To explain how the media operates within the audiences’ minds, communication scholars in the 1930’s crafted what is known as the Hypodermic Needle Theory. This theory held its belief that all humans react in the same way, to stimuli. Giving the impression that the media was able to inject its message into the peoples’ brains as propaganda and manipulation like a syringe. This concept sees the audience as a vulnerable and passive. Are we as vulnerable as this theory states or are we resistant to media influence?
The power of the media.
Lets take some time down memory lane. In the fall of 2020 the elections sparked a surge of fake news on social media that drew significant attention. I personally remember scrolling through Facebook and Twitter in awe of all the ‘breaking news’ or allegation. At some point I felt that no matter where I got my news it was being framed to fit a narrative, it seemed deceptive and manipulative. However for many of my family and friends they continue to share these as ‘truths’ and were not afraid to express their beliefs.
“Social media is a powerful vehicle for shaping public opinion, and is one reason why there is concern about the role it can play during electoral processes.” — Virginia Tech expert Mike Horning.
Journalists, scientists and other experts voiced their concern over fake news or misinformation. When the events of Jan. 6 occurred many were quick to speculate that this was the product of the media as it spread doubt over the legitimacy of the re-elections. Needless to say that those messages were strong and directed to create public opinion that ultimately changed the behavior of the seemingly vulnerable audiences.
“Roughly a quarter (23%) of adult social media users in the United States — and 17% of adults overall — say they have changed their views about a political or social issue because of something they saw on social media in the past year.” — July, 2020 Pew Research Center survey.
The influence of the media can go further than politics. In many instances what media decides to cover and how it frames the stories can have a direct impact in the audience’s perception of that topic. An example of this is the Black Lives Matter movement, that was first introduced as a hashtag on a social media post, that in turn developed a network of grass-roots organizations, and a moral collective of activists. Once again, the long-term use of the media had a profound effect on the collective mind in respects to a specific topic.
However, to conclude that the audience is passive and susceptible by the message is simply not true. The reactions of people can differ and while some people can be passive others may not even believe in media altogether.
“A majority of U.S. social media users (76%) say they have not changed their views on a political or social issue because of something they saw on social media in the past year.”- July, 2020 Pew Research Center survey.
I think about the thousands of people that were hospitalized and died due to the coronavirus. Still, many people think the virus is no worse than the flu and should not be taken so seriously. Despite the overwhelming media coverage of the outbreak and accessibility to information online. There might be an explanation to this phenomena, some say that human nature is to seek those with likeminded ideas and thus consume information that supports their views and ignore facts that don’t. This is commonly known as “confirmation bias” and none of us are immune to it.
So what’s the verdict?
In the end the media can try as much as it likes, but it does not have absolute control over its audience. There are many factors that must go into effect to allow the media to take control, such as our own willingness to evaluate our perceptions, and subsequent attitudes and behavioral intentions in respect to social media news.