Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Tactics of persuasion

In 2007, I wrote some notes on tactics of persuasion. Given the amount of disinformation at large today, it could doing with another airing, though some of the examples are dated. (Note: The 'DDM' acronym refers to digital decision making - not artificial intelligence but decision making in sociotechnical systems).

As well as being aware of the agenda of the various stakeholders and their relative power base, it is important to be familiar with the kind of tactics people and organisations use to persuade us of the legitimacy of their point of view.  The following is a list of some of the common tactics to look out for.[27]

Extrapolating opposition argument to the absurd and then refuting the absurd 
This is also known as the ‘straw man’ approach – create a straw man, something which you can pretend represents your opponents’ position, and knock that down. President Bush’s declaration that anyone who opposed his actions in the wake of the attacks of 11th September 2001 was a supporter of terrorism is a classic example:
“Either you are for us or for the terrorists.” 
This has been one of the most important oratorical tricks in the president’s armoury in his time in office. It has enabled him to take a range of actions including invading Iraq, legalising torture[28] and domestic surveillance that would arguably have been more difficult without the aid of painting his opponents as ‘soft on terrorism.’

Appealing to emotion and prejudice 
If someone tells us a story we want to hear, we are more likely to believe it. There are a huge number of ways of using this tactic. One example is appealing to nationalism, as in the following example from Jack Valenti, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America, in his testimony to a congressional sub-committee, on the ‘Home recording of copyrighted works’ (i.e. the use of video cassette recorders) in 1982.
“The US film and television production industry is a huge and valuable American asset. In 1981, it returned to this country almost $1 billion in surplus balance of trade. And I might add, Mr Chairman, it is the single one American-made product that the Japanese, skilled beyond all comparison in their conquest of world trade, are unable to duplicate or to displace or to compete with or to clone. And I might add that this important asset today is in jeopardy. Why?... Now, I have here the profits of Japanese companies, if you want to talk about greed. Here, Hitachi, Matsushita, Sanyo, Sony, TDK, Toshiba, Victor, all of whom make these VCRs. Do you know what their net profits were last year? $2.8 billion net profit.”

Labeling or ghettoisation of interested groups
Group all opponents under one general heading. Once there, they can be labelled, on a spectrum from ‘lunatics’ to ‘nice people who just do not understand.’ Then conclude that their arguments are not worth taking into consideration because they are at best ill-informed.  There is a whole range of ways of using this tactic.  If scientists agree on an inconvenient truth like global warming or evolution they are intellectual snobs who think they know better than the rest of us.  Conservative Christian advocates of the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ in science lessons in the US are very good at this.[29] One of the central themes of this book is the value to be gained from experts and ordinary people working together. The intelligent design debate is good example of ordinary people making what I believe is a bad judgement call, in defiance of contrary scientific evidence and advice.  Their values and beliefs lead them to reject the scientific theory of evolution in an attempt to promote their own model, intelligent design, of how life came into existence.[30]

Balancing act
Modern journalistic practice of reporting that there are two sides to every story,[31] in an apparent effort to appear balanced, can result in all kinds of quacks getting a media platform.  [Yes, I plead guilty here to using a denigrating label]. If someone says the moon is made of cheese on a slow news day, the headlines will say ‘opinion divided on the composition of the moon.’
Deborah Lipstadt [32] provides an especially stark example in the media tendency to legitimise the views of people who deny the holocaust took place, in spite of the overwhelming mass of incontrovertible documented and eye witness evidence of the Nazis’ atrocities. Lipstadt refused all media offers to ‘debate’ the reality of the holocaust with holocaust deniers, since it would just present these people with a public platform in which their point of view would be considered to be of equal value.
Unfortunately an expert backed by solid evidence but with poor communication skills can fail to influence a DDM situation, when faced with someone who has a poor understanding of the evidence but a strong agenda and good communications skills.

Using jargon to confuse
With DDM being such a complex subject, any debate about the design, deployment or regulation of information systems is open to this tactic. For example: ‘You will, of course, understand that the DRM or TPM anti-circumvention measures in the UK implementation of EU directive 2001/29/EC on copyrights and related rights in the information society, the EUCD, were a direct result of our international obligations, rather than something we would have chosen to write into UK law of our own volition.’

