How Marketers & Media Companies Manipulate Your Mind (And How to Combat It)

Our brains weren’t meant for this.

The constant influx of world news. The fear. The outrage. Powerful, emotional stories from millions of people available in our pocket, just a few taps away.

But we need to be “informed,” right?

So we do what everyone does: We re-share the news that sounds right, get angry at everything else, and close the app for a few minutes so we can get something done. Then we open it again.

And the consequences are real. Misinformation spreads like a wildfire. Divisions are created where there should be healthy conversation. And we’re left feeling angry at the world, yet too emotionally drained to take action in a more meaningful way.

This isn’t an accident

Viral content creators know that the most effective, most sharable content is based on intense emotion—and especially generating outrage.

Rational, measured, fact-based news? It just doesn’t spread as well.

These articles and video clips hit on our deepest human drives, and our brains are sent into hyperdrive. We’re slowly persuaded to see the world in a certain way, even when we didn’t realize we were reading something intended to be persuasive.

As a marketer who’s formally trained in Rhetoric & Writing, I’ve had the luck of being taught what persuasive tactics look like. And let me tell you—they’re everywhere.

But few people know how to spot them.

So today, I’m letting you in on 5 secrets marketers and copywriters know about the media that most people won’t ever hear about.

Read these. Take them to heart. Then start looking for them. You’ll see them the next time you log onto social media, I guarantee it

 And that’s when you’ll know you’re on your way to being a more informed media consumer.

Secret #1: Statistics are easily manipulated

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

We tend to take statistics as fact. If it has numbers in it, it has to be trustworthy, right? You can’t fake numbers.

And sure, numbers aren’t disputable. But what you need to pay attention to is the language around the numbers. Because that language can make it sound like the numbers support something they were never meant to support.

You see this all the time in articles like, “Could the skins of cherries SOLVE CANCER? A new study finds people who eat cherries have 9% more white blood cells…”

I just made that up. But that language sounds, familiar, right? You’ve seen it on the front of your favorite magazines. Now, that language is used in half-researched articles across the internet. It looks like:

  • Too-good-to-be-true questions that you’re meant to answer yourself (so they don’t need to be liable to an outrageous claim)
  • A correlation that’s not a proven cause-and-effect (this sentence implies eating cherries cause more white blood cells, and it implies that more white blood cells solve cancer… but there’s no explanation of how these things actually affect each other)

How to combat it

Be a skeptical reader. Ask these questions as you go:

  • What claims is this article making? (Seriously, make a mental list. Then ask, do they back up each claim with real research?)
  • Where are these statistics/facts coming from? (Do they link to the actual study? Many articles link to other articles, which link to other articles… and when you follow the trail, you find the statistic actually has no known source, or is incredibly outdated.)
  • Did the original study draw the same conclusion? (Read the study’s Summary if you can, and even the Results or Conclusion portions. Many times, a study may say something like “This was interesting, but more research is needed.” This isn’t them being modest—this is saying that their findings aren’t something that should be taken at face value yet.)
  • And if it DID draw the same conclusion, how big was the study? (A study of just a few people probably shouldn’t be trusted)
  • Who funded it?
  • Is the journal it was published in peer-reviewed?

Secret #2: Graphs are easy to manipulate, too

Photo by Giorgio Tomassetti on Unsplash

We treat graphs like they’re automatically fact. The numbers can’t lie!

Oh, but they can.

A graph is just a visual representation, an interpretation of data. They’re very useful! But only if they’re designed responsibly. 

How to combat it

Here’s what to look for:

  • A title, clear labels on the X and Y axes, and labels on the line or bars if there are multiple things being tracked (It should be abundantly clear what you’re looking at. If not, something’s off.)
  • And… all these things (Why list it here when you can read a nice infographic that explains it so much better?)

Secret #3: Fake news doesn’t look fake

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

That’s why it works, of course.

We think we’ll be able to spot fake news when we see it. But it’s not actually all that obvious. Because the creators of fake news have a big incentive to make sure you don’t catch on.

It’s simple: Any website that gets traffic can run ads to make money from that traffic. So fake news creators want to get as much traffic as possible.

And the best way to get people clicking on their articles? Make people angry about something. Make it sound like a complete no-brainer that they should get on board with what you’re saying, and make it sound like the other side is completely stupid. Good vs. bad. Us vs. them.

And yet, they’ll use calm language and some strategic statistics to make it sound like they’re a rational news source.

Rinse and repeat—several times a day.

Boom. Fake news.

Social media platforms like Facebook have made a real effort to shut down fake news and misinformation. But those pieces are easily seen by millions of people before they’re caught. And the less obvious ones may easily slip under the radar, spreading rumors that few people think to fact check.

How to combat it

Check your sources.

This is something I feel like we tell each other to do, but don’t explain how to do it.

It’s not hard at all. There are whole websites devoted to compiling original sources so you can find definitive, evidence-based proof of who said or did what. Here are the big ones (bookmark ’em):

And if you’re in a country where these might be blocked, look into using a virtual private network (VPN) to view the content while staying safe.

