Propaganda Files 2

I published this on my LinkedIn page before the last presidential election (July 23, 2016), but I am re-posting it here because it examines both how visuals are distinct artifacts from the accompanying text and also how mixing propaganda (intentional misdirection or misinformation) with attempts to provide “real” or truthful information confuses the audience—an audience who will have to work very hard to separate fact from fiction. Reposting this seemed to be an appropriate follow-up to my previous blog entry, “Propaganda Files 1.”

Screen Shot Trump article MGM movie 1984 2016-07-22 at 8.31.21 AM

From the film Nineteen Eighty-Four  2005.

 

Since one of my primary professional concerns as a user advocate is how users see the information communicated to them, this article from the NYTimes.com Facebook feed grabbed my attention. The article’s author had analyzed Donald Trump’s acceptance speech for his nomination to be the candidate for President from the Republican Party. The article from the NYTimes online itself seems balanced and fair and generally keeps away from arguing a side, but instead, presents statistics that either would support or challenge Trump’s claims.

For the most part, the NYT article’s authors managed to state points clearly, keeping an informational tone. I believe that the article helps people who want further information to be able to research for themselves the various claims made in the speech, without too much interference by the author’s personal viewpoints. The references are there so that anyone who wants can fact-check the fact-checkers. My view is that an audience should examine all the issues to make informed decisions based on research done with an open mind. Whatever resources will aid people in that task are useful tools, as far as I am concerned.

Since writers, information designers, and graphic designers do not usually serve in the same job functions in organizations as large as the NYTimes, someone other than the author of the text of the article must have selected the image for the Facebook feed and edited the image for the newsfeed posting. The  purpose of adding an image to the newsfeed is to grab the FB audience’s attention and get them to click through to the article, whereupon, the audience is encouraged to subscribe to the Times. 

 

However, I just wanted to point out that the choice made in selecting the image to accompany the analytical article for the Facebook promotion (see image below) shows how VISUAL RHETORIC colors the impact of information for an audience.This all serves to show how—for the audience—reading and digesting the article rationally is one thing, but being subliminally persuaded via the accompanying images, is quite another one.

Image by Josh Haner ©2016 The New York Times

The selection of an image showing a giant screen view of Donald Trump pulls out of our subconscious every thing we have ever heard concerning the phrase, “Big Brother is Watching You,” from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, and in fact, the image chosen for the NYT’s Facebook blurb is highly reminiscent of the MGM movie version of that book; the movie was released in the year 1984 and it starred Richard Burton and John Hurt (see image at top of post). [This movie is rated for adults because of some sexual content (R).] I recommend the movie and, most especially, I recommend Orwell’s book. Everyone should read the book, 1984. The book shows a world in which persuasion has become coercion on every level, backed by the powerful arm of a state that has stripped the populace of any individuality, conscience, privacy, or civil liberties.

Whatever you think of Trump, I wanted to point out the subtle (or not so subtle) use of images on this Facebook newsfeed blurb that attempt to subliminally persuade you that Donald Trump is going to institute a regime similar to what is found in Orwell’s terrifying vision of the future.

In my opinion, the text of the article does a very good job of showing from a rational standpoint some reasons to question Mr. Trump and his candidacy. However, the image used to accompany the newsfeed makes an emotional (non-reasoning) argument in order to awaken doubts about the candidate without having to back them up with facts–just like Mr. Trump’s speech.

For example, the way that Trump uses fear and exaggeration to paint a picture of a dire situation—that only he sees and only he can fix—is truly a misuse of facts and stretching of the truth to convince people to vote FOR him. How ironic that the visual rhetorician placing and choosing the image for the Facebook feed uses the same tactics, fear and exaggeration, to convince you to vote AGAINST him. Since I can’t know the motivation of whoever chose the image or the photographer for the photo used in the Facebook blurb, I, of course, can’t know definitively why that particular photo was selected. I can see the name of the photographer (Image by Josh Haner/The New York Times) captioning a video article, with the title, “Trump Speech Casts US in Dark Light,” about halfway down the page on the NYTOnline article. *

However, professionals don’t just randomly place images on a page. The photo on the Facebook newsfeed blurb was not the image featured in the article. Rather, the NYTimes.com article featured a normal-sized image of Trump at the podium, just like any candidate ready to start a speech. Obviously, this particular large-scale image of the hall, with Trump at the podium, surrounded by masses of people, with the backdrop of a giant-screen close-up of his face, must have been selected over innumerable other possibilities. The obvious connection made is that Donald Trump is just like Orwell’s powerful party leader, riding the wave of a cult of personality, like those of “the party” in Orwell’s book. Whether this is true or not is not my point. Of course, if the photo of Trump in a hall with giant screens of his face was taken, it must be true that he actually appeared like that in real life. However, the selection of that particular shot at that particular moment to represent that particular text is completely a rhetorical and persuasive choice made by someone involved in the process who is not the same person who wrote the article or even the same person who chose the page shots for the online newsfeed or presumably, the hard copy newspaper.

