Nadia’s blog

Poster 2

After forming smaller groups and refining our topic. Alex and I formed the False Truths group, looking at the manipulation of language by those in authority. We then completed a second literature review.

This formed the basis for our poster, which will form the basis for our soon-to-be-completed design proposal.

Below is the text from the poster. It defines our topic, discusses the research done thus far and hints at possible directions we could move in.

“When the names for things are incorrect, speech does not sound reasonable; when speech does not sound reasonable, things are not done properly; when things are not done properly, the structure of society is harmed; when the structure of society is harmed, punishments do not fit the crimes; and when punishments do not fit the crimes, the people don’t know what to do.” – Confucius

We set out to investigate the manipulation of language in society. We wanted to know who does the manipulation, how it is done and when it has been done before.

Our research showed us the power of language to inform, persuade and educate:

“Words and phrases have the power to excite our spirits, to free our minds, and to help us envision innovative ideas.” He refers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, saying that “Dr. King’s speeches are powerful because he spoke passionately about his beliefs and followed up with commitment.” (Millward 2007)

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (2008) agrees that powerful language must be backed up by action, delivering this message to Parliament:

“Australians are a passionate lot. We are also a very practical lot. For us, symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong. It is not sentiment that makes history; it is our actions that make history.”

However, with a tool of such power, there will always be parties who manipulate it for their own benefit. Julian Burnside (2005) says:

“In most circumstances, language is intended to convey meaning. Ideally, it should do so accurately. Some writers and speakers betray this ideal, and use language as a stalking horse for quite different ideas they wish to disguise or dare not acknowledge.”

He says the techniques used fall under five broad umbrellas: tact, diplomacy, euphemism, doublespeak or lying. There are some quite horrific examples of these. Steven Poole, author of the book ‘Unspeak’ (2006), talks about the misuse of language by those in power to manipulate people:

“What do the phrases ‘pro-life’, ‘intelligent design’, and ‘the war on terror’ have in common? Each of them is a name for something that smuggles in a highly charged political opinion.” He argues that the use of language of this nature is essentially propaganda, but that most of the people hearing it fail to realise and hence buy into it. “‘Climate change’ is less threatening than ‘global warming’: we say ‘ethnic cleansing’ when we mean ‘mass murder’”.

This is not a modern phenomenon; George Orwell discussed a similar use of language in 1946:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Likewise, Burnside discusses similar use of language by the Nazis:

“In the Nazi dictionary of sardonic euphemisms ‘final solution’ of the Jewish problem was a phrase which meant extermination; ‘special treatment’ of prisoners of war meant killing; ‘protective custody’ meant concentration camp; ‘duty labor’ meant slave labor; and an order to ‘take a firm attitude’ or ‘take positive measures’ meant to act with unrestrained savagery.”

He goes on to compare John Howard’s use of language, in particular with reference to immigration. He describes the use of phrases such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘detained’ and the way they evoke certain feelings, thoughts and imagery. “It seems less offensive to lock up ‘illegals’ than to lock up innocent, traumatised human beings.” The term ‘queue jumpers’ implies “that there is a queue and … that it is in some way appropriate to stand in line when your life is at risk”. When these people arrive in Australia they are ‘detained’ – “this description is false in every detail. They are locked up without trial for an indefinite period.”

Without the media to act as a platform, politicians would be largely unable to communicate their messages effectively. As well as allowing politicians to get across their messages, sometimes the media will manipulate of its own volition. One possible explanation for this beginning is “because newspapers increasingly felt they had to bring something more to the events they covered than simply telling people what happened.” (Rosenstiel 1994, cited by Andrews 2006) The media is in a position of power as it provides the main means of people acquiring information, particularly about current events.

It is widely agreed by academics that the media has a social responsibility to society to be truthful. McQuail (2000, cited by Bardoel and D’Haenens 2004) defines social responsibility as “the ‘obligations and expectations’ that society has regarding the media”. Bardoel and D’Haenens explain McQuail’s theory that the media has a public responsibility:

“The general idea behind this is that the media ought to serve public purposes and be socially responsible; the theory of social responsibility of the media and the idea of media as a ‘public trustee’ are relevant here again. These ideas find both support, according to McQuail, from within the media that choose an active role in society and wish to contribute to the public good, and outside the media, with individuals and groups as constituents of civil society and operating in the public sphere.”

