Tag: Bandwaggon effect

Opinion polls are being used to influence public opinion rather than simply measuring it

The wide variation of poll results on how the the two leaders were viewed following the ITV debate last night, and how the media cherry pick statistics to fit their framing and narratives of significant issues and events.

It’s curious that neither the BBC nor the ITV mentioned the other poll results. That would have provided a rather more “impartial” and democratic account of how people responded to the event.

I think we need to question exactly who the BBC and ITV are delivering “the news” for.

The ‘snap poll’, published by YouGov that the BBC and several other media outlets have drawn on to inform their ‘analysis’ of the leaders’ debate, found ‘viewers split on who won ITV general election debate‘ and states that Boris Johnson narrowly won among 1.646 respondents polled. It was apparently Sky news who commissioned that particular poll.

However, the date and time on the page highlighting the poll result is one hour and ten minutes before the debate started at 8pm.

The page has been archived here – and the SKWAWKBOX has made a video of the open page to show that the image above has not been doctored and that the page address is genuine. Read the rest of the article here.

YouGov has been contacted with a request for an explanation of the apparent anomaly. It will be interesting to see the poll company’s response.

Polls are controversial. Some of the major concerns that surround the current polling landscape: Are the polls accurate and scientific? Reliable? Can the questions be manipulated to get a particular answer? Can polls be used to influence rather than simply measure public opinion and voting behaviour? I think the last two concerns are the greatest, and threaten our democracy.

The outcomes of both political and marketing polls — and whether or not the public trusts the results — are influenced by many factors, including polling technology and methodology, how the question is worded, the perception of who is asking the question, when and how the polling sample is drawn, and who agrees to take the poll (the responders) and who decides not to (the non-responders).

 Burkean Conservative, Peter Hitchens, has said:

“Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.”

It certainly does

Hitchens goes on to say that the establishment and the media are responsible for manipulation, based on the misuse of statistics. The overall purpose is to “bring about the thing it claims is already happening” (the “bandwaggon effect”).

In his book The Broken Compass, Hitchens cites contemporary examples of the media attacking Gordon Brown and the “predicted” win of the Conservative Party at the 2010 general election, although Hitchens also described Brown, as a “dismal Marxoid.”  Hitchens’ comments are based on his time as a reporter at Westminster. He says that political journalists are uninterested in serious political debate, and describes how a media reporting bias is attempting to facilitate a Tory general election win. 

Remarkably, as a social Conservative, Hitchens states one of his motivations for writing the book was to frustrate this exercise.

The current obsession with predicting election results doesn’t add much to our democratic practices. Polls give an apparency of “data-driven journalism” but it produces a reductive “horse-race” narrative, in which political and policy context is mostly ignored with the numbers, accurate or not, pretty much being framed as all that matters. This trivialises our democracy and obscures the importance of critical thinking and crucially, stifles informed choices regarding policies in influencing the public’s voting decisions. 

Roger Pielke Jr, professor of Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, says: Rather than trying to see the future, political science might serve us better by helping citizens to create that future by clarifying the choices we face and their possible consequences for policy.”

“In treating politics like a sporting event, we diminish the partisanship, the choices, and the fundamental values that lie at the core of politics. I fear that data journalists have diminished our politics.” 

When political opinion polls and the media appear to support one political party over another, there can be little doubt that this is intended to have some influence on the psychology of voters, because it’s akin to declaring election winners before the election is actually held. It works rather like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is based on the bandwaggon propaganda technique. The basic idea behind the bandwagon approach is to appeal to the conformist tendency of the public, and the need to feel a part of wider society; to feel included.  The message the propagandist puts forward is that “everyone” or “most people”are doing/voting/behaving like this, or that almost “everyone” supports this or that person/cause. 

So bandwaggon propaganda is based on individuals rallying to the perceived majority opinion, because of a fairly widespread psychological need for feeling we are part of a social ingroup, and a general tendency towards normative compliance and social conformity.

And at a time when the strategically engineered and toxic social divisions of political outgrouping is widespread and affecting citizens’ fundamental sense of identity and self worth, this type of insidious call for a normative compliance and artificial consensus creates a false sense of security for some. 

Bandwaggon techniques work much better when the public is unaware that professional manipulators are at work.

We know that political opinion polls are certainly not always an accurate reflection of public opinion. Samples of the population selected to participate may be biased. For example, asking Daily Mail readers who they will vote for will almost certainly produce a majority right wing set of responses. However, if you ask the same question on Twitter, you are much more likely to get a Labour majority.

In the UK, some of the major polls cited widely in the media are run by:

  • Survation, pollster to The Mail on SundayDaily MirrorDaily Record and Sky News. They say: “Survation also have an active strategy and campaign advisory business helping clients better understand customers & members, appreciate & help shape public opinion. We help our clients improve customer engagement and effectiveness of campaigns – be they charitable, political or commercial.” 
  • ComRes, retained pollster for the BBC and The Independent. It says on their site: ComRes provides specialist research and insight to support reputation management, public policy and communications. For more than a decade we have used the latest developments in market and opinion research to inform strategies, change behaviours and define debates.
  • Ipsos MORI (formerly MORI). Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute works extensively for the government of the United Kingdom, looking at public attitudes to key public services, and so informing social policy. Issues such as identity, social cohesion, loyalty, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research.
  • YouGov. – Stephan Shakespeare, the firm’s founder and CEO from 2010, once stood as a Conservative candidate for Colchester; he was also a Conservative Party pollster. The other founder, and CEO until 2010, is Nadhim Zahawi a British Conservative Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010.
  • ICM. They have this to say: Understanding choice means you know how your audience feels, thinks and behaves. And how you can change that. We help influence choice in three areas. How do you energise your brand and communications? How do you improve your customers’ experience of you? How do you understand and influence citizens?  
  • Populus, official The Times’ pollster. They say“Our Reputation & Strategy team works with the boards of global companies and public institutions to help them understand, influence, and improve their reputations. We are specialists in reputation. We understand why it matters, how to measure it, what drives it, who influences it, how to align it with existing activity, and what you should do to improve it.”
  • TNS-BMRB. TNS changed their name to Kantar Public UK: a leading agency providing research and consultancy to UK policymakers and contracted to work for the government. The company is structured around specific areas of marketing expertise: Brand & Communication; Innovation & Product Development; Retail & Shopper; Customer Experience; Employee Engagement; Qualitative; Automotive; and Political & Social.

The bandwagon effect is part of a larger group of cognitive biases or errors in thinking that influence the judgements and decisions that people make. Cognitive biases are often designed to help people think and reason more quickly – “mental shortcuts” – but they often introduce miscalculations and mistakes. These cognitive biases are being manipulated by behavioural economists, the government, polling companies and the media.

Individuals may highly influenced by the pressure and norms exerted by groups. When it seems like the majority of the group is doing a certain thing, not doing that thing becomes increasingly difficult. The bandwagon effect is essentially the manipulation of a type of groupthink process The government know this and are designing communications strategies which play to this heuristic.

All of the polling  companies are commissioned and operate within a taken-for-granted neoliberal context, supporting various actors within the “global market place” paradigm, including governments, and therefore have a distinct ideological leaning and very clearly defined economic interests in maintaining the status quo.