My point is that we as the audience for information need to be aware that images are being used rhetorically in communications and the information we receive can be twisted around by the visuals framing it (see my post on “Framing“).

Images are powerful, persuasive tools that often work their persuasion on the edges of our conscious mind. I would have us be aware of what is being said to us, even in our unconscious minds, so that we are fully informed, and able to pose reasoned arguments and refute those we disagree with rationally, rather than posing and refuting strictly by emotional means.

By paying attention to and questioning what you see, you can bring what is not noticed more fully into the purview of your reasoning skills to give you more control of the messages that you receive, believe, and send to others. 

* Listening to this video and reading this article again is very, very interesting from the vantage point of nearly two years into the future, since the talking points in Trump’s speech can be analyzed from our current vantage point for truth and perspective;  I would encourage everyone to do just that.

 

 

For Further Information:

Read the NYTimes article here:

“Fact Checking the Truth That Donald Trump Has Promised” 

Buy the book 1984:

Link to purchase George Orwell's book 1984 on Amazon.

Click here to buy the book 1984 by George Orwell in paperback on Amazon.

References Cited:

Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel Signet.

Radford, Michael, John Hurt, and Richard Burton. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 2005.

Shear, Michael D, and Nick Corasaniti. “Fact-Checking the Truth That Donald Trump Promised.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 July 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/22/us/politics/donald-trump-fact-check.html.

Propaganda Files 1

“Information Design involves the conversion of data into information that is understandable and relevant to users. The goal of Information Design is to create something—an image, a line of text, a map—that helps users understand pertinent information and make decisions based on what they understand.”

This explains, in a nutshell, what information design is all about and, indeed, helps us to understand the dynamics at work when we share information to others in some way. Whether or not the presentation of that information is produced rightly or wrongly, we are designing informational artifacts. What do we mean by the word “information” and how do we tell if design is used rightly or not? Merriam-Webster defines “information” as “the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence.”∗ Transmittal of information needs to be based in knowledge, or in other words, something you can know.

As far as determining whether we are designing rightly or wrongly, you have to understand the principles behind making such value judgements. As I stated in the “Why is ID important?” tabbed section of this website, “Practicing good information design principles from the early stages of design through artifact release minimizes or avoids information failures.” In other words, if you make something or write something or design something, then the way you do it needs to be clear, accurate, and meaningful, avoiding information failures, like misinformation, disinformation, and non-information.∗∗  Such failures of informational design are part of what makes up bad design.

This post focuses on the kind of failure known as disinformation, a staple in the pantry of the propagandist. As I defined previously, “Disinformation is when the designer intends to communicate false, inaccurate, or partial information to leave an inaccurate or biased impression or covert lie.” This is a failure to inform, because it is not accurate communication. The person receiving it does not gain knowledge, not real knowledge anyway, as in Merriam-Webster’s “the body of truth, information, and principles acquired by humankind” definition of the word, knowledge. The word truth is the keyword here.

Disinformation has been the tool of every manipulative government system from disinformation campaigns in ancient Rome using poetry and slogans stamped on coins to Josef Stalin’s Soviet Russian use of photoshopping before the software program “Photoshop” had been invented. These examples mirror what is happening today, both in textual content and in images. When content is manipulated intentionally to delude, misinform, or mislead, this is disinformation. The creator of the content or designer of the images wants to communicate false information in order to purposely deceive and skew our understanding of the truth. This is the nature of propaganda and why its creation is different from any other persuasive and rhetorical act. This is why such an artifact must be seen for the disinformation that it is: the intention to deceive has been built-in to the content by its creator.

The phrase, “Fake News” has become meaningless by people slashing about senselessly with it, their weapon to dismiss any pushback against their “side.”  Fake news is a fake cry, unless it includes substantive research to support the disclaimer. What is “fake” about Fake news? Such a determination ends up belonging to whoever is using the phrase.  A much better way to pushback against false content—in other words, disinformation—is to examine the process behind the content creation and the design in order to understand its underpinnings and the values of those creating it.

