Beware the Narrative

Spotting ideologically-driven reporting and propaganda in modern news media


May 18, 2017
The 2017 remake of Ghost in the Shell (starring Scarlett Johansson) received a lot of press in North America – most of it negative. Casting a white woman in the lead role in the remake of a classic Japanese manga was hailed as yet another example of racism running rampant in Hollywood (and our society).

Although a strong argument can be made that Hollywood often falls short when it comes to encouraging and portraying multiculturalism on the silver screen (Marlon Brando even turned down an Oscar because of it), the controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell serves as an excellent example of how a media narrative based on a kernel of truth can be constructed and presented as objective fact.


Why is it important to recognize media narratives?

Because the information you consume shapes how you think, especially if it’s clever propaganda designed to foster a conclusion or intellectual outcome.

This article originally started out as a simple case study in media spin, but eventually morphed into an examination of how humans develop personal biases, how those biases can turn into ideologies, and how those ideologies have spread into the media we consume.

It’s certainly important to be aware of your own biases whenever possible, but it’s just as important to make sure you are taking in a variety of information that challenges your thinking and forces you to examine perspectives from different angles.

I’m using Ghost in the Shell as a focal point for this article because the situation does a nice job of illustrating that even ‘unbiased’ sources either missed or omitted key details from their reporting in favour of bashing Hollywood’s so-called “racist agenda”.

I have provided a summary below of what I hope to communicate in this article. Note that there is quite a bit of theory to get through before I get to talking about Ghost in the Shell. I’m doing this because I think it’s important to accurately describe the root causes of ideologically-driven reporting before showing how it manifests in a certain instance.

30-Second Summary
  • We all have natural biases that are based on our experiences and the limited information we have access to. In groups, these can become self-perpetuating ideologies.
  • When a news or media organization develops a set of biases that inform the style and content of their journalism, this becomes a narrative.
  • In the modern world, media narratives can be quite profitable, as people will tend to choose to consume journalism they ‘agree’ with.
  • However, media narratives are harmful because they are self-serving: their primary purpose is to reinforce the organization and drive clicks/attention/profits, not to seek and communicate the truth.
  • In some cases, media narratives can become propaganda, which advance a political or ideological cause in the pursuit of profits.
  • This article will explore the whitewashing controversy surrounding 2017’s “Ghost In The Shell” remake to show how media narratives lead to imbalanced reporting and self-serving “fake news”.

Individual Perspectives Become Biases

We all have individual worldviews that act as lenses through which we view the world. Jack Mezirow, an American sociologist and educator, called such biases meaning perspectives in his work, and said “they provide us criteria for judging or evaluating right and wrong, bad and good, beautiful and ugly, true and false, appropriate and inappropriate”.

Mezirow also observed that we acquire biases throughout childhood, through interactions with parents, teachers, and mentors. These meaning perspectives “mirror the way our culture and those individuals responsible for our socialization happen to have defined various situations”.

As we grow older, we operate within our framework of biases and perspectives, often without even realizing it. We filter all incoming information through our worldviews, and we tend to socialize with people that share our perspectives.

We are hardwired to avoid changing our minds

Perhaps most remarkably, our worldviews are self-sustaining. We become more likely to consume information that agrees with the way we see the world. In his article “4 reasons why people ignore facts and believe fake news”, Dr. Michael Shermer (Editor-In-Chief, Skeptic Magazine) identifies the phenomena that are responsible for this human quirk:

  • Cognitive Simplicity: When our brains process information, belief comes quickly and naturally. Skepticism is slow and unnatural, and most people have a low tolerance for ambiguity.
  • Cognitive Dissonance: The uncomfortable tension that comes from holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time. It’s easier to dispute the facts than to alter one’s deepest beliefs.
  • Backfire Effect: Cognitive simplicity and dissonance leads to a peculiar phenomenon in which people seem to double down on their beliefs in the teeth of overwhelming evidence against them.
  • Tribal Unity: We are a social primate species and we want to signal to others that we can be trusted as a reliable group member. Thus, cognitive simplicity and cognitive dissonance may have an evolutionary adaptive purpose.

Collective Perspectives Become Ideologies

As mentioned by Dr. Shermer, we are social primates. In other words, we’re tribal. But unlike other social animals, we have the unique ability to think abstractly. And so, our unique mental capabilities have enabled us to develop explicit ways of explaining and organizing the world, such as religion, law, and science.