“Behavioural economics shows that people don’t want to challenge the status quo. So if we see a poll telling us ‘what the majority thinks’, we will have a tendency to follow the herd.” Crawford Hollingworth, founder, The Behavioural Architects.

fake 2

 


 

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More allegations of Tory election fraud, now we need to talk about democracy

The Conservative Party are facing another investigation from the Electoral Commission following evidenced allegations that they operated a secret call centre during the general election campaign, breaching electoral law, an undercover investigation by Channel 4 News has revealed. 

An undercover reporter working for Channel 4 News secured work at Blue Telecoms, a company in Neath, South Wales. In an area plagued by unemployment and low wages, the call centre hired up to a hundred people on zero-hours contracts. For weeks, they contacted thousands of potential voters in marginal seats across the UK. 

The hired callers were told to say they were working for a market research company called “Axe Research”. No such company is registered in England and Wales. Furthermore, callers were instructed to say that the call centre was situated in Cardiff, rather than Neath.

The investigation has uncovered underhand and potentially unlawful practices at the centre, in calls made on behalf of the Conservative Party. These allegations include:

Paid canvassing on behalf of Conservative election candidates – illegal under election law.

● Political cold calling to prohibited numbers

● Misleading calls claiming to be from an “independent market research company” which does not appear to exist

The Conservative Party have admitted it had commissioned Blue Telecoms to carry out “market research and direct marketing calls” during the campaign, and insisted the calls were legal.

A Conservative spokesman said: “Political parties of all colours pay for market research and direct marketing calls. All the scripts supplied by the party for these calls are compliant with data protection and information law.”

Under the Representation of the People Act, it is illegal to employ someone “for payment or promise of payment as a canvasser for the purpose of promoting or procuring a candidate’s election”.

Call centre employees working on behalf of the party used a script that certainly appeared to canvass for support on film, rather than conduct market research. On the day of the election, call centre employees contacted voters to promote individual candidates.

Anya Proops, a QC specialising in information law, told Channel 4 that political parties had to ensure that third parties working on their behalf followed the law.

“It’s an illegal practice, it’s prohibited under the legislation and in so far as it’s something which has tainted the overall result in favour of a political candidate, then it can void that result.” 

Blue Telecoms is run by Sascha Lopez. He told The Guardian: “In relation to the Conservative party project, I am unable to comment on the content of the scripts or calls to TPS [Telephone Preference Service] numbers, as the scripts and lists of who to call and when to call were given to us by Conservative campaign HQ in London and were not influenced by my team.”

However, a whistleblower at the call centre told Channel 4 News that they had been making potentially unlawful phone calls to voters. 

Undecided voters were fed key Conservative campaign messages, including references to the Brexit negotiations and warnings about a hung parliament.

On the day that voters went to the polls, undecided voters were told that: “the election result in your marginal constituency is going to be very close between Theresa May’s Conservatives and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party”. Callers were also recorded quoting media articles that were pro-Conservative. Operating from a script, the staff claimed they were carrying out calls for “market research” and “polling”. 

One caller is recorded saying: “It was reported in the Daily Mirror in September last year that Jeremy Corbyn is not concerned about the numbers of people coming to live in the UK and it was reported on Sky News this year that Theresa May has restated her pledge to reduce net Migration.”

People were then asked: “Just thinking about these reports in the media and the reports that you live in a marginal constituency that may determine who is prime minister. So does knowing that you live in a marginal constituency that will determine who is prime minister for the Brexit negotiations, does that make you a lot more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate or a little more likely to vote for Theresa May’s Conservative candidate, or are you still unsure, or does it not make a difference?”

The broadcaster’s evidence suggests that on the day of the election, staff called voters in 10 marginal seats, including Bridgend, Gower, Clwyd South and Wrexham.

As the election campaign started, the information commissioner, Elizabeth Denham, wrote to all the major political parties reminding them of the law around telephone calls and data protection. She said that calling voters to promote a political party was “direct marketing” and was regulated by law.

A week before the election, the same call centre staff started saying they were calling on behalf of Theresa May’s Conservatives.

The Conservative party said the call centre was conducting “market research” on its behalf, and was not canvassing for votes. The call centre confirmed it was employed by the party, but has so far denied canvassing on its behalf. 

The Channel 4 undercover reporter has captured evidence that certainly seems to refute that claim. 

The use of ‘big data’ and psychographic targeting

Teams of statisticians and behavioural psychologists who subscribe to the burgeoning practice of “psycho­graphic targeting” have designed their own version of a Myers-Briggs personality test. The original test explores “the basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgement.”

The test data is supplemented by recent issue surveys, and information from online surveilance, together they are used to categorise political supporters, who then receive psychologically tailored canvassing messages, social media targeting, phone calls and doorstep visits. The micro-targeting of voters has been around for a while, but the Conservative operation has deepened the intensity of the effort and the use of vast resources of psychological data.

This is the campaign approach from a government that claims to advocate a “small state” and “minimal interventions”. However the methods being used which entail the manipulation and management of public perceptions and voting behaviours resemble those of authoritarian regimes, not a healthy liberal democracy. 

Authoritarian propagandists attempt to convey power by defining reality. The reality they portray is usually very simple. The account of reality is offered with the primary goal of switching voters’ value systems to align with the authoritarian value system.

This whole approach is the logical conclusion of the libertarian paternalists‘ “behavioural change” agenda that has been embedded in policies designed by the nudge unit since 2010 in the UK. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”. However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, especially given the more visible evidence of political narratives and the stage management of our democracy via an extremely manipulative mainstream media over recent years.

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be. This is profoundly undemocratic. In fact it turns democracy completely on its head. 

A dark message for democracy

Political “dark” advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time. 

The right wing media’s blatant propaganda approach to election campaigning on behalf of the Tories had already contributed significantly to a serious erosion of democratic norms in the UK, the undermining of public trust, to such an extent that profoundly anti-democratic alternatives suddenly seem perfectly acceptable here.

The reality is that often, authoritarians construct an incongruent, flimsy and meaningless language of democracy in order to erect a fact proof screen around an undemocratic reality.  They offer a lot of glittering generalities to the public. However, those apparently incoherent, meaningless slogans are especially designed to signal intents to groups from which the government wants to gain approval. Dog whistling and wedge issues are used extensively by the right.  

Dog whistling is closely associated with a broader wedge strategy, whereby the political party introduces a divisive or controversial social issue into a campaign, aligning its own stance with the dissenting faction of its opponent party, with the goal of causing vitriolic debate inside the opposing party, defection of its supporters, and the legitimising of sentiment which had previously been considered inappropriate. Political campaigns use wedge issues to exploit tension within a targeted population, and undermine unity. 

In light of this, it’s hardly a shocking revelation that an authoritarian government is also using highly tailored and underhanded “dark adverts” to target individuals online, on the basis of information gathered about them and then applied to a process of extensive psychological profiling in order to influence voting behaviours, and the election outcome.

UK voters are being targeted with highly specific and manipulative messages in an attempt to influence their vote.

The shadowy world of online political advertising has until recently gone largely unmonitored, despite the huge power and reach of Facebook and despite social media messaging now thought to have contributed to the election of Donald Trump and the Vote Leave victory.

The new forms of psychological electioneering are invisible to all but the individual people they are designed to reach and influence. 

During the EU referendum, Vote Leave spent a whopping 98 per cent of its £6.8m budget on digital advertising, mostly via Facebook. In the 2015 election, the Conservatives spent £1.2m on digital campaigning, compared with Labour’s £160,000. This meant that the Conservatives reached 17 million people per week, while Labour reached only 16 million in their best month. Facebook claimed that the Conservatives had been able to serve adverts to 80 cent of the site’s users in key marginals. It also boasted that the company “played a part on a highly targeted campaign, helping the Conservatives to speak to the right people over and over again.”

The private companies and individuals who are stage managing our democracy

Dr Simon Moores, visiting lecturer in the applied sciences and computing department at Canterbury Christ Church University and a technology ambassador under the Blair government, said the Information Commisioners Office’s recent decision to shine a light on the use of big data in politics was timely. He said:

“A rapid convergence in the data mining, algorithmic and granular analytics capabilities of companies like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook is creating powerful, unregulated and opaque ‘intelligence platforms’. In turn, these can have enormous influence to affect what we learn, how we feel, and how we vote. The algorithms they may produce are frequently hidden from scrutiny and we see only the results of any insights they might choose to publish.”

He goes on to say: ”They were using 40-50,000 different variants of an ad every day that were continuously measuring responses and then adapting and evolving based on that response.”

Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL) is a British behavioural science company. The SCL Group, that once advised Nato on so-called “psy-ops”, is a private British behavioural research and strategic communication company. The company describes itself as “global election management agency”.  SCL’s approach to propaganda is based upon a methodology developed by the associated Behavioural Dynamics Institute (BDI). Nigel Oakes founded the latter and also set up Strategic Communication Laboratories and using the new methodology from BDI, ran election campaigns and national communication campaigns for a broad variety of international governments. BDI say: “The goal of the BDI is to establish Behavioural Dynamics as a discipline for the study of group behaviour change.”

There isn’t much information around about BDI‘s connection with military operations, though links with NATO are well-established – see Countering propaganda: NATO spearheads use of behavioural change science, for example. From the article: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL on the other hand, has a clearly defined defence and military division who: “Target Audience Analysis, a scientific application developed by the UK based Behavioural Dynamics Institute, that involves a comprehensive study of audience groups and forms the basis for interventions aimed at reinforcing or changing attitudes and behaviour.”

SCL has different “verticals” in politics, military and commercial operations. All of those operations are based on the same methodology (Target Audience Analysis) and, as far as can be discerned from the outside, SCL and affiliates have very obscure corporate structures with confusing ownership.

In the United States, SCL has gained public recognition mainly though its affiliated corporation Cambridge Analytica (CA). It was created in 2013 as an offshoot of its British parent company (the SCL Group,) to participate in US politics. In 2014, CA was involved in 44 US political races. Their site says: Cambridge Analytica uses data to change audience behavior.” 

And:

PERSUASION

“More effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate.”

And: “Leveraging CA’s massive team of data scientists and academics, CA is able to provide optimal audience segments based on big data and psychographic modeling. Then, using a sophisticated electronic data delivery system, CA is able to provide TV advertising campaign data that may be used to inform media buyers about shows that have the highest concentrations of target audiences and the least amount of waste; all of which leading to higher media ROI [return on investment] and more voter conversions.”

The company is heavily funded by the family of Robert Mercer, an American hedge-fund billionaire. I’ve mentioned Mercer in a previous article about the right’s undue influence on the media and on voting behaviour. Mercer made his money as a pioneer in the field of Computational Linguistics.

Mercer later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets. 

One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees’ money, is the most successful in the world – generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns – all Republican – and another $50m to non-profits – all right wing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is trying to reshape the world according to his personal interests, beliefs, wishes and wont. He is an advocate of the neoliberal right, who seek to combine a market economy and economic deregulation with the traditional right wing beliefs in patriotism, élitism, and law and order, delivered within an authoritarian framework. Mercer is known for his anti-welfare and right libertarian views.

To give you a flavour of Mercer’s interests, you only need to follow the money trail: he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute, and he likes to disrupt the mainstream media. In this aim, he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, self-declared “economic nationalist”, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its paranoid, anti-progressive mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his pet media projects. He has also worked as vice president of Cambridge Analytica‘s board, the private data-analytics that is owned largely by the Mercer family

Mercer and his family are major donors to Conservative political causes such as Breitbart News. He is the principal benefactor of the Make America Number 1 political action committee (Super PAC). Around 2012, Mercer reportedly invested $5 million in the British data science company, the SCL Group. Most political campaigns run highly sophisticated micro-targeting efforts to locate voters. SCL promised much more, claiming to be able to manipulate voter behaviour through psychographic modeling. This was precisely the kind of work Mercer values.

SCL claimed to be able to formulate complex psychological profiles of voters. These, say the company, would be used to tailor the most persuasive possible message, acting on that voter’s personality traits, hopes or fears.

Of course Mercer was a major supporter of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for president and Brexit in the UK. Mercer donated the services of the data analytics company Cambridge Analytica to Nigel Farage and UKIP. The company was able to “advise” and influence Leave.eu through harvesting data from people’s Facebook profiles in order to target them with individualised persuasive messages to vote for Brexit. However, Leave.eu did not inform the UK electoral commission of the donation, contrary to the law which demands that all donations valued over £7,500 must be reported. 

When SCL Elections formed Cambridge Analytica in 2013, the company hired researchers from Cambridge University, hence the name. CA collects data on voters using sources such as demographics, consumer behaviour, internet activity, and other public and private sources. CA is using psychological data derived from millions of Facebook users, largely without users’ permission or knowledge. The company is also trying to change people’s perceptions and behaviours without their consent.

The company maintains offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., and London.

Cambridge Analytica claim to predict not just peoples’ voting intentions and preferences, but also their personality types. The company is proprietorial about its precise methods, but says large-scale research into personality types, based on hundreds of thousands of interviews with citizens, enables them to chart voters against five main personality types – openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. With its head office in London, the company is “A global election management agency, skilled in applying behavioural modeling and microtargeting solutions to political campaigns.”

The marketisation of democracy: the highest bidder wins all, while claiming to speak for the “ordinary person”

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist and the intellectual force behind his nationalist agenda, said in February that the new administration is locked in an unending battle against the media and other globalist forces to “deconstruct” an “outdated system of governance”. Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post writes:

“’They’re going to continue to fight,’” Bannon said of the media, which he repeatedly described as ‘the opposition party,’ and other forces he sees as standing in the president’s way. ‘If you think they are giving you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.’

Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’ — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty.

For those who doubted Trump-Bannon’s determination to destroy the liberal international order that has kept world war at bay and promoted global prosperity since the end of World War II, this will come as a rude awakening. Bannon’s simultaneous attack on the media suggests that it is not simply about trade or immigration policy.”

So data technology, surveilance, psychology and social media and manipulative messaging campaigns are being combined in a powerful new way to sway opinions and win elections without people’s knowledge. In essence, a new, dark, subliminal propaganda war is being waged against citizens by those who wield power, serving the narrow interests of those who do and who are funded by a hidden few who want to weild power also.

Lynton Crosby has been a close advisor in the Conservative election campaigns of Australia, Canada and the UK, and is well known for his racist dog whistling and wedge strategies, influential at an international level.

“In a campaign, what you try to do is either change or reinforce some perceptions that people have in order to influence their behaviour,” says Crosby. 

Crosby’s emphasis is on “below the radar” campaigning, and the targeting of marginal constituencies with highly localised campaigning, latching on to local issues and personalities. To find such divisive and potentially diversionary issues, Crosby’s business partner Mark Textor runs focus groups to find which social groups to target with what questions. Crosby is said to focus on delivering simple messages, targeting marginal constituencies and the use of lots of polls and data. 

 Lynton Crosby, second left, at the party’s annual conference in 2015 with, from left, Lord Feldman, Jim Messina (former Obama campaign chief also hired by the Tories) and then party chairman Grant Shapps. Photograph: David Hartley/Rex

“In a campaign, what you try to do is either change or reinforce some perceptions that people have in order to influence their behaviour,” Crosby says.

Their site commentary highlights whose “democratic” interests Crosby and Textor serve:

“We combine decades of experience in research, political campaigns, strategic communications, media, and corporate intelligence to deliver winning strategies at the highest levels of business and government.

Having worked on successful election campaigns across four continents, we understand the need for timely, actionable intelligence, so our clients can focus the right message and resources on their most persuadable ‘swing voters’ to get the results they want.”

Note the reference to “behaviour changing messages”.

textor

Crosby Textor also claim that: “the team are specialists in advising major companies in how to position themselves to ensure they are integral to government decision-making.”

It was Crosby that created the campaign for the Conservatives with the slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”: a series of posters, billboards, TV commercials and direct mail pieces with messages such as “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration” and “how would you feel if a bloke on early release attacked your daughter?” focused on hot-button issues like “dirty” hospitals, landgrabs by “gypsies” and restraints on police behaviour.

In April 2016, Mayor of London and Conservative, MP Boris Johnson, was accused of “dog whistle racism” by Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and Labour MP John McDonnell, when Johnson suggested US President Barack Obama held a grudge against the United Kingdom due to his “ancestral dislike of the British Empire” as a result of his “part-Kenyan” heritage after Obama expressed his support for the UK to vote to remain in the European Union ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. Crosby also tried to link Sadiq Khan with terrorist organisations –  the Conservative mayoral candidate’s campaign, was run by Crosby Textor

Mark Textor, co-founder of the private company, was mentored by the late Richard Wirthlin, a pollster who was chief strategist to US President Ronald Reagan. Someone else with past connections to the Wirthlin Group is Kellyanne Conway, President Trump’s election campaign manager and now counsellor to the president, serving alongside Steve Bannon, assistant to the President and White House chief strategist.

All singing from the same crib sheet.

Since Trump’s inauguration, Conway has been embroiled in a series of controversies, including using the phrase “alternative facts, making reference to a “Bowling Green massacre” which never occurred, (Conway “cited” it as justification for a travel and immigration ban from seven Muslim-majority countries enacted by Trump), claiming Michael Flynn had the full confidence of the president hours before he was dismissed, and publicly endorsing commercial products associated with the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump. As a result, a number of media outlets have called her credibility into question, with some refusing her requests for one-on-one interviews.

When such manipulative tactics are exposed from time to time, it’s like a curtain shifting temporarily to give you a glimpse into another dimension, populated by billionaires and a handful of mercenary henchmen who drew up the machinations of a war being waged on democracies, in order to terraform political landscapes to suit the dystopic interests of one percent of the global population, at the expense of the needs of the ninety nine percent. You would be forgiven for thinking that the world and the media are being run almost exclusively by a small number of elitist, pan-nationalist aliens. It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s a reality.

Jim Messina is a political adviser who was the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011 and served as the campaign manager for Obama’s highly successful 2012 re-election campaign. Messina was hired as a campaign strategy adviser to the UK Conservative Party in August 2013. Messina operated from the US during the 2015 general election campaign. He has made statements about his personal admiration for David Cameron. Theresa May has also added him to her team of strategists. 

Gone are the days when it was expected that the public decided who to vote for because of the policies on offer from each party. Now the government focuses on the use of private political masters of the dark campaign arts, who use “political-voter surveillance” techniques, along with a combative and emotional approach to messaging, rather than a rational and reasonable one, and a level of cunning that most definitely treads around the very outer edges of ethics. 

One of Messina’s key strategic methods is finding and targeting swing voters through the meticulous gathering and monitoring of voter information using private polls, and the use of social media “targeting”.  He uses social networking techniques and social media, having sought and received advice from top names in the tech world including Steve Jobs.

Messina uses micro-targeting based on online data. His approach is based on the in-depth psychometrically profiling of people, using publicly available data, including their Facebook “likes” and group memberships. This information is used to create effective and directed digital dark advertising to target millions of voters and manipulate their psychological tendencies and play to their traits.  

Messina has developed a private consulting firm –The Messina Group, which “works with organizations in the private, public, and social sectors to achieve their strategic goals.” The company has an office in London, on Old Park Lane. It says on the site says:

“Using state of the art data and analytics, The Messina Group can harness and amplify the reach of your social network. We accurately model your organization’s likely supporter, voter, or consumer, and – by overlaying that with your existing social media base – we can develop a targeted list of potential new supporters. This targeted, person-to-person sharing is the future of advertising in a fundamentally digital and social world. The Messina Group will ensure that your organization is ahead of the competition.” 

One tactic integrated in this method is aimed at generating a bandwaggon effect, which I have discussed at length elsewhere. The bandwagon effect occurs in voting: some people vote for those candidates or parties who are likely to succeed (or are proclaimed as such by the media). The bandwagon propaganda technique has been applied to situations involving majority opinion, such as political outcomes, where people alter their opinions to the majority view. 

Such a shift in opinion can occur because individuals draw inferences from the decisions of others, which shapes an informational cascade. A cascade develops when people “abandon their own information in favour of inferences based on earlier people’s actions, regardless of how irrational that may be. Bandwaggon propaganda draws on our natural tendency towards social conformity.

During the 2015 general election, the government were accused of trying to “buy the general election” by quietly raising the legal spending limit by £6.2 million to £32.7m in the face of concerns from the Electoral Commission over “undue influence”. The party has reportedly amassed a war chest of more than £70 million. The change to the law on candidates’ election spending, passed without parliamentary debate.

A new project called Who Targets Me, has been attempting to address the lack of transparency of targeted election messaging, by recruiting social media users to share information on what political adverts they are seeing.

It says on their site: “Analysing the aggregated data will allow us to draw out insights about exactly which demographics are being targeted and the exact media and language that campaigners are using to influence your vote.”

In an effort to do something about the lack of transparency, Who Targets Me built a browser extension for Facebook users to download that will then report live to that individual when a political advert is being targeted at them. It also tracks that information in its database. You can sign up to be a Who Targets Me volunteer here.

Given the instability of the government, following the general election delivering a hung parliament, it’s likely that political advertising will continue. You will need to use the Chrome browser and install the Who Targets Me extension.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has already launched a wide-ranging investigation over possible breaches of UK data laws. The Conservatives have so far refused to supply examples of adverts the party is sending to individual voters on Facebook, despite the growing concern over unregulated online election activity.

One problem is money. There are no spending limits on digital advertising and, put simply, the more you spend the more people you reach. Until now, that means it is primarily the wealthier, Conservative campaigns that have benefited.

