Category Archives: Politics

About political communication

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.’

Negative Models

Trump is an easy and often deserving target.  A President who flouts traditions, protocols and courtesies cannot help but turn himself into a negative model.

Designers of public health campaigns work to produce ads or billboards urging Americans to quit or reduce behaviors that have serious effects. They will usually use one of two persuasion strategies: a message built around positive images of people doing the right thing, or an approach using negative images that are supposed to motivate their targets to change. This second “fear drive” strategy means that the message will display examples of the problem the campaign is designed to remedy.  The “dissonance” created between the problematic and the preferred behavior is meant to create a kind of mental stress that is relieved if a person complies. If smoking around children is the issue, the central image may portray a child in a fog of smoke. If texting and driving is the problem, show what it looks like in a way that emphasizes the risks.  In all cases the final “tag” of the campaign is some form of “Don’t!”

This fear drive approach entails some form of what is called “negative modeling.”  An image of a person reading his phone while driving is used on the hope that the image is self-evidently risky. By contrast, a positive modeling approach would most likely show something like an alert driver with two hands on the steering wheel and a load of kids in the backseat. The image models the solution, and the kids are a reminder of what’s at stake.

My students love to develop fear-drive messages. Their campaigns typically give us images of students sprawled on a bathroom floor in their own vomit (“Give up binge-drinking”), children in the thrall of a video screen (“Limit screen-time for children”), or abused farm animals (“Eat less meat”). But here’s the problem.  Even these images are not as obvious as we might assume.  People don’t “read” messages in uniform ways.  And this can lead to a condition that is the black death of health campaigns. It’s called “norming the problem.” This happens when a member of the target audience tacitly accepts even negative visual representations as routine or ordinary. If that interpretation applies, the target won’t be persuaded. The problematic behavior no longer carries a stigma.

Trump Models the Wrong Values.

All of this brings me to the President.  We ought to be concerned about how his insurgent and norm-busting behavior is “read” by Americans.  To many of us, the man in the White House surely is the problem.  After all, the president is traditionally the first symbol of government that is acquired by young children. The slights, personal attacks and the violation of simple courtesies model the wrong values.

But for some Americans fed up with politics and politicians, the trashing of these norms is part of Donald Trump’s appeal. Insurgencies feed off of feelings of alienation. Conventional wisdom has it that many of the economically or politically disenfranchised share his “drain the swamp” impulses clearly signaled in his calculated disrespect. Think of something as apparently fulfilling as as a demolition derby on a warm August night. The mayhem has a certain appeal.

To be sure, the impulse to rhetorically trash core American institutions is hardly new.  Think of the Watts riots, the Detroit rebellion, and anti-war skirmishes throughout the 1960s and into the 70s. We often understood and even celebrated the messages they sent. Or think of the biting satire in media left and right that mocks banks, universities, the White House, Congress and industries like “big oil.”  Right now many Americans are not in the mood to acknowledge  the virtues of institutional effectiveness. It’s no longer as easy to honor institutions that prior generations rightly cherished.

Trump is both the beneficiary and victim of this national state of mind.  He brings out the Howard Beale in a lot of people (Network, 1976). For many, his disruptions are just fine.

At the same time, he is also an easy and deserving target.  A President who routinely ignores traditions and conventional protocols cannot help but turn himself into a negative model.  Aside from many in the GOP, few corporations or public institutions would tolerate his lies and digital rants.  And so a troubling question remains:  Have we entered a new phase in our civic space that elevates incivility?  Has Trump “normed” the Presidency downward? Will we ever be able to reclaim and celebrate the kind of generous persona that was evident in presidents like Gerald Ford or Barack Obama: leaders who respected diversity, honored supporters and critics alike, and embodied the values of reflection and tempered judgment?