Semantic hijacking for mass manipulation

One core tenet of media is "the more you repeat something, the more people will believe it." This is why we are bombarded with advertising - so that the brand name occupies a larger region of our minds.

Unfortunately, whereas advertising is simply driven by the desire for profit, other applications of media are even less commendable. I am referring to the political uses of media, that have given us among others the first tragedy of the 21st century, 9/11, as the century had just been born.

How does media - the discipline - manage such success? This is a tough question to answer fully, and in this post I just want to focus on one aspect: semantic hijacking, or the manipulation of a term to mean whatever the speaker has in mind, rather than the full ensemble of meanings that the term originally encompassed. Two examples are enough:


According to Wikipedia, which we accept as the people's reference, "terrorism" is not clearly defined. In fact, this word counts more than 100 definitions. However, the "War on Terrorism" coined by the US government/media alliance gave it an unambiguous meaning referring to Islamic terrorism - whatever that *really* means of course. In effect, the term became associated with a complete ideology, culture and even race, via an intense emotional response to an act of violence. The American people were none the wiser and fell prey to a covert authoritarian regime.

Antisemitism / anti-semitism

Semitic peoples include inhabitants of North and Western Africa, the Arabic peninsula and the Levant. "While the term's etymology might suggest that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic peoples, since its creation it has been used exclusively to refer to hostility towards Jews" (from the Wikipedia entry.) This term was coined around 1880 with that specific intended meaning. The persecution of Jews at the hands of Nazis, and ensuing media propaganda, only strengthened this association. However, the acceptance of this term's new meaning (consciously or not) creates a complex paradox in the mind of the recipient:
  • The racist undertones of "antisemitism" generate strong emotional reactions due to the heightened sensitivity to racist issues since the 20th century. No public figure could ever run the risk of being labeled antisemitic without ruining his or her career. Of course, rationally, this is a non-issue since the plurality of human races is unprovable from a genetic standpoint. All that remains is xenophobia and cultural traits.
  • The deliberate confusion of Semitism with Jewry allows for Arabs and other people of Semitic origin to be labeled as antisemitic, which is in itself an absurdity. But it is an effective opinion-control device given the racist undertones above.
  • By labeling itself a "Jewish state", Israel has further extended the meaning of antisemitism to silently include any opposition to its political agenda. The original term is free from any political/national references.

The consequence of such a paradox is a Western media taboo on criticizing the politics of Israel - surely a privileged position that no other nation enjoys.

Antidote to semantic hijacking

  • Exposing the logical flaw: an ineffective approach on its own because the root of the manipulation comes from emotionality not rationality.
  • Reversing the media bias: by using the same media tools to rectify the meanings of the words, in order to neutralize their political effect. As seen in the examples above, a successful meme will best penetrate the minds when it is capitalizes upon an intense emotional event (e.g. 9/11 and the Holocaust) and keeps recalling it for its own benefit.
  • Using democratic media: the Internet can be rightly called the people's media. If it is allowed to prosper with neutrality and globality, it might very well provide enough balance against special-interest groups such as political manipulators. Witness the Internet coverage of the Israeli attack on Gaza as opposed to that of traditional media on US TV.
  • Raising human awareness: a much more durable, but much harder solution is to increase people's awareness as a shield against media manipulation. By encouraging critical thinking, self-awareness and empathy, future generations would be better equipped to deal with a hyper-mediated world.