In the final in a special New Matilda Election 2016 three part series, Dr Lissa Johnson explains the psychology behind why we vote the way we do, and how to create positive change.
Week 3 of the election campaign and emotions have been running higher.
Peter Dutton fell victim to a left wing mob, according to The Australian, for dehumanising and stereotyping asylum seekers last week.
The week before, a father getting by on minimum wage, Duncan Storrar, found himself at the epicentre of a viral storm after posing a straightforward question on the ABCs Q&A program. Storrar had asked the Assistant Treasurer why low income earners receive no tax breaks under the Coalition’s budget.
The question unleashed a merciless class-war smear campaign against Storrar from News Corp, lest he give equality a good name. The viciousness of the attack prompted a heartening display of support for Storrar, whose question resonated with many voters.
The whole maelstrom served, inconveniently for the Coalition, to place equality more clearly in the electoral spotlight.
In Part 1 of this series, I examined the role of emotion in political cognition. I reviewed evidence that political decision-making is infused with feeling, and that unconscious emotional forces powerfully shape political opinion and votes.
Prosocial (altruistic, benevolent) emotions are stirred powerfully by other human beings, and are anathema to antisocial policies, or policies that cause wanton harm to human beings.
One way to prevent prosocial stirrings is through stereotyping and character assassination. Another is to keep ‘empathy targets’ out of view.
Which speaks to a second function of News Corp’s assault on Duncan Storrar. It served as a savage message to any underling who dares participate in public debate.
Storrar said of the whole controversy, “Q&A is the only place where people like me can ask questions of our leaders and policy makers, and as it’s so hard to see your politicians we don’t have any other contact with these people. As such, this is the most important part of democracy I have available to me.”
The Murdoch Press, however, has other ideas. It is not for ordinary people to participate in democracy. That is the preserve of media empires and elites.
How else can you keep empathy targets out of sight?
Take this man and his two children, made homeless by the rising tides of climate change, for instance. Where would we be if they had a voice?
In Part 2 of this series I explored structural and power-based media influences on political cognition, including contemporary propaganda, or media content designed to “influence emotion, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately… behaviour”
News Corp’s smear campaign against Duncan Storrar, for instance.
In Part 2, I examined another more subtle, protracted and sophisticated propagandistic smear campaign, the corporate misinformation war against climate science.
I traced that campaign, and the ABCs participation in it, to voters’ willingness to support climate policies that threaten life on Earth.
Associate Professor of Communications John Arthos describes such self-destructive processes as arising from “the neutralization of the mainstream press” which he says has fostered “techniques of rhetorical manipulation [that]misdirect … a public… into undermining its own interests.”
Arthos sees this as stemming from an “entrenched corporate ideological apparatus that has captured our state institutions, mainstream media, and the governing classes”.
Against this, he notes, “progressive voices seem at times to be spitting into the wind.”
Or a raging inferno, as the case may be.
If we are up against such an entrenched corporate ideological apparatus, how can progressive voices, or even just honest voices asking honest questions, do more than spit into the wind?
In terms of marginalising dissent, the hysterical Murdoch press is the least of everyone’s worries. When rabid right-wing voices put their viciousness on full display, the obvious zealotry at least alienates all but the like-minded.
It is the more subtle, imperceptible media influences, the ones that go undetected and unnamed, that have the potential to do more widespread harm.
These are the influences capable of leading a population to sleepwalk into environmental catastrophe.
As is happening now.
Although up to 70 per cent of voters say that they would vote for a party with strong environmental policies, almost half of the population is nevertheless willing to re-elect the Coalition, environmental antagonism and all.
Psychologically, this is not surprising. Explicit attitudes typically predict only 10-15 per cent of observed behaviour, for reasons outlined in Part 1. Only the most strongly held attitudes translate into action.
Many Australians, then, need to feel more strongly about climate change before it influences their votes.
But what can be done? How can more people be moved to care? Given all the countervailing forces, what hope is there for a self-respecting and participative electorate?
As experts in political cognition with 20 years’ research under their belt, and leading theorists in the field, political scientists Milton Lodge and Charles S Taber are well placed to provide answers. Having studied unconscious influences on political reasoning they would know better than anyone how to overcome voters’ self-destructive tendencies.
What might work against media influences, political spin, appearance-based voting and even propaganda? How can we prevent people from undermining their own interests and sleepwalking into catastrophe?
Towards the end of their book, Lodge and Taber advance some unworkable suggestions before concluding, “based on our own and others’ experimental work… we have become increasingly pessimistic about the ability of citizens to override their biases.”