Ask questions. For example, ask “Who made it?” or “Does the website have an ‘About’ page, sitemap, or specific contact information?” and “Where did the elements of the content come from? Can I find the primary sources for a particular quotation?” or “When was the first appearance of this image online?” Most of the time, it is quite easy to search out the provenance of an image or textual content (i.e.,  blog, quotation, article, etc.); I usually can source something that I have a question about in a minute or less, although of course, sometimes it takes much longer. What if I can’t find the source or provenance of an image in a reasonable amount of time? Do I just use it anyway? No, I do not. One should never just use a questionable image or share an unsupported tidbit, just to make a propagandistic point. This is disinformation and another word for that is “lying.”

Here is a case in point. I use this merely because I saw some people using it which was terribly shocking to me, especially, because I have had a respect for those people and I wish very much that they would realize that to believe it is to believe a lie—and even worse, to distribute such misinformation is to LIE. There is no way around it: if you distribute or share something that is a lie, then you are lying, especially if you have been warned that the content or image is not just misinformation (i.e., an honest mistake) but it is disinformation (i.e., an intentional twisting of truth to purposefully make someone believe that an untrue thing is true).

Two world leaders kissing their wives.

cameron2-e1523298951153.jpg

David Cameron, Former Prime Minister of the UK and his wife Samantha (notice how the photo had to be flipped horizontally from the original.)

the Obamas kissing

President Barack Obama giving his wife Michelle a kiss.

Why would someone who thinks the photoshopped picture (below) shows and advocates morally wrong actions (i.e., men kissing) find it acceptable to create, post, and share the photoshopped image—a creation which steals actual pictures of these men kissing their own wives—in order to use the mashed-up artifact for disseminating misinformation, which is another way of saying that they are lying by sharing this untruth?

The answer is that the creators and disseminators of the photoshopped image are more committed and concerned about the propaganda value of the false image than they are in pursuing and communicating the truth. There is no mistake going on here with this image: the creator of the image purposefully abused truth in order to communicate a falsehood. There is no doubt that this is a kind of propaganda, in which the aim is to further an objective.

photoshopped kissing

As much as I dislike showing this photoshopped picture, hence the reason that I added the warning that the picture has been photoshopped, I have to show it to convey how easily disinformation can be created and disseminated and why it is imperative for people to do at least some research to prove or disprove the content and images, which they believe to be true or that they share with others. When a person shares untruths, they are taking part in the lie and are liars, even if they did not create the design or write the content themselves. One’s reputation for integrity goes on the line when you share, make, or advocate for things that are not true.

As I pointed out above, it took me less than 30 seconds to find the provenance of the original images used in this mash-up through using a Google Image Search and therefore, I was quickly able to debunk the photo on my own, without having to resort to Snopes or any other fact-finding website. I am not able, however, to explain why anyone would wish to use such a devious means to disperse their ideas or what is being advanced here, other than lies.

 


∗ “Information.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 8 Apr. 2018.
∗∗ Katz, Joel (2012), Designing of Information, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
∗∗∗ Kaminska, Izabella. “A Lesson in Fake News from the Info Wars of Ancient Rome.” Financial Times, http://www.ft.com/content/aaf2bb08-dca2-11e6-86ac-f253db7791c6.

 

Shadow Profiles on Facebook, Part 1

Strangers at the door

As a website content manager, blogger, and administrator for social media and Facebook groups, I am constantly having to evaluate whether to accept or delete the many individual requests from people around the world and the nation who want to join these groups or who want to friend me personally. Sometimes, these requests from strangers come in waves. For example, I might get ten requests this week from people who live in Nigeria; next week, maybe ten from somewhere in Central America, or ten the next week from men wearing a US military uniform. Who are these people? Strangers? I have no idea who they are!

FB is a great tool for what it does correctly—connect people in conversation through a joint virtual space, but FB is not a “Friend” to us when we fail to use due diligence in researching the identity of those persons asking to be our friend. What are some tips in this regard to help the people that may not be social-media savvy enough to protect themselves and their virtual friends on Facebook?

If you give someone access to your Facebook page, it is like opening the doors of the entryway of your house. If someone looks suspicious through your door’s peephole, you are not likely to let them in. You can be tricked when someone gets past your doorway defenses by convincing you that they are not suspicious. Each of us has the responsibility to at least try to verify the identity of those people or “Friends” whom we let past our doors.

