Chasing magic bullets

Communication science discredited the idea of direct media effects over 75 years ago. So why does it sometimes seem like nothing has changed?

In my Media and Society course, I like to start the second class by playing a little trick on students. I ask them first if they have heard about the recent massacre at a cinema in Canada. Before they have a chance to look it up on their devices, I tell them a little story. I explain that test screenings took place for a new Eli Roth film called ‘Kill Everyone’ (the name always gets a few snickers, and knowing nods) in a small village called Igloolik in Nunavut, Canada on the weekend. After explaining the purpose of test screenings (using preview audiences to gauge potential reaction), I tell them that participants usually receive a bit of swag, often vouchers for future screenings, and also the typical, massive, North American tubs of greasy popcorn, and giant one-litre sugary sodas (affectionately known as ‘Big Gulps’) with straws in them. Then comes the point of the story: I tell them that Roth’s new film is so incredibly, shockingly violent, that only four and a half minutes in, the entire audience took their straws out of their Big Gulps, and started stabbing the people sitting next to them in the dark cinema. Fourteen people were seriously injured, five are in critical condition, with another 24 taken to hospital for treatment of facial wounds. 

The purpose of telling the story is to help students understand the basics of early media effects theories. Specifically, in this case, the ‘magic bullet’ or ‘hypodermic needle’ theory, which is in the category of powerful media effects. This theory assumes that media messages affect everyone the same way, with uniformity in reception and interpretation of messages. In terms of this theory, media messages are like symbolic bullets, striking every ear and eye, with direct, uniform effects. This theory, and variations of it, drove early communications research, and formed the basis of thought connected with media influence for many years. Frightened by the rise of mass propaganda in the first world war, and the persuasive possibilities of ‘new media’ such as film and radio, it took some time to discredit this theory. 

However, it slowly dawned on researchers that people are not all the same, and thus cannot all be affected the same way by mediated communications. This led to the era of limited effect theories, two-step flow, and other understandings of the indirect influence of media. The idea of media having direct effects on audiences has not had any real serious influence in academia since shortly after the end of the Second World War. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the general population, or governments, understand this. It is enough to look at the astonishing amount of money and labour used during the Cold War to jam foreign broadcasts, or the death penalty for the occupants of entire buildings for listening to enemy broadcasts in occupied Poland during WWII. There was a very serious and urgent fear that the reception of mediated communications could transform people. More recently, the idea that social media campaigns from ‘hostile’ nations will strike every eye and ear the same way, turning entire populations against their governments, recalls the same attitude. In a phenomenally popular TED talk, Carole Cadwalladr recently rose to international fame for telling the story of walking around a small town in South Wales and explaining how she met a number of people who said they wanted to leave the EU, to which she concluded that essentially Facebook had massacred the population with magic bullets, making them all respond in exactly the same way. This is not to say that the spread of targeted propaganda is not problematic, but the idea that all humans are helpless and unable to think rationally when confronted with mediated communication is irresponsible to say the least.

From my own personal perspective, in all the time I have been telling the ‘Kill Everyone’ story, only one or two students have ever openly expressed disbelief. In fact, probably 10-15% of the class go as far as to cite this complete fabrication in later exams during the course – even though I tell them that it was a story to help them understand theory, and that it was completely made-up. This fits in with the popular bias that suggests that the public also generally assume that people are helpless and at the whim of mass media: a force so powerful, that audiences kneel at the might it inherently possesses.

If I had to state the most common view that students have coming into university in 2020, it would be that the media are all-powerful, and we are but sacrificial lambs to the slaughter imposed by storms of magic bullets – this almost 100 years after the dawn of communication theory. In a century, is this as far as we have been able to get? To summarize that the media are powerful, and humans can be led to believe anything? It seems wrong, but then again, who has not heard someone predicting World War III after the American assassination of Qassem Soleimani? Or been convinced they may have contracted coronavirus after coming down with the traditional Central European February flu?  Was I the only one that was flooded with messages from my mother asking if I was safe after storm Ciara?

Perhaps they are not wrong. Some scholars have been pointing towards a return of the concept of powerful media effects for some time. Communication technologies and human behaviours have changed radically in the last two decades. Targeted, direct communications are an everyday reality, and are becoming more sophisticated. Effective targeted messaging gives us the possibility of filtered, or two-step flows, and brings us back to the idea of the one-step flow – albeit with much more serious ramifications than a century ago.

So where to now? Neil Postman spoke in the 1980s about how people had become just as naïve as people in the Middle Ages, because they could be made to believe almost anything. At that time, no one really listened to him except his students, and a few talk shows that wanted to entertain audiences with a ‘crazy professor’. However, one other group listened: people who worked at IBM designing early PCs. They would go so far as to invite him halfway across the world, and crowded halls of computer visionaries would sit, and listen. 

Who is ready to listen, and think critically about the role and effects of the media on society today? Increasingly, it seems that the most worrying problem is that we think we already know the answers.


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