As one might expect, we tend to organize ourselves around different interpretations of our world and how it can be improved: Socialism, Capitalism, Fascism, Communism, Objectivism, Liberalism, and so on.

But when do perspectives held by a group turn into an ideology? According to Maurice Cranston (Professor of Political Science, London School of Economics), an ideology can be identified by five characteristics:

  1. It contains an explanatory theory of a more or less comprehensive kind about human experience and the external world;
  2. It sets out a program, in generalized and abstract terms, of social and political organization;
  3. It conceives the realization of this program as entailing a struggle;
  4. It seeks not merely to persuade but to recruit loyal adherents, demanding what is sometimes called commitment;
  5. It addresses a wide public but may tend to confer some special role of leadership on intellectuals.

Thus, it would seem that ideologies occupy a unique space in the human social sphere. They possess an explanation of the world (like religion), a prescribed set of acceptable actions (like law), and a very strong appeal to reason and rationality (like science).

Given what we know about our natural resistance to changing our worldviews, and the apparent completeness off an ideological framework, it should come as no surprise that ideology breeds fanatics and devotees, much like any religion would.

Steven Pinker (Psychology Professor, Harvard) has the following to say about the dangers of ideology:

There are a number of things that make particular ideologies dangerous. One of them is the prospect of a utopia: since utopias are infinitely good forever, and can justify any amount of violence to pursue that utopia, the costs are still outweighed by the benefits. Utopias also tend to demonise certain people as obstacles to a perfect world, whoever they are: the ruling classes, the bourgeois, the Jews or the infidels and heretics. As long as your ideology identifies the main source of the world’s ills as a definable group, it opens the world up to genocide.

Also, it’s worth noting that ideologies tend to oversimplify the world and try to explain everything through one lens. For example, if you’re a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, all of America’s suffering is because of its acceptance of homosexuals (or whatever).

As it is said, “When you’re holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

If someone tries to explain the entire world through one perspective, or blame all of the world’s problems on a single root cause (the patriarchy, Western colonialism, Zionism, Democrats), they’re probably an adherent of an ideology… and if they get really irritated when you suggest that the world is more complex than what they’re suggesting, they’re definitely following an ideology.

Don’t believe me? Try telling a modern feminist that biology plays a role in career choice (“…but there are no sex differences!!!”), or an American Republican that a socialist healthcare system would work way better (“…but the free market!!!!”).

This will become relevant later as “Racist Hollywood” becomes the simplified perspective by which Ghost In The Shell is criticized.


The freedom to choose your news

Having an up-front explanation of belief structures, individual biases, and ideologies may have been tedious, but it is crucially important when examining media narratives.

If we understand how our existing frames of reference alter our perception of the world, it becomes a lot easier to see how “fake news” and hyper-partisan sites like Breitbart are so wildly popular. Like Dr. Shermer explained, it’s a lot easier to consume news that reinforces our understanding of the world rather than face information that challenges it.

As our society moved from daily newspapers, to television channels, to the internet, the overwhelming trend in news consumption is that of choice. With newspapers, one might have the choice between reading the local paper, and one or two national papers, plus special-interest magazines like National Geographic.

News on the television brought increased choice – there were several channels to choose from, all with their unique style and programming. However, the internet provides hundreds (or thousands) of potential information sources, including ‘unofficial’ journalism in the form of blogs, social media channels, and so on.

Given everything discussed above, this means that having freedom to choose what news we consume ends up reinforcing our biased (and incomplete) worldviews.

In other words, why would someone get frustrated watching talking heads on CNN crying about ‘whitelash’ when they could watch Tucker Carlson humiliate social justice activists on Fox instead?


The death of journalism (and the birth of clickbait)

In their race to stay competitive following the growth of the internet, news organizations have faced a number of challenges that make nuanced reporting both risky and unaffordable.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2013 article called “A Day in the Life of a Digital Editor”:

“[Journalism] was never an easy life, but there were places who would pay your expenses to go report important stories and compensate you in dollars per word, not pennies. You could research and craft. And there were outlets — not a ton, but some — that could send you a paycheck that would keep you afloat.

