The violent underground: How the media makes us

Controversial films and video games are often the scapegoat for horrific acts of public violence, but the science behind the media’s influence follows a much more complicated script. 

 
 Illustration by  Dan Holthan

Illustration by Dan Holthan

 

When Richard Wolstencroft’s film Pearls Before Swine (1999) was rejected from the Melbourne International Film Festival, his disappointment turned to outrage. An open letter describing his frustrations over the inability to screen his film garnered support from other sidelined filmmakers, including science fiction and LGBT directors, leading him to launch the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) in 2000. 

"Underground" cinema is a broad term – describing films that oppose the mainstream, whether through esoteric themes or experimental structures (such as non-narrative films). More recently, "underground" cinema tends to refer to work like Wolstencroft’s: films dealing with boundary pushing themes like S&M, fascism and violence, and the distribution of banned material (MUFF illegally screened the unclassified film L.A. Zombie in 2010, leading to a raid on Wolstencroft’s home).

 
  Richard Wolstencroft’s crusade to screen banned or otherwise undistributed material has helped underground cinema find a greater audience in Australia.   Peter Miranda/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY 3.0)

Richard Wolstencroft’s crusade to screen banned or otherwise undistributed material has helped underground cinema find a greater audience in Australia. Peter Miranda/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

 

The Classification Code regulates media in Australia, essentially legislating who is allowed to view what. While the system has been reviewed and updated several times since its introduction by the Commonwealth, its basis remains similar: while Australia doesn’t exercise strict censorship in the sense that no one is prevented from making anything, media (of all kinds) is regulated through classification and distribution. Our classification system is based on what is deemed appropriate for a given age group, taking into account community attitudes around themes such as violence, sex, drug use and offensive language. 

The Classification Board can refuse a classification, giving it an RC rating – effectively banning it. The board describes material rated RC as “content that is very high in impact and falls outside generally accepted community standards.”  Examples of films given an RC rating include Baise-moi (2000, depicting actual, non-simulated sex), Ken Park (2002, portraying underage sex), A Serbian Film (2010, depicting bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia) and Found (2012, sexualised violence), along with a whole host of video games

Many would argue there are good reasons for banning material like this – that the general public should be protected from offensive, upsetting or tasteless media, and that potentially damaging messages shouldn’t be granted distribution. Others believe in freedom of speech without exception, arguing that the viewer – not the regulator – should be able to decide what is appropriate for them.

 
  Sometimes we wish we hadn’t seen something – but most people want the freedom to choose what they watch.   Christopher Sebela/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sometimes we wish we hadn’t seen something – but most people want the freedom to choose what they watch. Christopher Sebela/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Either way, there’s a presumption: the media has an influence on its audience; it affects the viewer in some way. This idea might seem obvious, because we’ve heard it over and over again (ironically, usually through the media): Movie violence was blamed for tragedies such as the 2012 Aurora shooting, in a movie theatre screening The Dark Knight Rises, while the perpetrators of the Columbine High School massacre, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, are often described as being motivated by shooter video games and Marilyn Manson. Grand Theft Auto was blamed for the 2011 London riots, social media is blamed for cyberbullying, and all manner of modern media are blamed for the sexualisation of young children. 

Before all this, Elvis Presley was being filmed from the waist up, his swivelling hips cause for moral panic, and the Hays Code prevented depictions of “lustful kissing” or “explicit methods of crime” in film, lest anyone get any ideas. Since the dawn of mass media, there have been been concerns about how audiences are affected (though almost always, these are concerns about how other people could be negatively influenced – the “third-person effect”). And yet, the precise, measurable effect the media has on a viewer has proven extraordinarily difficult to determine. 

The first attempt to seriously research cinema’s influence was the Payne Fund Studies, a series of  studies run in the US between 1929-32. The research was particularly concerned with the influence of movies on children, a fascination that has remained to this day. The studies analysed the content of a range of films, along with the attendance of different age groups of children at these films, their retention of information, how the films influenced children’s attitudes, emotions and behaviours, and so on. 

