Building Bandwagons

How Media And Politicians Get Us On Board

November 1st, 2012 - R. Rados 

Just when you thought a respected media source was giving you a fair and balanced piece of information, you realize how misled you've been all along. The pivotal role of psychology in journalism is often understated. Subtlety becomes the key. Most people overlook the messages that are being transferred to their subconscious minds by clever wording, photography, and the use of certain key words that have more weight than an entire paragraph. Any reporter or journalist that pedals his own work under the guise of fair and balanced is either delusional or being deliberately deceptive. 

Balanced journalism is dead. Therefore, it really doesn't do anyone any good to continue pretending. All we can do is become more perceptive and learn to identify and accept the political, religious, or philosophical biases of journalists and media.

Just because a news source is presenting a seemingly biased political opinion doesn't mean that their facts aren't accurate. News and facts can be presented with a slant and still be accurate. Unfortunately, this isn't always the case and sometimes the only tools available to sift through the distortions are a few simple questions. The distortions within political polling have been a good example of how a little bit of research and a few good questions can peel back the layers of deceit.

Political polls always end up doing three things. One, they create a bandwagon effect that can propel an obscure political party or candidate into relevancy, as was seen in Canada's 2011 federal election when the NDP became the official opposition for the first time in its history. Two, they act to motivate and energize a party's supporters when they reflect a lead. Three, they do the opposite and stifle enthusiasm when they reflect a losing trend for a particular party or candidate.

Polling has become a big business in the past decade and television networks, media organizations, and political parties have doled out millions of dollars to companies like Ipsos, Opinion Research, and Quinnipiac to provide data on public opinion. It wasn't until conservative bloggers and reporters began doing their own research, and delving into the methodology of some of these polls, that scrutiny became commonplace in the world of political polling. Skewed opinion polls caught the attention of millions of internet users when the data released appeared to be deliberately manipulated to favor Democrats. By sampling larger margins of registered Democrats than Republicans or Independents, pollsters were able to create a false lead for Barack Obama. Whether these results were specifically commissioned by the media organizations that paid for them is yet to be determined. Deliberately skewed opinion polls not only damage the reputations of legitimate polling agencies, they diminish people's trust in mainstream news. The 2012 election was a good example of how organizations attempted to utilize the bandwagon effect, but failed because they were caught red handed. However, one worthy bandwagon was built in the process. The number of those who distrust the mainstream media – or want to destroy it – has grown significantly. Due to overcapacity, this bandwagon is constantly being upgraded.

Another way to bolster a bandwagon is by offering what are called "fact checks". These became popular during the 2012 election. The only problem is that most of the fact checks offered by media have been lopsided and outrageously gentle on certain candidates. If Alex Seitz-Wald's article for Salon is any indication of how shamelessly biased a fact check can be, most readers should consider all similar "fact checks" with caution. If you happen to be bored, try counting the number of times Seitz-Wald fact checks Romney in his article. Judging by Seitz-Wald's thorough fact check, Barack Obama is completely incapable of telling a single lie. Realistically, we shouldn't really expect anything different from Salon.

Conformity plays a huge role in how elections are won and lost. The experiments of Soloman Asch have proven that most people won't conform or accept an idea that is obviously wrong or criminal. However, when certain information is skewed and distorted, or when certain details are left out, people may not have the ability to fully perceive something as either right or wrong, simply due to a lack of information. When news agencies build a reputation as trustworthy, more people are willing to accept the reputation without question. When certain organizations are accepted as trustworthy, they fail to be as thoroughly scrutinized as others. Trustworthiness is surprisingly easy to achieve and sustain, especially when certain details are left out for the purpose of deniability. Mentioning an erroneous fact is one thing, but completely failing to mention a particular fact allows us to deny that we were ever wrong in the first place. Media uses this technique to the very same effect that politicians do. This allows them to maintain a universal perception of trustworthiness.

Politicians often make mention of their own benevolence by talking about their plans to help the middle class and the poor, but they seldom appear to give any real details. Real details would only create an opportunity for their opponents to completely deconstruct their ideas, visions, and beliefs. Telling people you want to help the poor sounds great, but explaining how you plan to do it could spell trouble. Most of us would be better off just saying that we want to help the poor and leaving it at that. Having such a measured and careful approach allows the wheels of the bandwagon to stay intact. News organizations are exceptionally good at doing this.

The bandwagon effect is something every politician wants to capitalize on. Sometimes, biased news agencies will help them achieve their goals. Whether its by claiming that a certain politician is in the lead by 5% points (without giving any real details about the methodology), or by reporting that massive crowds have turned out at the latest rally, news agencies can use several techniques to create the idea that everyone is on board with a certain idea. In some cases, news agencies won't mention crowd turnouts, but rather, they'll show us the turnout. Following the first presidential debate, in a syndicated news article, Reuters reported Obama's rally in Madison, Wisconsin.  The Daily Star republished the article – along with thousands of other papers on the Reuters feed – with the impressive photo and caption. By being deliberately vague on the location of the rally, Reuters was able to avoid any speculation or doubt about Obama's extraordinary ability to draw a crowd. The campaign rally wasn't just being held at some random location in Madison, it was being held openly on the campus of the University Of Wisconsin, home to over 45,000 students and staff. This campaign rally closed down nearby classrooms and canceled most mid-day classes, leaving thousands of students with nowhere else to go.  

