Science Lab Reading Room

Film, TV and social media can have a tremendous impact – especially when they dovetail together. Understanding some of the evidence behind how this works will benefit anyone wishing to harness the power of these platforms. Several theories and models support the idea of using TV and film storylines to supercharge conversations around social and environmental issues. Also, we like buzz words and aren’t afraid to use them. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Transportation Theory: That sense you feel when you “lose” yourself in a story. You become more open to suggestions and persuasive messages made in the story without even realizing it.
  • Identification: Closely related to transportation is the idea of identification, which is what happens when you identify with the protagonist of the story and imagine that you are literally that character, thinking and feeling from his or her perspective. This may promote identification with a stigmatized group in real life.
  • Multiple Source Effect / Integrated Marketing Communications: Messages received from multiple sources or channels have more impact than those received via a single source. In other words, a film and a Facebook post may more impact on changing someone’s mind than either one of these by themselves. Transmedia storytelling is a related mode in which a reader/viewer/user pieces together a story from many different types of media.
  • Agenda Setting: The media don’t tell us what to think but they tell us what to think about. Groups should thus take advantage of the conversations happening in the media to gain traction on their issues.
  • Social Norms: Behaviors that we all take for granted. Media and conversations around media can be helpful in adjusting such norms. Sometimes, however, what we assume is a social norm really isn’t. Our perceived norm may not actually match up with the actual social norm. We may assume that no one in our neighborhood recycles except us. In this case, conversations around such depictions in the media can be used to set the record straight.
  • Framing: Once an issue is presented by the media, how is it framed? In other words, is global warming presented as an inevitable end to a social problem or as something that can solved with common sense policy change? You can help frame the issues presented in films and TV shows through social media and events that recognize and shift these frames.
  • Social Cognitive Theory/Modeling: Ideally, we try to model the behavior of protagonists and try to avoid the behavior of villains/antagonists.
  • Parasocial Interaction: Not only may we identify with TV and film characters, but we may start to feel like they are our friends. A one-sided relationship, to be sure, but one that can feel very real!
  • Slacktivism: Activism that takes place via social media. The knee-jerk reaction may be to declare that this has no real world impact, but studies show that something as simple as changing our Facebook avatar can indeed move the needle on social issues.

Related to the above, here’s a collection of news and other items on the impact of media:

‘East Los High’ Isn’t Just A Soapy Teen Drama — It’s Also A Science Experiment (NPR – 2016) NPR’s Codeswitch blog summarizes the success of East Los High, a popular teen soap opera that folds sexual health messaging into its storylines. Initial research indicates that viewers are more likely to discuss sexual health with their peers after watching the program.

Welcome to the empathy wars (Open Democracy – 2015) We need to empathize with others, this article suggests, if we are ever to solve the world’s problems. “Our current generation’s failure to act on climate is, to some degree, a failure to step into the shoes of future generations and take into account the impact that our carbon-intensive lifestyles will have on them.”

In Social Movements, “Slacktivists” Matter (Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania – 2015) Slacktivists play an important role in amplifying the impact of social movements, as this article discusses.

Zombies, brains, and tweets: The neural and emotional correlates of social media (The Harmony Institute – 2013) This fascinating study suggests that high drama on TV and film is correlated with high intensity of social media posts on services like Twitter and Facebook. In other words, when people are charged up by the emotional energy of a film or TV show they are more likely to take to social media.

Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing. (University of Maryland & Wellesley College – 2014) This case study explores how the MTV show “16 and Pregnant” (working in tandem with The National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy) succeeded in reducing teen births in the United States.

Increases in Calls to the CDC National AIDS and STD Hotline Following AIDS Related Episodes in a Soap Opera. (International Communication Association – 2004) This case study shows how a soap opera was used to increase calls to a national HIV hotline. Also a good primer on social cognitive theory.

How Shows Like ‘Will & Grace’ And ‘Black-ish’ Can Change Your Brain (NPR – 2015) An interesting take on how TV shows get viewers to empathize with the triumphs and challenges of their characters, and why this might make audiences even more apt to identify with these characters than with folks they might meet in real life.