People hear and see whatever they choose to listen to or notice. Scorning contradictory evidence, they cherry-pick information that confirms biases, especially when views are espoused by peer groups.
Anchors promising a grip on the past, a nook in the moment or step to the future, signal various paths towards accepted versions of truth. Often when people become overwhelmed by choices of truth, they opt for the Carpe Diem variety of reality which addresses the here and now. It follows the X-Factor path to truth. Here’s how it works: Rather than being influenced by which artist would potentially produce the best album or total sum of their entire campaign, voters consider the artist’s last performance – as seen on the night.
This principle affects many areas of communication. For example, unless a campaign message remains consistent, the same kind of thing happens in political elections. Take the UK’s snap-election of 2017, despite the main message initially focussing on Brexit, following two terrorist attacks on the mainland, during the final days of the campaign, party agendas became dominated by issues such as policing cut-backs and security.
Taking the cue from USA, the conservative party’s campaign heavily featured one person – the leader – as opposed to one party. This was a shrewd move. Despite any qualms over Theresa May’s general political capabilities or being especially telegenic, people could at least feel reassured of a single voice rather than disunited party – as suggested by the opposition during the six-week campaign. Once the conservatives established a message of one ‘strong and stable’ leader over a chorus of the many, the conservatives could concentrate on both immediate issues such as local needs, as well as mid-term questions - such as Brexit.
Public manipulation isn't new. Bygone autocrats perfected the art using an arsenal of techniques based on classical propaganda.
One of my books, Soul Traders, includes an extensive list of propaganda methods equally used by politicians, businesses and cultures.
For example, rather than addressing policies, Ad hominem aims to demonises a group or advisory’s character. (As during the USA 2016 Primaries: “crooked Hillary”).
Arousing anxieties (AA) is a technique that often turns up during national elections. A perennial favourite is to whip-up anxieties over public health services or taxation. The trick though is to remember that whilst aspersions may (in moderation) be hurled between political figures, they should never be infelicitously aimed at potential. (By all means entertain with political sling-shots at each opponent - but never turn the sling towards the public - unless of course, your party is extreme left or right).
Directly or indirectly repeat a slogan or message. For example: “build that wall.” So-called, “glittering generalities’ hammer home a campaign message: “strong and stable” or “America first.” (Which, incidentally, decades before the 45th President held office, was coined by a US pressure group campaigning against America’s entry into World War II).
Oracular truth combines:
Herd behaviour - where contrary to any unpublicised personal views, the few feel socially obliged to fall in line with the majority.
Sliver of doubt principle, whereby on listening to rhetorical propaganda, people come to the view that “I may not fully agree with what how a group or spokesperson behaves – but deep-down I can see their point.”
The progression from Slivers to shards is protracted but, providing the rhetoric is persistent, it is relatively easily assured.
The classical ‘Big Lie’ technique works best when a recurring message contains a grain of palpable fact. Recognising and focussing on the evidence, most willingly accept the entire shell of fabrication wrapped around the kernel - especially when it appears that just about everyone is echoing the same dispatch.
Eventually a message gets repeated so often by so many that not only does it become the new ubiquitous unequivocal truth, but entire evidence-production industries (often via social media posts) evolve around it to generate evidence that supports what the majority want to (publicly) hear and see.
At the most extreme, one of the most startling examples of naïve trust is when, despite even contrary compelling evidence - including losing a major battle (as in Mosul) terror-groups such as ISIS, continue to blindly support the rhetoric of leaders proclaiming the invincibility of a baseless cause.
Irrespective of the type of message: cultural, political, commercial or social… with an endless river of alternative theories or pitches pouring into the stream of consciousness – supported by peer pressure - even the most resolute soul will eventually capitulate. At that stage, together with free-thinking being sacrificed, actual truth, gets abandoned. Then, even beyond the chattering Twitteraty classes, usually only those with biggest wallets get to decide what is fit for public debate.
Controlling the media is one thing – domineering its reach is another. Augmented reality played a key role in Apple’s WWDC 2017 conference. As headsets become the norm, increasingly digital’s new reality will play an even more essential role than actual reality. (For many, even without the AR, it is already long passed that tipping point).
