The media-effects myth is back with a vengeance

There is simply no evidence that language or art sparks violence.

Andrew Doyle

Andrew Doyle

The principle of free speech has taken a battering in recent months. Whether it be politicians using robust rhetoric in parliament, comedians making offensive jokes, internet trolls posting memes on social-media platforms, or filmmakers choosing to depict acts of violence, it would seem that the supposed connection between unfettered speech and violent crime is now taken by many to be axiomatic.

In a recent article for the New York Times, entitled ‘Free Speech Is Killing Us’, Andrew Marantz asserts that ‘noxious language online is causing real-world violence’. He goes on to claim that ‘this fact implies a question so uncomfortable that many of us go to great lengths to avoid asking it. Namely, what should we — the government, private companies or individual citizens — be doing about it?’. Needless to say, the ‘fact’ upon which the premise of this article rests is nothing of the kind. Like many who oppose absolute free speech, Marantz occupies a faith-based position and mistakes his own arguments for proof.

As Robby Soave has pointed out in a piece for Reason, rates of violent crime in the US have continually fallen since the 1990s, even though during that same period the Supreme Court has been increasingly insistent on upholding protections guaranteed by the First Amendment. And in spite of the growing threat of white nationalism, domestic terrorism represents only a tiny proportion of violent crime statistics. If it were true that free speech leads to violence, we would expect to see this reflected in the numbers.

Demands for censorship of art and comedy follow a similar presumption of cause and effect. In June, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage claimed that comedian Jo Brand’s joke about throwing battery acid was an ‘incitement of violence’ and called for police action. In August, a critic for IndieWire described the film Joker as ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’ whose director, Todd Phillips, ‘lacks the discipline or nuance to responsibly handle such hazardous material’. At the heart of this criticism lies a decidedly pessimistic view of humanity that sees the general public as a dangerously suggestible throng.

Yet six decades of research into ‘media effects’ theories has provided no evidence of a correlation between public behaviour and mass-media consumption, with the ‘direct-effects model’ being comprehensively discredited. This is not to suggest that human beings are not susceptible to propaganda or persuasion, or indeed that the media and the arts do not have a significant impact on culture. But the idea of a passive public acting mechanically on cues from politicians, comedians and filmmakers appears to have little basis in reality.

We have been here many times before. The same argument was advanced by Mary Whitehouse for her ‘Clean Up TV’ campaign in the mid-1960s. It was the rationale behind the seizure of so-called ‘video nasties’ in the early 1980s which, according to the England and Wales director of public prosecutions at the time, had the capacity ‘to deprave and corrupt, or make morally bad, a significant proportion of the likely audience’. It’s why Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was accused of glamourising drug use. It explains the near-hysterical campaigning of the Daily Mail and the Evening Standard to have David Cronenberg’s film Crash banned in the UK, on the grounds that it was ‘beyond the bounds of depravity’ and ‘likely to incite car crashes’.

This belief in a direct causal link between forms of expression and violent crime should be interrogated, not least because it is already informing the censorial policies of social-media tech giants and, closer to home, the UK government’s justifications for hate-speech legislation and various politicians’ pleas for the moderation of language in the media and in parliament. When Labour MP Paula Sheriff invoked the memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox in order to criticise Boris Johnson’s description of the Benn Act as a ‘Surrender Act’, she was echoing Marantz’s view that ‘ideas can slide so precipitously into terror’. In the same debate, her colleague Jess Phillips revealed that she had received a death threat in which the prime minister’s words had been quoted. But this is no proof of causality; it is merely proof that the individual who wrote the letter is capable of quotation.

Those who espouse this cause-and-effect theory should be expected to offer some evidence for it, but instead we see their beliefs widely and uncritically accepted. Stella Creasy MP, for instance, has claimed that Johnson’s language ‘normalises extremism’. During an appearance on the BBC’s Politics Live she argued that ‘you don’t protect free speech by allowing people to abuse it’. Anti-Brexit activist Femi Oluwole has taken a step further, accusing Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith of directly inciting violence through his reference to those ‘extremists’ who seek to overturn the result of the EU referendum. ‘When the next political murder happens in this country because you’ve dog-whistled that Remainers are a security threat’, Oluwole tweeted, ‘I hope you’re happy’.