Another is that psychological influences are different from transparent attempts at rational, reasoned and material persuasion, because they operate outside of conscious awareness. Hiding in plain sight, they trigger involuntary emotive responses in the human subconscious that most people are powerless to resist – and that happens even when they know they’re being influenced. Much of the material being used to “persuade” is dishonest, and aimed at simply smearing the opposition and generating irrational and unfounded fears, rather than open discussion, about political and socioeconomic alternatives to neoliberalism and social conservatism. 

Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of the public’s beliefs an behaviours and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions to maintain a profoundly unbalanced, increasingly pathological and authoritarian status quo. Such tactics deployed in manufacturing consensus are widely used, and combined, they also serve to reduce public expectation of opposition and in doing so establish diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

There is a much needed public debate to be had about the distinction between political “persuasion” and “manipulation”.

And another about undue political influence. In their summary of electoral offences, the electoral commission says: “A person may also be guilty of undue influence if they impede or prevent any voter from freely exercising their right to vote – even where the attempt is unsuccessful.

Also: “It is an illegal practice to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of a candidate in order to affect the return of a candidate at an election.”

“Certain offences relate specifically to election campaign publicity material. Election campaign publicity material must contain an imprint, not resemble a poll card and not contain a false statement as to the personal character or conduct of another candidate.”

The Conservatives have certainly taken advantage of our basic tendency to be more motivated by the threat of something presented and subsequently perceived as “bad” than by the presented opportunity for examining positive alternatives.

This is not just a story about the political and commercial misuse of social psychology and data analytics. It has to be understood in the context of a military contractor using military strategies on a civilian population. The public.

David Miller, a professor of sociology at Bath University and an authority in psyops and propaganda, says it is “an extraordinary scandal that this should be anywhere near a democracy. It should be clear to voters where information is coming from, and if it’s not transparent or open where it’s coming from, it raises the question of whether we are actually living in a democracy or not.”

Related:

Social media is being used to stage manage our democracy using nudge-based strategies

EXPOSED: CONSERVATIVES IN HOUSE ‘SURVEY’ TEAM

The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked

Negative campaigning, emotions and political participation

Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism

What I don’t understand about Conservatism

‘Tory Election Fraud’ Investigation Sees Conservatives Fined £70,000 By Electoral Commission

Political polls, think tanks and propaganda: the antidemocratic writing on the wall

Strategies and motives for resistance to persuasion: an integrative framework

How To Use 10 Psychological Theories To Persuade People

CONTROVERSIAL GCHQ UNIT ENGAGED IN DOMESTIC LAW ENFORCEMENT, ONLINE PROPAGANDA, PSYCHOLOGY RESEARCH

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations – Glenn Greenwauld

Theresa May pledges to create new internet that would be controlled and regulated by government 


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Political polls, think tanks and propaganda: the antidemocratic writing on the wall

Image result for propaganda UK Tories bitter future

The Mail on Sunday columnist, christian and Burkean Conservative, Peter Hitchens, has said:

“Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.”

I don’t agree with Hitchens on very much, but he is right about this.

In his book The Broken Compass, Hitchens informs us that opinion polls are actually a device for influencing public opinion. He says that the establishment and the media are responsible for this manipulation, based on the misuse of statistics. The overall purpose is to “bring about the thing it claims is already happening”. 

The author cites contemporary examples of the media attacking Gordon Brown and the “predicted” win of the Conservative Party at the 2010 general election, although Hitchens also described Brown, as a “dismal Marxoid.”  Hitchens’ comments are based on his time as a reporter at Westminster. He says that political journalists are uninterested in serious political debate, and describes how a media reporting bias is attempting to facilitate a Tory general election win.

Remarkably, as a social Conservative, Hitchens states one of his motivations for writing the book was to frustrate this exercise.

Of course government influence isn’t the only problem. Neoliberal bias and “market forces” that result in a biased presentation include the ownership of the news source, concentration of media ownership, the selection of staff, the preferences of an intended audience, and pressure from advertisers. In short, we cannot escape the cultural saturation of pro-establishment views, and the establishment is of course both neoliberal and Conservative. 

Predicting elections may seem interesting, fun, and perhaps even educational from an academic perspective, but it doesn’t add much to our democratic practices. Polls give an apparency of “data-driven journalism” but it produces a reductive “horse-race” narrative, in which political and policy context is mostly ignored with the numbers, accurate or not, pretty much being framed as all that matters. This trivialises our democracy and obscures the importance of critical thinking and informed choices regarding policies in influencing the public’s voting decisions. 

Priming and framing

Priming is a subconscious form of memory, based on identification of related ideas and objects. This effect happens when external stimuli “manipulate” internal thoughts, feelings or behaviours. After becoming activated by stimuli, priming triggers these associations in our memory. For example, one study showed that a store playing traditional French or German music can prime shoppers to buy French or German products. Political slogans are also frequently used as a priming tool. They provide reference points – they are gateways to underlying ideological narratives.

So, priming may be used as a strategy that entails the intentional use of certain words, phrases or images that can subtly influence our thinking – via an interpretive frame – at least to an extent. Some psychologists have argued that priming can have effects on changing our decision-making and behaviour, that seeing an image of money can affect our political views, for instance, or that reminding individuals of stereotypes applied to their social group can harm their performance in a test and in other ways. Stigma is a political tool, usually reserved for despotic regimes, but in Western democracies, othering traditionally marginalised groups has become such common practice that it’s almost hidden in plain view.

Attempts to test such effects suggest that at least some of them are not reliable. But priming, in a more general sense, still matters, such as when people use contextual cues during a conversation to interpret the meaning of ambiguous language.

Political media priming is “the process in which the media attend to some issues and not others and thereby alter the standards by which people evaluate election candidates”. A number of studies have demonstrated that there is a dimension of powerful media effects that goes beyond basic agenda setting.

In 1982, Iyengar, Peters, and Kinder first identified this added dimension as the “priming effect.” The theory is founded on the basic assumption that people do not have elaborate knowledge about political matters and do not take into account all of what they do know when making political decisions — they must consider what more readily comes to mind. Through drawing attention to some aspects of politics at the expense of others, the media might help to set the terms by which political judgements are reached, including evaluations of political figures. A process of carefully calculated uses of public opinion on policy issues may (and are) very easily  used as strategies to intentionally influence voters’ standards for assessing political candidates’ attributes. 

In sociology, framing is a schema of interpretation: a sort of shorthand collection of anecdotes and stereotypes that individuals depend on to understand and respond to and navigate events. In other words, people build a series of mental “filters” through biological, social, political and cultural influences. Citizens then use these filters or signposts to make sense of the world. The choices they then make are influenced by the  creation of a frames. The effects of framing can be seen in the media.

With the same information being used as a base, the “frame” surrounding the issue can change the reader’s perceptions without having to alter the underlying facts. In the context of politics or mass-media communication, a frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. 

For political purposes, framing often presents facts in such a way that implicates a social problem that is in need of a certain solution. Members of political parties attempt to frame issues in a way that makes a solution favouring their own political leaning appear as the most appropriate course of action for the situation at hand.

