When talking of media and information we cannot keep out of our consideration the deep mutations of technology and society. These mutations have been accelerating like never before in human history in the last thirty years. If we make a quick excursus of the history of information during the last two centuries, we can notice that the way this has been vehiculated has changed over time by following the pace of technology and society. In this imaginary time travel, we would start with newspapers (that initially were published once every second week). We would continue with radio and newsreels – that in Italy were under governmental control. Then, we would get to television and see a proliferation of sources of information thanks to private radio and television broadcasts. Finally, we would arrive to our days with information vehiculated through the internet and social media accessible at any time from our phones.
As we can see, there are at least two types of radical change in the fruition of information: the first refers to the speed and to the increasing number of sources and media (from a newspaper published once every second week to many online news sites publishing news constantly), the second refers to the access to information: before, users had to reach it by going to the newsstand or tuning in to a specific radio or television channel at a given time, now this relationship has been reversed as it is the information that reaches users that are always connected. The result of these two factors is that users nowadays are bombed by many different stimuli competing to grab attention.
How do we face this kind of information in the media?
To say that we are at the mercy of information might sound banal and, after all, it is not that true. This evolution did not happen overnight, even though it is true that it has been really fast and that it is easier to face it for digital natives than for the elderly who had to adapt to a world in constant evolution. In the same way, it is also true that we do not control our reactions to information: how do we form our opinions? Why do we select specific information and open a particular link instead of another? How is it possible that there are people defending so strongly opinions that sound absurd to our ears? How to explain some reactions to the current pandemic? I will try to give some explanations here, although we have to bear in mind that the topic is much complex and full of facets and aspects embracing different disciplines such as communication science, sociology, psychology of groups, and psychology of persuasion that cannot be summarized and set in order in just one article.
The research on how we process information got along with the development of information technology and social psychology in general. The question social psychologists tried to answer is: how does a message become persuasive?
Among predominant theories, there is the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM) by Petty and Cacioppo (1981) and the heuristic-systematic model by Eagly and Chaiken (1984). These models have in common the fact of forecasting that the change of attitude in front of a piece of information can be the result of two different kinds of processes.
According to the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM), when receiving a piece of information, the user starts an elaboration process placed in a continuum having on opposite poles a central path and a peripheric path. To elaborate via the central path, the recipient needs to activate a set of attentional skills and resources for active reflection on the arguments of the message, which in turn also requires to activate the previous knowledge s-/he owns on the matter in order to get to a final evaluation of the message. Instead, the peripheral path does not require considering the content of the message to elaborate the information but the way it is presented (let’s think of the background music on TV reports having the function of “helping” the audience classifying the info as positive or negative). Hence, the central path is a more demanding process requiring motivation (the message has to be relevant for the user in order for him to invest resources), cognitive skills, and previous knowledge, while the peripheral one does not require any effort.
Similarly to the Elaboration Likelihood Model, the heuristic-systematic model states that there are two types of processes to elaborate information: a systematic process – corresponding to the central path of the ELM (so with the investment of resources for a deep elaboration of the message) – and a heuristic process leading to the formation of an opinion through the simple application of a heuristic, a rule for judgment certifying the validity of the message (e.g.: the message comes from a person I trust, the message should be valid).
According to both models then, in order to elaborate on information with accuracy, it is necessary for the recipient to use a set of resources. First of all, this requires the motivation to use such resources and to make the effort of reasoning, then it requires to use cognitive skills and to activate counterarguments to validate or to refute the thesis as well as the presence of previous knowledge on the matter to do it. Now, it looks clear that such central-systematic elaboration requires time and resources: all things that modern hectic life, television pace and the abundance of stimuli make hard to use.
How do we respond to these stimuli?
The way we face information nowadays has much to do with our reactions to these stimuli. In other words, we need to recognize and respond quickly to many stimuli without the chance of deepening and elaborating, something that – as said – would require time and effort.
When it comes to catalogue news as true or false or even just worthy of our attention, some clues we use more or less consciously come into play.
