of events but rather as social constructs) — Nowell-Smith, “Television-Football-the World”, Screen 19.4, 1978/9 — Umberto Eco (again), “How Not To Talk Football”, 1990 — Alan Clarke, Justin Wren-Lewis, “The World Cup–a political football”, Theory, Culture and Society 1.3, 1983 — Tomlinson, Whannel, Off the Ball: The Football World Cup, London: Pluto Press, 1986, notably Christine Geraghty, Philip Simpson, “Tunnel Vision: television’s World Cup” — Chris Berry, on watching the Korea World Cup on public screens in China…

Media Ethnography 2.0 – David Morley revisiting David Morley, 40 years on.

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

Just spent the morning at lovely Goldsmiths University campus — where the wind, mind you, was blowing in the tall branches of the large oak trees just as it does in Antonioni’s Blow Up*  for a half-day of workshop on media ethnography: “Media Worlds and the Ethnographic Imagination“. The point was to “interrogate ethnographic practices” in film studies, something David Morley, the keynote speaker, addressed heads-on. Morley’s keynote was an update on his 1974 publication “Towards an ethnography of Media Audiences” (published in his 2d year of PhD research?). Morley 2.0 then.

Morley first pointed out how relevant ethnographic media studies could be, as they allow to debunk abstract claims of a “we” in the media audience (or in the West. Is there a “we” in “Western”?), what he called the “abstracted sociology of the postmodern” that supposes all global audiences subsumed by the meanings  and practices of global “cyberspace.” Indeed, for ethnographic media studies, there are multiple media practices, multiple media communities, countless media cultures, where media takes on meanings. And not just media meanings at that, but meanings in cultures. Charged, in the following Q&A, with overstating his case of the absolute centrality of media in audiences’ lives, as media consumption after all does not occupy a majority of what we do in life (debatable, but an interesting debating position nonetheless), Morley brilliantly, and effortlessly, started reorganising the lecturer’s podium and chairs to graphically make the case that television was not only a content-provider that impacted people’s lives only during consumption, but was also what furniture in the (UK) living-rooms was pointing towards. Media, thus, with architectural meaning.

The second point of relevance for an “ethnographic turn” (which happened, by the way, in the 1980s and 1990s) was for Morley to definitely, conclusively and — one would hope — once and for all break the hold that hypodermic, deterministic models of media communication keep having on some parts of media studies. Significantly debunked by more complex models of active spectatorship, and declared dead in mass communication research since at least 1959 (!), hypodermic models are making a troubling come-back with our exposure to New Media. Case in point quoted by Morley: Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brainwhere the Internet, now treated as a creature with some sort of agency of its own (aren’t we supposed to wait for the Singularity for that to happen? Isn’t the Internet, gasp, us, and not the other way around? If we don’t like the Internet, guess what we can do about it…), appears to be responsible, directly at that, for us (who? all of us? only the idiots among us? only the idiots who live in New York City among us? Who is this “we” again? Is that people in China too? Which ones over there?) losing our powers of concentration, of reflection, of profound thinking, of…. Hang on, I’ve heard all this before — in fact, this reminds me of what a lot of old-technology teachers kept on telling me, in low-tech France, back in the 1990s, praising paper technology to me as all this new tech was accused of making scholarly work more superficial — at a time when the Internet was, in fact, and quite unexpectedly, making it possible for researchers like me, in France, with no money, and a desire to account for the full wealth of film wonders, to access documents from distant libraries around the world — thus making reflection, of the scholarly kind (slow, ponderous, boring scholarly thought with lots of inclusions and convoluted sentences) even more possible than before. Ah, the sadness of hypodermic communication theory indeed.

Ethnographic media audience studies, by comparison, of the Morley kind of course, looking at what happens to whom at what times of the day and at what point in the life of actual people in their actual context when they confront media, has brought forth so many uses of media. Two quick examples from this workshop:

  • Julie Archambault, presenting an example from her field-work in Mozambique, on how mobile phones have had profound impact on dating and romantic relationships between young people there, leading to cultural adaptations to navigate new forms of “authenticity” in the expression of feelings, from

1/ “before if I wanted to talk to a girl, I would risk being beaten by her brothers; now I just phone her”, to

2/ “what can this man offer if he can’t even call me back?”, to

3/ mobile phones with magic powers of forcing romantic break-ups as SMS history stored on the phone may reveal cheating.

  • Richard McDonald, presenting preliminary results from his current research into what I would call “spirit spectatorship”: films being projected to no human audience in outdoor installations in north Thailand as ritual practice of bribing the spirits by offering them entertainment. Interestingly, as he points out, the installations rely on 35 mm equipment, rather than the cheaper digital equipment that could be used. The materiality of 35, with large projector, complicated reel changes, noise of the projector, etc., possibly being the actual point in making the offering of value? This is research to watch for: the projectionists, apparently, boast that they know how the spirits watch those films, and what they make of them…

Ethnography, in Morley’s words , helps understand “how audiences perform television-viewing in their natural contexts”. A humbling shift to “how” questions, a turn to the everyday, to the banal, the what “goes without saying”, for, to quote again from this morning, “what goes unsaid is the single most important structuring force of cultural life“.

Brilliant, simple, illuminating, and answering a real need.

*  Antonioni’s Blow Up:  clearly, the film is about the wind in Britain — which I had not realised before coming to live in Britain where trees are works of art and the grass and leaves combine for a cultural masterpiece in green. In itself, I find, this is a good example of how meaning is a construct permanently revisited in the viewers. This is a common occurrence that every media scholar has experienced, yet it is often forgotten by media scholars busy deriving meaning from film semiotics and relying on essential readings of film texts. There is no definitive meaning, there are just meanings deploying through time and places.

Listen, then, the wind **:

**As it turns out, “Listen, The Wind” is the title of at least 2 works that deal in some way with evasion and flights of fancy: Jamaican Roger Mais’ 1943 short story on the wind at night and a young woman’s inner, secret smile, and American Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s book recollections of flying with husband Charles (yes, that Charles).



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.’


At the movies with baby, ca. 1918

February 26, 2014 § 1 Comment

ImageFrom Film Fun, Jan. 1919, p. 14

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the daily life category at flycz.

%d bloggers like this: