How the Media Manipulates Women’s Trauma For Political Gain

It’s one thing to talk about sexism and devise social policies to address it. It’s quite another to trigger women’s traumatic experiences for political gain.

Alison Rose Levy Jan 25, 2020

Back in 2009, during the first month of the Obama Administration, I attended a symposium at the Institute of Medicine in Washington, D.C. This meeting of prominent doctors and scientists sought to generate input for Obama’s revised health care system. Having covered health for over a decade at that point, I was familiar with most of the information. What was new to me were the statistics of all forms of abuse within American society. It was epidemic. Few social support systems were there to address it.  As someone with professional training in psychology, working with scientists on health care, I was horrified to recognize how pervasive abuse was.

 At the time, I did not realize that we were less than a decade away from a political shift that would see campaign operatives and the mass media build on internalized personal abuse and externalize it ever more dramatically.

 An Abusive System

 One way of reframing the 2016 election is in terms of abuse psychology. Political control changed hands from the compromisers/enablers to authoritarians/abusers. From a systemic psychological perspective, while enablers seem to be nicer people than abusers, they too are implicated in the abusive system, because they condone and enact many of the same abusive behaviors, and at times submit to the abusers, and even help them. That is what it means to be an enabler.

In addition to messing with women psychologically, this manipulation may also recruit us to act against our own best interests.

Flash forward to the present: We find ourselves enlisted in the fight against authoritarianism, facing several unique challenges. We already have an autocratic leader, colluding elected officials, and a captured corporate media, in service to the perpetuation of a political system that oppresses and abuses a wide range of people. We are regularly enlisted to ignore this. That’s what enabling entails. The symptoms mentioned are common to totalitarian regimes. I know that for many Americans, recognizing our own role, rather than merely focus on the abuser is challenging. But we need to look at all parties in the abuse dynamic: the abusers, the enablers, and the victims, often the children.

 Some people enthusiastically embrace authoritarianism, some compromise with it, and some vigorously oppose it and seek to change our system. While riling people against right-wing authoritarianism, the corporate media urges compromise by calling stronger medicine “radical,” even at this advanced stage of our society’s illness.

To use an analogy, to address the “disease,” as embodied by the presidency of Donald Trump, the compromisers and their media offer weak medicine while instilling fear and distrust of the comprehensive cure.

 What happens to people in this context? How do we arrive at recuperative political decisions? Who can orient us to this turbulent terrain when the mainstream media, openly sacrifices credibility to bias, misrepresentations, omissions, and reporting that veers ever closer to propaganda? In this context, people lose their moorings. This mass-generated confusion undermines some people in making grounded political decisions. 

Women and Trauma

 Studies show that women are more sensitive to trauma, and more likely to have been subject to abuse. That may be why polling shows that younger women stand in greater unity with the opposition, while many older women, who have long endured the traumatic impacts of patriarchy, remain undecided voters. This indecision reflects both information deficits, avoidance, and a sense of being overwhelmed in navigating a social order that replicates an abusive family system. Sadly, this also makes some vulnerable to forms of social control, such as the media’s use of psychological manipulation techniques.

 Psychological mechanisms, operative within all people, can be activated to influence us, reaching into our psyches and enlisting us. This is a missing link in understanding and addressing the divisions in our country.

 Last Week’s Presidential Debate

For example, at public forums, like last week’s debate, which are supposed to help us determine the best way to redirect our country, thanks to CNN and the Des Moines Register, media bias and unfair moderation swept the policy issues off the table and instead devoted airtime to an issue, guaranteed to divide, rather than unite Democratic Party voters: sexism.

It’s one thing to talk about sexism and devise social policies to address it. It’s quite another to trigger women’s traumatic experiences through the enactment of a staged conflict that emotionally activated women’s worst fears to derail discussion of Medicare for All, Social Security, and the Green New Deal, all favored by the majority of voters. Ironically, these policies’ strongest and most unequivocal champion, Bernie Sanders, was the object of the allegations, despite a 40-year record of strong support for women.

These allegations were served up just as his popular support surged at this crucial juncture prior to the primaries. 

While we may never know the backstage particulars of how a past conversation got brought up to aerate a divisive issue, but almost immediately media articles, films, and TV, spread the same false concern. This is either a divine coincidence — or a concerted effort to interfere with the public’s choice of a nominee.

The upside of these attempts to use media influence to manipulate women (and other Democratic voters) is that the collusion was visible, and people had the opportunity to see it and not buy into it, which is exactly what they did.

While it would be great to have a woman president, it depends on what the woman stands for and with whom she is allied. When so many women have been traumatized by patriarchy, it’s unacceptable to use the power of the media — or the debate forum — to make women’s suffering political football.

The Use of Psychology In Mass Influence Campaigns

Let’s not forget that much political coverage is shaped to corporate agendas and planned and timed by communications strategists, and highly paid PR consultants, who advise candidates and use psychology to influence voter beliefs and behavior.

