The Problem of Political Myths
Among many new industries that developed in the 20th century, public relations may be one of the most reviled, and that sentiment comes directly from some of its most powerful innovations — like the “muddy the waters” tactic, or as one academic calls it, the production of ignorance:
The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”
When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.
It’s also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.
And all those fabricated Obamacare horror stories wholesaled by Republican and conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act and their aiders and abetters in the right-wing press? Their purpose is to sow doubt about the entire project of healthcare reform; if the aim were to identify specific shortcomings of the act, they’d have to accompany every story with a proposal about how to fix it.
The real essence of this innovation is that sometimes to win the PR game, you don’t have to win at all — you just have to make sure the other guys loses. And that’s what’s so hard about pushing back against the smears, lies, myths, and innuendo that float around Washington and surround various campaigns. You want to win with the truth, but the liars just have to make sure they don’t lose.
There are many other complicating factors as well, including partisan information processing. A prime recent example is this woman who appeared in an ad complaining about how Obamacare had increased her health costs — except it wasn’t true. When this was pointed out to her, it didn’t make any sense to her. She couldn’t overwrite her brain’s myth file with a truth file:
If that’s what someone who receives personalized, custom information about her precise situation thinks, how are the forces of truth supposed to make any progress with people hearing these ideas in the abstract? Well, let’s see what Mythopedia and the Factivists have to offer.
When the Detroit News told her this, Boonstra was in disbelief, saying it “can’t be true.”
“I personally do not believe that,” she told the paper.
Media Matters recently launched this compendium of lies. It has a simple, almost Spartan, design, but it’s very efficient: it has a search function and a browse function, it adapts well to mobile phones and devices, and it has a LOT of data — over 40 pages worth of “myths” and their responses. The myth responses are exhaustively researched and cited, and they are crafted using careful language that is designed to be unassailable.
But there’s a problem: the way the entries are framed. Every single entry falls into the most common smear-fighting trap: repeating the smear.
There’s a neuropsychological explanation for why it’s so important to avoid this trap. You see, people don’t process information like computers, writing a myth file in their brains and then overwriting the it with more accurate information when available.
In fact, both the myth and the truth can exist simultaneously in the mind; it’s not a zero sum game at all. When you learn something, it literally changes the physical shape of your brain. Two or more neurons that were not connected before become connected. At first, the connection may be weak; it can break apart with disuse (ever forgotten anything?). But with some repetition, the connection strengthens and becomes more resilient. It starts to be remembered.
So if someone hears a myth, then hears the truth later, the myth and the truth are literally competing side-by-side in the brain, with the winner creating more synaptic connections. That means when you repeat a myth verbatim, you may think you’re helping people find the answer they’re looking for, but you’re actually strengthening your opposition by repeating the lie and strengthening the synaptic connections that constitute it. You’re losing before you’ve even started.
Yet, people are obviously perfectly capable of understanding facts, deciding which one is right, and using it as the basis of an opinion moving forward when they set their mind to it.
But that’s the key — they have to set their mind to it. They have to be pretty dedicated to weighing the evidence and affirming an opinion. If they are that dedicated, like a journalist or a campaign researcher might be, hoo boy is Mythopedia going to be a useful tool for them. Grade: B.
In contrast to the database format of Mythopedia, the Democratic National Committee’s Facticists effort is set up like a grassroots task force. As a member of their email list, I got a message inviting me to “Become a Factivist today, and get ready to fight back.” I clicked the link, poked around a bit, and signed up.
First the good: The materials the Factivist operation has published are great. They’re pitched to grassroots activists, and they avoid the repetition trap with excellent framing.
But the difficulty of doing a fact checking operation isn’t coming up with facts. There’s tons of evidence out there that Barack Obama is a Christian and always has been. It’s when you try to create a grassroots “team” that you encounter the more challenging difficulty of programming it. That is to say, coming up with consistently engaging actions for supporters to take that don’t make them feel like they’re just another one of your press shop’s distribution channels. Or worse, make them feel like you only care about their money, not their activism.
And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what the Factivists program feels like.
When I clicked through from the email, I went to a page to enter my information — no facts to act on so far. When I entered my information, I was dropped on a donation form — no facts there. I also got an auto-receipt email thanking me for signing up and asking me again to donate — still no facts. But eventually through a little proactive research, I navigated my way to a main blog page — with facts galore!
There was a video on the main page (see embed above), and it was full of confident predictions about what I’ll do to help the DNC press team and how I’ll protect the Democratic brand. It even called me the DNC’s most proven tool. That was all on March 6th. As of March 16th, nothing new had been added to the Factivism blog, and I had received no additional communications.
As flattering as it is to be given the opportunity to be someone’s tool, to be called upon when needed and otherwise ignored…this just doesn’t seem like a well executed smear-fighting campaign. Grade: C. Mythopedia is the winner!