Research on frames in sociologically driven media research generally examines the influence of “social norms and values, organisational pressures and constraints, pressures of interest groups, journalistic routines, and ideological or political orientations and bias of journalists” on the existence of frames in media content

Roger Pielke Jr, professor of Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, says: Rather than trying to see the future, political science might serve us better by helping citizens to create that future by clarifying the choices we face and their possible consequences for policy.”

“In treating politics like a sporting event, we diminish the partisanship, the choices, and the fundamental values that lie at the core of politics. I fear that data journalists have diminished our politics.” 

When political opinion polls and the media appear to support one political party over another, there can be little doubt that this will have an influence on the psychology of voters, because it’s akin to declaring election winners before the election is actually held. It works rather like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the UK, the media is biased and leans heavily towards the right. Despite the fact that the Labour party currently has the highest party membership in Western Europe, yet the party leader is viciously attacked, and very often in a particularly nasty, personal and highly misleading way. The systematic way in which the media are actively attempting to delegitimise Corbyn is unworthy of a so-called democracy.

party membership

Some countries, such as France, Brazil and South Korea, impose a halt on election polling because of the bandwagon effect, which may skew the democratic process. The bandwagon effect describes a process of voters favouring a party that is doing well in the polls, while the underdog effect predicts that support will go to a party trailing in the polls.

There is also the possibility of a projection effect, with voters’ expectations conforming to their partisanship. There is rather less empirical evidence for the existence of underdog effect than there is for the existence of the bandwagon effect, which is based on individuals rallying to the perceived majority opinion, because of a fairly widespread psychological need for feeling we are part of a social ingroup, and a general tendency towards normative compliance and social conformity. And at a time when the strategically engineered and toxic social divisions of political outgrouping is widespread and affecting citizens’ fundamental sense of identity and self worth, this type of insidious call for a normative compliance and artificial consensus creates a false sense of security for some.

We know that political opinion polls are certainly not always an accurate reflection of public opinion. Samples of the population selected to participate may be biased. For example, asking Daily Mail readers who they will vote for will almost certainly produce a majority right wing set of responses. However, if you ask the same question on Twitter, you are much more likely to get a Labour majority.  

The polls do have an effect on voter intentions and on those trying to influence the outcome of elections.

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Poll by ITV’s This Morning asked viewers which party leader they would prefer to see as Prime Minister.

More generally, in sociology and other social sciences, bias is defined as any tendency which prevents unprejudiced consideration of a research question. Bias can occur at any phase of research, including study design, or sampling and data collection, as well as in the process of data analysis and publication.  

It is widely recognised that quantitative social research methods, such as surveys, may be susceptible to reduced reliability and research bias, sometimes entailing a process where the researchers performing the survey influence the results by selecting a specific kind of sample of the population, for example.

Human nature is complex and can not be reduced easily to just a simple either/or response. Bias may arise when researchers inadvertently or deliberately select subjects that are more likely to generate the desired results. Either way, this is a reversal of the normal processes governing science.

Additionally, there is also a risk of response bias – a general term for a wide range of cognitive biases that influence the responses of participants away from accuracy or truthfulness. These biases are most prevalent in the types of studies and research that involve participant self-report, in quantitative research such as surveys. Response biases can have a large impact on the validity of questionnaires, surveys and polls.

With all of this in mind, we need to think about how the conventional political polls are run, who runs them, who funds them and for what and whose purpose.

In the UK, some of the major polls are run by:

  • Survation, pollster to The Mail on Sunday, Daily Mirror, Daily Record and Sky News. They say: “Survation also have an active strategy and campaign advisory business helping clients better understand customers & members, appreciate & help shape public opinion. We help our clients improve customer engagement and effectiveness of campaigns – be they charitable, political or commercial.” 
  • ComRes, retained pollster for the BBC and The Independent. It says on their site: ComRes provides specialist research and insight to support reputation management, public policy and communications. For more than a decade we have used the latest developments in market and opinion research to inform strategies, change behaviours and define debates.”
  • Ipsos MORI (formerly MORI). Ipsos MORI’s Social Research Institute works extensively for the Government of the United Kingdom, looking at public attitudes to key public services, and so informing social policy. Issues such as identity, social cohesion, loyalty, physical capital and the impact of place on attitudes are all key themes of the Institute’s work. The company also specialises in mass media, brand loyalty, marketing and advertising research.
  • YouGov. – Stephan Shakespeare, the firm’s founder and CEO from 2010, once stood as a Conservative candidate for Colchester; he was also a Conservative Party pollster. The other founder, and CEO until 2010, is Nadhim Zahawi a British Conservative Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Stratford-on-Avon since 2010.
  • ICM. They say Understanding choice means you know how your audience feels, thinks and behaves. And how you can change that. We help influence choice in three areas. How do you energise your brand and communications? How do you improve your customers’ experience of you? How do you understand and influence citizens?  
  • Populus, official The Times pollster. They say: “Our Reputation & Strategy team works with the boards of global companies and public institutions to help them understand, influence, and improve their reputations. We are specialists in reputation. We understand why it matters, how to measure it, what drives it, who influences it, how to align it with existing activity, and what you should do to improve it.”
  • TNS-BMRBTNS changed their name to Kantar Public UK: a leading agency providing research and consultancy to UK policymakers. The company is structured around specific areas of marketing expertise: Brand & Communication; Innovation & Product Development; Retail & Shopper; Customer Experience; Employee Engagement; Qualitative; Automotive; and Political & Social.

All of these companies operate within a taken-for-granted neoliberal context, supporting various actors within the “global market place” paradigm, including governments, and therefore have a distinct ideological leaning and very clearly defined economic interests in maintaining the status quo. 

Nudging voting decisions

It’s likely that Lynton Crosby’s international notoriety made him the subject of considerable press attention during the Conservative’s election campaign. However, there was another man also behind the Conservative campaign who was probably even more cunning. American strategist Jim Messina was hired as a strategy adviser in August 2013. Senior Conservative staff had been impressed by Barack Obama’s easy victories in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, crediting a relentless focus on data collection to Messina.

Access to this level of personal data was crucial to the success of the Conservative campaign: it determined which voters the party needed to target, contact and which type of message they would present. This process began with direct mail – personally addressed to voters in each target seat, who were divided into 40 different categories, with a slightly different tailored message for each one.

A telephone research company called Return Marketing (now known as Return Research) canvassed thousands of voters in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The calls they made rather tellingly targeted voters in specific, marginal constituencies.

Last year, the The Canary found evidence that the Conservatives may have broken a law that prohibits paying canvassers to support a specific candidate’s election. Whistleblowers speaking to an independent journalist have alleged that they were told to push poll voters (sway voters towards voting for the Conservatives by using loaded questions.)

Channel Four’s secret filming of the company Return Market’s “push polling”- polling designed to influence voters while masquerading as political research – during the EU referendum.

Pollsters, by and large, reject the charge that they herd public opinion, but social psychologists and behavioural economists inform us that there is more than a little truth in the bandwaggon effect theory.

Pollsters say they are careful to avoid influencing the outcome of a poll through priming and order effects in the survey design, but there are many other stumbling blocks to bear in mind. Social psychologists and the new behavioural economists say that in general people want to follow the crowd and do not like to challenge the normative order (which as a concept is in itself a very functionalist and conservative framing of society).