  Children line up outside a cinema in New Orleans, 1935.   Ben Shahn/Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Children line up outside a cinema in New Orleans, 1935. Ben Shahn/Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

The Payne Fund Studies concluded that films had a significant influence on children. The results stated that movie-watching children were less emotionally stable, had lower grades and were less co-operative than children who didn’t watch movies, and that children retained much of the information they took in: an 8 year old would retain 90% of what they saw up to three months later. These findings caused panic among the public – at a time when film was still quite new – and lead directly to the establishment of the aforementioned Hays Code, a set of moral guidelines enforced from 1930-68 on most US studio films. Despite their importance as a landmark of social science research, the studies have been widely discredited; the methodology has been criticised as unscientific and politically motivated. Others have pointed out that the findings might be irrelevant today, anyway – the kids of 2015 have an entirely different experience of media, and development of media literacy, to children growing up in 1930. 

The rise of mass media throughout the 20th century also gave rise to a range of media influence theories, seeking to model the relationship between a viewer, a listener or a reader, and their medium.

One early model developed not through scientific research, but in response to the emergence of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s, and mass media panic caused by events such as the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938, became charmingly known as the hypodermic needle theory. Behavioural researchers attempted to explain how, for example, propaganda spread a unified message across Germany throughout WWII. Needle theory was formed based on the assumption that people respond uniformly to such a message, "injected" to a passive audience. 

The hypodermic needle theory was first challenged by empirical research in 1948, and has been re-evaluated and disproven several times since then. Other models supported by psychological or sociological research emerged, such as the uses and gratifications theory (people actively seek out the kind of media they want) and the agenda setting function theory (the media doesn’t tell you what to think, but it can tell you what to think about). We now think of audiences – especially ourselves – as more active participants, seeking out what we want to view and forming our own opinions about what we’ve seen. The idea of the media’s message being injected into a mindless, unquestioning audience seems positively archaic. And yet, many discussions around media’s dangerous influence are still framed using this theory.

 
  The hypodermic needle theory considered audiences entirely passive, taking up the media’s message without question or active consideration.   Tom De Cort/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

The hypodermic needle theory considered audiences entirely passive, taking up the media’s message without question or active consideration. Tom De Cort/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

Behavioural and social psychologists have continued to attempt to qualify and quantify media influence, specifically the effect of media violence. Most studies follow a similar method: a group of school students or undergrads watch a film or play a video game (either violent or non-violent), then get tested for an aggression proxy (playing sport, cheating on a test, picking up a pen). The results, on the other hand, are mixed; the interpretations are even more so. 

While most researchers agree the effects are relatively small, psychologists such as Dr Craig Anderson and Dr Brad Bushman have made the case that media such as violent video games have a considerable influence on real-life violence. Aggressive responses were observed more often in men than women, and in individuals who already had dominant, aggressive personalities to begin with. Several meta-analyses and reviews found the results of these kinds of experiments were unambiguous, with children being influenced more (especially by short term effects), but all age groups exhibiting a response. One study found the correlation between media and real violence to be so strong, it was second only to smoking and lung cancer in terms of known public health threats.

On the other hand, some researchers have argued that while the results of these studies are clear, the experiments are methodologically flawed, and claims made for their significance have been inflated. For many researchers (even those conducting the experiments), while the data does support the idea that media violence begets the real thing, the few longitudinal studies conducted that take into account factors such as family violence and mental health do not support this theory. The results of these short-term behavioural studies – which form much of our modern understanding of media violence and how we should regulate it – can also be difficult to interpret. Were participants aggressive because they played a shooter game, or frustrated because they only got to play it for 10 minutes? 

