LOOK UP! Before it's Too Late to See the Manipulation



About the Author: Tina Abashidze is a Master's student in Media Psychology and Communications at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University. Due to her undergraduate background in arts and humanities at University of Exeter, she often incorporates elements of content analysis by looking closely at how pop culture reflects various issues societies face, including those of information warfare. She is interested in investigating how often conversations on earnest topics on the current events don't begin where they are expected to begin - on the state level, but are rather left to artists and other creatives to handle, with a hope of eventually having a dialogue.


Opening statement from the author



When I originally wrote an analysis for this blog entry, we lived in a different world. It was not, admittedly, without its concerns – the perpetual struggle with the COVID pandemic alone depleted each one of us psychologically, physiologically, economically, but we were preparing for improvement, hopeful that the finale of this tragic mistake of nature was coming to an end. That was until another, far greater mistake of nature decided to remind the world that it was he, in fact, who is the biggest threat to humanity’s adequacy and well-being by starting one of the greatest humanitarian crises in recent history – what he and his rotten supporters refer to as a “special operation” and what every civilised country identifies as a war hardly short of a genocide. Indeed, the “old man in the bunker”, as he is known to the intellectually capable people in his country due to reportedly inhabiting a bunker for almost the entirety of the pandemic, decided that the best way to lead his socially isolated life would be to drag another sovereign state into a bunker as well – albeit without all the luxury.


Every day now, I go through the same routine – wake up after less than 6 hours of sleep, immediately reach for the phone, simultaneously bracing myself for the worst and looking for a glimmer of hope as I anxiously jump from one source to another, refreshing the feed every two minutes. I’m sure that like everyone, the more I read and see of what is happening in Ukraine, the more in awe I become of the heroic Ukrainian people and their ability to resist an oppressive force of unimaginable size with enviable rigour and bravery that can hardly be rivalled. Also, more than ever, I am aware of the importance of legitimate sources, crosschecking any news I come across to avoid disinformation, which is almost inevitable in such situations. Unfortunately, I can’t say that regular Russian citizens, who are on the other side of the world’s barricade, have been privileged enough to have access to this choice for a long time now – and I know that all the better because I have a personal attachment to the place.


I have had quite a diverse upbringing – and this upbringing, in part, determines both my overall disdain towards repression of human rights and personal heartbreak towards the events unfolding right now. Before moving back to Georgia three years ago, I had lived in the UK for nearly seven years and before then, I also lived in Malta – so it is safe to say that I spent the majority of my conscious life morphing into a European I believe I am. Originally, however, I was born and, until my early teens, raised in Moscow in a family of Georgian immigrants. I want to make it clear, as inappropriate as it might seem now, that I had always been part of a multi-ethnic environment without any hostility or slurs thrown around based on ethnicity – at least in my immediate environment. Even after the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia when my family was scared to send me back to school in fear of discrimination, we received nothing but support from both teachers and students. But that was the de facto situation then – the system itself is quite a different matter.


As I grew up and started gaining consciousness about the world around me through European eyes, I began reflecting on my early upbringing and the post-Soviet influence it ingrained in my thinking. I remember my shock, when after the Russian education system, which still supported a tendency for over idealisation of well-known historical figures, I wrote one of my first history essays in the UK: used to applying aggrandising epithets to important historical figures, I referred to Winston Churchill as “the great British politician”. My teacher crossed it out and commented that it was “not an objective assessment”. Not used to this kind of reasoning, I was, at first, taken aback – doesn’t everyone have to think he is great, I thought? Years of education in the UK, however, taught me the importance of critical thinking towards anyone and any source of information – no matter how important the people behind it seem to be. It also took me time to realise that while at the time of my living in Russia people were still not nearly as bombarded by media propaganda, the first seeds were already planted at the time of my being there and the full-on propaganda “gap” was compensated after I left. It is all the more worrying since I clearly remember the older generations in Russia scolding the young to stop watching the “zomboiashik” – literally, a zombifying box, which is to say, TV – and to do something more intellectually enriching, only to tragically fall into the trap of the zombifying box themselves.


Now, in the middle of the physical war, the information warfare is at its height in the world, but first and foremost, in Russia. Western social networks such as Instagram and Facebook, even Wikipedia, are extremely limited by the local government and on the verge of being blocked due to a high concentration of oppositional thinking. All of the Russian oppositional media channels (“TV Rain”, “Echo of Moscow”, “Current Time TV” etc.) and every Ukrainian channel, except those left on Telegram, are being blocked already – anyone, who dares to refer to the “special operation” as a “war” is branded a national traitor and faces up to 15 years in prison. As many Russian opposition forces have remarked, “War is Peace” from Orwell’s 1984 has become the truest description of the current events as propaganda channels become the sole focus of the population not aware of VPN or specific social platforms. The only source that remains open so far is YouTube – and even so, for every opposition channel there are ten pro-Russian propaganda ones. Now more than ever before, it is tangible that the fate of free Ukraine and free Russia, as well as the world as a whole, in many ways depends on media.


