The Race to Weaponize Empathy

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There’s a war for the future being waged online. It’s being fought across the world’s online social networks, and the outcomes of these online battles increasingly dictate the outcome of what happens later in the real world.

One of the most successful tactics used in this war is the manipulation of language in order to confuse, scare, nullify or outrage targeted audiences with the objective of making money, aggregating political power, and disrupting opponents.

While this manipulation has ALWAYs been true of human conflict, it’s being done on a scale and to a degree that we’ve never seen before due social networking, globalization, and social/media fragmentation.

A great example of tactical manipulation is called the the Russell Conjugation (or the “emotive conjugation” championed by the philosopher Bertrand Russell , the pollster Frank Luntz and recently Thiel Capital’s Eric Weinstein).

The Russell conjugation exploits the gap in the emotional content of a word or phrase and the factual content.  Here are a few of Russell’s examples:

“I am firm; you are obstinate; he is a pig-headed fool.”

“I am righteously indignant; you are annoyed; he is making a fuss over nothing.”

Notice how the factual content remains unchanged. In each case, the person referenced is factually described as “a person who is reluctant to accept new information.” However, the words used change the emotional content drastically, from a positive to neutral-negative to negative-opprobrium.

The ability to change the emotional spin on a fact is critical. As all great marketing pros already know, the emotional content of a message is much more important than the factual content when it comes to selling anything. All brands are simply emotion (a commercial brand is monetized emotion).

However, this gets more complicated when an emotional spin is applied to facts presented as news.  As Weinstein correctly points out, people don’t just care about the factual content since they don’t view a fact as a bit of disconnected information.  They see all facts within a social context and that context is identified by the emotional context attached to that fact.

In fact, if historical behavior is a guide, people care more about the social consequences of the facts than the fact itself.

We’ve seen this before.  Context seeking is also the basis of consumerism as Thorstein Veblen pointed out in his classic book on modern economics The Theory of the Leisure Class.   Simply, the entire modern economy is based on people buying products and services in an attempt to mimic the choices and habits of people they consider cooler, wealthier or more successful than they are.

This is also true with news in a fragmented society.  Most people go to news sources they trust to find out more than the facts.  They want to find out how they should feel about a fact (or whether they should reject that fact) from people they consider to be leaders of their social network.

This context seeking used to be limited to the news presented by reporters/editors of the big papers like the New York Times and the TV network news organizations like CBS.  That’s not true anymore.  Control over the emotional content of news has fragmented due to the rise of social media and social networking.  People don’t just look for the “correct” emotional spin on a fact from a big media company, they seek it from alt news orgs and personalities on social networks they identify with.

This suggests that the current debate over “fake news” isn’t due to the use of fabricated information.  Instead, it’s really a negative way of describing news that has an emotional context that is at odds/war with the emotions approved by the major media, academia, or government.

Sincerely,

John Robb

PS:  Here’s a good book from Frank Luntz on how this manipulation works in practice.   Example:  how the Estate Tax was redeemed by calling it the Death Tax and Illegal Immigrants were redeemed by calling them Undocumented Immigrants.

Luntz

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