Making appeals to 'experts' 
I refer to Bruce Schneier, James Boyle, Kim Cameron and others throughout this book as experts. A reader, who is unfamiliar with these individuals or their areas of expertise, may just be taking my word that they are indeed experts.  Very often media reports quote named and un-named ‘experts’ in support of their assertions, though, and it can be well worth checking the credentials of these people.

Using sarcasm, innuendo, denigration and other forms of humour to belittle opponents
It is easier to get a low opinion of the opposing advocate if you are funny – the humour makes it easy for the audience to like you and diverts attention from the substance of your argument.

The dominant metaphor 
George Lakoff [33] teaches that metaphors are the mental structures that shape the way we see the world.  If someone tells us a story through appealing metaphors and language we are more likely to accept their point of view. By the same token, when Richard Nixon went on TV and said “I’m not a crook,” immediately everyone believed he was a crook.  It is also like telling someone not to think of an elephant. No matter how hard you try after someone has said this, the image of the elephant will come into your mind.

Using rhetorical questions 
If you get your audience to subconsciously supply the answer invited by the question, they become more receptive to the views that follow as a consequence of the answer. To appreciate this, test the effect of taking the opposite answer to the one implied.  The wonderful BBC comedy series Yes Prime Minster gave a classic illustration of this when Sir Humphrey Appleby [34] explained to Bernard Woolley [35] how to fix a survey:
Sir Humphrey: “Well Bernard you know what happens. Nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression. You don’t want to look a fool, do you?”
Bernard: “No.”
Sir Humphrey: “No. So she starts asking you some questions. Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?”
Bernard: “Yes.”
Sir Humphrey: “Do you think they respond to a challenge?”
Bernard: “Yes.”
Sir Humphrey: “Would you be in favour of re-introducing national service?”
Bernard: “Y… oh, well I suppose I might be.”
Sir Humphrey: “Yes or no?”
Bernard: “Yes”
Sir Humphrey: “Of course you would, Bernard. After all you’ve told her you can’t say no to that. So they don’t mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.”[36]
A variation on the rhetorical question is the use of words and phrases which suggest that the audience should accept without question, e.g. ‘Obviously...’ or ‘It is clear that we all agree...’ 

The sound bite 
It is very hard to find simple responses to counter established rhetoric. “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” for example.*  You could try “how much do you earn” or “have you got curtains or a lock on your bathroom door” but they do not have the same effect.  Likewise “If I am not doing anything wrong, then you should not be watching me”; “Everyone has something to hide because everyone is entitled to privacy”; “Those engaged in the surveillance get to decide what's ‘wrong,’ and they keep changing the definition”; “You might misuse my information”; “I don't have anything to hide. But I don't have anything I want you to see, either”; “The government is sticking its nose into my business without a reasonable excuse”; and so on. It is an uneven playing field, rhetorically speaking – the rhetoric is stacked against the nuanced but more complete argument or explanation.  In a world of short attention spans, if you have to explain, you are losing the argument.

Presenting evidence or apparent evidence to make it appear to point to a particular conclusion
This includes using carefully selected evidence, while omitting contrary evidence.  In the UK government consultation on the proposed ‘entitlement card’ in 2003, about 6000 people indicated opposition to the idea and about 2000 were in favour.  The government at that time presented the results by saying that most people were in favour of the scheme by a ratio of 2 to 1. They later justified this by saying they had counted the 5000 or so who had expressed their opposition to the scheme via the Internet as a single vote against the scheme. David Blunkett, Home Secretary at the time, dismissed the people who used the Net to object as a vocal minority of civil liberties activists.  The government then commissioned a survey, the results of which suggested 80% of the population were in favour of ID cards. They have been quoting this survey ever since, in spite of a lot of evidence showing a huge drop off in support for the system.

Taking what someone says out of context
People regularly take quotes from religious texts like the Koran or the Bible out of context to justify their behaviour.  George Bush was vilified by critics for describing ten months of violence following the 2005 elections in Iraq as “just a comma” in history.[37]

Avoiding giving evidence whilst suggesting that evidence is being given
Put out a vague policy statement, saying the details will come later, then when asked about the details at a later date claim all the details were clearly included in the original policy statement and there is nothing further to add.

Non sequitur – ‘It does not follow’
This involves drawing an illogical conclusion from sound data. Since the data are credible the conclusion which follows closely is also accepted. The subtle exponent of the art will embed the illogical conclusion between two logical ones. An example is the government’s stance on the UK national identity system. It will be compulsory for everyone to have an ID card. Yet it is claimed that the card cannot be considered compulsory, since it will not be compulsory to carry it around all the time. 

