Do you feel like the world is going crazy? You’re supposed to feel that way.
News corporations make gazillions exploiting our fears and making us angry. They make their videos dramatic and attractive so we will keep watching and scrolling and clicking. The “news” about a coming civil war is a tragic example.
The media is specially designed to manipulate our emotions by people who profit from our division and discontent. And it’s having real world consequences. It’s leading us to make decisions that many of us regret, losing the freedom and purpose and peace that we all could otherwise experience.
Neil Postman knew all this in the 1980’s. His prophetic book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business should be required reading for anyone who wants to avoid being manipulated by media.
Postman found the News to be among the most insidious forms of media manipulation, primarily because it is presented through a medium (television) that does not encourage rational thought, but is all about stirring up our emotions. He wrote before social media, where we perpetuate irrational, emotional arguments by the petabyte.
Part of the reason most people can’t think reasonably about the problems of our era is we aren’t used to thinking reasonably. We’re used to being “triggered” by keywords that send our hearts racing. We can’t hear an alternative point of view without exploding emotionally. As a culture, we don’t value calm conversation.
Our immersion in screens is about entertainment, not critical thought. Postman says, “We have become so accustomed to [TV’s] discontinuities that we are no longer struck dumb, as any sane person would be, by a newscaster who having just reported that a nuclear war is inevitable goes on to say that he will be right back after this word from Burger King.” (p. 104)
Just think about your favorite news feed or show or channel. Can you remember the last three stories of importance? The last one? Look at the kinds of ads that are mixed in with what might be important information. We jump from school shootings to prescription drug ads to political intrigue to beer. How can we think at all?
We can’t, unfortunately, and it’s destroying us. The intensity of emotions that people don’t know what to do with testifies not to a real crisis, but a perception of one. If we’re angry enough, we take to the streets, not knowing why except that there’s an “enemy” out there who needs to be defeated, because that’s how we are made to feel.
Postman shows how television must be entertaining in order to keep our attention, so “news” must be made into a vaudeville act. And it is. Just try watching any news clip with the sound off. Look at the visuals. See the perfect looking people telling you the story. Notice how everything from traffic to terrorism is presented as the end of the world as we know it—just like a movie would. How can we tell what is fiction, or what we should really think? How can we think at all?
“The result of all this is that Americans are the best entertained and quite likely the least well-informed people in the Western world.” (p. 106) Postman reminds us about the “The Iranian Hostage Crisis” in the 80’s. It was on the news for many months. The nation was captivated by some 400 people held somewhere in Iran. And yet, none of us really understood the underlying issues. We didn’t know what an Ayatollah was, or any Iranian history, or really what was going on behind the scenes.
Yet, we all had an opinion, as Postman says, “for in America everyone is entitled to an opinion.” Here is the punch-line, well worth our time:
But these are opinions of quite a different order from eighteenth- or nineteenth-century opinions. It is probably more accurate to call them emotions rather than opinions, which would count for the fact that they change from week to week. […] What is happening here is that television [or smartphone or tablet] is altering the meaning of “being informed” by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word in almost the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information—misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information—information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, it is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show [or channel, or social feed] entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying that we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge? (pp. 107-108, emphasis mine)
So what do we do? I see two choices. Either get really informed, by unplugging and reading Postman’s book and many others like it. Or, stay on the emotional roller coaster that will lead you to take sides in what is being predicted to become a civil war.