Don't Believe the Hype.

We are becoming increasingly influenced by what we see, hear or read on the multitude of media available to us. As the Internet expands and media companies grow bigger, richer and more powerful, we must learn to distinguish between the truth and the hype.

The Y2K bug is symptomaticof what has been developing in America's media world in recent years. Having learned that they have a lot to gain by whipping up public hysteria, the sensation-seeking media try to find a single main theme that they can exploit as far as possible. Y2K, we now know, was little more than just hype. But a lot of people made a lot of money off it.

Big stories

A few years ago it was the trialof former American football star O.J. Simpson who was accused of murdering his former wife and her lover. The trial lasted two years and was the most widely publicized event in recent history. News programs, talk shows, night-club comedians, newspaper columnists and other entertainers all competed in adding their comments to the controversy. A mini-O.J. industry even emerged with stylized bloodied T-shirts and single gloves (evidence from the trial) becoming the favourites of Halloween trick-or-treaters.

Then there was all the hullabaloo about Britain's Princess Diana. Her romance with an Arab millionaire's son, her death during a mad car chase to escape from reporters who hounded her to the very end, her televised funeral, watched by millions around the globe, and all the Royal Family rumours and controversies surrounding the event all went to create a hypemonger's paradise. A lot of money was also made on Princess Diana coffee mugs, T-shirts and other souvenirs.

Then in 1999 there was 'zippergate', the White House sex scandal exploited by the media for all it was worth. The discussions, the interviews with people who knew the main characters - President Clinton and his playmate Monica Levinsky, finally Clinton's embarrassing testimony created a spectacle that disgraced the greatest nation on earth. But it was all soon forgotten as the next sensation, Y2K, entered the limelight.

Big business

Billions of people glued to their TVs are a huge potential market for advertisers. The brain-washing capacity of the electronic media took a great leap forward in January when America Online (AOL), the world's top Internet company, took over the leading entertainment group, Time Warner, for a record $172 billion. The merger of a cinema-TV-video giant with the most expansive electronic medium known to man, the Internet, is a revolution whose consequences are difficult to predict.

George Orwell's novel 1984, about a country in which people's behaviour is constantly watched and controlled by a mythical 'Big Brother', may turn out to be a Sunday School picnic compared to what may happen to us in the twenty-first century. People already not only use the Internet to look for information, but also do their shopping and banking in cyberspace. Instead of telling their children stories, they buy them CD-ROMs with nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The AOL Time Warner merger will provide entertainment of every kind, enabling people to get everything they want without ever turning away from their screens.

The ultra-entertainment unit planted in people's home may serve as an uninvited guest and surveillance system. As Britain's influential news magazine The Economist wrote recently," Companies can find out more about their customers: where they live, where they shop, what music they like, what books they read." This new form of media penetration has also been called 'narrowcasting', a word invented to distinguish it from 'broadcasting'. 'Broad' means 'wide' and broadcasting has traditionally meant reaching the widest possible audience. Narrowcasting means emphasizing not what people have in common but what makes them different. It involves breaking the public down into small, individualistic groups and catering for the particular desires of soap-opera fanatics, body-piercers, sports fans, businesspeople, hunters, tattoo freaks, Satanists, technoheads, parents, hedonists and model railway enthusiasts.

Social anarchy

Some people feel this will lead to even more social anarchy than we have at present. According to The Economist," in an age when the bonds of family and community are loosening, some people say that broadcast television brings people together, listening to the same news, talking about the same issues, addicted to the same soaps. If that common ground disappears, so will some of the glue that holds society together."

The situation is probably not as extreme as some media reports suggest - remember how they like the hype. If not in 2001, then in 2005 or 2014 something may happen, somebody will come along to reverse America's addiction to the entertainment media. Perhaps some political candidate will come up with a presidential-campaign motto:" Think for yourself. Don't let yourself be bamboozled by the electronic media."

Many times in history an unexpected total reversal of things has taken place. A lot of people believed that Soviet-style communism would last forever, but an electrician from GdaƄsk changed all that. New York's crime rate had turned the Big Apple into a city of fear. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani changed all that. By introducing the principle of 'zero tolerance' for law-breakers, meaning that even minor offences were quickly punished, he turned New York into one of America's safest cities. Some unexpected development may also curb the electronic-brainwashing threat that America and the online world now faces.