Media influences on citizens' perspectives and political debate | HBR Talk 138

I remember a game from my childhood, kind of a bullying trick bigger kids used to play on littler kids, where they’d hold one hand up kinda high, wave it around or shake it a bit, and tell you “Watch this hand!” Your natural tendency as a kid is to look and see what that hand is going to do. Is this going to be one of those double-jointed-finger tricks? Did the other kid find something interesting on playground? There doesn’t actually seem to be anything… just his hand. You maybe even get ready to dodge if that hand starts moving toward your face, like the last time when he told you your shoe was untied, then chucked you in the nose with his knuckles.

Your curiosity and confusion leave you completely open and unprepared when the trickster smacks you in the back of the head with his other hand. Like I said, kind of a bullying trick. It’s one of the oldest around, too… using misdirection to make a target vulnerable to a planned action by preventing him from seeing it coming.

Pretty sneaky trick, but it wouldn’t work on adults, right? Adults are too savvy for that. We’ve been around, you know? Had that game played on us when we were kids… we know better than to just stand there and stare, don’t we?

Think about some of the things we’ve been watching lately, and how we’ve been discussing them. Think back about public discussion regarding political protesting on university campuses, black lives matter protests, Antifa, Russian interference in America’s elections, past rioting and looting over media reported police shootings… it’s a guarantee everyone listening to this has opinions regarding each subject. We’ve argued on social media about the meaning of the first amendment, when violence is or is not justified, the legitimacy of various narratives surrounding each story… it’s been coming hard and fast with rapid acceleration for more than the last decade.

Have you noticed yet that it’s a distraction? Interestingly, politicians, the media, celebrities, activists… they don’t even have to be involved with each other to all be part of that. They don’t even have to know they’re all on the same page… or the same hand.

How have you been influenced? 

Until recently, whether you’re on the left or the right could fairly easily be identified by whether you believed there’s an epidemic of unprovoked police shootings of unarmed black men, clearly the result of systemic racism… or whether you believe perpetually innocent cops are under attack for legitimate actions taken in the heat of the moment during conflicts with violent criminals. How many of you have articulated other possibilities, only to have someone respond to you on social media by trying to strawman or shoehorn your position into one of those boxes. 

Debate has been heated, widespread, and intense. Think about how you react to additional information, and how you’ve seen others react. How do you - or people who have responded to you - view or use such information? How about statistics on shootings of unarmed citizens vs those who were armed? Black vs white deaths from police shootings? Police shootings of citizens vs citizen shootings of police? What do you use, or see others using, when debating whether black or white is over-represented among shooting victims… general population statistics or criminal perpetration statistics? Of those two data sets, why do you prefer to use the one you use? How have people responded when presented with information that doesn’t fit neatly into a preconceived narrative on the subject?

Information presented on this topic by well known talking heads is usually designed to lead you to conclusions about whether or not racism is a systemic issue in the American justice system, and far too many people are predisposed to view the topic of police brutality through the filter of that one question. The hand in front of our faces does all kinds of tricks to point you in one direction or the other with specific regard to that one question. 

What isn’t the polarized establishment discussing? What media has discussed increasingly invasive authoritarian policy affecting personal life choices as a factor in conflicts between police and citizens? What legislative actions are they reporting on during these conflicts?
Or are they busy showing video to direct your thinking on whether en-masse citizen responses to their reporting on individual incidents is mostly violent, or mostly non-violent, justified, or unjustifed, organic, or non-locally organized? Are they too busy telling you what to think about each most recent spectacle to investigate or speculate on the underling social, economic, policy-related, educational, and public sentiment factors that may have contributed to its development? If they do explore, do they want to shoehorn you into one of those topics, rather than examining how they may be interrelated?

We’ve seen left wing media downplaying protest violence that is being exaggerated by right wing media. Different sources blame that violence on different entities, and various denials have also been reported. Sometimes it’s downright ridiculous… a CNN reporter monologues about nonviolent protests while buildings along the protest route are burning in the background of the shot, and Fox News augments a story on Seattle’s Antifastan, previously known as an “autonomous” zone and now referred to as an occupied protest, by pairing it with images of burning buildings from recent riots instead of showing the zone itself.
Is the truth somewhere between the narratives on left and right… or is it somewhere else altogether?

There’s been a lot of discussion about whether various shooting incidents justify the protests, arguments over who is doing the rioting and looting and who is behind these actions, and even over whether rioting and looting are legitimate forms of protest. The public has been eating that up, sharing commentary they agree with on social media, posting memes, hashtagging related buzzwords and phrases, arguing… the whole nine yards. 

This, too, is almost all theater. The illusion can be easily destroyed with one question. 

Given the size and scope of authoritarian power in the United states, between local, county, and state police forces, federal law enforcement, and our military capabilities, do you really think an occupied zone exists in a section of an American city because nobody can stop the people involved? 

While you’re considering that, here are some other things to consider:

The question isn’t just about why they haven’t been pushed out and sent home, or rounded up and carted away. How are they getting un-intercepted support and supplies from outside that zone? Local and state authorities don’t have to let goods or people travel through the area outside the zone. This is not a form of protest that is protected under the first amendment. Inept as it may be, walked back as the narrative on it has been, this was clearly intended as a rebellion. With whose permission did it happen… and why?

That spectacle is one hell of a big hand to watch.
What are we not noticing because of it?

Why is this important to us?

Well, who is getting shafted in every aspect of this?
What sex are the majority of cops?
The majority of cops killed in action?
The majority of citizens killed in conflict with cops?
The majority of cops being demonized as cogs in the wheels of a racist system in the wake of these incidents?
The majority of the dead being posthumously demonized as one-dimensional thugs by one side, and held up as saints by the other, to become role models for… who?
The majority of victims of violent crime we’re supposed to depend on cops to protect us from?

Who is doing the heavy lifting in the protests? I’m not just talking about leadership, but boots on the ground activism. Whose feet are in most of those boots?

When left-wing establishment media encourages this violence and the people arrested during these protests have their day in court, who is more likely to receive harsh judgement, rather than lenience?
When right wing establishment media emphasizes the brick-throwing, fire-setting violence in the protests, who is most often being pictured as perpetrators? 

When there’s conflict between protesters and counter-protesters, who do we see engaging in physical combat?
Who is getting attacked? Who is getting injured?
Who is being portrayed by media on both sides as violent aggressors against the side that has each media outlet’s sympathy?
When reporters use the word “thug” to describe people on either side of the conflict… whose image are they expecting the public to picture in their minds?

If local governments continue to condone and facilitate violent protests and occupations, which citizens will be put in the position of defending their businesses, homes, and families?

If the crisis reaches a point where the president decides military action is justified… who will he be sending into action against their fellow citizens? What sex is the vast majority of military personnel? Who will those soldiers be pointing their guns at, and who will they and their targets feel obligated to shield from those guns?

Whose job is it going to be to clean up when it’s all over?

Who has the most reason to look around, and try to figure out what the other hand is doing before it blindsides you?

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