On the street, filming The Witness documentary

Fake News: Are You Persuaded to Join the Herd?

Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.
Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, 1807

Amazing isn’t it that Thomas Jefferson expressed such skepticism about what is reported in the newspaper. And, that was in a smaller and simpler, yet less connected world. Now, when we are better equipped to get access to information, we seem to be much more easily misled.

Through our movie this month, The Witness (Solomon, 2015), we see how an entire nation of over 300 million people—through well-known and well-practiced, but perhaps unwitting, techniques of persuasion—can buy into a common, but false, understanding based on newspaper reporting. In this case, the fake news persisted over some 50 years.

Over the last several months, we have watched a number of movies that have served as catalysts for discussion on the topic of persuasion. Via Blossoms in the Dust (LeRoy, 1941), we learned about the work of Edna Gladney, and how major and lasting social change can come about through the activism of a passionate person acting alone.

Most certainly that person acted within the context of her world at the time, thus one could argue that it was a village that produced the outcome (Clinton, & Feinman, 1996) or that the person didn’t really do it without help (Obama, 2012).

If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.

One may, of course, proclaim that same message for any positive human achievement since Adam and Eve; and, further, we are intensely aware that many powerful ideas and actions have come from within the ranks of people who have benefited from American citizenship.

However, the same “unbelievable American system” has also produced scores of others, who were NOT persuaded to take action to move humanity to a higher level. So, it seems that those achievements of some people involved something beyond that village or simply the American system.

Considering Context and Human Mental Complexity in Persuasion

To understand why and how people achieve great influence means examining their particular contexts and observing a variety of complex circumstances and human characteristics.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, 2014
Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, 2014

In addition, persuasion that leads to social change can take many forms. We wrote about that while investigating Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (Stone, 2004), the documentary about arguably the most notorious and captivating domestic terrorist group in American history.

In their spree of kidnapping, robbery, and murder, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) influenced Patty Hearst, and undoubtedly millions of others, to consider aspects of the context in which they took their actions, and what their true motivations may have been.

Battleship Potemkin, 1925
Battleship Potemkin, 1925

In Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1925), Sergei Eisenstein’s famous creative work, we see how techniques of influence took shape in Russia within the context of the new social system of Communism.

To understand how the movie came into prominence, we have to look at the state of film-making as well as the political environment after the murder of the Romanoffs and the demise of the Russian monarchy. Developing the new nation required working together differently under a new regime; therefore, Eisenstein and others employed the power of film as the newest communication medium for producing propaganda toward that purpose.

Further, Eisenstein had studied under Kuleshov in the Moscow Film School, where he learned how juxtapositioning can change the meanings of singular images, the study of which we now call “visual rhetoric” (Hill & Helmers, 2004; Andrews, 2008). Thus, he used images in artful ways that conveyed persuasive meanings in the era of silent film.

Gaslight, 1944
Gaslight, 1944

The fear of change and the unknown, among other more nefarious causes, influences people to take what may seem on the surface—or in reality—to be irrational action. Irrational actions by individuals and groups, notably those that are influenced toward extreme political views,  terrorism, and cults of personality, are observable in daily news reports. We especially see this in countries with brutal dictators and where leaders have emerged from militaristic factions.

Last month, the movie Gaslight (Cukor, 1944) allowed us to observe techniques of such manipulation on a one-to-one basis. This movie’s Victorian British context made women especially vulnerable to possible oppression by their husbands. We watched Charles Boyer manipulate his wife and almost succeed in driving her to a sense of unreality, a mental state where she was incapable of normal brain function.

Fake News and Herd Mentality

The Witness, 2016
The Witness, 2016

In a departure from our focus on individuals, this month’s movie, The Witness (Solomon, 2016), gives us the opportunity to consider the behavior of people in groups, notions of “herd mentality” and “groupthink,” as we did in the film about Patty Hearst. The documentary follows Bill Genovese in his quest to learn what really happened in 1964 on the night his sister Kitty was murdered in Queens, NY.

The Witness is about how people were persuaded by the New York Times’ article that presented who and how many saw Kitty’s death. However, it is not simply about how persuasive Abe Rosenthal, former editor of The New York Times, was in his own writing about it, but it is also about the recently highlighted issue of fake news. Further, it leads one to wonder why Rosenthal was so influenced by the murder that he defied any question about its details many years later.

Sadly, our group and many others now know that what my dad used to say is true, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you read.” In fact, I have only recently come to realize that Benjamin Franklin was the originator of that idea; but, nonetheless, that doesn’t make it any more or less true, as we can observe it for ourselves.