No wonder people deceive themselves. The truth is harsh.
However, Lodge and Taber wrote their conclusion before Bernie Sanders took the voting world by storm.
The lessons of Bernie Sanders
The success of Vermont senator and US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has defied not only expectations, but research literatures on media, electorates and voting.
Just as News Corp took an instant set against Storrar, the mainstream media in the US has been decidedly against Sanders from the outset. In an interview with CNN on the subject, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! noted that in 2015 Donald Trump received 23 times the coverage of Sanders.
Goodman took the networks to task for broadcasting Trump’s empty stage on Super Tuesday 3 in preference to Sanders’ speech. She added that in one 24-hour period alone the Washington Post ran 16 articles that were negative towards Sanders.
Based on what we know about the media and voting, Sanders should have been dead in the water.
Yet he has attracted 71 per cent of the youth vote (under 30s), and has beat Clinton 82-18 in some states. His campaign contributions have topped those of Barack Obama at comparable points in Obama’s campaign, and Sanders has achieved record turnouts to events. His social media following is double that of Hillary Clinton’s.
Although he is unlikely to win, Harvard University’s Institute of Politics Polling Director John Della Volpe says, “He’s not moving a party to the left. He’s moving a generation to the left… Whether or not he’s winning or losing, it’s really that he’s impacting the way in which a generation – the largest generation in the history of America – thinks about politics”.
Della Volpe cites unprecedented increases in the proportion of 18-29 year-olds who see health care, food and shelter as basic rights, and who support government spending to reduce poverty. He credits this shift to Sanders.
But how did Sanders manage it? All with the antagonism of the mainstream media? What is his secret? What can we learn from him?
Is it his looks? Does he have a particularly likeable face? His tone of voice? Is there something subliminally brilliant about his campaign?
Or is it that Sanders’ supporters don’t watch mainstream news?
Sanders has the youth vote. This age group gets their news primarily from the internet.
According to the Pew Research Centre, 61 per cent of 18-33 year olds in America rely on Facebook for their news. Only 37 per cent watch TV news in any given week. This pattern is essentially reversed in over-50s.
The young voters supporting Sanders are also distinctive in that they have grown up under neoliberalism. Neoliberalism of the kind the Coalition would like to roll out in Australia.
The kind that has resulted in the “breakdown of society” according to Noam Chomsky. And the kind that Duncan Storrar questioned on Q&A.
Perhaps this is why only a minority of 18-33 year olds now supports capitalism in the US.
Young adults in America may be more ready for a progressive change than we are here in Australia. They have been asking the kinds of questions Duncan Storrar asked for a long time.
They may be feeling the pain of the status quo more acutely than us, feeling the weight of the world in their financial struggles, feeling the unfairness, feeling done-over by the 1 percent, feeling tired of it all, and feeling ready for a change.
Which is why #FeelTheBern was such a brilliant hashtag. It spoke to people where their political cognition lives: their feelings.
Lodge and Taber quote William Butler Yeats who said, “We taste and feel and see the truth. We do not reason ourselves into it.”
Given the psychology of media, perception management and political cognition, I draw three main lessons from Bernie Sanders’ success:
- Forget the mainstream media as an agent of public interest or progressive change. Despite some exceptional individual journalists, as an institution it is lost (see parts 1 and 2).
- Embrace the internet.
- Speak to people’s emotions.
The new media ecology
Scholars in communication studies call the internet and social media the ‘new media ecology’. The new media ecology, it turns out, is a thorn in the side of political elites’ propaganda efforts.
Professor of Political Science Laura Roselle, who gave a talk to NATO in Brussels last year, wrote a 2014 paper on ‘strategic narrative’ and ‘soft power’. In it she said that in the ‘new media environment’ (the internet) state power “face[s]a new vulnerability from increased transparency. As more of the global population become familiar with more media they become more literate… Elites sense they have lost relative power over information.”
In a separate article on ‘weaponising information’, Roselle’s co-authors Alister Miskimmon and Ben O’Loughlin, from the University of London, write of “uncertainty among policymakers about how to wield influence. In the face of a diffuse media ecology, policy elites feel they are struggling to cope with the dizzying range of opinions and rapidly changing news, complicating their ability to shape the reception of emerging events in multiple audiences… Governments may never have had total information control, but policymakers’ sense of control has never been more fragile.”
This is no doubt why Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and the Broadcasting Board of Governors have declared themselves at war with online news organisations such as RT and CCTV, likening them to Boko Haram. Clinton even conceded that the US is losing the information war.
