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Complete lies! (01/2024)

Staging is just part of the game.

Text: Harun Maye

The media have a significant impact on all election campaigns and distort reality. Media Studies scholar Harun Maye sees no harm in this.

Trump riding a bear down a street between sky scrapers
Fake news. (Image: University of Basel, AI-generated by Benjamin Meier)

Democratic societies rely on the media, including everything from the traditional mass media (books, newspapers, radio, TV) to the digital technologies of the present day. All forms of media are supposed to not only heighten public awareness of political issues and problems, but also scrutinize and reveal the intentions of political actors.

Nowadays, however, this role is being made increasingly difficult due to growing mistrust in not only the traditional mass media but also social media, both of which are accused of manipulating public opinion for the benefit of latent interests.

A political and media-historical caesura.

In other words, there are two competing perspectives: On the one hand, the view that secrets and concealed structures exist in political systems and can only be brought to light by critical media coverage. On the other hand, the suspicion that the media distort the truth in order to manipulate the public. Common to these two very different perspectives is the assumption that the media wield considerable power over politics. For proof, one need look no further than the history of U.S. presidential elections.

The Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, who laid the foundation of media theory in the 1960s, frequently refers to the 1960 U.S. presidential election in his work. This election proved to be a turning point not only in politics but also in media history. After the nominating conventions, polls placed the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, six percentage points ahead of his Democratic rival, John F. Kennedy.

This situation would soon change due to the relatively new medium of television, which had become so established in the USA in the 1950s that, by 1960, 90 percent of American households owned a TV. On 26 September, 1960, almost all of those households tuned in to watch the live broadcast of the first televised head-to-head between Nixon and Kennedy. Three more of these debates would follow in the run-up to the vote on 8 November, 1960.

Kennedy was the first true “TV politician”, who knew how to use the new medium to his advantage. According to McLuhan, Kennedy’s image was that of a shy young sheriff, whereas Nixon’s TV persona was more akin to that of the railway lawyer who negotiates deals that are not in the interests of ordinary people.

Multiple factors influenced how the candidates came across on camera. Before the first debate, Nixon refused makeup, his face looked wrinkled and tired, and viewers could clearly see his stubble and the sheen of perspiration on his skin. His light-gray suit blended into the background of the TV studio.

Kennedy, on the other hand, wore a dark-blue suit that contrasted with the background – and the makeup made his face look cool and dynamic. Nixon would presumably have won in the absence of the TV debate, as those listening to the Kennedy–Nixon debates on the radio clearly perceived him as the superior candidate.

Nixon’s undoing was that, on TV, Kennedy no longer looked like a politician but rather like an ordinary, good-looking man that people could trust. McLuhan correctly discerned that, in political communication, the medium has a greater role in a message’s impact than its actual content.

Victory before truth.

Approximately 50 years later, Barack Obama pulled off the same feat as Kennedy. In 2008, the hitherto relatively unknown senator won the presidential election thanks to, among other things, skilled use of social media. Since then, he has been considered the first “social media president” in history. At the end of his first term in office, however, he was lagging behind Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the polls.

What turned things around again was that Obama’s campaign team was able to deploy a technique known as microtargeting for the first time – using software they had developed themselves. In this technique, data collected in phone calls and door-to-door visits is combined with information from social media campaigns, public databases and statistics, and then fed into an enormous database. This allows a support index to be created for each individual registered voter and political messages to be targeted at floating voters who are still undecided.

It will come as no surprise that there is also a dark side to this media evolution in the relationship between politics and media, for microtargeting can of course also be used to spread disinformation about political candidates and events in a targeted manner. That is precisely what happened a few years down the line and is viewed as one of the key factors in Donald Trump’s surprise election victory in 2016. It remains to be seen how the U.S. elections in 2024 will play out given recent developments in artificial intelligence.

Contradictions must be endured.

There are different ways of evaluating the close link between politics and media. On the one hand, the media can combat political apathy among the general public by harnessing popular imagery, stories and people to illustrate political problems in a clearly comprehensible manner. This approach can also reach people who have actually become completely detached from political discourse but who are active on social media or watch TV.

At the same time, stage-managed imagery and speeches risk giving the impression that political activity is not played out at the level of realpolitik and is instead stuck in the realm of symbolic politics. Charismatic political figures are also heavily pushed by the media and are therefore only loosely linked to the policies and decisions of their parties. One can rejoice in or regret this state of affairs, but there is no way to change it.

Media communication is always staged – even that which is considered or considers itself to be more appropriate than other forms of communication. Accordingly, we must learn to live with contradictions in political communication and not to view them as toxic or tragic, but rather to take a reflective and intelligent approach to dealing with mediated reality and the reality of media. The need to simultaneously analyze and endure communicative distortions lies at the heart of democratic discourse around the relationship between media and politics.

More articles in this issue of UNI NOVA (May 2024).

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