Supplemental 2: The Tools of Manipulation

Our last blog post discussed Chomsky’s propaganda model and how the mainstream media utilises the five filters to manipulate public perception. Before heading into the next part I thought it would be valuable to highlight some of the means by which this is accomplished in the print media. In the last supplemental at the end of the last part, an article from the Daily Camera from 23 May 2017 was referenced regarding the closure of a Walmart store in Boulder, Colorado. You can find the article here, which appears to be a similar version of an article in the Denver Post on the same day.


This piece is just one out of many articles that you will find every day in whichever corporate publication you might choose; it was been selected as an example simply because it was referenced in the last supplemental. There is nothing particularly special about it that makes it different from any other article.


Setting the scene: What happened

In 2013 Walmart opened a store in Boulder, Colorado. The opening was amidst a wave of ongoing protests from residents who were conscious of the harmful business practices (see the last supplemental for some examples) and its tendency to destroy local economies. Walmart kept its intentions to open secret for as long as it could to prevent the local council bowing to community pressure. This article describes how it snuck into the city. There was a community-wide refusal to shop at the store and the protests continued. Finally, after almost four years, Walmart closed and while we do not know all of the reasons for the closure it is fair to say that community resistance played an important role.


A walkthrough of the article describing what happened

I would urge you bring up the article in a separate window and follow along.


Notice how the opening line sets a tone: “we hardly knew ye” is a common reference given to beloved characters who left us too soon. The scene is set for an article designed to create sympathy for the “dearly departed”.


The second paragraph quotes a Walmart spokesperson who blames the “changing nature of retail, including the shift to online shopping” for the reason for their departure. The article then goes on to contradict itself a couple of paragraphs later where, still quoting the Walmart spokesperson, it mentions that the closure is an “isolated event”. Later still it mentions that Alfalfas, another grocery store in Boulder, has seen an increase in sales.


Over a quarter of the article (134 out of 504 words) is devoted to the Walmart spokesperson. Another 15% (71 words) is devoted to a shopper who is unhappy about its closure. That’s a total of 40% devoted to praise or dedication to the store.

Meanwhile, only 12% of the article (60 words) discusses the opposition. In the 8th paragraph the reason for the protests is given as Walmart being “maligned for its business practices – setting up shop in a liberal enclave”. None of the details of those business practices are mentioned; no links or references to stories highlighting them are provided. By describing Boulder as a “liberal enclave”, the article implies that the protestors are unreasonable, resisting the corporation because of blind political bias.


There is no mention of the efforts of the locals to not shop there or of the protesters continuing to spread the word. This adheres well to the corporate message: under no circumstances must it be communicated that Walmart may have bowed to community pressure. Instead, excuses like the online market, an already saturated marketplace, and a lacking in the ability to “differentiate” oneself. Doubtless, Walmart’s market research would have revealed all of this to them before they made the decision to open a store in Boulder.


The 10th paragraph talks about the closure of Whole Foods in Boulder. The supermarket conglomerate (now owned by Amazon), also known for some dodgy business practices including mistreatment of employees, is referred to as “Austin-Texas-based”. Why mention the home city of Whole Foods? Why refer to the successful Alfalfa’s as a “local grocer” in the next paragraph? It is intended to imply that the residents of Boulder are xenophobic, adding to the implications of their rejection of Walmart for irrational reasons.


Notice the advertisements within the article: there’s a mention in the 6th paragraph of the locations of the other Walmarts in the area that shoppers can still attend, and a mention of the “100 Walmart and Sam’s Clubs in the state” in the 9th paragraph; there are callouts to the “Neighborhood Market” concept (registered trademark) in the 6th and 8th paragraphs; and a mention of shopping at Walmart “for its convenience and low prices” on the second-last paragraph.


Now turn your attention to the two pictures that accompany the article. The first shows the Walmart store front in pristine condition, a clean uniformed worker diligently clearing the parking lot of shopping carts. The next picture shows a clash of protestors with police: the caption names the protestors and stops just short of accusing them of a crime (trespassing). This is a subtle form of intimidation – if you protest you might be named in the paper and targeted by the state.


Finally, the article closes with a quote from a shopper who is sad that she cannot shop at Walmart any more. She works out at the local gym, so she’s not one of those schlubby right wingers who still occupy small pockets of this hostile irrational liberal town. Just in case you are not yet sure how you are supposed to feel about the closure of the store, the final words to close out the article make it very clear: “I’m bummed it’s closing”.


Manufacturing consent

This article is an example of how the mass media manipulates the population into thinking the way the ruling classes want it to; what Noam Chomsky coined as manufacturing consent. We see how the usage of language and placing of pictures conveys a feeling and coerces us into thinking in a certain way. In this case the message is that we should feel sorry to poor Walmart who has been run out of town by the evil liberal cut-throat, and unreasonable businesspeople of Boulder.

An important key in developing an understanding for what is happening in the world is to understand the mechanisms by which the mass media forges our views about the world. Many of these are subtle and so ubiquitous that nothing appears amiss in the sea of propaganda; it is through constant repetition and no deviation that the message is entrenched and blindly accepted by the masses.


As I mentioned at the beginning, this news article is very typical. I could perform this kind of analysis on any news article arising from any corporate media outlet.


I would urge the reader to treat every news article that they consume in the same manner with which the article presented in this posting has been treated. Look for evidence of manipulation, bias, attempts to provoke an emotional response. See how both sides of an issue are being portrayed, check which claims are backed up with credible sources and which are not. Fortunately, the tactics of manipulation change very little, and over time one becomes more skilled at spotting them. One starts to recognise certain usages of language, logical fallacies, even the names of people portraying particular viewpoints arise again and again.


Finally, remember that we all bring our biases to an article every time we encounter one. We all tend to disregard information that does not conform with our biases and accept information that does conform. Be ready to change your mind about an issue if sufficient evidence is provided to allow such a change.


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