Repetition of a claim, periodically and frequently, over a long period of time can often lead to general acceptance of the claim as fact, even though it may have been discredited on numerous occasions. This is a tactic used extensively by ‘historical revisionists’ like those who deny the existence of the holocaust. [38] In chapter 8, I look briefly at the repeated efforts to introduce a software patent directive in the European Union.  Those in favour of such a policy merely need to keep re-introducing it periodically over a sustained period.  Those who oppose such a policy need to be alert and mobilise effective opposition to every attempt to implement such a policy. Those with the most stamina get their way in the end.

Corporate, civil society or politically funded think tanks 
These institutions present an alternative to traditional academic and scientific peer review.  Researchers publish the required results.  Ordinary people find it hard to tell the difference between real research and advocacy research and the media rarely make the effort to distinguish or understand the difference between these when reporting on particular findings.  Increasingly, research in universities is commercially sponsored.[39] A simple question which is always worth asking is: who paid for the research?

This is the public relations trick of creating illusory grass roots campaigns.  Public relations companies acting, for example, on behalf of the energy, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries and political parties have been doing this for decades.[40] The idea is to send lots of letters or emails purporting to come from ordinary people to politicians or newspapers in order to make it appear that there is significant feeling about a particular issue.  There is a huge industry engaged in buying and selling personal data for commercial and political exploitation of this sort.  At the simplest level these details can be obtained from the voting register or the register of births and deaths.

*I would just note that the "nothing to hide" sound bite is particularly poisonous and should be refuted at every conceivable opportunity. It is based on two gigantic false assumptions -  
1. that privacy is exclusively sought or needed by evil people wanting to hide nefarious deeds and intentions. It is not. 
2. that destroying privacy will solve the complex socio-technical-economic-environmental-justice-immigration-terrorism-[choose your issue] problem/mess of the day. It has not and will not.
Never, ever accept "nothing to hide..." as the basis for framing a debate.

These tactics of persuasion are an extract from Chapter 6 of my book Digital Decision Making: Back to the Future, Springer Verlag [2007].

27 This list is adapted, with the kind permission of the Open University, from my Open University course, T182 Law the Internet and Society: technology and the future of ideas, which is fairly heavily focused on intellectual property and digital technologies.  The course is based on Larry Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas (Random House, 2001).  Both Jessica Litman in chapter 5 of Digital Copyright and Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite in chapter 3 of Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy do a terrific job of outlining the long term process of changing public perception of what intellectual property is about.

28 See The Torture Debate in America Edited by Karen Greenberg (Cambridge University Press, 2005) and the Balkanization blog at
29 For a particularly good collection of essays dissecting their position see Intelligent Thought : Science versus the Intelligent Design Movement Edited by John Brockman (Vintage, 2006)
30 Incidentally, whether or not you believe in God, is it seriously beyond the bounds of possibility that He might understand enough science to work with evolutionary processes?
31 And usually only two sides.
32 See Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory by Deborah Lipstadt for an especially stark example of the media tendency to legitimise the views of people who deny the holocaust took place, in spite of the overwhelming mass of incontrovertible documented and eye witness evidence of the atrocity. Lipstadt refused all media offers to ‘debate’ the reality of the holocaust with holocaust deniers since it would just present these people with a public platform in which their ‘point of view’ would be considered to be of equal value.
33 Don't Think of an Elephant: Progressive Values and the Framing Wars a Progressive Guide to Action by George Lakoff (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004); Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 1989)
34 Played by Nigel Hawthorne.
35 Played by Derek Fowlds.
36 The episode in question was The Grand Design, which first aired on the BBC on the 9th of January 1986.
37 Just a Comma’ Becomes Part of the Iraq Debate by Peter Baker Washington Post 5 October, 2006 at
38 David Irving, for example, went to prison in Austria for this. 
39 See, for example, Deterring Democracy by Noam Chomsky (Vintage, 1992) p.303. Chomsky says: “One fundamental goal of any well-crafted indoctrination program is to direct attention elsewhere, away from effective power, its roots, and the disguises it assumes.”
40 Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry by John Stauber, Sheldon Rampton (Common Courage Press, September 1995) has some excellent examples.

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