With the Western news of intense sanctions against Russia confirmed every day, I also question myself: could it have been done sooner? Why did the free world sustain and protect the oligarchy when it was clear that everyone knew of their assets – and the fact that they had been obtained by the means of kleptocracy. The Russian propaganda machine wouldn’t have been nearly as strong in 2008, after the war in Georgia, so why weren’t such strict sanctions imposed then already, so as to avoid rearing such a mindless population? But much more importantly, in reference to the film I analyse below – why does this monster’s preventable use of nuclear weapons seem so imminent when the whole world is against him?


I decided not edit the analysis itself – but I would like you to read it in the light of the current events, so that you can judge for yourself just how relevant it is and most importantly, remain vigilant. Lastly, I wish victory to Ukraine and its heroic people and peace for the world as a whole – liberty should always win over oppression, such is the nature of every civilised society that has bright hopes for a humane future.


LOOK UP! Before it's Too Late to See the Manipulation


WHEN the two leading characters of the 2021 black comedy "Don’t Look Up", Kate Dibiasky, a PhD candidate in astronomy at Michigan State University and her professor, Dr Randall Mindy, are waiting in the corridor to be received by the President of the United States, one can see a seemingly ordinary painting hung above their heads, compatible with the historical atmosphere of the place it is meant to embody.


A naturalistic painting by W.H. Powell entitled “Emigrant Scene” (1837) depicts an image of the period in American history known as the Westward expansion – a time, when the 19th century European settlers, heavily motivated by the Gold Rush, sought to expand into the mostly uninhabited Western coast of the United States. In this particular portrayal, a Native American man points into the distance as if to guide the white settlers towards a location they seem to be looking for. Just as we get to perceive the painting from afar, however, the camera cuts to a close-up of the painting. While it does so, it shakes slightly and even though it is quite jarring for a professional footage, it flows naturally enough to not make the viewer question anything – except upon closer inspection and back and forth comparisons, you will find it is not a fragment of the Powell painting at all.


Likely, the viewer’s mind, already too pre-occupied with the plot of the film, doesn’t really register the incongruity of the full painting and the close-up image – and our inability to observe attentively and fact-check is precisely one of the biggest focuses of the film. This undoubtedly deliberate choice by Adam McKay, the key brain behind the project, cleverly provides us with the picture indeed worth a thousand words. We can read into the specific connotation of this transition: the Native American, who was kind enough to inform the white settlers in the first painting, was “rewarded” by his people being hunted down, as portrayed by the Native American having guns pointed at him in the close-up fragment from another painting – and a similar fate indeed awaits our scientists in the film, too.

However, we can also draw broader messages from it that can be relevant to information consumption as a whole:

1) the people who refuse to see the full picture of the situation and therefore, the root of the problem, are the same people who do not expect to see the issue escalating into history-changing events and 2) when we see the full picture, we assume that we can trust all of the details that it is comprised of, since they appear to be thematically consistent with the overall image. Either way, it seems like McKay decided to play a little game with the audience, constantly bombarding us with various images throughout the film, hoping that we will care enough to figure out their meaning in our search for true intent or more generally, the truth, by observing the carefully planted inconsistencies of the various threads of thought. Indeed, he has peppered the film with clues of what exactly he finds unsettling in the contemporary media landscape, especially from a political – or rather “politicised” – angle. I will try to delve into some of the instances and guide you through these red flags.


“We just keep the bad news light. It helps the medicine go down”


This upbeat response of the news anchors, as well as their general demeanour, is painfully realistic – certainly for American Television. Their constant witty banter that is meant to maintain an image of an easy-going conversation regardless of the severity of the issue discussed is meant to be charming – and yet it comes across as deeply unsettling given the context. The scene in the Oval Office isn’t much better. When the group of scientists, our main characters, first introduce the issue at hand, President Orlean and her (rather ill-equipped) advisor circle reason about the event’s prevalence not based on its actual scientific probability but on its significance to their political agenda and desired ratings. The almost 100% chance of planet’s destruction is minimised by the President to 70% on pure whim and not based on any substantial, scientifically backed arguments – as if this statement could actually alter the probability of the event itself, just because she willed it so.


While the Office does not intend to weaponise this specific piece of news per se, they inevitably end up using this information as an instrument in advancing their own politics, while being fully aware and utterly unconcerned that it would be a deliberate lie. That is, they willingly participate in disinformation. While there are several ways of defining this concept, there is a general consensus on its implication.