By the time of Rosenthal’s death in 2006, the American public had already learned about the exaggerated and false claims of The New York Times‘ original article, but he had held fast to the truth of its reporting. According to Shaidle (2016, Apr 12),

You could almost say the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’ and ‘Guardian of Zion’ recipient ‘didn’t want to get involved.’ In fact, he doubled down.

Lucy’s article told about the 40th Anniversary Conference held at Fordham University in 2004, at which Rosenthal said that his sister Bess had died many years earlier following a similar incident. Bess was walking home when a “flasher” exposed himself to her. She was terrified, ran all the way home, caught a cold and never recovered.

I feel Bess was murdered by the man as Kitty was murdered by the monster who murdered her. The incident and illness were one.

In the next year, at a 2005 symposium on the case, Rosenthal stated in a speech (Shaidle, 2016, Apr 12),

‘I never said, nor did anybody on The New York Times, or any reporter with a brain, say there were thirty-eight peering out of a window.’
Presumably Rosenthal was hoping nobody in the room remembered or even knew that he’d eagerly penned a quickie book about the Genovese murder a few months after it happened, one that was titled … Thirty-Eight Witnesses.

Should We Be Skeptical of Everything We Don’t See for Ourselves?

We have seen and heard about so many incidents of coverup and fake news over the years that logically we would all be skeptical of everything.

Sybil, 1976
Sybil, 1976

Recently, two “true” stories—so powerful that they have remained with me for my adult life—have been reported to be inaccurate. This possible invalidation of a lingering memory is especially jarring for me, since “filmnesia” (relaxfrancis, 2009, Oct 13) occurs often.

First, the movie Sybil (Petrie, 1976) and the book on which it was based (Schreiber, 1973) has been reported to contain absolute falsehood. The woman who is the subject has said she made up the multiple personalities she enacted. From NPR, Lynn Neary writes  (2011, Oct 20),

When Sybil first came out in 1973, not only did it shoot to the top of the best-seller lists — it manufactured a psychiatric phenomenon.  . . .  But in a new book, Sybil Exposed, writer Debbie Nathan argues that most of the story is based on a lie.

Next, reported in the Wall Street Journal (Helliker, 2013), the movie Capote and the book on which it was based, In Cold Blood,  has false information:

Truman Capote’s masterwork of murder, In Cold Blood, cemented two reputations when first published almost five decades ago: his own, as a literary innovator, and detective Alvin Dewey Jr.’s as the most famous Kansas lawman since Wyatt Earp.

But new evidence undermines Mr. Capote’s claim that his best seller was an ‘immaculately factual’ recounting of the bloody slaughter of the Clutter family in their Kansas farmhouse.

Another recent earth-shaker for me is the debunking of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), now found flawed in its racist/classist viewpoint and its sources, e.g., anthropologist Margaret Mead’s findings (Fetters, 2013).

Doctor, Take Your Own Medicine!

However, in the midst of writing this article I must confess that I jumped to the conclusion that these new findings were factual and negated what had been written before. Had I fully examined the new evidence, maybe I would not have simply taken the media news at face value. Is this not what my article is all about?

It took a colleague to point this out to me, one who is a recognized expert in the field of psychology and has experience with patients who exhibit multiple personalities, or what is now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). She explains that Nathan’s book must be considered in light of facts that the syndrome is controversial and difficult for experts to diagnose, and that Nathan didn’t actually interview Dr. Wilbur or her patient Sybil.



The inability to remember within the first 10 minutes of a movie whether you have seen it before (relaxfrancis, 2009, Oct 13).


A term derived from George Orwell’s 1984, groupthink causes each member of a group to unquestioningly follow the leader and it strongly discourages any disagreement with the consensus. This occurs when a group values harmony and coherence over correct analysis and critical evaluation.

Herd mentality

Also known as “mass psychology” and “group-” or “crowd psychology,” “humans flock like sheep and birds, subconsciously following a minority of individuals” (“Sheep in human clothing – scientists reveal our flock mentality,” 2008, Feb 14). First put forward by 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon, herd behavior in humans was also studied by Freud and Trotter, whose book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War (1921) is a classic in the field of social psychology.

Visual rhetoric

According to Aristoteles [sic], rhetoric is concerned with ‘discovering all the available means of persuasion in any given situation’ either to instruct an audience (logos rational appeal), to please an audience and win it over (ethos ethical appeal), or to move it (pathos emotional appeal).
—Andrews, 2008


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