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Opinions, Propaganda and Influencing the Influencers

You’re watching a video of a cool looking person who is denouncing Black Lives Matter because of the riots, abortion, de-funding police and more. You are generally pretty open minded, and try to take in all sides. As you watch the video, you notice the speaker is making several concise statements that are true and can’t really be disputed when taken by themselves. Riots are unacceptable, not all cops are racist, all lives matter, race and crime statistics, race and abortion statistics. Then they start to emphasize their conclusion: BLM isn’t about Black lives, otherwise why are they not up in arms about their abortion rates? It’s not about racism, because of the racist crimes BLM supporters are committing. Anyone who already agrees will cheer in agreement, anyone who doesn’t already disagree can intuitively sense something may not be completely right, but if most of the facts are true, maybe we’re just wrong? We have to dive into the details to really see what the truth is, who has time for that? Is there a quick way to filter the signal from the noise?

Truth of an Argument

Let’s imagine that we want our supervisor to know that we are working too hard and that we would like to have our tasking reduced. We could think of all the reasons we believe this by comparing our work-load to other workers, we could break down the time required to do each task and show that there is no breathing room at all. All true information that should allow for the supervisor to understand and reduce our work as a result.

When we approach the supervisor and give our argument, she nods and says “You are right, you do have more tasks than the other workers and based on your breakdown there is no breathing room. However, you may not be aware, but you are getting paid significantly more than the other workers. Also, I think there may be some ways you can make the completion of your tasks more efficient, thus reducing the overall workload and giving you some breathing room. Let’s work together on that tomorrow when you get in.”

The arguments we approached our supervisor with were true, yet we still ended up being off base and ultimately wrong. It took a well crafted rebuttal to really allow us to see that. Not only did the rebuttal have to be well crafted, but at the least we would have needed to be willing to listen to have any change in our overall opinion.

Willing to Listen

It’s clear that if we aren’t willing to listen, changing our opinion would never happen. In the case of our supervisor, they are somewhat of an authority and we depend on their input. We essentially have to listen if we want to have a job. Being willing to listen doesn’t mean we have to change our opinion, just that we are open to coming to a better understanding. If the supervisor gave bad reasons, we could continue the discussion by giving more counter arguments. If the supervisor also is willing to listen, then most likely a solution and some form of agreement or at least compromise would result.

What is it that influences whether we are willing to listen or not? We don’t know for sure, but there are studies like the one by Kaplan, Bimbel & Harris, (2016) that identified political beliefs tended to be associated with our “default mode network” in the brain. The result was that the participants were more open to accepting arguments of non-politically charged subjects than those that were politically charged. We know that opinions have to form from somewhere, but does this indicate that once we’ve formed opinions on some subjects there is an extremely low possibly that we will change?

Two Way Communication and Social Media

Before we try and tackle the low possibility of change, let’s go back to our working too much scenario. We were willing to change our mind potentially because the supervisor was an authority figure, we depend on their input and decisions regularly. To top it off, they listened and provided counter arguments that were reasonable. How does this play out or work in social media? Firstly, and most importantly we had dialogue with the supervisor. It wasn’t one way communication, by stating our opinion we were expecting and needing a response from a specific person.

With social media, it’s not like that. We share our opinion with our followers, with the world and while we expect some response, we aren’t talking to one person and we certainly don’t need a response in the traditional sense. When we use the concept of one way and two way communication, we are generally are using it in terms of having a dialogue or back and forth conversation versus sending information without any dialogue.

Social media isn’t strictly one-way communication, but it can be a very close cousin. If we post a video, blog article or twitter update, we’re sending out information to a wide array of people. When we get feedback from those people we have no obligation to acknowledge and provide feedback to them in turn. With social media, feedback serves the originator of the content.

Two way communication means that we would open dialogue on an individual basis so that we can be sure to hear out their input. If user suzyq99 makes a comment, it means we would not just reply to the comment but actually acknowledge what they are saying by either summarizing their position or responding in a way that clearly acknowledges it as it relates to our own opinion. We simply can’t do that very well in short twitter retorts, or with hundreds of followers. The end result is social media influencers can state their opinion and not spend any time really engaging in two-way dialogue.

Political, School and Most Debates

Unfortunately for better or worse, most debates aren’t really two-way dialogue either. What is promoted tends to be how to win an argument and convince the audience / judges. Some recommendations, for example are to never concede any points to the opponent. It’s all about being perceived as the more confident and poised communicator. Getting the opponent to respond to less important issues, taking them out of their element by surprising them with unanticipated statements all can help win these “debates” and not even need facts or a good argument to do so.

