Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Manipulation of Public Opinion: An Unpleasant Truth

The Trump phenomenon and the recent hand wringing about how social media can manipulate public opinion has brought something about the human condition into stark relief.

While the rest of the species on the planet and Mother Nature herself would probably disagree, one obvious advantage possessed by homo sapiens is our higher cognitive ability. Humans have busy brains. What nature did not provide us with, to this point at least, is a larger processing unit for attention and short term memory. Sadly, this part of our brain seems to be rather under developed and it means that we cannot fully attend to a lot of stimuli at any one one time-attention and short term memory are interdependent.

This lack of ability to attend to a lot of things at one time in our environment was not much of a problem when we were wandering around in small nomadic tribes and life was much simpler. Well, at least when it came to information processing: survival might have been something much more complicated.  In the 21st century this lack of processing power has increasingly become something of a problem.

We adjust to this inability to attend to lots of stimuli at any one time by using what are called cognitive biases. These involve such unconscious activity such as making assumptions from a small amount of information, stereotyping (from which vilification of other groups comes), trusting what we think are reliable sources, accepting things that happen to fit with our current belief systems, and ignoring evidence in favour of convenient beliefs, for example (there are about 20 or so of them).

These biases are short cuts that mean that we can allocate our processing power to other things. They have always been there and are not recent phenomena. We have always been prone to believing what we hear from others, particularly if the source is someone we like or admire, and if what we are hearing fits in with our current beliefs about the world. We take it for granted that what we are being given is the truth. Advertisers have known for a long time about how easy humans are manipulated by simple images and slogans. Misinformation has also been with us for eons too. Our gullibility is the result of what can best be described as a neurological shortcoming.

High speed communication, the Internet and Social media has just made the whole process a lot easier, more pervasive and faster. It is amazing at how quickly misinformation can circulate via Facebook or Twitter. Not so amazing, given what we know about the human brain, is how quickly people believe what they read, no matter the source. Images make the message even more believable. And how quickly we are manipulated.

Just as happened prior to electronic communication and social media, people are not prone to take the time to check the facts. This is particularly true if what they are reading fits with their current believes and biases. It is much easier to believe it and gleefully pass it on. To check the facts just takes too much effort. Much easier to adopt a lie than to find out the truth.

But we were probably doing this when we first crawled out of the swamp. It’s just that now we are doing it on a grand scale. The master manipulators are just laughing at us. Sad, when it just takes a little bit of effort to check before becoming a co-conspirator.

Not sure about you but it bothers the hell out of me and I have become a lot more prone to check out things before I repost. Even better, take action and inform your network of the error.