Cognitive dissonance, media and the legacy of Trump…media not neutral tools in a struggle

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks with reporters on Aug. 29, in Nashville, Tenn

By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

COGNITIVE dissonance is a communication theory which can be used to shed light on the impact of former US President Donald Trump’s legacy as ‘leader of the leading nation of the Free World’, in the words of those who admire US ‘democracy’.

In his book titled, Perception and Misconception in International Politics, Professor Robert Jervis wrote this about cognitive dissonance: “Two elements are in a dissonant relation, if considering the two alone, the obverse (that is, the reverse) of one would follow from the other.”

Let us take those two elements, for argument’s sake, to be, on one hand, the general neo-liberal view of media outlets and journalists as automatic ‘defenders of freedom and human rights’, a position which even the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights together with UNESCO came to advocate strongly in the early 21st Century.  

On the other hand, let us place as the other element, the day-to-day, well-documented experience (at the hands of journalists and media outlets) by the people of the US during the period leading to the victory of Trump as the Republican candidate for US President in 2016 and all the way to his second impeachment at the end of his first term and defeat and departure in 2021.  

More than 70 million US voters out of a population of 328 000 2000 in (2019) believed the lie that Trump lost the election due to rigging and corruption which the courts did not accept. 

That lie was perpetrated through media outlets and by some journalists.  

Using the same media outlets and journalists, Trump and his millions of supporters invited and mobilised white terrorists to storm the capital city Washington DC and attempt a coup d’état on January 6 2021

Even worse, Trump, his followers and the journalists as well as media outlets who had perpetrated the lie used cognitive dissonance to defend the position (and not the evidence) which they had pushed from the start.  

This demonstrates the efficacy of cognitive dissonance theory in the sense that the theory predicts that marshalling irrefutable evidence against people who are committed to their belief and position may not change the minds of a significant number of them, because they simply switch from defending their false evidence to defending the position(s) which they arrived at by using false evidence.  

What emerges is a defence of position(s) even though it appears to opponents as a failure to accept objective information.  

Once the struggle becomes one for the defence of a position or positions, objective information is rejected or ignored because it would involve the painful and embarrassing abandonment of the position(s).  

Therefore, the problem of the bulk of mass media and the majority of journalists is that they have become more committed to the defence of positions than to the defence of factual evidence and truth.

Now, what is even more significant about the Trump legacy and the media is that both he and his opponents believed in the crucial role of the media and journalists — and both used the media and journalists extensively. 

They just kept wondering why everyone was not on their side! The commitment to defend positions is consistent with fanatic attachment to individual leaders, heroes and celebrities because such people occupy positions and not because they represent the truth.

It is obvious from any objective observer that the blanket designation of media outlets and journalists as automatic defenders of human rights and democracy is naïve, if not wrong altogether.  

The role the media and journalists may play in a struggle depends on too many other factors which have nothing to do with democracy or human rights.  

The media, media outlets and journalists are not neutral tools or by-standers in a struggle.

Those in the struggle should not assume that the media are just neutral tools for changing those they target.  

The media have capacity to change even those who use them in ways they may not fully understand.

As a result, Trump’s over-reliance on Twitter also undermined him toward the end of his very first and (probably last term.) 

His personality and manners exhibited the extreme alienation of someone who grew up on, and with, TV and used communications to block human engagement.

Long before Twitter and Facebook, Jerry Mander wrote a book called Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. 

It is time for other authors to warn the current generation against over-reliance on social media in addition to television.  Mander’s critique of television is still pertinent because TV also uses social media as a source. 

It remains by far the most powerful global outlet for all sorts of communications.

According to Mander:

“It was clear that as (activist) life increasingly moved away from the streets, community centres and market places, one message on television — even just thirty seconds — was worth more than a thousand hours of organizing or whistle-stop political touring or hundreds of newspaper advertisements.”

Not only was work on the streets and on the farms hard and boring, but even within the media, certain platforms were discounted because their impact was considered slow and lacking in glamour.

In the case of Zimbabwe, the MDC also over-relied on media orchestration in imitation of its British Labour Party sponsors, especially Tony Blair.

The Western activists, just like the MDC formations in our case, failed to notice that television was not just changing ‘public opinion’, apparently in their favour; it was also changing them:

“All competing factions shared the idea that if they could gain access to it, television could communicate their message as well as any other, that television technology was only a neutral instrument.  Intent on changing other people’s minds, they did not consider that television might change those who use it.”

In this regard, MDC-T and Morgan Tsvangirai emerged as the party of media stunts; the party that was surrounded by stupid media tricksters and handlers who had no organic grounding in the culture of Zimbabwe.  

So, when the then Finance Minister Biti and Prime Minister Tsvangirai foregrounded foreign mass media products and foreign mass media services at the expense of national ones in their policy statements, that policy orientation communicated the character of MDC-T, in the eyes of opponents, as a foreign sponsored imposition.  

This criticism seemed credible also because of the MDC’s association with foreign white sanctions on Zimbabwe which were justified through media orchestrations.

Mander elaborates: “Educational work was sacrificed to public relations work. 

The goal became less to communicate with individuals, governments or communities than to influence media.  Actions began to be chosen less for their educational value or political content (meaning) than for their ability to attract television cameras (impact).  

Dealing directly with bureaucracies or corporations was frustrating and fruitless.  

Dealing with communities was slow.  

Everyone spoke of immediate victory.”

Such an approach can backfire, not only against the US Republican Party and the MDC Alliance but also against the whole country.  

One result of the over-mediation described by Mander is the entrenchment of a dangerous hierarchy of mediated actions:

  • The concerns of ordinary people on the streets and on the farms are relegated to the ‘back-burner’ because they don’t have media impact. By the time they have impact, they have deteriorated into emergencies or crises.
  • Next, press conferences are valued over visits to real people in the fields or in their shops, because they always get coverage.
  • Even better, press conferences concluding some fancy workshops at a holiday resort are more likely to attract press than ordinary press conferences.
  • At a higher level still, boycotts or stayaways have a higher impact than conferences, workshops and press conferences at the end of workshops.
  • Even better than stayaways or boycotts are ‘mass’ rallies.
  • But marches with a few clashes have higher impact than boycotts.
  • After marches, sit-ins and violent clashes will definitely attract global attention.

According to Mander: “As the stakes rose, the pressure mounted to create ever more outrageous actions. 

The most radical elements were up to the challenges of the theory of accelerated action. 

They advanced to kidnappings, highjackings and bombings.”

Both the MDC Alliance in Zimbabwe and the followers of Trump in the US have been accused of resorting to terrorism as a culmination of their media orchestrations.  

And the media and journalists used to justify the escalation find it difficult to abandon their leaders or parties.  

Instead, they resort to the defence of their positions (no matter what) in confirmation of the validity of cognitive dissonance as a communication theory.


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