 Entry points 

There are lots of ways we let people into our Facebook houses. We “click through” ads or  we “like” a promoted page. We also give access to our “houses” by posting on our own FB pages. When we share a post, it is like we are accompanying it through the door of our friend’s houses, right alongside our own reputation for accuracy and truth. Not everyone sees this as a fact, but it is true. A shared post that looks good and is slickly produced doesn’t seem to have to merit that same value for truth as we appreciate in its value for coolness. However, a good looking post might not be true or worth the time it takes to share it. We certainly should not share anything, without checking where it came from; we might be letting past our doors–and past our friends’ doors–a wolf in sheep’s clothing. If you are interested in finding out more about what I might mean with that, check out this blog, “Quizzing the Quizzes, Part 1 & Part 2” at susanwlavelle.com.

Verify as best you can

Specifically, for people that don’t know this already, if someone asks to friend you, you should verify who they are as best you can. I am not suggesting that you hire a private eye or do a background check on everyone who asks to “Friend” you, anymore than you do that for the people that you let in your entry hall. Rather, I am suggesting that you do the simple things that you can easily do to check if they are the person that they say they are. Someone may still get past your efforts, which is why you don’t put your personal or financial details online—just in case someone has gotten onto your friend’s list who is not who they are supposed to be.

This is the reason that you don’t want to share—or let someone else share—your cool pictures from Aruba while you are still laying on the beach, because you don’t know who will see it and decide to check out your empty house before you return. If you have a fantastic, world-class security system that can handle anything, then fine, go ahead and post away while you are gone. For most of us, however, waiting until you get back is soon enough to post those fun pics.

Easy ways to vet a profile

So, what are some easy things a person can do to vet the friend requests received on Facebook and prevent hacking your friend’s and your own profile? A big way that profiles are “hacked” is when legitimate pictures and details from real profile pages are poached off a real page (copied and/or downloaded) and then used to set up shadow profiles of legitimate users; the scammers then send out friend requests from that shadow profile to that original and real person’s friends, in order to get the person’s friends to also “friend” the shadow profile. Our memories don’t always register that we are already so-and-so’s friend when we glance at these shadow requests; often, we just click without thinking or doing any checks about the validity of the request. I have done it myself several times. However, whenever you receive a Friend request, whether it is from Facebook or on Facebook Messenger, the first thing you should do is to click through the requester’s name to look at that profile before you add them to your own friend’s list. If you think that you are friends already, chances are, you are friends already.

These few tips should become a natural part of our Facebook home life; many users already do all these things and more, but some do not. Nothing will guarantee that you will be protected from scammers who invade your Facebook house intending to gain your confidence and to gain your contact list and their info. However, becoming a better citizen of the Facebook community will help you be a better friend to your “Friends” and to your self. Check out my next post, “Shadow Profiles on Facebook, Part 2.”

shadow-in-doorway

Shadow Profiles on Facebook, Part 2

What are some easy things a person can do to vet the friend requests received on Facebook?

When you receive a “Friend” request, whether it comes from Facebook or from Facebook Messenger, the first thing you should do is to click through to view the person’s profile before you add them to your own. Just one look at some of these shadow profiles would certainly raise red flags, because the person requesting your “friendship” has very sparse information on the profile, often only a name and a picture. A typical “hack” like this involves a requester, who has set up a new profile in order to impersonate someone by using the personal details they already possess, namely, the profile of a real person to copy, and the name of a real-life friend of that real person to impersonate. In fact, you and the real person whose profile is being shadowed are likely already Facebook friends. The goal for this hacking and impersonation is to access more of the real person’s info and to accumulate more profile pictures, names, and friend lists, so they can turn around and impersonate more people.

How did someone get that profile picture and name?

Well, one might wonder that question. But there are many ways your profile picture and name get the attention of hackers. First of all, your name and picture are most likely available to anyone. How else is your 2nd-grade classmate going to find you on Facebook? Did you use your FB profile log-in to comment on a public blog at some point, or perhaps to comment on a letter to the editor from your online local newspaper, or maybe to review a cooking-tip post? Perhaps the scammer got the name because you liked something that wasn’t as legitimate as you thought when you clicked it through; there are a million ways people can get your name and profile picture from your public Facebook trail.

Remember, Facebook is a tool in which you can connect with friends near-and-far—in real-time—to see pictures and watch videos, but Facebook can also be a by-pass to your personal privacy and that of your friends. If and when you comment on or share posts from blogs of questionable sites, then along with the cute pic or video, you may have invited an unknown entity to reach behind some of your layers of privacy.

