Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Mechanics of Manipulation #4

In a Poll Smoking segment on The Daily Show with John Stewart, analyst Dave Gorman facetiously showed how everything that George Bush has done -- and is doing -- is to negatively outdo his father. Gorman's misuse of statistics to make his points is wonderful. It's a must see bit so be sure to click through and watch the segment.

On a less comedic level, and ever since the beginning of television, polling and pollsters and media consultants have had a negative impact on democracy and elections. For a variety of reasons, TV is the media from which people get most of their information. In political campaigns, it is both the most expensive and most effective method of getting a message to the public. But, it's generally a manipulative message rather than a persuasive one. Worse yet, it is coordinated with more silently delivered messages (door-to-door and by e- and snail mail) that emphasize the innuendo and negative side of the TV message(s).

"Manipulation aims at control; not cooperation. It results in a win/lose situation. It does not consider the good of the other party. Persuasion is just the opposite. The persuader seeks to enhance the self-esteem of the other party. The result is that people respond better because they are treated as responsible, self-directing individuals."*

Almost every pollster and media consultant cites Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" and say that political campaigns are wars to the death. They're not. Really. But the consultants want to win (it's good for business) and in order to win, they have to "beat" their opponent. It's definitely a cut-throat win/lose competition for them. For the candidate it's a competition of egos and passions. The really sincere candidate is often at a disadvantage to the ego-driven candidate who is willing to stretch the truth and ethics and change his campaign's tactics from persuasion to manipulation in their messages to the voters.

In my opinion, it's immoral to manipulate by polling with leading questions, to present and then sift through focus groups' reactions to unethical issues, and to use these ill-got results in the campaign process. Nor is it necessary to smear and slander an opponent to win an election. Campaigns are NOT wars to the death. They are selection and decision-making processes identifying favorable ideologies and character so that a voter can be informed when he votes his choice for representative.

PS: Campaign technologies can be used for the good as well as otherwise. Consider what Senator Edwards is doing with his video blogs. You video (or audio) a question that has meaning to you and e-mail it to him. He'll reply via a video blog on his website which you can then send on to all your friends and ask them to send it onward to their friends. This is technology-assisted persuasion of the best kind because it's personalized and meaningful to you; it's definitely not manipulation.

* Psychologist Paul Swets, from his book "The Art of Talking So That People Will Listen"