Above all, we need to consider the fact that news mould the way we conceive reality. According to the cultivation theory by Gerbner, the information provided by the media has on one hand the effect of creating a common interpretation of an event (the so-called mainstreaming effect), on the other hand to amplify reality: by emphasising the event, it assigns to this a greater frequency than the actual one just because of speaking about it on the media (the resonance effect). In his experiments on the relationship between violence in the media and actual violence in real life, Gerbner could note that the participants believing that in their neighbourhood there was a higher level of violence than the actual one were the same having the habit of watching more violence scenes on television.
It seems clear that the media play a key role in shaping the perception of reality (and how we mould our opinions and, in turn, behave). The agenda–setting theory goes in the same way. According to this theory, the media establish which topics are relevant to society by giving each matter more or less emphasis. Therefore, they do not directly suggest to the audience how to think about something but rather what to think of. So, the importance and relevance of an event are not specific characteristics of the event itself, but they are assigned by the emphasis the media use when talking about it and, therefore, by the relevance they give to that event.
To make a few concrete examples of the impact of this in real life, we can think of the case of the volunteer for the trial covid-vaccination programme who died a few months ago in Brazil, a case that had great resonance all over the world with extraordinary coverage on the media, still – after the news was given – it was discovered that the volunteer never got subministrated the jab. Another clear evidence of this is provided by the recent case of the fear that the media generated by the great emphasis they gave to the blood clot cases on people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine. A fear having no scientific foundation and – therefore – no reason to be: if we look at actual data, we discover that this event is way rarer than what the coverage on the media lets us think.
“They do not tell us!!”: dissidents and sub-cultures
However, as said, we need to consider the fact that nowadays information is fast and plural. On the one hand, this is certainly something good as it allows to defend the freedom of speech – and so democracy -, on the other hand, the proliferation of news sites competing to get the users’ clicks (see the phenomenon of the “clickbait” ) leads to the risk of fake news and makes it hard for the user to recognize the authority of a source and of an opinion dividing it from the mass of comments and news.
What pushes a person to look for a specific kind of information and defend so strongly opinions that look absurd to us? According to the uses and gratifications theory, the information received is not a passive actor, but s-/he selects the information that gives them more gratifications. S-/he addresses the choice and invests attention and time resources in those programs and information channels that satisfy his/her needs. What needs are we talking of? The need to get useful information helps not only in the management of his/her actions but also with emotional needs and the need to define one’s own identity. This takes us back to what stated here above: we dedicate more time to information channels in which we recognize ourselves and – at the same time – we tend to catalog stimuli quickly by assigning them attributes of authority or non-authority according to the kind of stimuli (e.g. the source) and not after a deep elaboration of the message. This leads information to be part of ingroup-outgroup dynamics. Users will seek and give more attention to that information corresponding to their own group as they recognize themselves in that group having a common key to read reality. At the same time, they will not give attention and will be very hasty in dismissing those information and thesis belonging to outgroups. As we can guess, this does not help the debate and boosts polarization within each group. In this way, groups will shift more and more towards extreme positions. Let’s think, for instance – beyond what one thinks about – at the dualism between anti-vax and pro-vax during the pandemic or the role of the social media on Capitol Hill’s assault in the US.
Social media do not help with this. As their scope is to keep users’ engagement high, they tend to display thesis and information reflecting the ideas in which the user can recognize himself because it is thanks to these that s-/he will stay connected on the social. If we close our eyes and – for example – imagine to be firmly convinced about the fact that vaccines are good and suddenly discover that our Facebook or Twitter walls are invaded by news coming from anti-vax news sites, we can guess that probably we would not click on those links and that we would quit the social media way before what we usually – unfortunately – do.
The docu-movie the social dilemma produced by Netflix is very informative on the matter. “Try to type on Google ‘ climate change is ‘ , you are going to see different results depending on where you live and the particular things Google knows about your interests” .
In light of the impact that these mechanisms in the social media have had on people – that then turned into actions and political decisions (see the Russiagate and the Cambridge Analytica scandal), Facebook is taking countermeasures aimed to increase the plurality of information displayed to users, with the aim of stopping the spread of fake news, although it looks like there is still a lot to do.
