Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Whisper Campaign, Part 2

To repeat:  don't read this if you don't want to be depressed.  I'm not reading depressing things right now, and you shouldn't feel any obligation to read my depressing ramblings.

In my last post, I tried to illustrate how easy it is to come up with emails that are ridiculously false but hard to refute.  The crucial background reading here, which I also linked to in my last post, is the 2007 Chris Hayes piece on underground viral campaigns.

Now I want to point out something that I think liberals need to come to grips with.  Whoever is the most prominent Democratic frontrunner is going to be subjected to a campaign along these lines.  It so happens that Clinton was targeted in 2016, but it happened to Al Gore, it happened to John Kerry, and it happened to Barack Obama too.

Now consider this graph of Hillary Clinton's approval rating, which I've taken from this piece at PolitiFact:

Some of the drop represents a natural shift that takes place when someone goes from being a high-ranking government official to a candidate for office.  But I suspect a lot of it stems from the fact that Clinton was known as one of Obama's most prominent political rivals at a time when the emails were targeting him, and then she became the target of the emails herself.  In other words, when Obama was being smeared, Clinton (known as someone who had given him a lot of trouble and criticized him a lot) was buoyed.  But that only lasted as long as the email campaign was directed at Obama.  When the tide turned, it was Clinton who was sullied.

The same thing happened to Obama in reverse.  A lot of people remarked on Obama's sudden and sustained rise in favorability ratings after the parties had nominated Trump and Clinton.  People sometimes interpreted it as a good sign for Clinton, an indication that Americans were not actually fed up with the liberal status quo.  Or they interpreted it as neutral:  faced with an unappealing choice, voters started to realize how much better Obama was than either of their current choices.

But here's a more pessimistic interpretation:  for 8 years Obama had been the target of an unrelenting underground smear campaign, but it shifted its aim to Clinton as she became the likely nominee, and it switched almost completely to her when she clinched the nomination.  Obama's ratings rose up like bread dough after a heavy weight has been removed.  After all, why attack him now?  He'll never run for office again.

Now go back to those fictitious emails I wrote in my previous post (which, to repeat, are neither true, nor are they actual emails—they are just examples that I dashed off very quickly, to show how easy it is).  Think about how hard it would be to deal with attacks like that.  First, they would travel by email, undetectable unless they happen to be forwarded to you.  Second, even if you knew about them, it would be hard to refute them.  How do you prove they aren't true?  Note that they definitely contain small untruths that are easy to "debunk."  Why would a mayor be deciding who goes on the witness stand?  But those sort of partial debunkings are horribly ineffective, because they make it sound as though the story is true in essence even if it gets some details wrong.  "Fine, mayors don't call people to the witness stand, but Bernie was probably manipulating the prosecutor."  How do you prove Carlos Garcia doesn't exist?  Note that whatever debunking you do probably can't rely on mainstream media reports, because the mainstream media has been discredited in the eyes of a lot of people.

Third, even if you could refute the stories, how would you get the email audience to read or listen to the debunking?  There's no way to identify them or to reach them.  And even if you could, they can just ignore you.  You could try to refute the stories on national media, but this would probably backfire, spreading the stories further without actually killing them.

Finally, note that I wrote all five fictitious emails very quickly.  I think they're pretty good!  But even if they're not, the email ecoysystem imposes strong selective pressure, weeding out the ineffective ones and rapidly amplifying the effective ones.  Even if only 5% of my emails are effective, I only have to work 4 hours to come up with an email that will go viral and reach thousands or maybe even millions of people.

Democrats are going to have to reckon with this if they want to win in the future.  I'll write a few more posts on that subject.


Blogger Zed said...

A little before this election I was taking the view that our hopes are (well, were) largely actuarial; that when the current cohort of gullible Boomers dies out they will be replaced by a less awful electorate. I was hoping that we would dodge this bullet and by 2024 would have an entirely different electorate. But I guess we did not dodge this bullet, so now I'm largely restricted to hoping that voter suppression efforts are ineffective in the 2020 election.

7:35 PM  

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