Date: Tue Nov 17 2009 - 01:33:10 EST
Study Claims Even the Most Sophisticated News Readers Can Be Manipulated
By Melinda Burns, Miller-McCune.com
Posted on November 9, 2009, Printed on November 16, 2009
There's nobody more cynical about the media than your average European.
Only 12 percent of Europeans claim to trust the media, compared to 15
percent of North Americans, 29 percent of Pacific Asians and 48 percent of
Africans, the BBC has found.
Yet new research out of the London School of Economics and Political
Science suggests that even the most hardened Europeans may succumb to media
manipulation and change their political views if they are bombarded long
enough with biased news.
Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer in European politics at the school, fed a
steady diet of slanted newsletters about Europe and the European Union —
either all good news or all bad — to 1,200 citizens of six countries over
Over time, Bruter found, and without exception, the readers subconsciously
adopted the bias to varying degrees and changed their view of the EU and of
themselves as Europeans, a few of them in the extreme. Surprisingly, they
didn't register any change right after the newsletters stopped — not
until full six months later, when they had obviously let down their guard.
Bruter calls this the "time bomb" effect of one-sided news. His study
paints a blunt picture of how cynicism, far from inoculating citizens to
resist political persuasion, merely delays the impact.
"We know that an increasing proportion of citizens distrust the media and
that some explicitly claim to discount bias in the news that they receive,"
he wrote. "However, we show that despite this qualified reading strategy,
the effect of news resounds over time.
Bruter did not study American media, but his research raises questions
about the effects of long-term exposure to polarized television news on
outlets such as the FOX and MSNBC networks — which are currently first
and second respectively in cable news ratings. The Obama administration
recently called FOX News Channel a political opponent and not a legitimate
The "time bomb" effect calls into question whether the cynicism of
modern-day citizens actually makes them more vulnerable to the very
journalistic sources they distrust and feel immune to, Bruter said.
Thus, British citizens, the most cynical of all, may be alert to the
anti-EU slant of their media, yet the study suggests they can be
nonetheless be manipulated to feel significantly less European than others,
The media, he said — and particularly, the tabloids — should stop
brushing aside accusations of bias with assertions that "their audiences
are mature and sophisticated and can take what they say with a pinch of
"By contrast, my findings suggest that even sophisticated audiences are
indeed susceptible to manipulation," he said. "As such, the big lesson for
the media is that it does have a responsibility."
Bruter became intrigued with the question of media and identity after the
citizens of France and the Netherlands voted down a proposed constitution
for the European Union in 2005. This setback, he said, made it imperative
to figure out whether the media was influencing "why some citizens feel
more European than others."
Bruter designed a two-year experiment in which he sent biweekly newsletters
containing biased news about Europe and the EU to up to 200 each in the
United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Sweden. These
countries represented both large and small, rich and poor, pro-European and
"Euroskeptic" members of the EU.
Each four-page newsletter, compiled from daily and weekly European papers,
included two pages of articles exclusively about Europe and the EU, either
all positive or all negative.
Thus, for example, one group of participants would read about how European
heads of state agreeing to jointly fight drug trafficking, Airbus
overtaking Boeing as the world's No. 1 airplane manufacturer, and the value
of the euro going up, while another group would read about the value of the
euro going down, Airbus losing a large order in China to Boeing, and heads
of state failing to agree on how to fight organized crime from the former
In addition, the "good news" newsletters contained three photographs or
drawings of pro-European symbols such as maps of Europe and photographs of
the EU flag (a circle of yellow centered on a blue background), while the
"bad news" newsletters contained placebo photographs of people and
Before the first newsletter was mailed out, participants filled out a
questionnaire designed to measure their civic, cultural and European
identity. They answered such questions (in different languages) as, "In
general, are you in favor or against the efforts being made to unify
Europe?" "In general, would you consider yourself a citizen of Europe?"
"Would you say that you feel closer to fellow Europeans than, say, to
Chinese, Australian or American people?"
Also, participants were asked to describe their reaction if they saw
someone burning a European flag, and their reaction if they saw someone
burning the flag of their own country.
They received essentially the same questionnaire twice more — right after
the newsletters stopped and six months after that.
The findings showed that biased news had virtually no effect on whether
citizens felt more or less European or more or less in favor of the EU,
directly after the two-year experiment ended. But six months after the last
newsletter arrived, the results showed that they were unmistakably
Consistent exposure to symbols of Europe and the EU — flags, maps and
euro banknotes — worked immediately to make people feel more European,
the study found. And six months after the experiment, participants who were
regularly exposed to the symbols were increasingly aware of them in real
life. In effect, they had been "primed" by the newsletters to notice them.
But the "time bomb" of biased news was more effective than the exposure to
symbols in manipulating members of the "vastly cynical European public,"
"It shows that even the most 'unbelievable' propaganda may have an effect
over time and that the most fallacious and baseless rumors, for instance,
may shape opinion to an extent," Bruter said.
Today, the European Union has grown to 27 member states, from the original
six that first engaged in mutual economic cooperation in 1957. The Lisbon
Treaty, a replacement for the failed 2005 European Constitution, is poised
to go into effect this year: 26 of the 27 member countries have ratified
it, including France and the Netherlands. The Czech Republic is the last
But regardless of what governments do, the question of why and how the
citizens of different countries in Europe begin to feel less British or
Danish or Portuguese, say, and more European at heart is still very much an
open one. The media, Bruter said, can impede or encourage that feeling over
"The effect of news ultimately kicks in and so influences citizens'
European identity with remarkable efficiency in the long term," he said.
"Time Bomb? The Dynamic Effect of News and Symbols on the Political
Identity of European Citizens," appeared earlier this year in the journal
Comparative Political Studies.
Melinda Burns was previously a senior writer for the Santa Barbara
News-Press, covering immigration, urban planning, science and the
© 2009 Miller-McCune.com All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/143831/
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