This is sinister stuff. Politicians, activists and commentators are routinely asserting this article of faith as though it is a self-evident truth. The risk here is that many will feel that expressing themselves honestly is simply not worth the backlash. To view as ‘extremist’ the ongoing attempts of MPs to thwart the wishes of the electorate strikes me as a perfectly reasonable position given that we are meant to be living in a democracy. But even if one disagrees, the suggestion that to voice this opinion will lead to political murder is a leap of stratospheric proportions.

Worse still, such claims are often made in order to justify calls for censorship. This week Andy Beckett’s feature in the Guardian directly advocated the policy of No Platforming on the spurious grounds that mainstream rhetoric is fuelling the far right. He sees a continuum between Oswald Mosley’s fascist movement and present-day conservatism, even citing Priti Patel’s speech at the Tory party conference as adopting ‘the boot-boy phrases and demagoguery of the far right’. Through this kind of tenuous reasoning Beckett effectively suggests that the far right, still very much a marginal force in this country, has gone mainstream. In doing so, he is not only inadvertently acting in the interests of the worst elements of our society — he is also promoting a narrative that sees free speech, a fundamental principle of any civilised society, as an inherently risky proposition.

In spite of the temptation to resort to easy formulas to make sense of horrific acts of violence, it is neither desirable nor possible to exist in a society in which the potential to influence is regarded as a crime in and of itself. There is literally no act that is undertaken in isolation from cultural factors, and any attempt to connect the dots from crime to catalyst is bound to end in a miasma of speculation. In the wake of the terrorist atrocity in New Zealand in March, angry students accosted Chelsea Clinton, claiming that the massacre had been ‘stoked by people like you’. Similarly, Labour activist Owen Jones was quick to point out that the killer had recently shared an article from the Daily Express on social media, implying that the publication was somehow partly responsible for his actions. Although these could be well-meaning attempts to explain the inexplicable, they are ultimately no less tendentious than blaming JD Salinger for the death of John Lennon on the grounds that the murderer cited The Catcher in the Rye as his manifesto. This kind of reasoning gets us nowhere.

Those who advocate restrictions on free speech will need to do a lot better than these unproven theories of cause and effect. Theirs is a utopian instinct; if only we could control the way in which people speak, the idea goes, we could eliminate all that is toxic in society. But human nature is a messy business, and not one that is best managed by algorithms. If there is any merit to the proposition that anti-social behaviour can be generated by military metaphors in parliament, off-colour jokes in comedy clubs, or violent imagery in the arts, then we should expect to see hard evidence. Until then, we need to be vigilant against those who would appeal to faith and conjecture as grounds for limiting our fundamental right to free expression.

Andrew Doyle is a stand-up comedian and spiked columnist. His book Woke: A Guide to Social Justice (written by his alter-ego Titania McGrath) is available on Amazon.

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Alex Cameron

27th October 2019 at 7:17 pm

Simply … brilliant article.

Lord Anubis

26th October 2019 at 9:24 pm

One of the worlds biggest industries (And indeed one that is agued by some as being the cornerstone of the capitalist free market economy) is based ENTIRELY on the premise that peoples behaviour can be influenced and modified by what they see in the media.

Just Saying…! 😉

Dave Swift

16th October 2019 at 11:11 pm

‘Those who advocate restrictions on free speech ‘

That’s pretty much everyone.

Spiked is interesting in that its contributors often seem to have forgotten mundane reality in England as they have pursued their “highbrow thinking”.

As a working class English boy, back in the day, my ability to get my views out there were strictly limited and curtailed by gatekeepers – the editor of the Telegraph employed wealthy Etonian Boris Johnson, not little old me, and The Sun newspaper used its page 3 to show the breasts of teenage models, not my latest musings on economics, politics, animal welfare or The Troubles.

Entire families in Britain have gone to their graves without once having had a letter published in The Times or an editorial in The Mail or being chosen to present “thought for the day”

Piers Morgan has had more television appearances than the folk of entire villages and towns combined.

The internet now gives us all a voice and a space – which is nice. By browsing Twitter I can see that Pat Condell really, really, really wants a no deal Brexit, and hates lefties and snowflakes for example – back in the day he would have been stuck writing letters to Ceefax in the hope of seeing one published.

We have all lived with free speech restrictions with plenty of gatekeepers and censorship (the wealthy, the right wing, the establishment, the very conservative).