Actions once you find a “Shadow” Profile page

  1. Check your own friend’s list (or member’s list, if this is a group) to be sure that you are not already friends with the person who has sent the questionable request.
  2. Confirm any known details about the real person you know with the profile of the person you think might be a fake/shadow, such as checking whether the new profile uses the correct spellings for places or last names, or it includes the correct middle  or maiden names, birthplace, high schools, or other details.
  3. Check the other tabs such as “Photos” and “Friends” and ask, “Which mutual friends do I share with the person on that profile?” (if necessary, contact your friends to see if they know about the profile) and ask, “Who are their other friends?” For example, if the new profile’s other friends are all from someplace like Indonesia, where you know that your actual friend is unlikely to know many people, then that is a clue that something might not be as it should be. Also, ask yourself, “Does this person have the friends that you would expect them to have?” based on the details that you already know about the real friend’s life, relatives, location, activities, and job.
  4. Check how long that person has been on Facebook. A very recent profile without posts or details doesn’t jive with a friend request from someone that you know has been on Facebook for a much longer time and certainly should make you a bit suspicious.
  5. Keep emotionally charged rhetoric out of the path of your judgment. For example, most of us would cringe at the idea that we would accept a friend request from someone because they were really good looking or were a celebrity (“Why is Brad Pitt asking to be my friend?”), but too often, other emotionally charged visuals get past our common sense and we let people past our Facebook door, because they are “politicians or preachers with a name we recognize” or because they are wearing a military or police uniform in their profile picture or are holding what looks like their poor orphan children in Africa or they present another sympathetic persona whom we would wish to support. Don’t let emotion get past your common sense; scammers also know that such images raise your sympathy and hope to use such things to get past your guard.

What if I find that I have been “Friended” by a hacked profile?

If you think that you have been contacted by a shadow profiler or anyone that legitimately raises your suspicions (legitimate suspicions that must be rationally explained to Facebook), you can report such profiles to Facebook.Simply, click the suspicious profiler’s name to bring up their profile page, go to the top menu bar on the far right side, next to the word “Message,” and then, where you see the three dots (…), click them to bring out a drop-down menu, where you will see the word, “Report”; click and then follow the prompts, as needed to describe your concern. Facebook will look into the issue reported, and probably will ask you the name of the person whose account you believe was hacked in the first place.

Screen Shot top menu Bar Facebook to report

So that the real friends know they have been “hacked” by a shadow profiler, you can contact them yourself through a post on Facebook, through Facebook Messenger (IM), although FB will probably contact them. People usually want to know so they can warn their friends not to accept friend requests from a fake profile. You might want to post a warning on your own profile about it, to say, “I noticed that my friend, ‘So-and-so’ had a shadow profile set up in their name and here is what to do about it.” You might copy and paste a link to this blog entry so that the person knows more about what to do in the event that their profile was hacked by a shadow profiler. You can delete the shadow profile from off of your friends list, if you happened to already accept their “Friending,” once you have reported it to Facebook and have contacted your real friend.

If you are trying to figure out which profile was the shadow to delete and which was the real one to keep or to contact, you might check it through your own friend’s list, because after having recently clicked to “friend” the shadow, the fake shadow profile will probably be in your “Recently Added” Friends section, found at the “Top Menu Bar,” under the category of “Friends.” Probably, if you were friends with the real person’s profile for more than a couple of weeks and the fake friend’s profile for less than that, you will only have one of them–the fake–in your “Recently Added” section.

For more info on how to vet and verify the sources from which you choose to post, you might check out my blog post, “Verify Your Post on Social Media or google your questions, where you will find some interesting articles, such as this one on Journalists’ Resource,  “Tools for verifying and assessing the validity of social media and user-generated content” and there are many others such as “How to Report a hacked account” on the “Facebook Community Q & A pages.”

cartoon, Phishing lIcense bureau, Person behind the counter at the Phishing License bureau "Ok, you are under arrest" Customer in line: "Oh, I should have seen that coming."

Munroe, Randall. “Phishing License.” Xkcd.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 July 2016. <https://xkcd.com/1694/&gt;.

10 Commandments of Usability

The 10 Commandments of Good Website Usability, Jacob Nielsen’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design,” are not actually commandments at all, but rather heuristics, or a kind of exploratory underlayment for creating guidelines for usable design.

Commandments or not, ignoring these principles should only be done purposefully, not out of ignorance. Everyone who designs information packages that might find their way onto the web (What information packages won’t find their way onto the web?) should know these usability principles and apply them as needed in their designs. You need to have good reasons not to follow established design principles for usability—and you must be objective, not subjective, in your approach. Don’t just say, “I don’t need that. I know what I want.” Too often those who create websites or write content for them don’t know good principles for user-centered design. At some point in the future, I hope to put together a blog series to help us flesh out how these specific principles. In the meantime, the 10 Commandments of Usability will help us form a solid foundation for creating good user-centered communication.