Not for want of trying, however. As the Huffington post notes “It turns out that Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google’s parent company, has funded a semi-secret company, The Groundwork, to provide Hillary Clinton the engineering talent she needs to win the election, prompting Wikileaks founder Julian Assange to call Google “Hillary’s secret weapon.” Meanwhile, Hillary has hired a longtime Google executive as chief technology officer. If Google were prioritizing pro-Hillary search results over those favoring Bernie Sanders, we’d never know”.
Even so, Winnie Wong, the creator of the #FeelTheBern hashtag remarked, “You could say Berne Sanders is winning the internet.”
Rather than hiring Google executives, Sanders has created large networks of volunteers connecting on social media, who are “making commitments to each other rather than to paid staff”.
Writing prophetically in 2004 on internet activism and the rise of blogging, social and cultural theorists Richard Kahn and Douglas Kellner of UCLA talked about the potential for internet activism to create “new social relations and forms of political possibility”. Including, it turns out, a self-professed socialist coming within spitting distance of the White House. While campaigning aggressively against fossil fuel subsidies.
Kahn and Kellner cite the power of internet activism to enable “not only democratic self-expression and networking, but also global media critique and journalistic sociopolitical intervention”.
Wong agrees. She says,“the beauty of the internet is the way you can express yourself in a very democratic way.”
Without the character assassination you risk when you do it on TV.
Researchers at the University of Vermont and the University of Adelaide make a similar point. Between 2008 and 2014 the research team studied patterns in 1.5 million tweets on climate. They found that climate conversation on Twitter favoured activism over skepticism and denial, and reflected “a democratization of knowledge transfer… [that]can circumvent the influence of large stakeholders on public opinion”.
They concluded that as a result, Twitter shows promise as “a useful asset in the ongoing battle against anthropogenic climate change”.
An article summarising their research added, “As social media continues to replace more traditional news outlets, Twitter could be key in… shaping the cultural politics of climate change, in ways that newspapers and broadcast television no longer can.”
In Australia, Getup! estimates that the average person has the ability to reach 8,000 others through their networks, including friends of friends of friends. One in 10 of those people, according to Getup!, are undecided about how to vote at the next election.
We don’t have a Sanders movement in Australia, but we do have our own movements such as Getup!, 350 Org and others. Environmental groups, for instance, are planning to hold over 100 community events before the next election.
Joining, sharing, posting, and occasionally showing up, is all that most Sanders supporters did. Along with some messaging of their own.
But what message? How to reach the one in 10….
Counter hegemonic communication
In a paper titled, The Just Use of Propaganda: Ethical Criteria for Counter-Hegemonic Communication Strategies, John Arthos recommends “using the ‘master tools’ of strategic communication [propaganda]to fight the vast political machinery of the corporate state”.
He discusses doing this ethically. In other words, truthfully, in order to prevent harm, and for “the mobilisation of the disempowered”.
Arthos reasons that “propaganda is the unfortunate but necessary public discourse of a modern society”.
Perhaps, but what does that mean? How do the disempowered practice the master tools of strategic communication in the new media ecology? Strategic communication is complicated.
And it isn’t.
You don’t need impressive rhetorical powers to reach unconscious hearts and minds. You just need to be able to string two words together. Literally.
In research, simply pairing the word “vomit” with a politician’s name will suffice to influence political opinion. Or “rainbow” if you prefer. Other words such as syphilis, rabies, ulcer and torture have proven equally effective.
Outside the research lab, in the real-world experiment of politics, ‘fair’ and ‘unfair’ have resonated with Australian voters in the past.
‘Dangerous’ and ‘radical’ have been used by MIT Professor Noam Chomsky to describe nihilistic climate policies.
I’m not suggesting that you use these words, necessarily, but rather that strategic communication is a process of tagging, even hashtagging, something with “good” or “bad” feeling. That is what our unconscious minds understand.
Politicians routinely exploit this notion when they pair concepts such as environmentalism and terrorism, as in ‘eco-terrorism’ for example.
‘Eco-heroism’ might be a simple, Tweetable counter hegemonic response.
A similar political tactic has been to pair coal mining with philanthropy, in the “coal is good for humanity” and “energy poverty” refrains.
If you are counter-hegemonically inclined, you can experiment with conceptual pairings of your own.
Communicating about climate change
Tweets with feelings are not only more likely to influence people, they are more likely to increase your following.
While Tweets on climate change and global warming often entail statistical information and fact, Tweets that are emotionally arousing are more likely to be shared. So concluded a study of 60,000 climate change Tweets at the Universities of London and Leicester.
