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4 things political candidates do to manipulate you.
(& how to spot them)

As we get closer to the MHK elections here on the Isle of Man we are starting to see more marketing material coming out from the candidates.

While none of them (to my knowledge) are professional marketeers or copywriters, now we live in a global information age they have a slew of material to base their manifestos, videos & social posts on.

That means we are starting to see some interesting tactics coming out designed, dear reader, to make you think, feel & act a certain way.

I'm not going to say the people using them understand what they are using, or why they work, but we will see them come into play.

The following are some of those things you should watch out for. Information designed to lead you down the garden path, so to speak.

In particular, watch out for number 3 as I truly hate that one!.

NB I'm not going to call anyone out in particular in this piece. Maybe later...

1.Disguising vagueness about both problems & solutions.

Ok, this is pretty common, but it's one to watch out for. The candidate uses a "fill in the blanks" approach with firmly worded but vague statements.

"We have definitely faced serious issues over the last year and I will 100% look to addressing them with a firm stance."

When you read that, your thoughts turn to your own specific issues. They said something vague, but you made it concrete in your mind.

That pattern continues with their solution. You interpret the firm sounding statement as the solution you want to see.

The reason this works, in particular for election material, is that we don't directly remember what happened, what we read, or what we saw.

We remember the last time we remembered it as memory is pretty fluid.

This seems a minor difference, but it's pretty huge for us as humans.

How many times have you remembered a conversation differently from how it went?

How many times have you looked at a poster or advert & it isn't the same as you think it was?

Think of it as a game of Chinese whispers with yourself.

Every time you remember an event, tiny bits of information are changed in your memory.

Down the line, in several months you may have convinced yourself that a candidate said "X" when they never actually did.

The more specific on detail a phrase is, the harder it is to misremember or re-interpret.

This can be enhanced with specific facts & figures tied to vague statements. The facts give us the feeling this is important & accurate, & may even stay with us when the message they relate to has changed.

So;

"98% of the constituents I asked said they have faced major issues over the last year."

This sounds pretty strong.

We interpret it as;

"98% of constituents have faced issues like me."

We gloss over the "I asked" part, & fail to interpret that "major issues" mean very different things to different people.

We frame it around our situation, ignoring that everyone has a different situation.

This is linked to my article about "The most important words I've ever read".

In this case, we are lying to ourselves about what we saw or heard because we are afraid it might be true, or we hope it is.

We hope 98% of people had the same issues as us because then it is a genuine problem that those in power will need to deal with.

That builds every time we remember it &, because it is an emotional response we will look for any evidence, no matter how slim, to support it.

It's also very hard to change someone's mind about this sort of thing because, generally, we use facts & figures to prove things but they will never overcome the emotional side of their brain!

So, watch out for vague statements &, in particular, watch out for how you try to fit them into your personal situation.

Cough horoscopes cough

2. "Lies, damned lies, & statistics"

There is a reason that this phrase (often incorrectly attributed to Benjamin Disraeli) is so common.

Statistics help back up any reasoning where the emotional trigger has already taken place.

They are the logical piece for the brain to latch onto after it has already decided "the truth".

The statistics themselves are often accurate but are presented misleadingly to justify the position.

The more detailed the statistics are, the more believable they are, but the stronger the emotional reaction, the weaker the statistics can be.

For example, let's say a person is standing on an LGBTQ+ rights platform;

"83.3% of people I surveyed in the IOM said they wanted to repeal pro-LGBTQ+ rights.
People fought a long time in awful conditions to get those rights & I will do everything in my power when you vote for me to make sure you keep them."

If you are part of that community then that's going to push you to vote for them.

A nice kick of fear, a dose of anger, followed by a nice dose of strong hope.

Emotions bypass the logical reasoning so we don't ask the questions we should.

In reality, they could have surveyed 6 people cherry-picked for their opinions.

One of them was happy with LGBTQ+ rights, the others wanted to roll-back some minor aspect of it.

The statistic presented "83.3% of people surveyed" is accurate, but it's also deliberately misleading.

The second part about people fighting is to create a drive for action, to trigger some memories, get a bump of some adrenaline.

The final part is a strongly worded but highly vague statement with a CTA snuck in.

If I was reading it to an audience I'd bang my fist on the table at "everything", raise my voice to project confidence & try my best to sound like a general sounding the charge.

Because, I wouldn't want you remembering the statistics, I would want you to remember the emotion.

It's incredibly hard to do, but to spot these you have to separate your emotion from the evidence.

In particular when you see a statistic together with something that causes fear, or if you see a % without base figures attached, there are more questions you need to have answered before you take a stance.

The other major time you will spot this is in bar charts.

No one really reads them, we glance & get an impression.

So, if you can change the scale of the chart, or where the scale starts from, you can easily manipulate most people.

