Tuesday, February 4, 2014

On Gossip and Manipulation in a Socially Networked World

Humans are good at gossip. By gossip I mean, taking things that people say at face value and being influenced by them. I suspect we have been gossiping ever since we emerged from the swamp. That, ‘Thaal cannot be trusted during a mammoth hunt’, has been doing the rounds in its various forms for thousands of years. It transpires of course, that Thaal is a popular, and strong figure in the tribe and is a threat to the chief’s power. It is more than likely that the chief in fact is the one not to be trusted during a mammoth hunt: such is the mechanism and power of gossip. In psychological parlance much of gossip has to do with self-interest and projection.  

Want to influence a board member before an important meeting? Make sure you are on their Christmas card list first and then sidle up to them over the water cooler and suggest a particular view about an issue. If they like you, respect you or you have some sort of power, then whatever information they have on the matter will be pushed aside, manipulated by your opinion. And this can be quite an unconscious thing on both sides, unless you are awake to this sort of phenomenon.

So, we are more likely to believe what someone whom we admire or has some influence over us says, rather than be swayed by the facts. Conversely, we are less likely to be convinced by someone whom we dislike. Such is the importance of the power to influence. Sadly, humans can be influenced by all sorts of people who have no genuine right to have influence, such as media personalities, movie and TV stars, and sports figures, for example. Their opinion can be very attractive to us and don’t let the mere detail of facts get in the way. The various media formats understand this very well, especially glossy magazines, as do advertising agencies as they manipulate the public taste, public fashion, and ultimately what we buy.

Gossip, these days, has taken on new forms. Its essence is the same but now it can be found on every type of social media that’s out there such as Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, Pinterest, Google Plus, Timbir, Flickr, MySpace to name but a few.

Over the silly season break I had several instances of gossip at work in social medie and I have no doubt you have seen this happening too. What I saw were allegations about fairly well known figures and events circulated through social media going viral. People would get really hot under the collar and rant about the person or event, poor out their vitriol and pass it on to the next person to do the same.

However, a little bit of research discovered in each case that the allegation was false. Several of them came from online satirical magazines. Someone clearly didn’t get the satire and sent it out on their network with a nasty comment. Because they probably have some influence over their ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ no-one else bothers to check the facts. And away we go, gossip on a grand and global scale. A far greater reach than Mr Brown, the town gossip: an amateur by comparison.

What is worrying is the amount of information, not just gossip, that is circulated via the internet, that has no basis in evidence but we listen to, simply because it came from someone with influence. How many decisions do we make that ignore the science but go with misinformed opinion? But how serious can this be? In my view this can be very serious for all manner of leaders, no matter what enterprise they happen to be in.  For example, if I hear one more person say that they don’t believe in climate change or I don’t believe smoking causes cancer I shall throw a very big tantrum.

It’s also true that you can look at some information or an argument that appears on the face of it to be very compelling and based in science but that needs to be treated with caution. This issue came up with a colleague only this week who was interested in a piece of ground breaking research-good research as it turns out. But science is a naturally cautious activity. What I said to him was that without a good grasp of statistics it is possible to think that a piece of research one is reading can be taken as gospel, when in fact its findings need to be taken much more cautiously. In fact, one often finds that a blogger, journalist or other writer takes the findings of research and inflates them beyond what the researcher every intended. Not dishonestly, but just not understanding some research basics.

So, some important lessons here about decision and opinion making. First, always go to the science or at least someone who knows the science well and make decisions based on facts. Second, recognise the power of influence and how to use it wisely. Third, recognise when you are being manipulated and how others are influencing you. Fourth, embrace the principles of participative democracy when making important decision-making. No matter how high your IQ is, more informed people make it higher. Lastly, recognise human frailty, that we are not as smart as we think we are.

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