Politicians have long used a tried and trusted technique for dealing with awkward interview questions. This involves acknowledging the question and then providing the answer to the question they would have liked to have been asked instead.
The growth of social media has led to a 21st century playbook of communications tactics which enables politicians (and other people with large follower bases) to control the narrative using the old-school technique of ‘he who shouts loudest and longest’.
We had two prime examples from this playbook on both sides of the Atlantic yesterday.
Play 1: Side-step and override
Don’t listen to them. Listen to me.
On Thursday morning, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – the government’s official statistics service – reported that England and the UK had higher rates of excess deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic than any other European country.
Now this is a tricky situation. The government can’t simply discredit its own official stats provider. So how do you deal with it? Simple: you side-step the facts and override them with your own message about the “massive success” in reducing the number of deaths over the past few weeks.
This isn’t a lie as such. In quantifiable terms, the number of COVID-related cases and deaths is significantly less than the peak we experienced several weeks ago. However, it ensures the words “massive success” becomes the key message for media commentators, rather than the implicit failures suggested by the ONS data.
The key here is to stay on-topic but to shift the attention slightly to one side. The car’s a write-off but doesn’t it have love floor carpets?
If used well, not only does it work but it gives supporters a soundbite to latch on to. And it distracts opponents, so that the focus shifts to debunking “massive success” rather than focussing on failures.
Plays 2 & 3: Deflect and distract / Counter-punch
Don’t look over there. Look over here.
The UK government’s tactics come straight from the Donald Trump playbook. Whatever you think of him, he has an innate mastery of the ‘deflect and distract’ play.
This is the equivalent of the old magician’s trick of misdirection. Make the audience look at something else so they can’t see the deception that’s in front of their eyes. Trump uses this technique constantly to shift the conversation away from bad national or personal news stories. He uses it a lot.
So, Thursday morning’s bad news was a record-breaking fall in the US economy due to the impact of the pandemic.
Within minutes, Trump tweeted about one of his favourite current topics: postal voting fraud, proposing a delay to November’s election.
Guess what everyone’s talking about now?
Trump’s enemies are up in arms about the perceived threat to the democratic process. Political commentators are pondering about whether he can actually do this, and how. And considerably fewer people are talking about the economy tanking.
What makes ‘deflect and distract’ doubly effective is when it is used in combination with play three: the counter-punch. Not only are Trump’s words about delaying the election provocative enough to distract his critics, but they also allow him to reinforce his (unsubstantiated) claims about the corruption of remote voting. In effect, he gets two for the price of one.
It’s a disarmingly simple trick, but consistently effective.
How many other plays are there?
There are many other techniques that pander to users’ desire for confirmation bias. These are often most effective in a social media environment, where people are used to consuming news only in small soundbites with minimal fact-checking, and where algorithms and our own choices of who to follow create echo chambers of ‘people like me’.
Here are a few other common ones. You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of these.
- Rinse and repeat – State your message – even if it has zero basis in fact – loud enough and often enough, and people will start to believe you.
- I am Spartacus – A variation on ‘rinse and repeat’, where you co-ordinate multiple people broadcasting the same message at the same time. (Also known as ‘saturation bombing’.)
- Playing the man not the ball – When you can’t discredit the facts, discredit the person who is presenting them.
- The skeleton in the closet – Reveal something from an opponent’s past (or present) that is profoundly embarrassing and discredits them by association. It’s often completely unrelated to the topic at hand. Maybe a secret mistress, or the fact they once bought a Steps album.
- Look, (s)he’s a hypocrite! – This is a specific variant of ‘the skeleton in the closet’ where you share a social media post from an opponent’s past, where they voiced a different opinion on the same topic. It doesn’t matter if they were 17 at the time or have changed their opinion based on new evidence. In the court of social media, no one is ever allowed to change their mind about anything. (Or no one else, anyway.)
If you have a suitably large and fervent army of supporters, each of these tactics is almost guaranteed to succeed. Shout loud and shout long, and you will invariably have the last word. And that, more than the actual facts, is how you control the narrative on social media.
Written by Tim Liew.