Then the digital transition came. The ad market, on which we all depend, started going haywire. Advertisers didn’t have to buy The Atlantic. They could buy ads on networks that had dropped a cookie on people visiting The Atlantic. They could snatch our audience right out from underneath us. And besides, who knew how well online ads worked anyway? I mean, who knows how well any ads work at all? But convention had established that print ads were a thing people paid X amount for, and digital ads became something people paid 0.10X for.

[…]

Hypothetically, let’s say you devote an entire month to one single story, betting the house on it. In the very best circumstance, a viral hit heard round the world with a big traditional media push, you’d do maybe 800,000 uniques. And then you’d have to do the same thing the next month. In practice, no one can do this. Because you can’t predict that viral hit. While the best stuff tends to do far, far better than average, it is not always the best stuff that hits virally. You can’t control all the variables of the world’s attention and some dudes at Reddit who really like stories about legalizing pot seeing *your particular story* about legalizing pot. In practical terms in the social world, there ain’t no levers to pull! We write, we hope, we pray, we tweet. And that’s it. So, you need to post frequently to make luck more likely to strike you.”

Today’s editors, working with tiny budgets, are simply unable to predict which stories people will actually care about – and they’ve stopped trying. As a result, we are left with trashy clickbait like Buzzfeed and Mashable, as well as pseudo-informative clickbait like Inc.

Why? Because that’s the kind of story people will click on, especially if you gear it towards some kind of specific demographic, cultural phenomenon, or experience.


“You’ve been to school before! You should click on this link!” … Get bent, Buzzfeed.

But then, publishers discovered that a third type of clickbait existed – partisan clickbait. These types of articles have evolved to drive traffic from both ends of the political spectrum by simultaneously delighting supporters and enraging the opposition.


Yet another totally unhelpful political opinion, brought to you by Sony Electronics.

So, as a result of economic pressures and human fallibility, most news organizations today have adopted a set of biases (even an ideology) through which they filter their reporting. I will provide some examples to illustrate my point, and then dive into the curious case of Ghost in the Shell.

Breitbart

Breitbart bills itself as “a conservative news and opinion website”, although it’s obvious to anyone with a shred of worldliness that they are anything but objective. Nonetheless, they celebrate their conservative bias, and profit handsomely from it.

Rebel Media

The format of the video is set up to resemble an evening news report, and the content of the video is designed to echo traditional news stories.

In addition, Rebel Media’s “About Us” page implies that they are actually reporters providing factual news, not just commentary (emphasis mine):

The fearless source of news, opinion, and activism that you won’t find anywhere else! TheRebel.media is different because of how you, our supporters, participate in shaping everything we do.

Through a mix of online engagement, commenting, advocacy, and events, we don’t just report the news, we participate in it.

Everyday Feminism

On the other side of the political spectrum, here’s the mission statement from Everyday Feminism.

Everyday Feminism is an educational platform for personal and social liberation. Our mission is to help people dismantle everyday violence, discrimination, and marginalization through applied intersectional feminism and to create a world where self-determination and loving communities are social norms through compassionate activism.

Why would any ‘news’ outlet have a mission statement that extends beyond providing accurate and timely reporting to its viewers? Because they’re not providing news.

CNN vs. Fox News

The epidemic of partisan reporting masquerading as news is not limited to companies like Rebel Media, Breitbart, Everyday Feminism, Jezebel, and so on. As Bill Nye would say, consider the following:


Apparently more liberals trust Jon Stewart, a comedian, over CNN…

But here’s the thing – it’s not just Fox News that is biased (note the relative popularity of the ‘Clinton News Network’ amongst her voter base). I found it interesting to note that not a single White House reporter is a registered Republican. Not a single one.

Also, apparently 60% of them aren’t even registered to vote?

At this point, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to start talking about Hollywood again.

I think I’ve made my point about media bias existing, so here goes with your scheduled programming.


Case Study: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

Brief Timeline of Events:
  • January 2015: Scarlett Johansson revealed as the lead role
  • January 2015: Predominantly Western fans create a petition to have the role recast
  • 2016-2017: Tens of thousands of articles are written about the whitewashing controversy
  • March 31, 2017: Ghost In The Shell opens to lacklustre reviews.
  • April 2017: The movie underperforms in the box office, and the media and social justice advocates claim it’s because of the whitewashing.

A selection of headlines leading up to the film’s release:

BUILDING THE NARRATIVE

Premise: Hollywood is not diverse enough.
The central claim is that Hollywood tends to favour white (read: Eurocentric) stories, actors, and narratives. The core issue is about who our stories are told for, and who they are told by.