Fallis (2015) sums this up in three key features. Firstly, he argues that disinformation is still a type of information, even if it is not in any way informative in a sense of being valuable. Secondly, he describes it as information that is “misleading” or “likely to create false beliefs.” Thirdly, he believes it to be conscious, “non-accidentally misleading information”, with the disinformation label not being revoked even if the audience does not end up believing this piece of information. This situation in the film qualifies based on all three of these features. However, there is another important aspect of disinformation that is also reflected in that scene: the fact that not all of the information contained in the news has to be false – in fact, it is almost always based in truth, or at least partial truth (Jackson, 2017). We can see this playing out in the film – the comet has a high chance of hitting the Earth, which is the truth that is kept in the message, but the intent is to minimise its importance, which is why it’s still malignant.


“Keep it simple. No math.” – “But it’s all math”


It seems paradoxically ridiculous but at once sensible to witness this exchange happen between the two astronomers. On the one hand, even if all of the professional jargon is cut out of Dr Mindy’s explanation, there still remain the calculations which are the proof and thus the very premise of the scientists’ worry. On the other – hardly anyone cares or is educated enough to understand them. As such, the only thing left for Dr Mindy is to make information “digestible” for the majority. In their reasoning on media vulnerability, Marwick and Lewis (2017) argue the attention economy to be one of the leading factors to the ease with which information is readily manipulated through available resources. As Shapiro and Varian (1999) aptly put it, “nowadays the problem is not information access, but information overload.”


Nevertheless, the issue is not simply in the fact that the general audience does not have the time to focus on the amount of information available – it’s that it wishes to consume as much of it as possible and looks for the most simplified messages available. Furthermore, even before one is exposed to the message, it needs to be attention grabbing, it needs to accumulate what Franck refers to as “attention income” (2019), which is to say, it should be predisposed to popularity to begin with. This is shown brilliantly in the film, when the Riley Bina and DJ Chello break-up garners so much attention that those not aware of it are almost shamed for not knowing about them. In other words, one of the reasons why people are manipulated by the information in media is because they somewhat enjoy the easily comprehensible and amusing “drama” that comes with the often outrageous news.


“No politics. None”


When Kate visits her parents and is refused entry into the house, this is how they justify their cold, detached welcome. We are just as taken aback as Kate, but then they elaborate that the reason why they don’t want her back is political polarisation – they disagree with her on the comet’s economic benefits, solidifying the fact that the comet issue has quickly been turned into a political weapon and assigned sides. Consequently, we even see that some members of the society have managed to make the best out of neutrality from either side. During an interview for the upcoming film, one of the actors shows off a pin of the rocket pointing in both directions, as if to symbolise not taking sides, which is deemed by the interviewer to be "refreshing”.


However, the true motive becomes clear the moment the actor mentions that the film is meant to appeal to everyone, that is, the reason for this neutrality is not genuine concern, but a way to make more money off of either demographic. And the list of such beneficiaries of this polarisation in the film is inexhaustible.


Tucker et al. (2018) focus their research on the connection between disinformation and political polarization – and vice versa. They talk in particular about the so-called “elite polarisation” – which is to say, a division in the opinion led by influential people - and how it heavily affects political polarisation as a whole. They further describe the relevance of the issue by identifying ardent political activity or partisanship as a “potent social identity”, the contribution to which from malignant forces by creating misperceptions about the opposite parties leads precisely to “perceptual distortions” and even deeper polarization that not only undermines democracy but also drives the society further apart.


That’s, in fact, how the film concludes – rather than focusing on coming together against a common threat, the whole world becomes fragmented, with not only every country, but every individual only concerned with their own business. This disinterest, however, doesn’t just lead to conflict – it leads to human extinction, showing that there are issues which stand far above one’s political opinions. What matters is recognising them together before it’s too late.


References


Fallis, D. (2015). What is disinformation?. Library trends, 63(3), 401-426.


Franck, G. (2018). The Economy of Attention. Journal of Sociology, 55(1), 8–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/1440783318811778


Jackson, D. (2018, October 10). Issue brief: Distinguishing disinformation from propaganda, misinformation, and "fake news". NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR DEMOCRACY. Retrieved February 14, 2022, from https://www.ned.org/issue-brief-distinguishingdisinformation-from-propaganda-misinformation-and-fake-news/


Marwick, A., & Lewis, R. (2017). Media manipulation and disinformation online. New York: Data & Society Research Institute, 7-19.


Shapiro, C., Varian, H. R., & Becker, W. E. (1999). Information rules: a strategic guide to the network economy. Journal of Economic Education, 30, 189-190.


Tucker, J. A., Guess, A., Barberá, P., Vaccari, C., Siegel, A., Sanovich, S. & Nyhan, B. (2018). Social media, political polarization, and political disinformation: A review of the scientific literature. Political polarization, and political disinformation: a review of the scientific literature (March 19, 2018).