Thanks to tech companies, there has never been a better time to be in the ‘digitally perceived meanings’ business. It relies on tech’s twin usability pillars: convenience and availability. The Google-effect kicks in as people instinctively trust the engine for research nibbles, before chewing over focused investigation. This reliance on a what you see must be what you get reference point influences media beyond Google including news. A recent example was CNN’s coverage of the London terror in early June 2017.
The incident reminded me of Princess Diana’s death. Days before her funeral I visited Kensington, London. Thousands of well-wishers added flowers to a carpet of commemoration. I was approached by a news crew for a comment – but with a caveat – I had to cry – including full, heavy globs of tears – on cue – to camera.
“I am very, very sad about her death, but I can’t cry on cue.” I told the producer.
“Well, unless you can deliver the tears as you say her name, we can’t interview you.”
“What if you interview me, and off camera, just before I get to the bit when I mention her name, you kick me in the balls?” I suggested.
The news crew huffed and moved on. The next time I saw them, they were interviewing some young women who – on cue – howled tears of despair.
Victimhood is currency. During the 2006 Lebanon/Israel conflict, Reuters published a photograph purporting to show a bomb-damaged building. However, it was later confirmed that the picture was heavily Photoshopped.
Over the years, films released by the Palestinian authorities were also staged. In one case, a covert cameraman filmed a feat worth of Lazarus of Bethany. Once the world’s media left the scene, ‘dead bodies’ miraculously rose from the dead.
Youth’s green susceptibility to be radicalised via the web or charismatic mentors in the name of a deity tends to leave me carrying a bag full of bible-black incredulity. “How could they allow themselves to become so completely hood-winked to the point of sacrificing not only the lives of the innocent but their own too?"
Can it be put down to education? Social class? Lack of opportunities? Has our 24/7 message in your pocket society become so hardened that we feel compelled to align ourselves with one group against another other? East vs. West. Good vs, evil… That out of chaos, confusion reigns supreme leaving us searching for anchors in the storm?
Or you could return to my assertion that public manipulation isn't new.
1961, Jerusalem, Israel. Adolf Eichmann is on trial for war crimes including his ruthlessly efficient logistics to exterminate millions. During the same year in New Haven, America, Stanley Milgram, a psychologist, tells volunteers including students from Yale University to deliver deadly volts of electricity to complete strangers seated in front of them behind a glass screen - all in the name of a learning/social experiment.
The ‘strangers’ (unbeknown to everyone else) are actors. With each turn of the voltage dial, they pound the glass and complain of severe heart pains. Some quiver and slump to the floor, as if electrocuted.
Even volunteers refusing to turn the (ghost) current all the way up, leave without giving a second glance to their victims.
Milgram soon realised just how, quickly even those who would otherwise behave like him – you (or me) can adapt to new rules (providing the setting feels normalised). And that is the most disturbing lesson for our own times of them all.
Social, political or cultural brands know the power of encouraging people to live in the moment. “Imagine what you could have if you follow this suggestion…” (Or even stronger, “what you would lose if you didn't take what you rightly deserve – right now…”
Living existentially is very much in vogue. Maybe through laziness, or exasperation, or pressures… or just because of everyday life… we live in the moment, accepting every soundbite, every incident as the norm – without giving a second thought to established causes or potential consequences.
Once leaders… in business… on the pulpit… in government…within the community… convince us that any current facts contradicting theirs are agenda-driven and fake, we fall into a spiral of chaotic unpredictability. Who can we trust? The leaders we voted for, or the press and others who make it their business to churn over alternative views?
Tumbling down the rabbit hole, big becomes small, small becomes wide, narrow becomes tall … every parallel is paralysed into submission to alternative truths. Conspiracy dominates common sense.
Overwhelmed by the choice of good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, knees buckle as we capitulate to whatever is - is. We lose grip on lessons from history. The here and now becomes easier to deal with than the what may be - could become.
We are no longer cynics of fake news – from any party. Instead we come to accept all from tyrannically leaders to reckless acts of terrorism, to unspoken hatred in hearts… to excessive taxation… low pay… inequality … as just being.