Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 7 – What You Want To Hear

This is part seven of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. For part six, visit Cognitive Bias.

The best politicians and salespeople take advantage of a universal truth: tell ’em what they want to hear, and they’re yours.

“The art of propaganda is not telling lies, but rather selecting the truth you require and giving it mixed up with some truths the audience wants to hear.”

It’s insidious enough in a sales pitch, but when a politician does it, it’s infinitely more dangerous. History’s rife with examples.

The obligatory Donald Trump anecdote

A key plank in Donald Trump’s platform was reducing immigration, and he claimed “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” That message got traction, especially in Rust Belt towns hard hit by the death of manufacturing: people are never more vulnerable than when their way of life is endangered. Trump knew that and told them what they wanted to hear: unemployment wasn’t their fault; it was the fault of the immigrants taking their work.

Unfortunately, immigrants don’t steal jobs. They’re actually a net gain for the economy. But simple narratives often win out over subtler ones, especially when we’re vulnerable and they tell us something that makes us feel good.

Hitler knew this and used it to convince large parts of the German populace that they didn’t lose WW I, but were stabbed in the back by Marxists, Jews, Bolsheviks and even their own government. To a nation living with defeat, crippled by a decade of reparation payments, the idea that they didn’t actually lose the war was a siren song millions readily accepted, even if it was demonstrably false.

Of course, telling people what they want to hear doesn’t have to be as grandiose or earth-shattering as all that. Every day we’re subjected to sales pitches, and every marketer and salesperson worth their weight knows to compliment the person they’re selling to. The trick is to take a moment to recognize when you’re being targeted.

It’s about ego

We love hearing what we want to hear, because of our ego. Whether it’s a compliment or a balm to soothe an emotional hurt, it just feels good. That feeling is your warning call.

When someone inside your trusted circle tells you something that makes you feel good, that’s one thing. But when someone outside that circle tells you something that tickles a part of you deep inside, stop and ask yourself, “Why do I like that so much? I don’t even know them.”

Taking that moment to stop and think can make the difference between being complimented and being taken advantage of.

Coping in the Age of Disinformation: Part 1 – Read Things you Disagree With

Welcome to part one of a ten-part series on coping with disinformation. In this third decade of the 21st century, we badly need dialogue on how to cope with all the misinformation and disinformation that threatens to overwhelm us. I hope you find something useful in it.

Idea #1: Read things you disagree with.

I don’t agree with the editorial slant of Fox News or Breitbart, but I’ll read them because I believe you should read things you disagree with, even ones that make you angry. Doing so keeps you intellectually honest, when you entertain points of view different from — or even add odds with — your own. Restricting yourself to things you agree with diminishes your ability to consider alternatives, and reinforces the idea that your worldview is better than that of others.

That’s dangerous, no matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on. Rest assured that someone with a set of beliefs completely opposite to yours is just as confident as you are that they’re right. If that doesn’t give you pause for thought about the unassailability of your core beliefs, nothing will.

Another reason to read things you disagree with is to walk the walk. If you find yourself judging someone for reading loony left / fascist right-wing material, why should you expect them to read something you think is right, if you won’t return the favour? In the end, trying to argue who’s right and who’s wrong in that situation is a fool’s errand. People don’t make decisions based on logic; they make them based on emotion. If you want to change someone’s opinion, your behaviour will make a much bigger difference than anything you say. The simple act of demonstrating that you’ll read things they value makes it hard for them not to do the same.

That’s how opinions change and that’s how people evolve: when they change their behaviour.

Read things you disagree with, to challenge yourself and model the behaviour you’d like to see in others.