Thanks to the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 presidential election, there’s been an increased focus on just how things like social media can be used to affect the mindset of your average American voter. While some have taken a decisive stand regarding the subject, stating outright that foreign efforts to influence an election cannot be tolerated, there’s still been a sizable contingent of Americans keen to dismiss Russia’s underhanded foreign policy, citing the fact that Russian influencers didn’t actually change any votes, but rather just worked to influence Americans – after all, we’re all reasonable, intelligent adults that should be able to tell the difference between real and fake news, right?
Whether you feel that way, or are furious at the Americans who do, that means the Russian influence effect is already working.
Here in the U.S., we all grow up in an advertiser’s paradise. According to the American Psychological Association, the average child is exposed to upwards of 40,000 advertisements per year, each and every year of their young lives. This inundation likely has a number of effects, including the overwhelming need to get this year’s hot toys for Christmas, but among the others are two things that, when combined, make for a dangerous cocktail of manipulability in American adults. First, advertising clearly works, which is why American companies spent almost $80 billion on digital ads alone in 2016. The second, is that we Americans, who grow up on a steady diet of advertisements, tend to think of ourselves as pretty marketing savvy, and overestimate our ability to shrug off advertising’s influence on us.
As I studied marketing and PR in graduate school, there were a number of concepts that were readily up for debate, but among them was never whether or not it worked. Manipulating people in the digital sphere, in particular, is still a new phenomenon, meaning there are new and creative ways to get inside someone’s head discovered each day – and make no mistake about it, studying marketing and public relations is, in fact, studying ways to manipulate people’s perceptions. Often, the intent is to skew consumers toward a product or service, but occasionally, its role is to skew consumers away from a competitor’s, or simply to minimize the effect of what could be bad news for the brand.
And that’s where Russian meddling comes in. The digital effort to influence America’s presidential elections didn’t need to include the actual manipulation of votes to be successful, because the precise number of votes was never to be the measure of success for the campaign. Ensuring a bitterly divided political environment left the United States socially crippled, however, was the measure all along – as was demonstrated by recent revelations that the Russian effort including sowing seeds of racial discord in places like Charlottesville.
Those on the Left who triumphantly point at Vladimir Putin, claiming that he and Trump are bed fellows, have missed the point by as wide a margin as those who remain unabashedly in Trump’s corner regarding the influence, denying Russia could have had any effect on the conservative turnout of voters. In fact, the lines each group keep drawing in the sand and then daring their opposition to cross shows, better than anything, that we are all susceptible to manipulation; whether it’s regarding where to buy our socks, or who we should hate on Facebook. As Americans, we’ve demonstrated our propensity for hating one another, and the Russian manipulation machine is aware of it. They didn’t have to invent discord, they just needed to encourage it.
One common method of marketing that we all tend to think we’re too smart to get tricked by is repetition. When you hear an ad repeat the product’s name ten times in sixty seconds, using the same tone and inflection, you ignore it, or maybe roll your eyes at their inability to come up with something more creative for their 60-second Super Bowl spot. The thing is, repetition is statistically proven to affect many consumer’s purchasing decisions – and advertising professionals work tirelessly to find the “effective frequency” a logo must be shown or a name must be repeated in order to have the maximum possible effect on the consumer.
Study this stuff for a little while, the world begins to look a whole lot more devious to you. Eventually you come to realize that diamond engagement rings are a fairly recent development born out of a De Beers marketing campaign (they even introduced the traditional “2 months’ salary” quota for the rings), or that women, by and large, didn’t shave their armpits until Gillette started marketing the idea that female armpit hair was unsavory in the early twentieth century. Even grocery stores utilize a careful combination of layout, visual cues, and product placement to encourage you to buy more and when you do, to choose the more expensive options – ya know, the same basic mindset employed by casinos to keep you gambling.
The whole world out there is designed to manipulate you, and in a thousand ways a day, it does. For many of us, that manipulation comes in the form of confirmation bias, where we choose to believe the details or presentation of a story that already jives with our world view, rather than that which does not. That repetition method, combined with something called “source amnesia” (wherein you remember a fact but not where you heard it) creates a blurry line between knowing something for sure, and just hearing something often enough to think you know it.
Foreign governments aren’t just hearing about the immense power marketing has over people now – no, it’s in the news because we’re paying attention now. As mentioned before, countless things throughout modern history have been the product of public manipulation campaigns, and Russia is no newcomer to the concept. Stories about Rasputin’s death being supernatural were conjured up to increase the prominence of those who took responsibility for his death. The KGB intentionally planted ideas in media outlets about the CIA planning Kennedy’s assassination and many Americans continue to adhere to those theories to this day, not to mention the idea that HIV was invented as a weapon to target gays and minorities. The list goes on and on.
It’s tempting to take offense when someone suggests the Russians conspired to help the politician you voted for take office. For many, it feels almost like being accused of helping the Russians yourself, but those accusations are an abbreviation of the subject so egregious that they’ve shed away the reality of public perception manipulation efforts. As we’ve discussed regarding other topics, overt propaganda rarely works as well in this day in age – we’re all just a little too cynical to be told what to do – but soft efforts, like bolstering the voice of an outspoken minority group, whether that’s ANTIFA or White Nationalists, or helping to advance a false narrative about a politician, like Pizza Gate, is really all it takes to start creating a narrative where one didn’t previously exist.
Here in America, we’re all just about certain now that our news outlets are trying to manipulate us. Whether you prefer CNN or Fox, you’re often sure that the other is out to ruin America, and are usually even willing to admit that your own outlet occasionally misconstrues things to support their political angle, but what we often don’t realize is that our world is chock full of that same kind of manipulation, whether it’s to sell you a mattress or get you to vote for Hillary Clinton. Russian efforts to shift your perception, like the efforts of the Chinese and countless other nations, wouldn’t stop if we all deleted Facebook. They continue, in various forms, because they’re effective – and will continue to be as long as we’re willing to turn off our cynicism whenever we’re reading, listening to, or seeing stuff we like to hear about the opposing party.
The marketing conscious life is a sort of depressing one. When you realize everything from the morning news to the supermarket you stop at on your way home are designed specifically to manipulate you, it can be easy to start to hate all of it. Some people, at this point, would probably tell you to accept this way of life, as it’s the one we were born into, and to recognize that most advertising and marketing efforts are innocuous enough. Not here. Hating the ways people try to manipulate you will force you to be aware, and to quote one of the greatest pieces of anti-Russian propaganda to widely effect a generation of Americans that now face the resurgence of the Russian threat…
Image courtesy of the Kremlin