The Sun’s editorial staff will keep me locked out for the rest of my life, for sure.

Middle class Spiked writers nad other pundits and “intellectuals” are ”blessed” in that the gatekeepers will seek them out: “Tell us why YOU think it’s time to…” “Why are you so opposed to…” etc etc. They sure as heck won’t seek out my working class mum and ask her to respond to the headlines or latest controversy on Sky AND Newsnight AND Channel 4 all in the same week. My mum lives with this censorship.

In Negative

10th October 2019 at 12:15 pm

I agree with everything you say about ‘media affects theory,’ yet I do think there is something to be said about the way that technological environments transform consciousness. Our deepest experiences of ‘reality’ are changed by the environment we live in – “the medium is the message”. The content delivered by the medium is of little importance when considering ‘effects’.

Where we can talk about content though is in asking why certain content starts to create panic? The content that causes anxiety may tell us something profound about how the medium has changed the consciousness. A ‘panic’ tells us not just about a new ‘taboo’, it also tells us about a new ‘seduction’ too.

The origin of ‘the panic’ is the feeling of attraction to and kinship with the thing panicked about. A panic reveals a truth and aesthetic life that a society is desperate to repress. Those that panic most about a thing deeply experience its seduction. They try to stymie it however rather than create from it or enact it.

Andrew Leonard

11th October 2019 at 2:20 am

Unjustified panics suggest something quite simple;
That the shared mental model of those involved in the panic, is an inaccurate analogue of the behaviour of the group or thing that is the subject of the panic.
This is an interesting phenomenon in its own right – even more so when those involved in an unjustified panic do not update their mental model in response to its inability to predict social reactions.

In Negative

11th October 2019 at 12:45 pm

Well, there will always be a great deal of diversity in the subject, especially when the subject is a ‘community’. Any social model will therefore be inapplicable to much of that to which it is applied. But it will also be applicable to other parts of it.

So, for instance, incels exist. They exist and they are producing a tribal language which is quite alien to the language of what we currently call ‘mainstream society’. This language is based on a particular set of insights, feelings, experiences of the world. A seduction. The language of the incel then develops within its own techno-petri-dish and feeds back into ‘mainstream society’ via its freedom to speak.

When mainstream society responds, its great and good make models that try to capture the phenomenon. The panic is the extent to which the mainstream model-makers understand and feel these strange little languages. The way they themselves identify with the energies that move through them. When was the last time anyone panicked about the writings of De Sade? It doesn’t happen – he’s a dead criminal because his language game is dead. Who today wants to burn a catholic or drown a witch?

But the panickers overstate the threats of these shifts and changes. Certainly, the incel community have created some mass-murderers and can make very poor use of misogynistic energies, but this doesn’t mean its an impossible cultural form. Nor does it make it an unequivocally anti-social form. The incel may be a shabby manifestation of a particular phenomenon, but the phenomenon from which the incel derives appears to me to have potential for creativity, communion and beauty too.

If free speech is killing us, it isn’t doing so through its encouragement of violence. Rather, it does it through its ability, once accelerated through technology, to accelerate atomisation and tribalisation.

Andrew Leonard

14th October 2019 at 1:28 am

“When mainstream society responds, its great and good make models that try to capture the phenomenon. The panic is the extent to which the mainstream model-makers understand and feel these strange little languages.”

I don’t quite agree with this. I would say the ‘great and good’ interpret the language of outsiders in terms of their own shared assumptions, and create a Frankenstein in their own minds. They then set about killing off ‘Frankenstein’.

Given the assumption of the perfectibility of society, on hearing that science supports the idea of non-equal cognitive abilities between population groups, the ‘great and good’ come to the ‘realisation’ that this notion could have genocidal implications. I have heard collectivists state; “If it turns out that one population group was less intelligent than another, we would have to kill them.” This was a serious comment, and notice the reference to ‘we’ (not ‘they’) in that sentence. There is no understanding that not everyone starts with utopian ideals as a realistic starting point.

Michael Lynch

9th October 2019 at 7:45 pm

This is what happens when society gets rid of its industry and then has to become its own employer to make up the deficit. I remember a documentary several years ago that revealed that the UK State employs more workers than were employed by the Soviet regime at its height! We have therefore ended up with an excess of desk bound apparatchiks who have nothing better to do other than poke their noses into people’s private affairs.

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