From fake news to social media targeting and manipulation, we are often susceptible to persuasive techniques in politics

By Luke Field, UCD

The art of persuasion has been central to politics since humanity first began to organise itself into communities. When asked to think of examples of political persuasion, many people would probably immediately think of politicians and activists who had mastered oratory and rhetorical skills. Images of a leader delivering a stirring speech to move hearts and minds are burned into our collective consciousness. Rhetoric itself formed a central part of the European classical education for thousands of years for exactly this reason. No less an author than Aristotle described it as the key to the art of persuasion and a function of both politics and the science of logic.

Despite being integral for so long, the role of persuasive techniques in politics is regularly thrown into the spotlight for new analysis, particularly when new media emerge and present challenges to old ways of communicating. It occurred with the advent of the printing press and newspapers and later again with the emergence of radio and television and has now happened again with the arrival of social media. Concerns around fake news, the ability of stories to go viral to reach huge audiences without being subject to fact-checking and the emergence of companies with expertise in social media targeting and manipulation, such as Cambridge Analytica, have come to dominate headlines.

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, Karlin Lillington from The Irish Times talks about the Cambridge Analytica scandal

The latter, in particular, has been cited as the reason for various political earthquakes that have occurred in the past few years, from the UK’s vote to leave the European Union to the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. But beyond the hysteria of a commentariat desperately looking for explanations of phenomena that they don’t understand, the question remains – how susceptible are we to these tactics?

What do we know about persuasion?

It’s important to note that the art of persuasion doesn’t become fundamentally different when used in the political realm. The techniques that I might use to convince you to let me order a takeaway instead of cooking dinner tonight are not really all that different from the techniques used by politicians looking for votes or activists looking for signatures on a petition. In other words, we are not restricted to research from the world of politics when trying to understand how these processes work.

People who identify with a particular political party or movement may approve of a particular policy simply because the group they support has approved of it

There is a considerable body of literature from psychology that examines how persuasion works. My own research, which looks at how emotions are used to persuade voters, relies heavily on a popular psychological approach, namely the "two-path" model of persuasion, which holds that there are two options available to anyone engaged in persuasion.

One is a longer route, which seeks to convince an audience based on the logical merits of an argument and focuses more on the matter at hand ("I’m tired and I won’t be able to cook a nice meal tonight, and I have a 30 percent discount coupon that expires tomorrow for the pizza place down the road, so let’s order pizza tonight"). The other is a shorter route, which relies on finding short cuts to the point where the audience adopts the desired position ("pizza is tasty so let’s order pizza tonight"). The process is similar to the two "modes of thought" described by Daniel Kahneman in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow: we can process things quickly and instinctively, or slowly and more deliberately.

From RTÉ Radio One's The Business, co-author of The Small Big : Small Changes that Spark Big Influence Robert Cialdini on the science of persuasion and the tricks used to influence our behaviour

What does this mean for politics?

To examine where this becomes influential in the political world, we’ll look at two of the models that map out these paths of persuasion. In the 1980s, Richard Petty and colleagues developed the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). According to the ELM, a persuader can reach their desired goal by one of two routes: a "central path" and a "peripheral path".

The central path requires extensive audience engagement over a period of time, in which the persuader is required to convince the audience logically of the merits of their position. In a political context, this might look like the rhetoric used by politicians outside of election time, or the discussions at the Citizens’ Assembly: lots of information, released over time and with responses invited, with the goal of convincing the audience through logic to adopt the desired position on a long-term basis.

By contrast, the peripheral path looks for "cognitive shortcuts" to get the audience to the desired position without actually having to convince them of the merits of the argument (and, also, with less concern about the longevity of these opinions). Politically, this might look more like electoral rhetoric. Under time pressure and with fewer opportunities to engage the audience, the persuader just wants to convince the audience to take a specific action and only needs them to be convinced long enough to take that action.

Online activists were able to swing voter opinions not by planting fake news stories in the traditional media, but by putting them onto social media

One of the most common shortcuts taken by the peripheral route is the use of "emotion as argument" - i.e., bringing the audience to an emotive state that is likely to suit the outcome desired by the persuader. For example, a considerable amount of research into decision-making (see Lerner & Keltner, 2001) has shown that fear makes the audience less desiring of change, while anger makes them more positive about change.

In a real-world political context, a classic example of this in use is the infamous Daisy advertisement from the 1964 US presidential election. Shown only once on broadcast television, the campaign to re-elect Lyndon B Johnson used fearful imagery of nuclear war to lead the audience away from change (i.e. voting for his opponent Barry Goldwater) towards maintaining the status quo ("vote for President Johnson on November 3rd", a line delivered by the trusted voice of sports broadcaster Chris Schenkel). Consider by comparison how long it would take to convince people logically that Goldwater’s election would raise the odds of nuclear war, and the power of the peripheral route becomes apparent.

The Daisy advertisement from 1964

Another model worth considering is the Heuristic-Systematic Model (HSM) developed by Shelly Chaiken and colleagues. In a similar vein, HSM holds that the audience will either take in information systematically (the slow and logical approach, similar to the central path), or else heuristically (relying on cognitive shortcuts "heuristics" to allow them to make sense of information that might otherwise not be comprehensible). One of the most common of these heuristics in politics is partisanship. People who closely identify with a particular political party or movement may approve of a particular policy not because they have considered it logically but simply because the group they support has approved of it. Similarly, they may disapprove of something simply because an opposing group approves of it.

An interesting deployment of the heuristic approach in the social media age is discussed by Kathleen Jamieson Hall in her account of targeted online advertising during the 2016 US presidential election. Hall attests that online activists were able to swing voter opinions in key areas not by planting fake news stories in the traditional media, but by putting them onto social media.

Building the capacity for critical thinking is the best way to protect against these forms of manipulation

While many of these stories strained credulity and would have been quickly been debunked if the audience processed them systematically, the authors guessed that all that was needed was for some users (who may have been more prone to believing these stories due to existing biases) to share them through their own profiles. When that happened, it was assumed that other audience members who saw these "seeded" stories would feel that they had been told the story by someone they trusted, leading them to use heuristic processing instead. In Hall’s view, this approach was successful enough to have swung voting in key states.

Is this bad for politics?

As said previously, it’s certainly nothing new. Humans have the tools to perform heuristic processing because it keeps us safe, and because we frequently don’t have the luxury of being able to process all information systematically. A skilful communicator will always be aware of the various tools at their disposal to disseminate information and convince the audience in the most effective way, and we should demand that anyone who wants our support will use maximum effort to persuade us to do that.

Instead, what the risks of social media have shown us is the need for robust political education and citizenship-building programmes. With better political and civic education, we can inoculate ourselves against the spread of fake news and other forms of manipulation by learning to distinguish between information that can be processed heuristically and that which needs to be processed systematically. Building the capacity for critical thinking is the best way to protect against these forms of manipulation. With some effort, we may be able to train our peripheral and heuristic processes to quickly dump unreliable news and sources rather than accept them uncritically.

Luke Field is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations (SPIRe) at UCD. He was awarded an Irish Research Council Postgraduate Scholarship Programme award in 2016


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