29 July 2020


Well, it's the silly season again. Less than 100 days to the quadrennial clusterfuck we call the Presidential election. That means we are going to be deluged with ads—online and in media—attempting to persuade us (if we are actually persuadable) of the superiority of a particular party or candidate.

The key word here is 'persuade'. There is a big difference between persuasion and manipulation, and that's what I want to examine here. It's important to know whether the ad or FaceBook post or Tweet or Gram or Blog Post or news article (fake or real) or other social phenomenon you're viewing is trying to persuade you of something or manipulate your emotions.

If you are a philosopher, your allegiance is first and foremost to truthful, verifiable premises; consistent and consistently applied principles; coherent arguments based on these premises and principles; and legitimate, circumscribed inferences. But most of us are not philosophers. Thus, we are subject to all matter of wildly speculative, illegitimate claims that don't hold together—the sorts of things that make us abandon our reason and proportion: political ads, branding, and, more importantly, guerrilla marketing.

Or, in a word: Propaganda.

What is it? How can you spot it? And what can you do to shield yourself from its toxic and divisive effects?

(1) The first thing you want to ask yourself is whether what you're seeing appeals to your reason or common sense or, alternatively, does it play on your emotions. Does it provoke an instantaneous, automatic, perhaps negative response—maybe a knee-jerk reaction that makes you want to retweet or repost it? What is your response to the piece? For example:

• Does it make you feel defensive?
• Does it incite you to be fearful?
• Does it incense you, make you indignant, anger you?
• Does it seethe with an infectious distaste, hatred, and loathing?

The answers to these questions, of course, require some degree of self-awareness and emotional honesty: 'What am I really feeling as I read this piece or look at this photograph or watch this video? And why?'

If you feel the piece is trying to provoke such an emotional response, you should be cautious about the material. That doesn't mean reject it entirely; it just means be aware that someone is attempting to play with your emotions.

(2) Another thing to pay attention to has to do with the object of piece: Where is the piece directing your emotional attention? Who or what is it attacking? For example:

• Is the emotion it elicits in you being directed toward a specific person or, as is often the case, a group or type of people?
• Does it seek to indict or condemn or demean an entire group of people by pointing out the flaws or sins of one individual who happens to be a member of that group?
• Does it make you feel morally or intellectually or spiritually superior or somehow vindicated by putting another person or group of people down?

These are often further signs that the piece you're seeing or reposting or retweeting or linking to is meant to be manipulative. Again, caution signs.

These first two questions are the kinds of things any of us can ask when we see something on social media or on the news and feel tempted or compelled to propagate it, copypasta, retweet, etc. We simply need to ask ourselves what we're feeling when we look at the piece and who is this feeling being directed at. This is what it feels like to be manipulated.

(3) We haven't gotten into an analysis of the specific claims of any particular post because that requires research into not only the specific claims that are being made in any given piece but into the (often shady) origins of the piece. Quite often, those things are not obvious to us the recipient, the casual reader or viewer. And they are hidden for a reason. The propagators of the piece don't want us to know the truth.

Those of us who grew up as "people of The Book"—meaning Jews, Christians, and Muslims—have been taught to believe we should have faith, we should believe "things not seen," we should take the words we read at face value as truth. Unfortunately, this simple faith, this uncritical acceptance, tends to make us vulnerable to clever manipulators acting in bad faith.

There are certain techniques we can look for, in general, that should excite our critical facilities. For example, we can begin by asking ourselves questions like these:

• Does the piece use emotionally loaded terms?
• Does the piece call people names or label them?
• Does the piece slander or demean someone or something?
• Is the emotion the piece elicits in you being directed toward a specific person or, as is often the case, a group or type of people?
• Does the piece use big words without defining them?
• Ask yourself: Do you really know the meanings of all the words the piece uses, or do you only think you do?
• Can you ask the author of the piece a question about what they mean when they say something you don't really understand?
• Does the piece originate from a legitimate, authoritative source with actual knowledge of the claims it is making?
• Or, is the piece copypasted from a friend who copypasted it from someone else nobody really knows?
• Does the piece rely on someone who claims to be an authority but whose specialization is in a field different from the claim they are making?
• Does the piece automatically assume you agree with its premises and conclusions?
• Does the piece assume an attitude about someone or something or some group of people or things or facts?
• Does the piece somehow imply that anyone who doesn't believe what it's saying is stupid or ignorant? 
• Does the piece rely on facts that are assumed or that have no grounding in fact?
• Does the piece ask you to take for granted facts you have no way of proving or verifying? 
• Does the piece take something factual and objective and try to color it emotionally, say, by making it seem toxic? 
• Does the piece make broad, sweeping general claims based on a single event or occurrence or a limited sample size or anecdote?
• Does the piece take a single, localized incident and blow it out of proportion, making it seem like it's omnipresent? 
• Does the piece make unjustified comparisons that can't be demonstrated?
• Does the piece use doctored images?

These are by no means all the rhetorical techniques used by bad actors to manipulate and divide us, but it's important to have a few critical shields in your arsenal.

Some manipulative branding campaigns are very sophisticated, playing on our deepest fears. Let's look at a particularly effective guerrilla marketing propaganda campaign from the 2016 election and see how it works. 

In the run-up to the 2016 election, there was a ton of social media and even mainstream media hype given over to the 'creepy clown' phenomenon. Remember this? It began in Wisconsin (remember the significance of that state?) and built and built until, Wikipedia tells us, "By mid-October 2016, clown sightings and attacks had been reported in nearly all U.S. states."

People—some real and some imagined and some invented—dressed as clowns and appeared at odd, incongruous places and times. Nobody knew who these bogeymen were or where they were coming from or why they were doing it. It was a prank that became a trend and went viral. The clowns scared people. Some folks, especially suburban moms, were so freaked out by this trend they kept their kids home from school and forbid them to go trick-or-treating.

The viral phenomenon was picked up and hyped to an almost hysterical extent by the media and ran rampant on social media. It was repeated over and over and over again. Some freely joined the prank; others, it is suspected, were paid actors. The publicity proliferated. This was a guerilla marketing operation, deployed nationwide, designed to induce a broad fear of the unknown. Some say it started out as a marketing campaign for a movie. That may be so, but it was exploited and repeated by political operatives.

Now recall the context of that election: Trump vs. Hillary. The Republicans were branding themselves as the 'Daddy party' and trying to cast Hillary and the Democrats as the 'Mommy' party. Scaring people is one way to infantilize them, make them feel insecure like children. The subtext of the campaign was: "Daddy might be abusive, but he's strong and he and only he will protect you from these unseen terrors." The 'creepy clowns' played right into this narrative. It was a subtle, under-the-radar political ploy. No one claimed overt or public credit for it. Yet it worked! (See, e.g., Wisconsin)

Invented bogeymen: that's one type of manipulative political propaganda meant to scare you and incense you. They inculcate a pervasive attitude of fear and loathing. They occlude your reason. And as we know, political operatives are notoriously uninventive. If a campaign worked once, they tend to run it over and over again (with minor modifications) until it doesn't—and often even after that.

So, who are the bogeymen for this current election cycle? Who are we being manipulated to fear or resent or hate?

Ask yourself: Who are you being urged to fear or hate? And why?