The audience or user is the center of what goes on in any communication, because

to communicate is to transmit information, thought, or feeling so that it is satisfactorily received or understood.”

When you communicate, you impart information to someone; you share that discreet unit of information—from you to other—so that you can have commonality with whoever receives it.

Once received, the ideas about the communicated information may change from the intended purpose of the sender, for example, the person receiving the communication may accept the information as factual or reject it as false; may be enraged or impassioned by it; may be swayed to act or discouraged from acting; may seek for more information or be satisfied with what they already know. Communication is a much more difficult and troublesome event than simply posting, saying, or writing something. Communication is not information upload.

colander-trick

Communication is not mechanical upload.

The mechanical approach (input > output) to communication has been all too common, however, and there are no signs that this is really changing, despite the availability of online information.  True, businesses and other entities, including individuals, increasingly are concerned with users and audience; we should be glad about that. Information about how to do a better job of designing for users is so much more accessible these days. For example, Nielsen’s Heuristics are easily found in multiple places online and, in fact, you can sign up to receive regular academically researched articles and updates from the Nielsen–Norman Group to improve your familiarity with usability principles. I would encourage you to do so.

The chance to become a better communicator on every level, including writing and designing for the web, is made much more accessible because of the Internet, everyone knows that. However, the broadening of the accessibility has also made the availability of web creating tools more pervasive and so has spread bad design and insensitivity to audience farther and wider than ever before.

How can these 10 “not-commanded” Commandments of Usability be useful to us generally in our day-to-day communication acts?

Can those people that find themselves creating content—whether on the web or anywhere else—find any principles that bring value to us when we create our designs? I hope to write a series of blogs in this year to discuss how these 10 principles apply to our communication events and designed artifacts.

References:

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/

“Communicate.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 28 May 2016.

“Abbott & Costello Who’s On First.” YouTube. Koch Entertainment, n.d. Web. 28 May 2016. <https://youtu.be/kTcRRaXV-fg&gt;.

Mind reading machine. Digital image. N.p., n.d. Web.

Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” (08:03)

Framing

Scenario 1:

See yourself entering a gallery, walking down a long empty hallway, surrounded by white walls, white floors, white ceilings, rooms illuminated by bright but diffused lighting, whiteness radiating throughout. You see ahead of you a wall that features one painting, hung two-thirds of the way up the wall, in a plain white frame, highlighted by a backlight, which seems to produce a halo around the whole representation. On the painting is a small, barefooted child—a little Asian girl, loosely holding a toy animal by its ear; from the child’s eyes falls one tear.

Scenario 2:

Next, see yourself entering another gallery, the walls are steel gray, the floor, cement. The walls above hold industrial lighting suspended from exposed steel crossbeams. You begin to encounter various bits of rubble—some broken concrete, bits of trash, ash, rebar—and pits dug unevenly in the floor; everything seems broken, disrupted. You enter a room with large black and white images of destroyed buildings one-after-another, on easels, hung randomly at angles, hung on the walls, hung on the ceilings. You smell an ashy heat. You hear the blare of sirens. Then, after seeing a large map of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japanese, you see, displayed on an easel, the same painting of the Asian child.


 

What did the painting mean? What did it signify? Did its meaning change from Scenario 1 to Scenario 2? But it was the same picture in the same frame! How could its meaning change? In each of these scenarios, the difference between the interpretations of the painting’s meaning or significance is in its “Framing”—the framing, not the frame.

 

From this example, you can see how the sequence and experience of events and the proximity to accompanying surroundings color the interpretation of meaning, because the set-up for the encounter changed and so has the resulting impact on its significance.

Framing can have a powerful, although not necessarily recognized, influence on the way that we interpret meaning as we navigate our daily lives. This rhetorical principle is around us every day and yet, the effect that framing has upon our interpretation of meaning is rarely noticed.

Framing, in a rhetorical sense, is the physical (or other) properties that surround an entity or artifact, which change or influence the meaning or signification of the entities in locational or other correspondence with each other. In other words, the things next to each other affect what the things seem to mean to the audience.

