Taking the Bait

Ticking people off is not a way to win friends and influence people.  Except when it is.  And we seem to be at such an unhappy moment.

There is an obscure maneuver that is occasionally recognized when describing non-standard persuasion campaigns.  It’s usually fraught with so many potential liabilities that few risk it.  One formal name for the strategy is “intended misidentification,” which happens when an advocate sets out to alienate an audience by making statements he or she knows will not go down well.

What could motivate someone to be so reckless?  After all, communication is usually better understood as a series of carefully constructed bridges to others.  Burning bridges seems counterproductive.

The hope within the person or group using the strategy is that an even larger audience will see the event as emblematic of something bigger and potentially more significant.  The meta-language of such a move says that “I have something to say that must break through the routine bounds of courtesy. But it needs to be said.” For example, in 2015 three women representing Black Lives Matter took over Bernie Sanders’ campaign podium in Seattle. The crowd predictably booed the interlopers for interrupting his speech.  But the event succeeded in becoming a key media moment in the group’s efforts to dramatize rising death rates of African American men at the hands of local police. Losing the sympathy of the local audience surely figured into the calculations of the group. Such instances may be rare, but there are times when the quickest route to notoriety may come by being a non-adaptive communicator.

If you can’t have your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

A different version of intended misidentification happens when “trolls” bait their opponents with intemperate “comments” that verge into the mean and nasty.  We now have confirmation that Russian individuals–and probably agents of the Russian government–continue to make concerted efforts to sabotage and divide American public opinion. Deliberately toxic tweets, Facebook posts and ads are meant to inflame and polarize public opinion.  Racist comments from an apparent Clinton supporter? No problem. Outlandish accusations seemingly from a candidate’s worker?  They can do that.  If you fear having your own democracy, why not sabotage someone else’s?

Newsweek estimates that nearly half of Donald Trump’s Twitter followers are fake. That’s reason enough to abandon this toxic medium. The real mischief happens when Russian “bots” and others generate taunts that mostly “troll” his critics. According to Wired, the recent school shooting in Parkland Florida was immediately followed by Russian-linked pro-gun tweets sent using the legitimate hashtags of Americans. Sowing such disinformation contributes to a further weakening America’s already fractured polis.  We will struggle to keep an open society if it is cluttered with fraudulent messages intended to provoke rather than enlighten.

Much of this alienating prose would disappear if digital messages and comments on internet sites came from identified persons. But we have perhaps reached a disturbing tipping point when we too easily allow discourse to enter the public domain without a named author. When individuals sign their names to their comments they usually think twice before leaving a trail of ill will.  Those who still persist should be seen as losing the presumption to be heard.  And those who continue to rely on social media for informed views and news may learn too late that they have been ‘played.’