On one hand, it should come as no surprise that a culture’s art is going to reflect, and be influenced by, the dominant themes in that culture – the wildly popular “A Christmas Story” is a perfect example of ‘mainstream’ North America immortalized in film. Would we expect Bollywood to include more Eurocentric themes out of fairness?

But on the other hand, non-white actors, directors, and stories have traditionally been treated unfairly in Hollywood. In fact, Marlon Brando refused his Best Actor Oscar in 1973 to protest representation of Native Americans in popular culture and elsewhere. Also see: blaxploitation films, the Magical Asian trope, and the White Savior narrative.

Whitewashing, then, is one manifestation of Hollywood’s representation issue, and occurs when white actors are cast in ethnic roles instead of ethnic actors. It should be apparent that this needlessly reduces opportunities for non-white actors who already face difficulties.

How does this apply to Ghost In The Shell?

If you are a media outlet that has adopted the bias that Hollywood is racist, Ghost In The Shell’s casting is just another example of Hollywood whitewashing minority actors away.

On the surface, this seems like an entirely reasonable objection for people to have – why was a white actress cast instead of a Japanese actress? The answer must lie in Hollywood’s racist biases.

Therefore, if casting Scarlett Johansson as Major in Ghost In The Shell was demonstrably racist (or otherwise incorrect), then it would stand to reason that any of the following would happen:

  • People involved with the original Ghost In The Shell would criticize the casting decision.
  • Japanese people would criticize the casting decision.
  • The film would do poorly in Asia, especially in Japan.

Did any of these things happen? No. In fact, the exact opposite happened in each case, although you’d never know from the headlines.

The whitewashing hypothesis falls apart under examination

Although there is no denying that there is a certain level of Eurocentrism in Hollywood (this is, after all, Western society), the media sources who peddled this outrage failed to acknowledge several key points as they arose:

The director of the original anime defended Scarlett’s casting:

“What issue could there possibly be with casting her?” Oshii told IGN. “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one.

“The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

See original link

Japanese people seemed to like the casting:

The movie has done exceptionally well overseas, particularly in Asian markets.
From Box Office Mojo, 76% of all revenue came from international markets, including $29mil in China, $9mil in Japan, $5.6mil in South Korea… for comparison, Ghost In The Shell grossed more in Japan than France, the UK, Germany, Russia, and actually every other country except for China.

Not to mention that Asian markets really like Western culture in many cases. See: Jazz music, The Great Wall (starring Matt Damon, it grossed $45mil in America and $170mil in China).

Clearly, there are more factors at work here than “Racist Hollywood”.

Deadline, the original source for the “$60-million loss” story that other outlets pinned on the whitewashing issue, put together a pretty comprehensive analysis of where the movie went wrong, and the casting controversy seems to be a minor factor, all things considered.

Although Hollywood had (and has) issues with representation, it is dishonest journalism to even suggest that it was racist to cast Scarlett Johansson in that role when, generally speaking, Japanese people and the manga’s original director say otherwise.

What do media outlets stand to gain?

This one is difficult to pin down. The best explanation I have is that middle- and upper-class city folk are completely infatuated with social justice causes. As a result, the media they consume adopts these narratives to drive clicks and ad dollars, creating a bit of a vicious cycle.

In this way, media outlets are incentivized to make deliberate editorial decisions in support of a certain set of biases with their journalism.

And because media organizations are always competing for your clicks and attention, every day is a slow news day and they’ll be happy to make money by releasing any story that can be filtered through their narrative.

Although technically the media organizations benefit economically, their readers also benefit by having their worldview reinforced. But in the long run, nobody really wins. “Journalists” paint themselves into a corner by writing what people want to see, and readers begin to develop a warped view of the world.

Are you getting your ‘news’ from only a couple of sources? Do you rigorously fact-check things? If not, beware the narrative.


Further Reading

  • “All Marketers Tell Stories” (Seth Godin)
  • “Five Case Studies on Politicization” (Slate Star Codex)
  • “Politics and the English Language” (George Orwell)
  • “Blink” (Malcolm Gladwell)
  • “What’s Wrong With The Hunger Games Is What No One Noticed” (TheLastPsychiatrist)
  • “Understanding Postmodernism” (Stephen Hicks)