Manipulation of information in the media is not exactly new. P. T. Barnum’s famous phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” still rings true, especially since journalism has become a clown show. Manipulation by the mainstream media is pseudo-journalism, and leads us to question what is true and what is fake.
To make matters worse, we are caught in a digitized loop of absurdity, where conformity reigns supreme. The recent Spotify debacle, in which Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and other aging musicians decided to remove their music from the music streaming platform because Spotify is home for comedian Joe Rogan’s highly popular podcast, illuminates some problems.
First, there is a problem of conformity. You don’t have to be a profiler or a mathematician to notice a pattern of pseudo-moral repetition. One person (in this case, Neil Young) decides to do A, then another person (in this case, Joni Mitchell) decides to follow, and so on. The same goes for the ritual condemnations of whatever it is fashionable to condemn today on social media. Sometimes, the intentions are harmless, but often this is only illustrative of collectivism, rather than an individual’s decision. People rush to post because they don’t want to be left out. But how much thought is involved?
Conformity is linked to following authority. In his seminal work, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, Stanley Milgram writes that “Conformity leads to homogenization of behavior, as the influenced person comes to adapt the behavior of peers.” In addition,
the requirement of going along with the group often remains implicit . . . there is no overt requirement made by group members that the subject go along with them. The action is spontaneously adopted by the subject. Indeed, many subjects would resist an explicit demand by group members to conform, for the situation is defined as one consisting of equals who have no right to order each other about.
Notice that most members of the media elite—in other words, propagandists–—implicitly claim that they are free and individual thinkers, yet there is never any room for dissent, including and especially from the members of their own group. Anyone who questions the group orthodoxy is quickly ostracized until the behavior is corrected, but even if the “offender” is welcomed back into the fold, he or she is never quite a true member anymore. Milgram’s definition of conformity is fully applied to the world of social media because platforms like Twitter and Facebook thrive in an environment of repeated conformity.
The second problem seen most readily in the media is a lack of authenticity. One of the reasons that Joe Rogan’s podcast is so popular today is that he has gained people’s trust. Open-minded consumers of media are choosing to listen to Rogan’s show because they sense that he is authentic. The consumers have made a choice, because Rogan appears to not to be engaged in disseminating propaganda but, instead, seems genuinely to be trying to figure things out for himself. People find this interesting. And why shouldn’t they, given how rare it is today?
Although he may be a “brand” (as many media personalities these days are), Joe Rogan invites an astounding variety of guests onto his program and is known for having extended, uncut conversations with them.
Rogan’s recent show with Dr. Robert Malone is a perfect example. That conversation went on for three hours, during which time Rogan simply asked questions, and let Malone speak. Imagine that! Shouldn’t journalists do that? Aren’t journalists supposed to give voice to all opinions, including dissenting ones? Isn’t that the very definition of journalism? Instead, today’s journalism is little more than a competition to see who can be a better editor cum propagandist.
A third problem is the question of authenticity itself. Who is a fake writer, a fake journalist, a fake critic? Who is an authentic one? Whom do we trust when choosing between these televised and digitized people and their incessant talking? Are they creations of marketing and branding, or have they arrived at their critical conclusions by themselves? Do they merit their platform or their audience?
Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd,” illustrates the power and corruption of the media. Andy Griffith (best known as Sheriff Andy Taylor of the fictional town of Mayberry) plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a bum from a small town in Arkansas. We first see him in jail, drunk and disheveled. A local radio journalist, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), finds Larry in the jail cell as she’s looking for the next subject for her show, “A Face in the Crowd.”
Larry ends up talking some good old, Southern homespun wisdom, along with playing his guitar and singing wholesome songs. He’s funny, oftentimes making fun of the privileged, especially the politicians. Marcia decides to give him his own show, and Larry is an immediate hit. He has influence over the people. In fact, in one instance, he tells his audience to manage the hot day in town by taking a dip in the mayor’s swimming pool. The people promptly make their way to the pool.
Larry hits it big. He has his own national television show, and people love him. He’s likable because he “tells it like it is” with a twist of homespun wisdom and politeness. At first, he rejects the very notion of sponsors. He doesn’t want to pitch any products nor does he need some “East Coast” Ivy League graduates to write his material for him. But Larry begins to lose himself in cheap women, booze, and profit. The media creates him and, as time passes, the media destroys him. He reveals his own hypocrisy when he blabs on a hot mic that the people are really a bunch of idiots, suckers, and rubes.
For this, there are consequences. A political candidate withdraws his association with him, producers and sponsors don’t want to have anything to do with him, and he has destroyed any possibility of a love match with Marcia. (Imagine if there were similar consequences for our political leaders today when they get caught saying what they really think on a hot mic . . . . but we know that only goes one way.).
All of these issues swirling around media and media-driven “controversies” should lead us to ask whether we are thinking critically about our media consumption. It’s not easy to discern this at times, but we should be observant of the patterns we see. Unfortunately, much like media manipulation, conformity is also nothing new.
Right now, we are in the grips of a battle between conformity/obedience and free thought. This is a basic psychological condition: are we individual thinkers or are we submitting to the group in order to affirm preconceived notions that have nothing to do with truth or, even, the search for it?