Seeing a crowd form around a person, accident, or speech automatically draws us in. There are still those who think that political campaigns are operated and coordinated by average idiots. This isn't even remotely true. Crowd psychology has been in use since the very beginning and people like Edward Bernays have been using it to manipulate group-think for decades. Public relations and advertising apply to political campaigns just as much as they apply to corporations and businesses. Words and imagery have been experimented with successfully and unsuccessfully throughout history, giving us proof that the manipulation of crowds has always been a clear objective for anyone who has ever sought power. To appeal to minorities, it can be as easy as making sure your candidate stands in front of a few visible minorities while he's on your television and addressing an audience. The best way to appeal to parents and mothers is to ensure that the media captures your candidate kissing or holding a baby. If you want to show the world your ultra popularity, you can even buy hundreds and thousands of fake Twitter followers. Several columnists and mainstream journalists have written pieces on the subject of hidden messages, popularity, and powerful words. The name of the game has always been conformity and even a single word can be enough to invoke our herd instincts.

Yet another sure way to increase conformity is by creating the idea that all knowledgeable people have unanimously agreed upon something – or at least a few of them. The media calls these knowledgeable people “experts”. These so-called experts are everywhere. We have experts on climate, experts on foreign affairs, experts on fashion and trends, experts on sex, experts on language, experts on media, experts on socks, experts on vegetables, experts on UFOs, experts on hammer toes, and experts on experts. The list goes on for miles. In fact, the list is endless. The media produces experts on nearly every subject and never fails to proclaim their titles in headlines and captions. As long as you have a degree and a pleasant personality, you could get a job as a professionally certified expert. In some cases, you don't even need a degree to be declared an expert by the mainstream media. Chances are, if you get a lot of ingrown pubic hairs, you could be declared an expert and be offered several interviews and television appearances to sway public opinion on ingrown pubis. Simply by adding the words expert, analysis, study, or report, media organizations are able to create the impression of absolute, irrefutable truth. In most cases, a simple newspaper headline like, “Experts: Iran Nuke Many Months Away”, is enough to create conversations around water coolers and dinner tables. Spouses and co-workers will repeat the headline like a soundbite without bothering to actually read the article. In this age of Attention Deficit Disorder and Twitter, a simple headline contains all the information anyone really needs.

Often the word report is used in breaking news, but other times it implies that a group of experts has come to some sort of consensus on a particular subject. The problem is that most people won't dig deeper and will just accept that the “report” comes from a legitimate or reputable source. Headlines like, “Report: US Protestants Lose Majority Status”, are simple enough to spread a soundbite. They're enough to provoke atheist Rufus to tell Protestant Wilbur that he is no longer a majority and that it's a fact – without needing to read the article. Headlines like, “New Report Finds One In Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation”, will provoke Rufus to post them on Facebook and preach to his atheist friends, knowing that most of them will just browse the headline in their news feeds and happily revel in the victories of atheism.

When experts are scared, we should be scared. The word expert hasn't been used in more topics than the topic of Climate Change. “Experts Fear Climate Change Link To Erratic Rainfall Pattern”, is enough to make most climate thumpers want to hide under their covers, even though the word fear never appears in any of the experts' own quotes and the actual article itself has a single university professor theorizing the link between erratic rainfall patterns and man-made climate change. Professor Umme Kulsum Navera makes statements about the occurrence and frequency of monsoon rains and flash floods. At the end of the article, Navera goes on to say, “These heavy rainfalls within a short period of time are not normal behavior of weather and it may be linked to climate change.” Unable to declare rainfall patterns as absolute, unquestionable evidence of man-made climate change, Navera plays it safe by saying “may be” and the article's unnamed writer uses “could be” instead of “is”. Again, at no point does Navera or the meteorologist express any kind of fear.

Experts and their fact checks, polling data, clever imagery, and properly utilized photographs seem to be the simplest ways to build a sturdy enough bandwagon to win an election or to convert a few heretics. Naivety is the only thing capable of preserving the tactics of politicians, corporations, and their friends in media. The very same organizations that rely on this naivety have worked tirelessly to breed a continued ignorance in children. Schools and universities teach obedience and trust in experts from the youngest ages possible, ensuring that the naivety spreads across generations. This isn't really as much of a conspiracy as it is a brilliant and sustainable business plan for any government, corporation, or organization.  

The evidence is clear. Politicians and media are constantly working to build the perfect bandwagon. This is one of the inevitable consequences of democracy and corporatism. It's something that everyone will have to learn to identify and eventually disavow.