Likewise, the American Commission on Freedom of the Press (1947, cited by Christians and Nordenstreng 2004) found that the media has a duty to provide “a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.” They also found that the media should provide “‘a forum for the exchange of comment and criticism,’ give a ‘representative picture of the constituent groups in society’, help in the ‘presentation and clarification of the goals and values of society,’ and provide full access to the day’s intelligence’.”

However, not all media lives up to these responsibilities. Michael Parenti (1997) suggests “media bias does not occur in random fashion” and that it favours those with a vested interest in particular media outlets. This may include favouring “corporations over corporate critics, affluent whites over low-income minorities, officialdom over protestors … US dominance of the Third World over revolutionary or populist social change, national security policy over critics of that policy.” A variety of techniques are used to push these agendas, including spin, suppression by omission, attacking a story, labelling, false balancing and framing.

But how much does the media really affect and shape our views?

In October 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air presented HG Wells’s novel ‘War of the Worlds’ as a one-hour radio program presented in the style of a news bulletin. The broadcast of a story of aliens invading earth presented as radio news convinced many that it was true, despite disclaimers from the radio station stating the opposite. People believed “if radio said we were being invaded, then it must be true”. “Hundreds of calls were placed to newspapers (the New York Times alone received more than 800), radio stations, and police.” (Sterling 2003)

In 2006, a group of Dutch researchers (Kleinnijenhuis, et al) examined whether the way the media portrays certain events affects public trust of politicians and Government. All their research relates to the 2002 Dutch Federal Elections. The findings suggested that negative news did “lead to distrust in party leaders”. It was also found that distrust did not affect the way people intended to vote, however, on the day, distrust was a key issue in deciding whom to vote for. 32 per cent of voters said that they did not choose who to vote for until the “last days before the election” or on the Election Day itself. This suggests that “citizens accrue information on a daily basis but that they will often not update their summary evaluation, for example, their intention to cast a vote for a specific party, until the moment of decision.”

The media and politicians have the potential to shape views in society, for the betterment or detriment. All too often, though, they choose to use their authority for negative purposes. History suggests that this affects the opinions of society. Our research has given us insight into how this occurs – the techniques and reasons – and when this has occurred in the past and the effects it has had. This will inform our process in reaching our aims.

Manipulating language to make people believe something or act in a certain way is commonplace amongst authority in society. There is a need for greater public awareness and for people to be able to discern what is true. Politicians and the media often manipulate language to push an agenda and without proper awareness and knowledge, the public may digest this without thought to question it.

We hope to encourage a better informed society in which individuals are better equipped to understand and evaluate the language presented to them; a society whose actions are informed by the truth and in which people can form their own opinions.

With different messages being put forward by different media outlets and politicians, people may become unsure of what is true and what to trust. We aim to make news more credible and relevant by empowering people with the tools to consider the source of news and to make their own judgements on the truth.

Currently the issue of political and media manipulation is mainly dealt with satirically. Whilst this is an effective means of reaching the masses, is this the best way to inform people and raise awareness? Whilst television programs like ‘The Chasers War On Everything’ and ‘The Daily Show’ are very funny, are we taking anything away from them other than a few laughs? It is important that people are able to understand the information they receive. A more serious approach could help to improve public awareness.


Making people aware of this language is Steven Poole’s objective in writing ‘Unspeak’. He writes: “As BBC World presenter Kirsty Lang explains: ‘It’s much easier to take the language that’s given to you, and the government knows that full well. So if you keep saying “coalition forces”, “coalition forces”, people will use it. I think people do need to be more careful. They do take phrases willy-nilly from the government without thinking, without seriously analysing what they say.’ The citizen’s plan of action is simple. When the media do this, talk back: write and tell them. Possibly the growth of Unspeak cannot be reversed. But that doesn’t mean we have to go on swallowing it.”

The answer is getting people enthusiastic about gaining knowledge and educating themselves. We also aim involve people in a dialogue on important current issues, including the manipulation of language.

We aim to empower them with knowledge and information that can be used to inform their own free thinking. We aim to expose manipulative language for what it is, and inform people as to where they can find truthful and accurate information. In the absence of such information, we aim to enable people to be better equipped to judge what is true.


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