Normally people won't tweak a scale, for example, so 1-2 is a different size from 2-3 (though it does happen) as it is so obvious.

Instead, they will change where it starts.

Misleading height chart
I love the fact someone thought this was a good idea!

So a scale of deaths per month that goes from 10,000 in January, to 10,005 in Feb, to 10,030 in March to 10,100 in April will look very different if the scale starts at 10,000 than if it (correctly) starts at 0.

Any time you see a chart where the variable axis (normally the Y-axis) doesn't start at 0 is a red flag.

3. A lie presented as "what if".

I hate this one.

I really do.

So much that, unlike the others, if I see it in use I will probably call it out.

For me this is deliberately misleading your voters by triggering emotional responses (particularly fear) to something you know (or should know) is not true, in the hope of making people act as if it is true.

Often against their own best interests.

"I'm not saying X is bad/good but..."

"What if..."

"I heard..."

"People are saying..."

This is one we see all the time with anti-vaxx rubbish, & appears constantly on social media.

"I'm not saying vaccines aren't good but..."

"What if it is making people ill?"

"People are saying children are dying."

"I heard that it contains poison."

We believe a lie because we are afraid it might be true, or because we want it to be true.

In this case, the person can get away with a more outrageous lie, because they aren't the one saying it.

They just heard it, or saw it online, or "a source said so".

Plausible deniability.

Normally, these can be disproved easily enough with a correctly worded Google search.

But when you look for evidence supporting something you are afraid of or hope for, you rarely look for evidence to disprove it.

So, if you search "vaccines killing children" you will come across lots of articles about second-hand reports of vague circumstances, repeated over & over.

So your brain goes;

"right, got some evidence so my emotions are justified"

Which then amplifies those emotions.

If instead, you search for "vaccine safety" or similar you get a lot more scientific peer-reviewed articles that are trustworthy.

But often, if they go against your emotion/intuition/gut, you ignore them.

This one is brutally hard to deal with as a viewer/reader because it is insidious.

There is no evidence to be disproved so your mind latches onto the slightest bit of anything resembling evidence & treats it as fact.

You do the leg work for the writer as you want to "close the loop" & find the truth.

We just don't tend to do that the right way.

For me this one just crosses the line from using tools to make people pay attention, to outright manipulation.

It's lazy, it's cheap & if you do it you are probably doing it for the wrong reasons.

4. Dog Whistles

Ok, so the Isle of Man is not exactly known for its extremists, but they are present in every society, across the political spectrum, & you don't have to look that far back into Manx history to find very aggressive anti-gay views being spoken about in Tynwald for example.

They are the ones who shout the loudest, who throw the first punch, who move to insults rather than discussions.

They are the people most led by their emotions & are constantly in fear, though they will often deny it.

And people who live their lives in fear are the easiest to manipulate.

They are the ones who you can easily mobilise to vote by showing them you support their cause as they will latch onto the slightest bit of what they consider proof, & who will get others to vote the same way.

Sometimes by force.

But you can't support them too overtly.

No candidate wanting to win a mainstream vote is going to speak openly appealing to extremists.

Some who just want the headlines &/or the fame might though.

Openly supporting extremism also causes people who are opposite to that viewpoint to vote against you, & many moderates on either side who might have voted for you may not.

So, instead, you use phrases that members of a particular group will be familiar with but people outside the group probably won't.

A secret code within a seemingly normal message.

Just to be clear, these are very tricky to get right & harder to spot.

Plausible deniability is heavily at play.

Remember reading Lord of the Flies as a kid in school?

Remember those damned essays where you had to interpret every word as a deep & meaningful symbol?

That's the risk when looking for dog whistles.

You start to over analyse, to read into things that were never intended.

Sometimes a conch is just a conch, a cigar is just a cigar, or a phrase is just innocent & poorly chosen.

But, sometimes it isn't.

Wrapping up

These are the 4 worst culprits of manipulative messages we are likely to see.

They aren't the only ones, but they are the easiest to do & the easiest to copy if a candidate is looking externally for marketing ideas.

Some of them might be deliberate, while a lot are likely to be accidental without the copywriter/candidate understanding exactly why they work.

Importantly, it isn't just one side or the other who tend to use these techniques, they occur equally across the political spectrum, though they are more common at the extreme ends.

We just tend to question more that which doesn't emotionally affect us, & are more suspicious of "them".

But that doesn't change their effectiveness or the ways for you to spot them.

As a general rule, look at your emotional state as you read.

In particular look for negative emotions such as fear, anger or hate being deliberately triggered by what you are seeing.

If you can do that, & if you can then ignore those emotions to look at the content of the message, to break it down, to analyse the truth of it, then you can make better choices about who you want to vote for.


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