Princeton University social psychologist, Dr Sander van der Linden, formerly of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, talks about the importance of emotion in this interview on climate change perceptions (if you are interested in the psychology of climate change, it is the most succinctly comprehensive summary I have found).
Van der Linden says, “Showing people long-term trends in the average global temperature simply does not carry the same weight in our decisions as the type of strong emotional reactions we form through (negative) experiences. So-called affective cues — fast and associative judgments of things we like and dislike… help us make judgments and decisions.”
He notes that climate change is at a distinct disadvantage in this regard. If we could see or experience first-hand the fires, rising seas and storm surges of global warming, we would perceive it as a genuine threat.
However, when global warming is presented as a “statistical phenomenon that cannot be experienced directly, it presents a unique challenge for the human brain”.
In other words, people need assistance to “taste and feel and see the truth” of climate change.
One way to help people to feel the truth is to simply express your own emotions. ‘The Great Barrier Reef is dying. It breaks my heart”, for instance.
Another is to focus on the human dimensions of climate change. We are all wired to respond emotionally to one another. Less so to abstract facts. Moreover, as Van der Linden says “tons of psychological research shows that people are often intrinsically motivated to help others”.
The most recent issue of Princeton University journal The Future of Children, for example, is devoted to the impact of climate change on children. As is this UNICEF report. This article alone is full of sad but shareable emotional factual information.
Children are more sensitive to heat, unable to swim through rising waters, and more likely to drown from AGW than adults. Such as this little boy.
Children are 50-100% more vulnerable to heat-related death from climate change than adults.
Imagery is another simple way to speak to people’s emotions.
In research, images of deserts help people to feel that climate change is real. Images of renewable technologies foster feelings of empowerment, and images of people and animals suffering consequences help others to care.
Coming from you, emotionally evocative messages carry special psychological weight with your friends.
Your power as a friend
In the absence of direct experiences of global warming, van der Linden says that “even with the emotional and cognitive alarms deactivated, there’s still another way that we often learn about risks, and that is socially, through our conversations and connections with other people we care about”.
Psychologists call this ‘shared reality’. It is one of the processes by which our unconscious minds determine what is real and what is important.
Van der Linden says, “You might feel that your family won’t listen to you, but what people often don’t realize is that you have a special status with people you know”.
Politicians’ messages, in contrast, are soured in the emotional marinade of mistrust. As one Australian participant in a study of climate change communication said, “I just think if we’re going to rely on any politician. . . we’re in trouble.”
This may be partly why Sanders’ network of volunteers has attracted a larger online following that Clinton’s Google collaboration.
Sanders’ campaign has also undoubtedly benefitted from what psychologists call “normative influence”. This is the phenomenon whereby we do what our friends do. It is not just for teenagers. It is in the human DNA.
Harnessing this, says Van der Linden, “would mean simply informing your friends and family about all the things you are already doing to help reduce climate change”.
I just signed Adrian Burragubba’s petition against the Carmichael mega-mine.
If your friends see you enjoying what you do, even better.
I am grateful for the opportunity to stand with the Wangan and Jagalingou people for Aboriginal rights and the Earth.
Helping people to think about the shared consequences of climate change across communities has the additional advantage that it fosters what psychologists call ‘psychological sense of global community’ or ‘identification with all humanity’. This mindset works against prejudice and fosters action in the greater good.
Whatever images or words you use, two words or thousands, yours or someone else’s, the point is to speak to people’s feelings, however you can.
These messages to future generations, for instance, speak to me.
“You were born, and something happened to me. All of a sudden I realized it was your world, and your children and children’s children, that I’d been using all these years.” – WeKnew.org, May 20, 2015
“In 2020, you will be 7 years old, in school, and learning about climate change. Perhaps for the first time you will ask me what I did about it. I hope I can make you proud.” – WeKnew.org, May 27, 2015
The more real it is for you the more likely it is to be real for others. If you are feeling it, others will feel it too.
The power of knowing this is the seed of potential that it unearths in your own experience. It is the ‘master’s tool’ to pretend that participative democracy is complicated and beyond our reach. That we are each in our experiences alone.
And it is the master’s tool to punish those who seek to participate in democracy, as Duncan Storrar did, lest others get ideas and follow suit.
Perhaps Sanders’ success stems partly from his efforts to do the reverse. By placing faith in his supporters, encouraging their participation, and fostering connections between them, he has helped to transform their private realities into political action and empowerment.
One Sanders supporter said, “Bernie very much almost bets on how ordinary people can change lives. This is something I will forever be indebted to.”
As the fellow in the climate change study observed, if we wait for our politicians to do it, we’re in trouble.