Students of all varieties filed into the Multipurpose Room of the Student Memorial Center on October 23, 2012, to hear a panel discussion between Brooke Gladstone, Martha Rosler, and Jack Bratich.
The atmosphere seemed anticipatory, as incoming freshmen had read Gladstone’s graphic novel “The Influencing Machine” as part of the “One Book, One Campus” program.
The program was created in order to unite the university under a common theme.
Brooke Gladstone is the cohost of National Public Radio’s “On the Media”, and, starting off the panel, she explained that the media was more of a reflection, a mirror of what we were as a society instead of a machine that forces upon us what it created.
She is particularly interested in how people interact with politics, and seeing as that is a current and pressing issue, embarked upon a research project that involved watching political ads for eight hours.
The same four major Super PACs produce the vast majority of political ads.
You may be aware of what a Super PAC is: it’s a type of political action committee that cannot make monetary contributions to campaigns, and works independently.
What makes them “super” is that corporations and wealthy individuals often fund them, and there is no funding cap – unlike political parties, which limit donations.
The ads that they produce are more likely to contain falsehoods about political candidates and have a negative spin.
Gladstone questioned the anonymity of the ads – if disclosing who contributed funding was required, would the ads be more truthful? In media, especially social media, the more anonymous people are allowed to be, the meaner they are because they don’t have to have their name attached.
Gladstone noted that in this barrage of information that could be true or false, it is helpful to know oneself and what you believe.
To find out how people process information, she spends a lot of time working with the brain.
In her research, she used FMRIs, a scan that detects changes in blood flow, to monitor the brain activity of Republicans, Democrats and Independents while they watched political ads. By testing brain activity, she and other researchers were able to discover indications that the subject was lying or being hypocritical.
When someone encounters a fact that they don’t agree with, our reasoning centers and emotion centers start trying to resolve the conflict.
When someone from one political party encountered a statement said by someone of their own party that contradicted a viewpoint they held, their brain started to justify the statement by any means necessary.
The active filtering of observations and statements, to see more obviously what you agree with, makes beliefs more firmly entrenched the longer they are held.
We are wired to lie to ourselves, and through this we fall prey to the lies of others that are consistent with our view of the world.
We accept what we agree with and reject what we don’t.
So what about those who are better informed? Do they react differently?
The answer: no. Gladstone tested Republicans and Democrats on their political knowledge – and 95% of people believe some kind of falsehood about their political party.
How do we deal with this?
As Gladstone said, “Google is like the Bible”. She suggested using FactCheck.org, a source devoted to objective facts, and mentioned an app for smartphones, which, if you open while a political ad is playing, can tell you about the Super PAC that sponsored it, and what is true and false about the ad.
She maintained that we, the consumers, are responsible for who we are and what we believe. Jack Bratich, Associate Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, talked about the various forms that the media machine takes.
He spoke very quickly and used a lot of specific terminology that made what he was saying hard to follow for anyone that was not in his field.
He was interested in the study of war, and especially how the media has been influencing it recently.
He spoke about the impact of social media on the Arab Spring and the greater possibility for dissent that arises from having many users on the internet communicating and organizing with each other quickly, creating flash mobs, for example.
As an example, he mentioned Wael Ghonim, an internet activist who works primarily through social media who was able to organize part of the Egyptian protests through a Facebook page. He talked about media that is state run such as radio and television networks, as opposed to state-friended media that would take something down if it were objected to.
He also mentioned the Alliance of Youth Movement, which was an event in 2008 with many internet activists that led to the creation of Movements.org, which supports internet activism.
Martha Rosler, an internationally renowned artist, was the next speaker on the panel.
She is known for working with media, war, and women’s experience. She began by asking what the role of art should be.
For herself, art can be a form of social justice. She then started talking about information and newsgathering strategies; how the consumer gets factual information.
Flicking through PowerPoint slides of screenshots, she listed numerous websites where one could get objective information.
She also added a few journalistic sites with a decidedly liberal bias.
Some of these sites were: FAIR, CJR, 538, Democracy now! Paul Krugman, Counterpunch, Daily KOS, Crooked Timber, TPM, Nieman Reports, Monthly Review, Jacobin, AlterNet, and Mother Jones.
As she paged through the slides, the audience felt uncomfortable – it seemed as if she was pointing out how easily one could get unbiased information, and how ridiculous it was that people are so often uninformed about political issues.
Then, she played a video that demonstrated recombinant media-news clips and sound bites fading in and out, images fading in and out, to demonstrate how much of what we see is a calculated recombination.
Because the video was played without much precursory information, the audience may have been confused about how the video related to the main theme, or the point Rosler was trying to get across.
Overall, the panel was informative. It provided a lot of information about how you could, and should, get objective information about politics and social issues.