Secret #4: Bias rarely sounds like bias

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

An article can read like a robot listing a hundred facts. It could sound entirely neutral. And yet, it could be swaying your perception of an event just through the language it uses.

Take for example a new article that’s reporting on the “George Floyd Riots.” Without even reading the article, we’re dealing with loaded language: “riot.”

When is it a riot, and when is it a protest? “Rioting” suggests chaos, while “protesting” suggests intention. One is definitely more emotional than the other. And while both chaos and intentional action may be happening at different times and in different ways throughout this moment in history, the word “riot” tells a very specific story.

From ‘A War of Words.’ Why Describing the George Floyd Protests as ‘Riots’ Is So Loaded:

“Riot suggests pandemonium,” says john a. powell, a professor of law and African American studies at the University of California, Berkeley (who does not capitalize his name in recognition of its being a slave name). “What’s happening across the country and across the world is a call for justice, a call for police accountability, for the recognition that black lives matter too,” powell says. “Rioting detracts from all of that.”

And it’s not just word choices that can be biased. Bias can also show up in where the words are placed, the tone used, and the facts that the writer chooses to highlight.

How to combat it

Read this simple guide to detecting bias in the news. Then start looking for it. It’s everywhere.

You can’t escape bias. Language isn’t neutral. But we can be aware of it, and seek balanced perspectives in our news sources.

Secret #5: The algorithm is not your friend

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube—

Our online experience is governed by algorithms. Systems designed to make note of what you click on and what you like so that it can show you more of that thing.

The result? A very loud echo chamber, where everyone you know seems to be talking about the same things.

(And yes, even contrary opinions can be a part of your echo chamber! If you’re regularly getting into Facebook arguments with people, you can bet Facebook is going to keep showing you their posts to get that sweet, sweet engagement.)

And when you pair the algorithm with fake news and news bias, you have a recipe for some serious confirmation bias.

If you’re not familiar, confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of your existing beliefs or theories. It’s what happens when you see an article that says dogs are scientifically better than cats and you think Oh, I knew it!…And you somehow don’t take in the other articles on your feed talking about how superior cats are.

We all have confirmation bias. You are not immune. It’s a natural process based on the brain’s incredible power to look for patterns.

But of course, we need to keep our confirmation bias in check if we want to be responsible media consumers.

How to combat it

First, stop getting your news from social media.

This sounds out there, right? But I’m gonna say it: Social media should NOT be a news source.

News should be about relaying as-unbiased-as-possible information to people who need to hear it. Social media is a completely non-ideal format for this goal.

What does this look like practically? I’d love to say “just spend less time on social media!” …but we all know that’s almost impossible. It’s designed to keep you there.

Instead, actively modify your feed. Mute or “unfollow” friends who regularly post emotional news stories (they’ll still be on your friends list, don’t worry). Replace it with content that’s helpful to you, such as by joining fun groups and turning on notifications for them. Business groups! Puppy photo groups! Family activity idea groups! There are so many better things you could be filling your feed with.

Then, get your news from an actually journalistic source. Here are a few options:

  • Your local newspaper. This might be a surprise, but your local newspaper (but NOT news channel) is typically going to be one of the strongest sources of investigative, verified news. In fact, local newspapers are often what TV news channels rely on, and it’s local newspapers that usually break the stories that the bigger new outlets later pick up on.
  • Known balanced news sources. Escaping bias is not possible. But you can commit to reading more balanced sources. Here’s a media bias chart that show the political leanings of different news outlets. Here’s another (interactive!) one that shows bias, along with the type of information it provides (original fact reporting, persuasive content, or completely fabricated?)
  • Wikipedia. You could get all your news from Wikipedia’s current events page alone. This is a great option for those who want to stay in touch with world events, and not just local ones.

Finally, expand your influencers

News aside, pay attention to who you follow.

If your social feed or inbox is full of people who look like you, believe the same things you do, and are doing the same things you do… you’re missing out!

Not only are you creating your own echo chamber, but you’re also cutting yourself off from the varied perspectives that make you a better problem solver (and business owner).

So get out there and intentionally find individuals to follow outside of your circle. People who are creating original content (email newsletter, tweets, Facebook posts, anything) with lifestyles or perspectives different from your own.

Now, don’t worry—you don’t have to agree with everything they say. Or any of it, really. There seems to be a belief in some parts of American society that if you listen to someone, you implicitly agree with them. Therefore, you should block out the contrary voices. “See no evil, hear no evil.”

But that’s just not true. You get to choose what you take to heart. I do encourage you, though—when you do come upon something that doesn’t sit right with you, instead of tuning out, ask the tougher questions:

  • What might they be experiencing that would lead them to feel this way?
  • What might it feel like to be in their position?

This is how you beat the algorithm.

This is how you hold onto free thought.

And now more than ever, we need more people with these skills. Good luck out there.

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