Media and information: what to do then?
Nowadays, the media are in the tricky situation of being forced to inform people by summing up in a very short time the news from a world that is complex and constantly changing. Dedicating the time required to deepen and elaborate the diverse thesis is just not an option as it would require the recipient to use time and attention and – at that point – one would most likely switch to another channel. What to do then?
Above all, we should ask ourselves why a person moves towards a specific thesis, running the risk of getting involved in that ingroup-outgroup vicious circle described above that leads to label information without elaborating them. So to say, we should check what is there at the root of a person’s reaction in front of a message, seeking what leads a person to acknowledge a piece of information as more authoritative than another.
It is awe-inspiring to look at the studies of the early ‘50s of the past century – studies looking more actual than ever – on that peculiar persuasion strategy that Hovland and his colleagues at Yale’s university called fear appeal. In their experiments, Janis and Fisherbach – colleagues of Hovland – exposed participants to messages regarding dental illnesses and what behaviours to adopt in order to avoid them, dividing participants into groups according to the intensity of fear of the message which they had been subministrated. Differently to what they could expect, those who – after a few weeks – had actually changed behaviour in a more relevant manner were not those who had received the scarier message but those whose message had a weak fear appeal.
According to researchers, this should be due to the recipient’s reaction to messages threatening the se. The recipient, feeling threatened, would reduce such distress by seeking answers able to loosen the tension. To do that and feel safe, the user is in front of an (unconscious) choice: s-/he can go for using the behaviours suggested by the message or can activate defensive answers such as denial or discrediting the message itself and the envisaged consequences of the dangerous behaviour. In this case, the users will think something like “well, maybe the message was a bit exaggerating, this behaviour is not that dangerous”.
Then, we can see that when it comes to face fear situations such as the pandemic, the presence of people denying the virus may be partially caused by an unconscious defence mechanism used by some people. These persons might have moved towards negationism because they feel reassured by denying the situation. Their reassurance is then strengthened by the fact that other people share the same view and create in this way a group that legitimates and reinforces these theses, sometimes polarising positions.
One of the developments of these thesis refers to the motivation protection theory by Maddus and Rogers (1983). According to this theory, a threat represents distress for the individual that then needs to put in place resources to use a specific behaviour. If s-/he perceives risks as relevant or if s-/he feels to be able to cope with that behaviour, the user will feel motivated to respond with the desired adaptive behaviour; if instead, the situation requires resources that are too onerous compared to the ones at disposal, s-/he will use another behaviour to deal with the situation, but not always will go for adaptive behaviour.
By knowing this, we see that the recipient of the information is not a passive subject and that much depends on the characteristics of the person and on the relevance that the message has for him/her. The media should focus on the importance of the light under which they expose information, then, being aware that fear is not always the best weapon to broadcast effective messages. If it is not accompanied by positive messages and specific and clear indications about what behaviours to use, it can have detrimental effects as it could activate defensive reactions (denial, discreditation, etc).
On the contrary, the media would better use clear information avoiding rhetoric, focusing on positive aspects of behaviours to put in place (e.g. highlighting the positive effects of lockdown on reducing the curve of cases and deaths, rather than constantly focusing on – supposed – negative effects of outdoor walks…), and providing clear information about behaviours to adopt. This would help people to cope with the situation and reduce the distress and the uncertainty related to the situation, it would enable the audience to elaborate information in a clearer way, reducing the need for the seek of alternative answers and non-adaptive behaviours.
Sources & References
 On the matter, i suggest to listen to the TED talk by Guadalupe Nogués (it is in spanish language)
 The docu-movie the social dilemma produced by Netflix is very informative on the matter. “Try to type on Google ‘ climate change is ‘ , you are going to see different results depending on where you live and the particular things Google knows about your interests” . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaaC57tcci0
 this does not happen only with health-related topics like damages caused by smoking or by junk food or the need for anti-covid measures but also with many other topics such as the climate change