Manipulation Tactics

There are many techniques used to influence people to adopt certain beliefs or take certain actions.  The entire industries of advertising and sales are built on an understanding of these techniques.  Many of them are used in today’s news as well.  Below are some of the most commonly used tactics in news stories.

To fill out this section, simply check off any of the tactics you notice in the story.

After finishing the story, briefly described why you checked each box.


Intentionally Confusing: The more confused readers become, the less able they are to critically assess claims.  A lessened ability to critically asses claims can be used for nefarious purposes, such as pushing a misleading narrative.  Honest news takes efforts to present information in a way that will be understood by its readers, and cause minimal confusion.  Manipulative news takes efforts to present information in a way that will maximize confusion and open the door to nefarious goals.

Undue Emotion: When a reader is emotional, they are comparatively less rational.  Lowered rationality lessens the ability to critically asses claims.  A lessened ability to critically asses claims can be used for nefarious purposes, such as pushing a misleading narrative.  Some stories will necessarily increase the emotionality of a reader, but often newspeople insert undue emotion into a story, with personal anecdotes, loaded language, and so on.  Any such undue emotion should be treated with suspicion.

Poison the Well: Telling people what to think before telling them why to think it.  Placing conclusory statements at the beginning of an article colors the way people read the evidence presented later.  This is an effective tactic used in persuasive writing, but not appropriate in objective news.

Newspeak: Historically, the definition of words has changed when common usage shifted over time and the official bodies reflected that change in the official documents (mostly dictionaries).  Recently, a trend has emerged where academics decide a word should mean something else, and major media outlets start using that as the official definition before it has entered common usage.

Strawman / Feigning Ignorance:  A Strawman is an undue focus on weak arguments where stronger arguments are available.  Feigning Ignorance is acting as if known, material facts do not exist.  When one of these tactics is  used, the other is usually present to some degree.  

Statistics Lacking Context:  Statistics are easily manipulable to make misleading points.  They are fairly used if presented with enough context and simplicity that people on both sides of the issue could understand them without much disagreement OR advocates are present to argue the meaning of the stats from both sides.

Fear / Confusion Ramp: Where a writer switches back and forth between fear and confusion to maximize both.  An early passage will include a small but plausible piece of information that incites a little fear or confusion.  That first bit of fear or confusion shifts the reader’s focus away from rationality.  The next passage will include an incrementally larger claim that incites a little more fear or confusion, usually the inverse of the passage before.  Again, the reader is now incrementally less likely to critically asses the claims.  This will ramp up to where the article is making large claims that incite large amounts of fear and confusion that would be rejected if the readers were still assessing the claims as critically as they were at the outset.

False Citation: When an article has words or phrases that are visible hyperlinks but if you follow the link, it does not provide evidence for the assertion being made.  Most readers will not follow the link and will assume there is at least some evidence supporting the assertion on the other side of the link.

Joke Fraud:  When a speaker conflates the ability to score laughs on a subject with the ability to substantively criticize the subject.  The joke is usually based around: “look at how crazy this guy is, isn’t that crazy?” after having misrepresented the subject. Common on late night talk shows, but used in all forms of news.

One Side of the Story:  Good news stories provide a reader with the relevant context.  Manipulative news stories provide a reader with the context aimed to lead the reader to a certain conclusion.  This manipulative tactic is used when a story has at least two relevant sides and the article only shows the side(s) that favor the chosen narrative.  Not every viewpoint needs to be represented (we do not need to discuss the flat earth worldview for every story about satellites), but where viewpoints are held by large numbers of people, or highly credentialed people, they should be included, such as the lab leak theory.