November 8, 2009

Information and Misinformation

In my book Group Dynamics, I attempted to identify the basic principles that govern the interaction of the media with vested interests and with the viewer. My goal, as always, was to develop definitions and descriptions that could be applied to most if not all situations. Here is an abstract summary of what is happening today:

We know that the media audience, the "public", is made up of different groups with vested interests that conflict. We are not indignant when we discover that one storyteller has distorted the truth. We know that everyone makes up stories that support their own point of view, that everyone lies, that everyone plans to persuade and deceive others and that there is no absolute truth.

We know that a general audience contains individuals with different mental abilities and that most humans have distinct limitations on what they can and will understand.

We know that the root human struggle between self-interest and the interests of groups is ubiquitous, pervasive and is not going away.

We know that each new human is born with an old brain and has to be brought up to date rather quickly and efficiently and must learn to override innate programs to develop skills of peaceful co-existence.

We know that a small number of humans will be alpha animals and lead a much larger number of humans who are followers and will not have the inclination nor the ability to "think for themselves." We are not surprised. We are not indignant. We are concerned.

The best-motivated, fairest reporter or government spokesperson will face obstacles when presenting information and reasoning to a general audience. The best-motivated, brightest viewer will be overwhelmed by the mountain of daily information - mostly bad news - that he or she is asked to evaluate.

I see the human media world as competitive, noisy and confusing. Wrong ideas proliferate like weeds. This journalistic and promotional activity provides “pseudo-knowledge,” also known as "nonsense."

I advise everyone to treat media hype as the major obstacle to understanding what is true and really real. Obviously, we all like the idea of easy understanding and we like quick fixes to complicated problems. We are constantly tempted by promises that a quick fix is available; hawkers want to sell you something quick, cheap and easy to use -- you do not have to be responsible for yourself. All claims of quick fixes are false claims. This is a law of the universe.

One way to control the public mind is to use mass media to persuade entire populations to think and behave in specific ways. You could argue that the knowledge and skills used by good advertising agencies are the same tools of used by political propagandists. In the best case, advertising is more benevolent, designed to entertain, inform and motivate you to purchase a product. In an even better case, the skills of advertising can be used to persuade citizens to behave in a more constructive manner, improve their heath and to treat others with more kindness and concern. In the worse case, advertising is intrusive, dishonest and devious. In any case, skillful advertising works to sell products, just as skillful propaganda can turn lies into public policy. Since most citizens of affluent countries are tuned into multimedia every day, advertising and propaganda are pervasive influences determining their beliefs and behavior.