If we ignored the audience and judges and instead focused on a single person, how do we think “surprising” them with unanticipated statements will go over? Do we really think taking them out of their element will encourage them to agree with us? For those who hold a steady opinion, the only way to change their mind is to address their arguments directly and succinctly. It would take acknowledging their perspective and agreeing with their true statements. In other words, we have to be ok being wrong and be willing to change our own opinion if we want to change someone else’s.

Dangerous Grounds

Let’s finally go back to our initial scenario about the video denouncing BLM. The video had a vast majority of likes, over 200k views. It is clearly supported by a lot of people, and in turn are getting passed around to all the rest of the supporters. For anyone on the fence, maybe this video is the small push to get them to agree. Not only are the vast majority of consumers agreeing, but many of the statements are true. Those who are staunchly opposed don’t do themselves any favors by calling the poster racist and ignorant, only proving the poster’s point further. Those who are trying to bridge the gap end up overshadowed by the sea of support and the staunch opposition that is making the situation worse.

The end result? The video continues to garner attention and eventually the masses start to agree or disagree without even looking at the whole video. All of our movements seem to operate like this, some may start off more positive, others less so. Likewise, there are some BLM posts that denounce police and racism, using solid facts as support but also somehow skip certain details or draw conclusions that those who are open would find intuitively is missing something.

The result is that 1) A large number of people can get swept into believing a position that never accounted for any dialogue 2) We establish a stronger divide between opposing sides. Unable to bridge the gap, we get swept into one side or the other. Although we are nowhere near civil war, social media and our inability to have dialogue can certainly set the stage.

Propaganda, Fake News and War

It is widely known that many wars have historically been started, or changed with propaganda. Prior to World War I there was propaganda showing German soldiers killing babies. During these wars, planes would drop pamphlets out of the sky to speak to and influence the local populace. In today’s wars, we can send messages without dropping pamphlets out of the sky. Social media is currently our number one propaganda machine.

If social media is good enough to use for war, it certainly is good enough to use in political agendas. Although propaganda is generally accepted to be “biased or misleading”, the best propaganda won’t come across as biased, it will just be seen as “factual information used to promote a particular point of view”.

Fake news, is really just another way of saying propaganda. It definitely exists, but on all sides of the spectrum. We have to start being able to distinguish propaganda and biased opinions from opinions that have open dialogue.

Influencing the Influencers

What is worse, is that all of us could be engaged and perpetuating propaganda without even knowing it. If we write a seething post in response to an extremely biased news report, are we choosing to write that post independently? Or were we influenced to do so because of what we saw on social media? Initially, and still to this day no one can determine exactly how a group will respond to certain news or posts. However, if we are to believe that the media outlets do not have detailed numbers on how certain content will do, we are kidding ourselves.

All social media outlets have detailed statistics on how posts will do to both those who agree and those who do not. By choosing to promote or not promote something anyone can cause responses and reposts ultimately influencing the influencers. Take this a step further and we have to realize this isn’t just “big media outlets”. It’s all of us. It isn’t an insidious plot to control all of our minds, all of the social media influencers have these same statistics and ability. Anyone can get detailed demographics on who posts and reposts and how any particular content has done and tweak accordingly.

Clickbait and Polarizing Views

Guess what having access to all of the statistics on our audience helps us do? It helps us tailor and create content that will gain the most attention and appeal. Clickbait is a simple example that gives us a sensationalized headline encouraging us to click. Although it’s normally used to refer to more false or misleading advertising, all advertising tend to use a strategy to gain the user’s attention. What type of things keep our attention the most?

Polarizing or unconventional titles grab our attention the most. What does that mean for the content itself? Will we continue to appeal to more polarizing views because it gets the most attention? And if that’s the case, what we end up having is a large swath of influencers promoting polarized viewpoints not because they believe in some great cause, but because it gets views. Sounds just like big media does it not?

It’s Our Own Fault

Until we all individually change how and what captures our attention, we ultimately are influencing the influencers and the media at large to feed us content that is polarizing. Seriously for the love of society, we have to be smarter about what it is we look for in content. Here are two simple rules to help parse the everyday noise:

Rule #1 – Beware of any viewpoints from people who aren’t willing to change their own.
Rule #2 – Beware of content that doesn’t state or acknowledge truth in opposing positions.

Let’s do our part and stop being swayed by sensationalized posts, polarizing viewpoints with one-way dialogue. They are generally a waste of our time at best and are perpetuating a dangerous divide at its worst.

Thoughts?

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