 
  Studies on the psychological effects of controversial media like the Grand Theft Auto series have turned up even more controversial results.   Thomas Hawk/Flickr  (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Studies on the psychological effects of controversial media like the Grand Theft Auto series have turned up even more controversial results. Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

For Professor Christopher Ferguson, another concern is the political motivation and confirmation bias clouding the research. He argues that it’s difficult to get funding for research into positive effects of the media (for example, some scholars have described films as social events that bring people together). Media violence, on the other hand, is often flagged as a contributing factor after events such as homicides, and funded as an important area of research. Professor Ferguson also describes how shooter games are often blamed for gun violence carried out by younger perpetrators, but not adults – irrespective of whether the criminals were actually gamers. He argues that research to support this view is poorly peer reviewed and highly political.

Despite the fact that the scientific discourse is problematic at best, there is certainly plenty of empirical evidence to suggest watching a hyper-violent movie makes a person more likely to go and punch another person in the face. Surely it makes sense, then, that we should regulate those movies? 

For some researchers, such as media studies academic Dr Andy Ruddock, the most recent review of Australian classifications “looks at some of the behavioural research that looks at the effects of exposure to violence,” but “considers a very limited range of arguments.” 

Another argument to consider is not how individual media products might influence behaviours, but how long term exposure to media messages influence a person’s view of the world. This idea – the cultivation theory – emerged in the 1960s, studying the effect of having a television in the home. With the massive influx of media platforms, outlets and devices over the past decade, this idea could be increasingly relevant.

 

Michael Moore discussed fear in the media with musician Marilyn Manson in his 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine. Manson’s music was frequently blamed for the Columbine High School massacre.

 

“[It] argued that the main effects of long term exposure to a steady diet of media violence is actually not that it makes people aggressive, but that it makes them afraid. It makes them passive. It makes them think that there’s more violence in the world than there really is. It makes them think that they’re more likely to be victims of a crime than they really are. And it makes them more suspicious of other people. So there’s another argument that, actually, when you’re thinking about the effects of media violence, don’t think about the effect of a particular image on a particular individual – think about the effect of a steady stream of images on society as a whole,” Dr Ruddock said. 

Cultivation theory – the idea that media and media violence works, over time, to reconcile people to the existing social structure – contradicts much of the basis for classification. For instance, while media is regulated according to age group, this concept isn’t always so straightforward. Films with complex themes might be more likely to trouble adult viewers than children, for example. And while behavioural research suggests children are more susceptible to media messages, cultivation research has focused more on the influence of media exposure on people once they get to voting age. “This idea that once you get to 18, everything’s okay, is patently ridiculous,” Dr Ruddock said. 

 
  Cultivation research focuses on how a steady stream of constant media exposure affects people over time.   Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons  (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Cultivation research focuses on how a steady stream of constant media exposure affects people over time. Chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

In terms of the influence of video game violence, Dr Ruddock pointed out that plenty of female gamers have real life experience being harassed online by male gamers – most of whom are in their 30s. “You’ve got a really good reason to say, let’s not think about the relationship between video game violence and violent behaviour among teenagers, [but] let’s think about how video game culture becomes a basis for sexual harassment among people in their 30s,” he said. “There’s a really solid argument for that question instead. 

“People like Anita Sarkeesian have made the observation that you hardly see any female avatars, female characters in games are frequently the targets of sexualised violence… the cumulative messages of all these trends within games is that it’s a man’s world.” Dr Ruddock said. “Gaming as a whole encourages us to think of women, for example, as second class citizens.” The incredible backlash from the gaming community to Sarkeesian’s work would seem to support this idea.

 
  Who should we be more worried about?   Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr  (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Who should we be more worried about? Ann Larie Valentine/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

 

In the end, we are caught somewhere in the middle. People will make what they want to make, people will watch what they want to watch, and regulators find themselves balancing the moral question of how best to protect the public against the need to have a commercially profitable media sector. This is messy science – muddied by political motivations, implicit bias and imperfect methods. 

Still, the media is a huge part of our lives. How we shape it to shape us is an important question to continue to explore. But perhaps it’s not the seedy, trashy underground of banned cinema and hyper-violent video games we need to be most worried about.