 

“Framing is” according to Jim A. Kuypers in Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action (182) “the process whereby communicators act—consciously or not—to construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be viewed in a particular manner, with some facts made more or less noticeable (even ignored) than others. When highlighting some aspect of reality over other aspects, frames act to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements, and suggest remedies. They are located in the communicator, the text, the receiver, and the culture at large.” The frame sets up influences through which meaning is affected through the transference of “interpretive cues” from one element to another in its proximity.

 

Transference of feeling through circumstance or environment happens all the time, both intentionally and unintentionally. Who has not walked outside the door of work and let the type of day—sunny, rainy, cold, hot—influence the way that you feel on your drive home? Emotions about what we see or hear, frequently influence us in subtle or obvious ways, seemingly transferred to us through the circumstances surrounding us. But what else might transfer?

 

Along with a transference of feeling, a corresponding transference of meaning can also occur; such transference might also be subtle or obvious. In the previous sunny day example, you generally do not also start thinking that the actual meaning or significance of the day has changed to reflect the positive feelings of happiness that the sunshine brings. You would hardly say and believe, “Oh, it is sunny! This must mean that today is my day to find a pot of gold!” and quit your job. Such a transference of meaning or significance accompanied with sincere acceptance or belief without any logical or reasonable bases for it would be called “wishful thinking” at best, or even, mental instability or illness, if the changes of significance reflected too deeply within the person’s conscious or subconscious mental makeup. We feel and react significantly, based on our emotional influences throughout the day, but really, we don’t let it transfer into what we believe and think about the universe we live in.

 

Actually, however, in addition to being influenced emotionally by the things we see and hear, we very often do let the subtle transference of meaning through framing influence the assignment of significance given to artifacts and happenings around us. The arrangement of entities or proximity of the frame to other artifacts and happenstances often affects the judgements we make about the things we see and hear. We need only to look at electronic media, printed materials, or blogs posted online to see how framing influences our assignment of  meaning to artifacts.

 

Take, for example, a newspaper article about any topic. Depending on the articles before it or after it, or the headlines, pictures, or captions accompanying it, you might believe or understand the article itself framed in a way that does not represent the context of the events, details, narratives, or opinions expressed in the article. The framing might actually lead you to understand a meaning for the article completely opposite of the one from which the author intended in writing it.

 

Imagine an article written to honor the career of a particular politician or public figure, but with nearby articles that discuss controversial events that took place under that person’s leadership, framing the original article in a way that undermines the ideas within. Without stating it overtly, you can introduce ideas through framing that are subliminal or subconscious, yet powerful rhetorically. The same can easily be true for articles or “content chunks” found on the Internet or items watched on the television news. In these cases, a visual proximity between entities influences the significance of what the reader finds in the article.

 

Additionally, when there is a particular happening, such as an election, speech, national celebration, holiday, or other such event coming up or just passed, a kind of emotional framing influences us. Advertisers or other “persuaders” use anything in the national or cultural consciousness as a frame for crafting subtle influences to their messages. For example, advertisers use public attention to a coming national event to influence our reaction to some other event, artifact, or idea.

 

A perfect example of this might happen if you frame the promotion of a work-out gym during the media buzz of the Olympic Games: people are already thinking about fitness and athleticism, so they will already have an internal, background noise about the value of getting in shape to bring into the idea of joining the gym. Another example might be selling boats or luxury vehicles during a bull market or when the end-of-the-month job growth stats are positive. The general consciousness of what is going on—the social or political milieu—influences people’s choices about and beliefs in the significance of any artifact of communication, because what people believe and how they act are easily influenced by what “frames” their experienced circumstances and what they see and hear and read. This is another way to perceive a framing influence.

 

The possibilities for seeing this kind of influence are endless, once you start looking for them. Ideas, actions, and beliefs can be influenced by placing communicative artifacts in proximity to surrounding referents or within contexts crafted from either our day-to-day lives or other sources, such as those carrying historical or political connotations. This process is a common, fairly simple, but easily overlooked, concept. But, just pick up a newspaper or watch a nightly news broadcast. Look in the grocery store magazine rack or the aisles at the store. Framing works there too. Influence carries over from one proximity to another, and we often let the meaning of one thing impact the next.

 

In the hand of a marketer, rhetorician, or any person wishing to use persuasion, the tool of framing is powerful.

 

Going back to our painting again, one can imagine the process of choosing the frame for the painting. One might look through the colors on the canvas and choose one or more that “bring out” something in the image, to color coordinate things so that it will match the surroundings in an eye-pleasing way. People often do something like this when they are trying to pick a good tie: “Wow! Sir, Try this tie! The yellow in the shirt really makes this tie pop!” So, you pick a good tie based on coordinating the color scheme. Similarly,  using a story to “pull” something out and “feature” that element through framing might be useful, but also might be manipulative and even abusive.