One example is the meme “Bernie Bros,” which implants a false picture in people’s minds. Replacing the reality that the majority of Sanders’ supporters and staff are women, this acts as a psychological trigger making people fear that a non-existent gang of belligerent young males lurk within the Sanders campaign. To see caring friends fall for and spread this blatant untruth was disappointing in 2016. Yet many bought into it and still do, never noticing that even now the corporate media continues to replay this contrived, untruthful, and manipulative messaging.

In order to resist being influenced, we have to become more aware of memes — phrases or images that convey a latent psychological message and often a psychological hook that triggers us. We also need to recognize when we are — or have been — triggered. Without this awareness, the average person will unthinkingly get hooked and continue to react to the psychological trigger for days, weeks, and months. It’s only when you recognize the hook that triggered you, and why, that you can release its hold. With the power given the media in our lives, it’s time for people to become more sophisticated in identifying and deconstructing such influence.

How Do We Get Triggered?

In the aftermath of 9/11, psychologists revised their understanding of and approach to treating trauma, so more is known about what happens to us internally and how to alleviate it.

 Each of us is vulnerable to certain hooks that remind us or evoke our own past traumatic experiences. When there is a match between a present stimulus and our prior wound, we may become triggered. Our psycho-neurology will then replay past feelings of hurt and fear, that seem similar to the present situation. When past traumas are repeated or reactivated, this is a form of “retraumatization.”

Treating PTSD following 9/11 led psychologists to a new realization. While it was helpful to share one’s story in a safe place, get a hearing, and receive validation and support, in some instances, it was retraumatizing to tell one’s story over and over and over. Why? Because doing that, engraves the painful experience into our neurology and prevents recovery.

We should share our accounts of harm in safe spaces. Then, rather than continue to rehearse these painful episodes, or make them the sole foundation for our political allegiances, we are freed to join with others to change the systemic structures that invalidate and disadvantage women and other oppressed groups.

Understanding this widens our capacity to correctly identify our best allies, and also it safeguards us from the indignity and risks of mistakenly exposing ourselves and others to triggering on a politicized media stage, which is never a “safe space.”

The Triggering Mechanism

When a present stimulus evokes a past trauma, our autonomic nervous system reacts. We become emotionally engaged and fail to notice our triggering. Operating in a state of reactivated trauma dims accurate judgment.

To use a recent example, witnessing TV and social media replays and accounts of the conflict between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on the political stage could:

  • Reawaken painful childhood memories, like witnessing one’s parents fight.
  •  Remind people of someone who never gave them a hearing, like family members, health professionals, religious organizations, or the police who pooh-poohed reports of an assault.
  • Trigger a memory of a hurtful conflict with a partner.
  • Reactivate buried memories of an assault.

When events on the media stage provoke past psychological injuries, our mature adult personality takes a back seat, such that it’s harder to distinguish between, say, verbal references to a professional disagreement between two adults, our own past experiences of neglect, abuse, or assault, or the abusive policies at large in our society. 

In addition to messing with women psychologically, it may also recruit us to act against our own best interests. 

Every day witnessing the abuse of children, animals, and the earth occurring in the world, can become so overwhelming, we may suppress the full emotional force of this pervasive harm, until an outer event surfaces it. At that point, people can actually be provoked to project their buried hurt or outrage toward an innocent party, who is not implicated in these traumas, and who has in the present done something relatively minor.

This is how the psychological mechanisms called “displacement,” and “projection” operates. We shift the emotional reaction from its original source (those who hurt us), to someone else who is safer and less threatening, for example a popular politician like Sanders who is fierce in his caring, but essentially gentle and loving.

When that happens on a public stage, the sum total of individual traumas unfortunately is magnified and gains collective force. Unjustly blaming the designated person (or sometimes a group) is something that only demagogues play with. Rather than act on the actual perpetrators, the public’s ire will be evoked and then displaced from the dominator class to an innocent (or largely innocent) party, or class of people. 

There’s a term for this. It’s called “scapegoating.” We see it deployed all the time by Republicans, but sadly, they don’t own the exclusive rights to its use.

What Can We Do?

When we can recognize that we have been hooked and triggered, we can reexamine the actual instigation for the conflict, and withdraw our projections from the individuals or groups targeted

The Warren-Sanders conflict appears to have been resolved between them. However, people would do well to absorb the lesson and safeguard themselves from those who prey upon us in this unethical way.

Let us each take a step back, recognize our own traumas, find a place of solidarity, calm triggered reactions, take responsibility for withdrawing our projections, and join the movement that offers the most comprehensive cure to our society’s many ills.

It’s rare and beautiful thing to meet a person or a people who have experienced victimization or trauma and transformed that into a genuine commitment to everyone, rather than perpetuating the abuse which they or their people have suffered — through turning it on someone else.

 Fortunately, there are some people who have concocted the recipe for a healing medicine for severe societal ills. This medicine can even be distilled into a universal message enforced by congruent action. The prescription is embedded in the simple statement, “Not Me. Us.

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