This is reflected in the nudge theorists’ use of social norming strategies, currently being adopted in public policies, which politically target some social groups to change their perceptions and behaviours. Social norming is based on an assumption of pluralistic ignorance bychoice architects. Ultimately, the “choice architects” are the government, who, after all, are responsible for public policies which utilise experimental behavioural theory.

It’s of major concern that attempts by a government to surreptitiously change the perceptions, behaviours, emotions and decision-making of a population using experimental behavioural economic theory and discriminatory policies is not currently subject to public scrutiny and ethical standards. There is nothing standing in the way of “choice architects” using social norming to generate, manipulate or exploit pluralistic ignorance in order to simply maintain and justify the status quo. In fact they DO.

So if we see an opinion poll telling us what the majority thinks, believe or is doing, because many have an inbuilt psychological bias towards following the crowd, we need to question potential motives underpinning that “information”.

The government know about the bandwaggon bias and are designing communications strategies and policies which play to this heuristic. Buying Facebook ‘likes’ is one example of this attempt to create a false impression of  public consensus and political popularity.

Think tanks, the media and the Conservative influence on public thinking

In the late 1960s and 1970s, movement Conservatives persuaded wealthy individuals and businesses to establish a conservative intellectual and political infrastructure. This includes think tanks that resemble academic institutions but publish studies supporting Conservative and libertarian arguments. The American Enterprise Institute was founded in 1943, but was expanded dramatically with new funding in 1971. The Heritage Foundation was created in 1973 and the Cato Institute was founded in 1974.

In Britain, Tim Montgomerie, has described the Conservative movement as “the infrastructure outside of the party that supports small ‘c’ conservative values.”

A March 2009 presentation by Montgomerie and Matthew Elliott listed a number of organisations as part of the British Conservative movement: 

Institute of Economic Affairs | Centre for Policy Studies | Reform | Adam Smith Institute | Policy Exchange | Centre for Social Justice | Civitas | International Policy Network | Taxpayers’ Alliance | ConservativeHome | New Culture Forum | Standpoint | Migration Watch UK | Countryside Alliance | Centre for Social Cohesion

Elliott compared this with the smaller size of the movement in 1997. According to Montgomerie, the comparison was intended to be indicative rather than comprehensive. An up to date, comprehensive powerbase list might include: 

2020 Health | Atlantic Bridge | Adam Smith Institute | Better Off Out | Big Brother Watch | Bow Group | Bruges Group | Campaign for an English Parliament | Campaign for the Protection for Rural England | Centre for Policy Studies | Centre for Social Cohesion | Centre for Social Justice | Christian Conservative Fellowship | Civitas | Conservative Education Society | ConservativeHome | Conservative Intelligence | Conservative Party | Conservative Philosophy Group | Countryside Alliance | Democracy Institute | Direct Democracy | Drivers Alliance | Doctors for Reform | Economic Policy Centre | Enterprise Forum | European Foundation | European Policy Forum | Family Education Trust | First Defence | Forest | Freedom Alliance | Freedom Association | Freedom Zone | The Free Society | Global Vision | Global Warming Policy Foundation | Henry Jackson Society | Institute of Ideas | Institute of Directors | Institute of Economic Affairs | International Policy Network | Legatum Institute | Liberty League | Localis | Message Space | Migration Watch | New Culture Forum | Nothing British about the BNP | Nurses for Reform | Open Europe | Policy Exchange | Politeia | Progressive Vision | Reform | Reform Scotland | ResPublica | Safe Speed | Save Our Pubs and Clubs | Selsdon Group | Social Affairs Unit | Social Market Foundation | Spiked | Standpoint | Student Rights | Sunlight COPS | Taxpayers Alliance | TEA Party UK | UK National Defence AssociationYoung Britons Foundationamong others. 

The problem is that think tanks synthesise, create and communicate “information” and give “advice” to the public and policy-makers, very often through the media. Think tanks tend to be far more media savvy than academics, often with staff who have backgrounds in the communication industry – media, PR or lobbying organisations.

This means that policy proposals, media narratives and public debate are much more likely to reflect Conservative ideology and favour pro-establishment outcomes, rather than being non-partisan, evidence-based and crucially, a representation of public needs. This of course turns democracy completely on its head. 

As Professor Judy Sebba points out in Getting research into policy: the role of think tanks and other mediators: “Far from educating the public about evidence, think tanks are characterised by closedness and exclusivity. They do not subject their work to review by others and so the quality of their outputs are not assessed. Most worryingly, the media present the work of think tanks as credible sources of research and facts without any checks being in place.”  

As key players in “democratic” politics and in shaping public opinion, think tanks have a responsibility to be transparent about their operations, but seldom are. A good question to ask is who funds them and what is their agenda?

The bandwaggon propaganda technique is also used as a key campaign strategy

More recently, I explored the role of intentionally deceitful political language and rhetoric in another article  which highlights the role that the media play in shaping our public life. Media manipulation involves a series of related techniques in which partisans create images or arguments that favour their own particular interests. Such tactics may include the use of logical fallacies, psychological manipulations, deception, linguistic, rhetorical and propaganda techniques, and often involve the suppression of information or alternative perspectives by simply crowding them out. 

Discrediting and minimisation are often used in persuading other people or social groups to stop listening to certain perspectives and arguments, or by simply diverting public attention elsewhere. An example of diversion is the recent widespread scapegoating of refugees and people who need social security, such as disabled people or those who have lost their jobs, in a bid to maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism and its values at a time when its failings were brought into sharp focus during and following the global crisis – also exposing failings in the behaviours and practices of the government and the vulture capitalist financier class.

Neoliberalism always gravitates towards increasing inequality, extending and deepening poverty. Fear mongering is sometimes used with a diversion or misdirection propaganda technique to mask this, and may be pervasive. Sometimes politicians and media commentators suddenly take a debate in a weird and irrational but predictable direction to avoid democratic accountability.

During the coalition and Conservative governments, the tabloids have chosen and framed most of the debates that have dominated domestic politics in the UK, ensuring that immigration, welfare, law and order, the role of the state, and Britain’s relationship with Europe have all been discussed in increasingly right wing terms, while almost ironically, the government have colonised progressive rhetoric to cover their intentions. It also serves to further discredit the narrative of the left.

The reason in part for this rhetoric, importing words such as “fair”, “social justice” and “equal opportunity” and repeating them ad nauseam is that the Conservatives know that such ideas build the trust of ordinary citizens. 

However, there is therefore a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intentions and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality. 

The Conservatives commonly use a nudge technique called “social norming” – a Behavioural Insights Team variant of the bandwaggon propaganda technique – particularly for General Election campaigning. It’s about manipulating a false sense of consensus, and normalising Conservative ideology. It’s also about prompting behavioural change, and as such, this method is a blatant attempt to influence the voting behaviours of the public, by suggesting that many others have already “joined” the Conservative “cause” and are happier or better off for doing so. The technique uses societal pressures to play on several basic emotional elements of human nature.

Oh, and then there is the basic technique of telling lies, of course.

Image result for george osborne big labour boy did it kittysjones

And using euphemism:


Image result for Tory lies

Social norming is an appeal to emotional needs to fit in and belong, and also, to be on the side that wins. As stated earlier, it has a kind of self fulfilling prophecy element to it, too. It’s used in advertising – words like “everyone”, “we”, “our” and “most people” or “many” are used a lot to sell brands and imply a popularity of certain products that usually isn’t real.