 

Can you see how that might work? For example, I may have a story about veterans’ rates of depression or suicide. I could present the story as “straight” as I could, in other words, as close to the narrative of the author’s intention or context. Or, if I want to let the story illustrate something particular, I could pull certain quotes out of the story or find an illustrating picture and caption it in such a way that would make the story serve my purpose, whatever that may be. I have then framed that story to accomplish a rhetorical (persuasive) purpose, rather than an informative one, no matter what the original intention was in the author’s mind.

 

To a rhetorician, it would be impossible to ignore that every act is a rhetorical one. And, it is true: every word spoken persuades someone of something—why say anything ever if you don’t want to persuade someone of something? Additionally, authorial intention is neither a static concept nor is such understanding as easily attained as might be supposed. However, most people let this entire level of communication and comprehension slip past them without notice. When they do, however, they actually are giving up a portion of their right to weigh things rationally, rather than to absorb the ideas of whomever is trying to slip something past in the stream of unseen and unexamined influence.

References:

Kuypers, Jim A. Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009. Google Books. Web.

Munroe, Randall. “Xkcd: Board Game.” Xkcd: Board Game. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2016. http://xkcd.com/1566/.

 

board_game

Verify Your Posts on Social Media

 

My personal Facebook (FB) page, contains a beloved and steady mix of photos, cat videos, lexical jokes (my friends are also word geeks, what a surprise!), music recommendations, and vacation pictures to drool over, as well as religious, health-related, or political discussions that provide a wide range of proof of accuracy or validity. This particularly steady stream of political, religious, or news-oriented comments ranges from the far-right to the far-left and generally consists of shares or copy-and-pastes from the FB feeds of non-friends, friends of friends, or from questionable blogs.

 

Most of us tolerate this steady steam of commentary and ignore it; some of us, at times, try to push against the ideas with which we disagree. Sometimes, we get caught up in an argument with someone and each person brings out their own set of quotations or citations to support a “side,” usually bringing in the support from unreferenced sources. Mostly, we wish our friends would sort the information grain from the hearsay chaff before they post or share.

 

Frequently, when one follows through the poster’s share to find the original sources for the claims or in order to determine the statements’ accuracy, one finds that somewhere down the line, misinformation has been quoted, the information is out of date, or has been deliberately taken out of context. Such shared posts are often full of inaccurate information. Yet the fact that one’s own friend has posted it on one’s own feed tends to give the post the weight of their approval, which in the same way, puts one’s own integrity on the line with sharing it to someone else. This is doubly why one shouldn’t just share without verifying the facts as much as possible.

This is true not only of “political” shares but also very frequently is also true about shares that relate to science, experiential, or medical “facts,” such as claims for health cures (“Drs recommend you never eat sugar….”) or environmental issues (“Something-or-other is poisonous because of such-and-such….”) or experiences (“I was kidnapped by aliens and taken to….”). There are some claims that are proven true and worth sharing—don’t get me wrong. However, not all claims are created equally. The person who posts must at least try to verify the things posted or shared before posting or sharing them. Google the key words, check it out on Snopes.com, or follow the trail of blogs that quote that resource. Usually, it takes less than one minute to find out that something is questionable or already proven to be false.

Доверяй, но проверяй—“Trust, but verify,” as the Russian translates into English—an old Russian saying that became well known in the western world when Reagan used it in talks about Soviet nuclear disarmament to say that the verifiability of the procedures should justify the level of trust bestowed in the process. Don’t blindly trust, but check that your trust is merited by the facts. To take it a step farther, only believe and share what you know to be true, as verified to the best of your ability; don’t blindly repost what people say because the name of a famous person is attached to the post or image, or because it tickles your ear and you wish it were true, or that you are “friends” with the poster.

 

Your respect for your friends does not stretch to the point where you must accept as accurate those things that are not accurate. When your friends don’t bother to check on the things that they share with you, why should you, like a robot, do the same and share untrue things with your friends, risking your own reputation?

 

Don’t squander good will by posting things that you have not bothered to vet for accuracy, because your reputation for truth suffers when you do not at least try to verify the share. Everyone makes mistakes in this, but some people don’t even try to not make mistakes.

Don’t be one of those people who just shares without fact-checking, because your integrity is at stake: you want people to believe what you say and take seriously what you believe.

See posts on my blog, susanwlavelle.com for more on this topic: