How Our Visual Culture of Credibility is Being Manipulated

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How Our Visual Culture of Credibility is Being Manipulated

In July, the Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a Surgeon General’s Advisory on Misinformation. Though in the past such warnings have been about public health threats related to food, water, and smoke, he claimed, “Today we live in a world where misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health.”

The advisory explicitly blames social media for enabling the spread of false and misleading information about coronavirus and the vaccines. The various alt-right influencers whose popularity depends on social media platforms have concocted stories that have too many people refusing to wear masks and frightened by the COVID-19 vaccines.

The artist, internet researcher, and human rights activist Caroline Sinders recently presented a body of work, Architectures of Violence, at Telematic Gallery in San Francisco about how conspiracy theories spread. The show was prescient in exploring “the blurriness and smears between different ideological movements that deal in misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information,” as she explains in the book of essays and interviews accompanying the exhibition.

Installation view of Architectures of Violence exhibition by Caroline Sinders at Telematic Media Arts in San Francisco (photograph courtesy the artist)

One of the central works in the exhibition, “Terms and Conditions,” (2021) about what “is allowed to be online, stay online and spread online” compiles nine categories of conspiracy theories. Those about COVID-19 became their own category.

Her research spans years, diving into the dark holes of the internet where some of the most egregious notions are bandied. Her background as a photographer and journalist fortifies the tedious, if not repellant work, of digging through this content.

Murthy explained that many people who like and share inaccurate reports mean well: “Misinformation that is circulating online is often coming from individuals who don’t have bad intentions, but who are unintentionally sharing information that they think might be helpful.” They just haven’t checked their sources.

Researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 65% of anti-vaccine narratives on social media stem from 12 people, nicknamed the “Disinformation Dozen.”

Installation view of Architectures of Violence exhibition by Caroline Sinders at Telematic Media Arts in San Francisco (photograph courtesy the artist)

It’s not just what people say online, however, that matters. How they present themselves contributes to what I call a visual culture of credibility.

The extreme views presented by orators are veiled by their adoption of design aesthetics typical of newscasters. These characters are often seated at a table, with a mug. Men wear collared shirts and ties. Women are dutifully coiffed. It has become a trope.

The artist Hernan Bas replicates this aesthetic to perfection in his painting, “The Pundit” (2019). But the stereotype succeeds. People are inclined to believe those that they see through the lens of Walter Cronkite.

Hernan Bas, “The Pundit” (2019), acrylic and chroma key on linen, 84 x 72 inches, (courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin)

Cronkite was called an “anchor man” for his coverage of the 1952 CBS political convention but the scholar Mike Conway describes how the term was popularly applied first to quiz show hosts. John Cameron Swazye was the first so-called anchor man, as the permanent panel member of the quiz show, Who Said That? Conway describes Swayze as someone who “cultivated his on-air persona, wearing a fresh carnation and a new tie each night” while later, he was “considered a relic of an earlier time, criticized for his attention to his fresh carnations and new ties and his use of a toupee on the air.” Note how these visual components of his attire become the signs by which he is recognized, understood, and later dismissed.

Photo of journalist John Cameron Swayze on the set of the Camel News Caravan, an early network news program on NBC (February 1955) (photo via and courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In both these descriptions, we get a sense of the importance that visuals have on recognizing a figure as fitting a certain role. Much has been made of how his physical appearance affected Nixon’s first run for president. The point here is that the role and presentation of the anchor man on television has its roots in the entertainment world of game shows. That seems all too apt in this age of age of newstainment.

Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media are classic texts on the influence that entertainment media has had on news reporting. 

Alex S. Jones, wrote in an article for The New York Times on July 27, 1986 says that the three network anchors (Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather) “have become not only celebrities equal to any in Hollywood, but also the nation’s best-known journalists, who have come to symbolize continuity and order in the face of sometimes shattering news events.”

The anchor man comforts in the guise of authority, which had been his role on game shows too.

If it takes seven seconds to make a first impression, and typically some of what we are looking for is what we have seen before. The White man in the tie at a desk with a mug, seriously pronouncing on the events of the day is deemed credible.

Some discernment is forced in editorial process for news channels, though the loss of the Fairness Doctrine enabled greater partiality. For those who self-publish, on YouTube or other social media sites, nothing stems the flow of haphazard or deliberate misinformation.

Caroline Sinders’s work helps us better understand how easily visual culture contributes to their credibility. She followed the research of journalists and academics, developed query terms on various sites, tracked discourses as they unfolded and watched almost 150 videos online, which she says were “pushing ideological hate frameworks, harassment, extremist content, misinformation, disinformation, and transphobia” to reach the final 91 that became elements of her exhibition.

Caroline Sinders, still from “Covid Conspiracies” (2021) (courtesy the artist)

She addresses how YouTube channels like Epoch Times and Valuetainment replicate the, in her words, “high production talk show, MSNBC/cable news style feel, with intro music, high fidelity/high res images, motion graphics, etc.”

Her social research draws connections across fields to show the ties among misogynist bullying and harassment, hate speech, white supremacy, and misinformation. She rarely provides links, since web hits contribute to their algorithmic rise, but her media works compile content to intense effect. It is all related to the economy produced by popular Internet giants, such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google, whose algorithms amplify certain types of visual content and contribute to harmful effects.

As early as May, 2020, MIT Review produced reports about how many conspiracy sites monetize their extreme views on COVID. The supposed “crack down” on the spread of these lies never happened. Even when sites do remove content, users frequently repost it. Sinders identified one video in her set denying COVID that was deleted but then was reuploaded, with German and Spanish titles to circumvent the algorithm. It remains online.

The Surgeon General’s warning should make us all pause. The first in a six-point action plan recommends individuals think twice before reposting: “If you’re not sure, don’t share.”

We’ve been facing a pandemic of the unvaccinated, but the point of the Surgeon General Advisory goes beyond the specifics of COVID. We must recognize the real mental and physical dangers produced by flagrant misinformation online. Artists such as Caroline Sinders demonstrate its far-reaching tentacles.

This century launched in New York City with the slogan, if you see something, say something. As a visual culture researcher, the stakes of cultivating a critical lens in students has always seemed to me to include social and political dimensions. Now, the medical and health implications are coming into focus for us all.

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