26 February 2013

Influence and Manipulation #nlpoli

Public opinion changes.

Individuals don’t hold exactly the same attitudes about things throughout their entire lives.

That’s true of how the typical man or woman feels about clothing styles, cars, movies, books, politics, or just about anything else.

Not surprisingly in a society like ours, there are people who want to try and change opinions and attitudes.  They want to persuade people to buy a product, support a political decision or stop doing something like smoking.

Also not surprisingly, we have some basic ideas about how people should do that.

Probably the major basic assumption about decisions in a democracy is that individuals have an inherent right to make most decisions about themselves for themselves, for good or ill.  People have a right to make the decision based on all the relevant information and that no one will keep that information from them without good reason.

There’s Persuasion…

You will see a connection between “decision” and “information”.  Lawyers will refer to informed consent or an informed agreement.  Basically what that means is that someone made a decision about medical treatment or starting a business with a partner with information that helped them understand both the risks and the benefits that might flow from that decision. 

People often talk about influencing a decision or persuading someone about something. Basically, we allow that people will appeal to emotion, that they will try logic and all sorts of methods to convince someone to decide one way or another.

But we expect that the individual making the decision will be – ultimately  - free to make a choice for himself or herself.

And Then There’s Manipulation.

This past week or so, people have talked about the Conservatives’ effort to distort online surveys you can find on news media websites.  The Conservatives justify their action as nothing more than an expression of their point of view in the political process. 

Leave aside caucus chair Paul Lane’s tortured evasions of the simple truth in his weekend interview with CBC’s David Cochrane, just note the extent to which Lane tries to pass this off as normal, innocent behaviour.  Lane talks about putting his view or those of his colleagues “out there”.

But that isn’t what Lane and his colleagues were doing. They  wanted to manufacture a result. It doesn’t matter whether they thought anyone else was doing it deliberately or not.  The key point is that, regardless of the motivation, the goal of the entire poll-goosing operation was to make them say what the Conservatives wanted them to say. That is, they set out to produce a result that supported the Conservative position on whatever the topic was.

That’s manipulation.

That isn’t about providing information so that individuals can make decisions of their own;  it’s about making the decision for people.

The premise behind goosing online polls is based on an older idea that people can be easily influenced by opinions they read online regardless of the source. While consumers seem to be considerably more savvy than some marketers assumed six or eight years ago, there are some pretty well-known examples of online manipulation involving fakery.  People used to think these efforts worked.  Some politicians evidently still do.

What the Conservatives have been doing though is much more significant than what David Cochrane has called an “industrial” scale effort to fix the VOCM Question of the Day.  They are following a three-prong strategy.  One element has been the aggressive pushing of positive news four times a year during CRA polling months.  Two elements of it – suppression of dissent and freedom from information – were aimed at limiting any point of view contrary to the government position and restricting access to government information that would undermine the official message track.

Aside from the quarterly supply of poll-goosing happy news, the Conservatives have spent considerable energy cutting off the release of information to the public.  Opinion polls and speeches were two of the more memorable examples of how the Conservatives struggled to hide things that were – by definition – already public or intended to be public.  Censorship of orders in council are the ultimate indication of a government that is dedicated to controlling what the public knows of its own actions.  Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are deprived of what other Canadians can receive as a matter of right.

The effect of the three-pronged strategy is not to provide the public with the Conservatives’ point of view.  It serves to control what people  decide.

It is not about persuasion or influence.

It is about manipulation.