Choose Wisely: To What Extent Can the Media Influence Our Beliefs and Attitudes?

Pragya NatarajanSeptember 7, 2021The Media That Raised UsThe Big Question
Choose Wisely: To What Extent Can the Media Influence Our Beliefs and Attitudes?

Artwork by Caroline Kuo

In my community, social media, TV shows, and other forms of media are heavily influential in all aspects of our lives.

Most teenagers, including me, receive information about world events from media sources such as newspapers and Instagram posts. My experiences with the media have been bittersweet because the media is entertaining and provides me with information about the world and ways to advocate for causes; at the same time, the media feels like a never-ending vortex sucking me in. Media is all-encompassing and can provide a sense of community and comfort, yet there is a fine line between controlling the media you consume and that media controlling you. It can monopolize public opinion through its ability to inspire mob mentality. However, it can also be an effective tool to organize communities and fight for social causes by spreading information and raising awareness. Applying these observations to my own opinions brought me to the realization that the media is like sugar. In small servings, it brings comfort and joy, but too much of it is deadly.

I have noticed that the fundamental nature of humans is to gather in groups as a more surefire way to survive in the world. When part of a group, we feel safer and believe that it is the best way to continue because there is strength in numbers. Media creates groups for people to join, ranging from friend groups to fandoms to activist movements. Fandoms, for example, are groups of people who share the same enthusiasm for entertainment such as books, comics, animations, and music, and bond over their shared interest. A person can find these groups while having these interests but not caring too much about them. I can open Instagram, search for a few posts, and suddenly there are more and more posts like them in my Instagram feed. Being shown numerous examples of the same idea, with infographics and more, can hammer ideas into your head and drive you to go to the media for more information about your interests. You will like what it says, and it will make you emotionally invested in this.

Media unites communities of people who have the same beliefs, making it more compelling for you to join them. This is helpful when people are promoting social causes. I love to read from credible sources and influencers who do their research, like @pinkmantaray, @mattxiv, and @jameelajamilofficial. However, a small hobby can become a full-blown obsession if you do not have enough self-control to consume media in only small amounts. I manage to keep myself from obsessing over the fandoms I am part of, but it takes an enormous amount of self-control. To try to keep the media from swallowing you whole, you need the ability to turn away and say no to it.

The media can be a double-edged sword because your judgment is crucial. Ideas spread like wildfire, especially when presented in the media. Once you have been exposed to an idea, no matter what your stance is, it will affect you at least a little. Each person is affected differently by ideas presented to them, and the media strives to present ideas that the majority of people believe in. The media shoves these ideas into your face regularly, and your attitude toward topics will be heavily influenced by the ideas you frequently see. The media is so omnipresent that we choose what media we want to see at first, but, at some point, the media begins to take advantage of our likes to provide us with more and more interesting content, to the point of addiction. There is a delicate balance in how much influence the media has over you, and this balance can easily tip. In the same way, processing information received repeatedly builds a person’s worldview. When hordes of people have the same viewpoint, the media picks up on that and creates pressure to agree with this specific viewpoint instead of questioning or fact-checking it. The vast majority of people do not take the time to fact-check all that they see, so if inaccurate information is being spread in the media, then viewers will not receive all the information they need to properly come up with their opinions.

Coming up with individual opinions and presenting them within a group of people who hold a differing opinion, however, can lead to harassment, bullying, hate speech, and more. The way the media presents viewers with “correct” opinions and drills them in reminds me of The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. In this short story, a town chooses a member of the community for an annual ritual called “the lottery.” The entire town sees this lottery as a ritual that simply has to be done, and only the oldest member of the community remembers it is a superstition that denotes a good corn harvest. They have the entire community, including the children, draw from a box full of slips of paper, and one of which has a black dot on it. Everyone makes sure to draw, even those who can’t attend because of sickness or age, going to great lengths to make sure everyone participates in the tradition. At the end of this story, we learn that the ritual is for the entire town to stone the person who draws the marked paper to death. One character, Tessie Hutchinson, repeatedly calls the tradition unfair, but she’s berated by the rest of the community and draws the black dot, leading to her being stoned to death by a vicious rain of stones.

