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Manipulation by Means of Words: Perverse Synonyms

One of the first signs, based on which we can recognize a manipulating article, is the preference for certain terms and synonyms as opposed to other terms. An example is the news article regarding the appointment of the new Prime Minister, Valeriu Strelet. The news portal announces: “The nominal composition and the Activity Program for the period 2015-2018 of the new Government obtained the Parliament’s vote of confidence.” (, June 30, 2015).
The expression “obtained the vote of confidence” is used instead of the more neutral expression “was voted”. Other versions would have been “received the vote of confidence” or “was given the vote of confidence”. Because the Ethical Journalism Handbook recommends journalists to use the active voice when possible, we will not examine the passive forms (was voted, was given the vote of confidence) and will concentrate on the two active verbs used: “received” and “obtained”.
Comparing the definition of the verbs, we notice a difference in semantics, especially in secondary meaning. While the verb: “receive” is the most neutral (“RECEIVE”, I receive, TRANZ. 1. To come into possession or to accept something given to you; to obtain, to acquire; spec. to collect. To be given a title, or rank etc.”), it also has the most passive meaning.
On the other hand, the secondary meaning of “to obtain” has a more active connotation (OBTAIN”, Tranz. To gain, to receive, to acquire (something); to manage to reach something…, to achieve something”). Followed by a noun with a positive meaning in the expression “vote of confidence”, it has a rather positive informational connotation.
It looks as if the author tries to suggest to the reader that Valeriu Strelet made a personal effort to gain the MPs trust. However, the public knows that both the distribution of functions and further appointments were carried out according to a certain formula, pragmatically, among the components of the Alliance for European Integration - 3. We should also briefly mention that other press institutions used either the verb “received” the vote of confidence, or “was voted”(ProTV - “voted”, “was appointed”).
In another example, the information about the protest organized by “Casa mea-Moldova” party on July 24 was distorted, because partial synonyms or antagonistic terms were used. We are talking about the news report of the Publika TV Channel with the headline: “In pursuit of bars. Petrenco has thrown smoke grenades (video)” (, July 25 2015) and the news piece of Omega agency with the headline “The police tried to dissipate the protest against tariffs increase” (, July 24, 2015).
In order to describe the protest circumstances, both Publika and Omega authors used as key words a range of partial synonyms. Thus, the participants in the protest are, according to Publika, “the President of “Casa Noastră Moldova”, Grigore Petrenco, the leader of the Extremist Movement Antifa”, ” the activists from the group, and “Petrenco’s protesters”. The expressions “extremist movement” and “group” are obviously associated with terrorism, and the use of the genitive (Petrenco’s protesters) and the appellative “leader of the movement” contribute to reinforcing this association. On the other hand, according to Omega, the ones who took to the streets were protesters revolted against tariffs increase, citizens revolted against new tariffs and peaceful protesters. The political affiliation of the organizers is not mentioned at all, instead, they are described as members of civil society (citizens, peaceful protesters).
At the same time, Publika refers to policemen in a positive manner – “security forces” and “enforcement structures”, while in the article by Omega they only talk about the “police”. The actions of the participants were interpreted in different ways: according to Publika, the protesters caused “altercations” and “clashes” and Petrenco “ignored the force structures’ indications”. These synonyms reinforce the association with a terrorist act – the noun “clashes” can be perceived as a metonymy for the full expression “armed clashes”, while the verb “ignore” denotes an intention to organize a rebellion. According to Omega, the policemen used force and tried to dissipate a peaceful protest. Here the ignoble intention of security forces (they tried to chase away the peaceful people) and the obviously exaggerated behavior (they used force) is emphasized.
The event is described by Publika as an “unauthorized protest”, while by Omega - as a new protest against electricity and gas tariffs increase. These descriptions partially reflect reality and we can have the complete image of events only by overlapping them. As for the other above-mentioned synonyms, we can note that the Publika TV text is built around a semantic registry of violence, and by using partial synonyms, it describes protesters in a negative manner. To the contrary, Omega’s text describes the protesters in positive and neutral terms, connecting the violence and other negative connotations to policemen.
Finally, we will briefly analyze the term “disclosed”, largely used (in an abusive manner) as we have seen in the previous article.
According to the Explanatory Dictionary of the Romanian Language, the term “disclosure” means “the action of revealing and its consequences; something that is revealed; confession. ” The meaning can hardly be seen as neutral, but rather as a negative one, with a connotation of secret, mystery, information.
The definition of the verb “to disclose” is more telling in this context (DEX:” DISCLOSE, Tranz. To bring to light, to reveal”), and the examples of synonyms used with a secondary meaning confirm the negative connotation: “to expose, to leak, to divulge. ( To ~ culprits names). 4. To discover.”Synonym Dictionary”
Thus, the fact that this verb is repeatedly used in the news of the same media outlet, clearly shows us that there are certain intentions to manipulate the public. We can state the same when it comes to the use of „expressive” synonyms, which in the best case serve to „retouch” reality for the sake of sensationalism, and in the worst case - to misinform.  

Cristina MOGILDEA,
Head of Publications and Research Department, IJC

This material is published within the project "Freedom of expression and media development in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and South Caucasus", implemented by CIJ during the period May-September 2015, supported by Deutsche Welle Akademie and financed by German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The opinions expressed in this material belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the financer’s opinion.