Political slogans like the almost farcical “country that works for everyone” and the previous “all in it together” are examples of poor attempts at social norming. It’s aimed at shifting our normative framework to accommodate the status quo, too, regardless of how the accounts don’t tally with reality. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Image result for we are all in this together Tory slogan

It’s worth noting that “We are all in it together” was a slogan made famous in Terry Guiliams’s dystopic black comedy Brazil. Cameron certainly had a moment of recycling propaganda with grim irony there.

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Propaganda techniques commonly used by the Conservatives

As mentioned previously, bandwagon and “inevitable-victory” appeals attempt to persuade the target audience to join in and take the course of action that “everyone else is taking.” Inevitable victory invites those not already on the bandwagon to join those already convinced they are on the road to certain victory. Those already or at least partially on the bandwagon are reassured that staying aboard is their best course of action.  

Join the crowd is a technique that reinforces people’s natural desire to be on the winning side. This technique is used to convince the audience that a programme is an expression of an irresistible mass movement and that it is in their best interest to join. As an example, see Grant Shapps under fire over website ‘sham’ which used models featured on Australian university site to make Tory activists look ‘youthful and in touch’ with Britain. Also see Behaviourism.

Common man – The ordinary folks or Common Man technique is an attempt to convince the audience that the propagandist’s positions reflect the common sense of the people. It is designed to win the confidence of the audience by communicating in the common manner and style of the target audience. Propagandists use ordinary language and mannerisms (and clothe their message in face-to-face and audiovisual communications) in attempting to identify their point of view with that of the average person, and to naturalise it.

Image result for Pictures of MPs pretending being ordinary

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Ad hominem is a Latin phrase which has come to mean personally attacking your opponent, as opposed to challenging their propositions and arguments. A recent example is Boris Johnson’s strange attack on Jeremy Corbyn, calling him a “benign herbivore” but at the same time, also a “mutton-headed old mugwump.

The word comes from Massachusett, an Algonquian language spoken by the Massachusett people, from whom the US state takes its name. The word mugquomp, meaning “war leader” or “great chief”, appeared frequently in John Eliot’s 1663 translation of the Bible into the Massachusett language, where it was used as a gloss for an officer, captain, and duke.

Sadly, Johnson, languishing in his own in solipsism, has clearly invented his own personal meaning, though he really should pay heed to Wittgenstein, who warned of the dangers of private language (the idea of a language understandable by only a single individual is incoherent.) Then he wouldn’t sound like such a mutton-headed numpty. Johnson, like many Conservatives, has problems reconciling his “inner” (subjective) experience with the “outside” (objective) world.

By the early 1800s the form “mugwump” had been adopted into English as a humorous term for an important person, leader, or boss. J K Rowling was probably thinking of the earlier meaning when she used the word for the head of the International Confederation of Wizards in Harry Potter, the Supreme Mugwump.

Ad nauseam – This approach uses tireless repetition of an idea. An idea, especially a simple slogan, that is repeated enough times, may begin to be taken as the truth. This approach works best when media sources are limited and controlled by the propagator. Joseph Goebbels, not known to be driven by the passionate inspiration of the moment, but by the result of sober psychological calculation, was particularly talented in utilising this approach. Iain Duncan Smith has previously shown a similar penchant for repeated mendacity. Then there is Theresa May’s ad nauseum slogans: ” A strong and stable leadership in the national interest,” and “A country that works for everyone.”

Image result for Theresa May's slogan United
   Image courtesy of News Thump

Which brings us to the Glittering Generalities technique. This another category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.

This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.

Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.”  An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse, whilst sounding vaguely rightous, because someone nicked England, or hid it on another planet.

Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.

Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)

Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.

As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.

Here is a bit of refreshing straight talk for a change:

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I’m not above a bit of sloganeering myself. In 2015, I came up with “Tory cuts cost lives”, which my friend, Robert Livingstone, turned into a couple of memes.

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This one recent one went very viral very quickly, glad to see it so widely used:

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Finally, I thought I would share that the widely used word “selfservative” came from a disillusioned Tory I knew called Derek. I used it a lot on social media, and my friend, Robert Livingstone, popularised it in his memes. Derek defected to Labour and vanished from the Conservative Facebook groups where Robert and I used to have surprisingly civilised debate with him. 

I will be writing more about electioneering, exposing propaganda and other techniques of persuasion, over the next couple of weeks.

Related

Propaganda Techniques (Summary)

The Conservative’s negative campaign strategy: “share the lies and win a prize”

Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms

The erosion of democracy and the repression of mainstream media in the UK

Department for Work and Pensions officials admit to using fake claimant’s comments to justify benefit sanctions – a very basic propaganda technique called “telling lies”

Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state:

“In a white paper authored by Facebook’s security team and published on Thursday, the company detailed well-funded and subtle techniques used by nations and other organizations to spread misleading information and falsehoods for geopolitical goals. These efforts go well beyond “fake news”, the company said, and include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts that are used to amplify one particular view, sow distrust in political institutions and spread confusion.

“We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” said the company.

“In general, Facebook said it faced a new challenge in tackling “subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people.

“Facebook described much of the activity as “false amplification” – which included the mass creation of fake accounts; the coordinated sharing of content and engagement with that content (such as likes); and the distribution of “inflammatory and sometimes racist memes”.  – BBC

In its effort to clamp down on information operations, Facebook suspended 30,000 accounts in France before the presidential election. The company said it was a priority to remove suspect accounts with high volumes of posting activity and the biggest audiences.

The company also explained how it monitored “several situations” that fit the pattern of information operations during the US presidential election. The company detected “malicious actors” using social media to share information stolen from other sources such as email accounts “with the intent of harming the reputation of specific political targets”. This technique involved creating dedicated websites to host the stolen data and then creating social media accounts and pages to direct people to it.

At the same time, a separate set of malicious actors created fake Facebook accounts to falsely amplify narratives and themes related to topics exposed in the stolen data.

Facebook did not specify which stolen data it was referring to, but we know that tens of thousands of emails were hacked from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account and released by Wikileaks.

Nor did Facebook attribute the manipulation to any nation state, although it said that the company’s investigation “does not contradict” the findings of a January report by the US Director of National Intelligence that outlined Russian involvement in the election.

Russia has also been implicated in the hacking of French presidential frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, according to a report by researchers with Japanese anti-virus firm Trend Micro, published this week.

Facebook pledged to monitor attempts to manipulate the platform, to develop new ways of identifying fake accounts, educate at-risk people about how to keep their information safe, and support civil society programs around media literacy.

“We recognize that, in today’s information environment, social media plays a sizable role in facilitating communications – not only in times of civic events, such as elections, but in everyday expression,” said the report. “In some circumstances, however, we recognize that the risk of malicious actors seeking to use Facebook to mislead people or otherwise promote inauthentic communications can be higher.” – The Guardian

“The JTRIG unit of GCHQ is so notable because of its extensive use of propaganda methods and other online tactics of deceit and manipulation. The 2011 report on the organization’s operations, published today, summarizes just some of those tactics:

Throughout this report, JTRIG’s heavy reliance on its use of behavioral science research (such as psychology) is emphasized as critical to its operations. That includes detailed discussions of how to foster “obedience” and “conformity”:


An “I told you so” moment from Glenn Greewald


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