No one in the town dares to question the morality of stoning someone to death; it’s just an age-old tradition. Even children are throwing the stones, and the coordinator is eager to finish Tessie as soon as possible so the villagers can continue with their day. The mob mentality that leads the villagers to stone a person to death without even knowing the reason for the tradition or whether the tradition is worth the carnage mirrors how mob mentality works in our world. When seeing fledgling ideas contest mainstream opinions, the vast majority attacks those ideas without even needing a reason aside from the fact that others are attacking those ideas. This behavior has been omnipresent throughout human history, such as during the Spanish Inquisition, when people were hunted people down for being heretics, and in the modern-day with stereotyping, name-calling, and more. In all of these examples, the majority belittles and secludes minorities and then attacks them, like the people in The Lottery attacking whoever drew the black dot. Minority groups never ask to be discriminated against, just as Tessie didn’t ask for the black dot, but the majority do not question their morality.

It is also why incorrect representation of minority groups in the media is extremely dangerous. Humans tend to conform to socially accepted ideas, so movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, music videos, and more cause harm when they portray minorities incorrectly. These false representations imprint on public opinion and build a majority opinion that is harmful to people of minority groups because it labels them in ways that show them as less than human. This leads to the normalization of seeing minorities as less than human and gives people around them the message that it’s alright to treat them as less than human, too. This leads to the mistreatment of minority groups in aspects of their lives from policies to their daily routines. Spreading harmful misconceptions and stereotypes that lead to the oppression of minorities shows the same mentality displayed by the villagers when they stoned Tessie to death. They are both examples of masses of people conforming to the world around them despite knowing the world is filled with angry mobs.

As the media touches all kinds of people, representation is critical to mold the public’s opinion on various issues. When people see incorrect representation, it is what they end up believing in. The media features many stereotypical fictional tropes, such as the gay best friend whose entire personality is just their sexuality, the woman who is utterly powerless and always needs the hero to save her, the violent criminals and thugs who are mostly of minority groups, and more. These stereotypes lead many to apply these fictional ideas to real people because of the prevalence of these ideas. When correct representation is shown to the public on major platforms, this can turn public opinion for the better and help minority groups escape stereotypes and combat social discrimination. Improving public perception of members of minority groups will help improve their lives, but only if the representation becomes prevalent enough. Media reaches people of all socioeconomic classes, ethnicities, backgrounds, professions, gender, and sexual identities, so most people are exposed to these attitudes and can be affected by them. When pointing out minorities as scapegoats, they’re the easiest to “stone to death,” as it’s commonly accepted to view them as lesser or as deserving of violence. Public opinion can be humanity’s greatest asset and greatest foe.

However, because of its ability to connect people and build communities, the media is extremely helpful as a tool for activism and social change. It can be used for organizing people to protest against a discriminatory policy or for working against harmful representation that spreads misinformation and dangerous beliefs. Social media activism done by well-researched sources, public influencers who have partnered with credible organizations, and people of minority groups or who support minority groups advocating for social change manage to receive traction within media because, as I said earlier, once exposed to an idea, it will affect you no matter if you agree with it. Social media activists such as Schuyler Bailar, the previously mentioned @pinkmantaray, continuously point out the hatred pointed at minorities and the societal problems caused by it, and despite receiving mounds of hate on a daily basis, he continues to persevere and provide information about the LGBTQ+ community, as well as promote petitions to fight against bills harmfully impacting the transgender community. Being able to influence public opinion in a way that will help people’s lives is a beautiful thing about creating media. It helps people discover safe spaces to be themselves without fear of discrimination. The majority of public opinion doesn’t always protect minorities, and members of those minority groups can find solace in areas of media that are there for them instead of conforming with the majority. Areas such as affinity groups help support people, and the media helps get word of these places out into the general public. While the majority of media appeals to overall public opinion, some media utilizes its influence to benefit lives by investing in activist movements.

As you can see, because the media is an omnipresent force that holds a lot of power in our lives, people tend not to question it too often. It tends to be addictive, and it spreads all kinds of ideas to people. The media's ability to distribute information and beliefs can be harmful if it spreads beliefs that impact communities negatively, and yet it can be beneficial if the ideas promoted improve the lives of people. In order to make sure that you can still enjoy media without being swept away in a storm, choose the media you want to view wisely.

Thank you so much Laurance Shipley, Madelyn Stone, and Theresa Nguyen for helping me brainstorm.

Pragya Natarajan is an eleventh grader at Cupertino High School in California. Her hobbies are watching animated tv shows, running, reading, writing, and art. Her favorite color is red, and she loves interacting with people.