Author John L. Sullivan illustrates a potential threat that stretches back more than a century, stating “that media messages carry potentially damaging information for the public, and that these messages need to be carefully monitored and potentially restricted” (Sullivan, pg. 48). But how? Extensive research has been conducted over the past decade that alters the perspective of the media message effect on the audience.
Harvard psychologist Hugh Munsterberg was one of the first sociologists to consider how our sense of reality could be altered, specifically through the introduction of film as a medium (Sullivan, pg.51). His research further suggested that this experienced cognitive and emotional state could leave individuals open to vulnerabilities such as psychological suggestions (Sullivan, pg. 52). This created the notion that audience researchers, including the government could be driven by moral panics and general public concern for issues presented. Stanley Cohen uses the term moral panics to describe “very strong negative public reaction to the spreads of a new social behavior” (Sullivan, pg. 54).
Backmasking – a Moral Panic Example
An example of this appeared in the 1980’s, when a number of Christian evangelists came together to allege the unthinkable: certain rock music songs contained hidden messages that could be heard when played backwards. This was termed as ‘backmasking’ and these messages were alleged to contain themes of Satanism, drug use and the occult (Demain, 2011). They stated that not only were these messages of Satanism buried in backmasking, but that the brain could distinguish these messages subliminally. Below is a video of one of the main offenders, according to Jacob Aranza, a youth minister that started this moral panic among the evangelists (Demain, 2011):
I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling ready to sacrifice! A similar theory was parodied in The Simpsons, with a pop song that attempted to subliminally recruit kids to the navy.
The Payne Fund Studies
Noted as “one of the most ambitious early audiences research projects in the history of the field” (Sullivan, pg. 556), The Payne Fund studies were motivated by the suspicion that movies could implant ideas into the minds of an audiences. This research project would go on to explore the effects movies had on audiences, including physical and emotional, and also racial beliefs, retention and self-identity (Sullivan, pg. 56). One of the experiments, measuring retention of factual information, saw researchers present children a fact quiz 6 weeks and 3 months after the viewing. This specific experiment yielded interesting results, finding that 60% of children could recall the specific details they were asked about in the movies they viewed (Sullivan pg. 56). They further found that this retention increased when shown movies that involved both exciting action sequences, and/or themes outside the ordinary experiences of children (Sullivan, pg.56). Further experiments on these children involved monitoring heart rates, blood pressure and sweaty palms to indicate levels of fear, excitement and arousal to the movies they were shown. They found that themes of danger and tragedy had a more intense reaction from children aged 9 and under, essentially decreasing in emotional reaction with age. However, themes of romance and eroticism bared almost no reaction from children under the age of 10, but increased levels of arousal were found in adolescents and adults (Sullivan, pg. 58).
“We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them”
Walt Lippmann discusses the notion of propaganda and its more modern, negative connotation. That it is used to describe “a deliberate attempt of one party to control or manage the information environment of another (or group) through manipulation of symbols and psychology (Sullivan, pg. 62).
World War II remains one of the strongest arguments in regards to media propaganda shaping the beliefs and opinions of the masses. Propaganda became a crucial instrument for the German Nazi party to gain and maintain power and implement Nazi policies.
Adolf Hitler describes the importance of the media propaganda, something which he states the British failed miserably at during World War I. In his book, Mein Kampf, he refers to propaganda as an art, which wakes up the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, and appeal to the hearts of the national masses (Hitler, 1939). He also discusses that the most propaganda must be presented in a popular form, with a fixed intellectual level, that is, that it can be understood by the least intellectual (Hitler, 1939). Hitler states that propaganda must only present the aspect of truth that is favorable to its own side. Finally he states “all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward.” (Hitler, 1939).
Violence in the Media
Postwar communication research shifted from the concern of children’s vulnerabilities to violent media via motion pictures, being transferred to the newest forms of media – television and video games. Whilst the material of the research may have changed, the objective remained the same – “the audience exists in a naturally occurring state that can be interrupted and dramatically changed thanks to specific media messages” (Sullivan, pg. 79). During this time, the notion that the audience was a powerless mass seemed to dwindle in research, however it is a collective that may require protection from dangerous influences (Sullivan, pg. 79). As we progress as individuals, more technology is readily available to reach audiences anywhere, anytime. As technology progresses, more of our time is spent dedicated to devices such as television and video games, which has created the concern that violent media messages are changing individual perception. This has long been an argument in the United States, especially in light of incidents such as Virginia Tech. Much research has been conducted as to the impact of the media messages portrayed through violent video games on both children and adults. Anderson & Dill surveyed college students regarding their use of various types of video games (Sullivan, pg. 78). Their research found that students who stated they played video games for 13+ hours per week, often showed delinquent behavior (Sullivan, pg. 78). They further implemented a laboratory experiment, in which individuals played violent or non-violent video games. These findings suggested that those playing the violent video games showed signed of more aggressive behavior among peers (Sullivan pg. 78).
Manhunt – a Modern Day Example
In today’s society, video games have become increasingly more violent. In 2003, a game was released for PlayStation 2 that I could not wait to play – I was just 14 at the time. The game, titled Manhunt, followed a death row prisoner, who was sedated and released into bad part of the city, and promised his freedom if he follows the direction of ‘The Director’. During this game, the goal is to essentially kill as many people in as many ways as possible, the more violent the kill, the more points you receive.Interestingly, Rockstar North (the developers) actually call it a “psychological experience”, not a game.
However, not long after its release (it was actually banned entirely in New Zealand and other countries because of its level of violence), the game was blamed for a murder. In 2004, in England, a 17-year-old boy lured his 14-year-old friend to a park and beat him to death with a claw hammer, and stabbed him repeatedly with a knife (BBC, 2004). Many of his friends claimed he was obsessed with the game, playing for many hours at a time. Whilst the game in question was classified as 18 (must be at least 18 years of age to play), it could obviously still end up in the hands of minors. Rockstar employees even stated that many people were uncomfortable with the level of violence portrayed in this particular game (BBC, 2004). Should games with such a high level of violence, one that is called a “psychological experience” be available at all? Whilst there may not be an impact on the average individual, those who develop an unhealthy obsession may become blinded as to the notions of right and wrong. In this instance, the media message could have manipulated the beliefs of an already troubled boy, and altered his reality.
Thanks for tuning in!
BBC NEWS | UK | England | Leicestershire | Game blamed for hammer murder. (2004, July 29). Retrieved October 01, 2016, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/leicestershire/3934277.stm
Demain, B. (2011, August 18). The Devil Wears Headphones: A Brief History of Backmasking. Retrieved October 01, 2016, from http://mentalfloss.com/article/28548/devil-wears-headphones-brief-history-backmasking
Hitler, A. (1939). Chapter VI. In Mein Kampf. Retrieved October 1, 2016, from https://archive.org/stream/meinkampf035176mbp/meinkampf035176mbp_djvu.txt
Sullivan, J. L. (2013). Media audiences: Effects, users, institutions, and power. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.