Thursday, August 31, 2017

Selling a Bad Idea: Censorship as Propaganda

I just finished reading a book recommended by my brother-in-law, a PR specialist. In Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion, Dr Robert Cialdini unpacks the techniques used by a group he calls "compliance practitioners" (in other words, people engaged in marketing, advertising and public relations, etc.).  Cialdini explains the psychological processes and factors behind the effectiveness of strategies like free taste samples in the grocery aisle, celebrity testimonials, and Pampered Chef parties (or the Tupperware Parties my mother's generation put on). I was especially impressed with his treatment of "social proof," but that lies beyond the scope of this post. (You'll have to read the book!)

What I'm more interested in today is the technique of invoking scarcity: Limited Time Only! Limit: Two per Customer! 

Included in Cialdini's study of scarcity techniques is the concept of censorship. Censorship creates a kind of "scarcity" mentality with regard to the information or images that an authority seeks to restrict, making it seem all the more desirable. This is hardly news. What impressed me was a further elaboration of the scarcity-through-censorship strategy as a means for promoting or furthering an otherwise detestable point of viewbecause this has become an almost everyday occurrence in our civic news.

Here's what Cialdini writes (my emphasis added):

...When University of North Carolina students learned that a speech opposing coed dorms on campus would be banned, they became more opposed to the idea of coed dorms. Thus, ever hearing the [banned] speech, they became more sympathetic to its argument. This raises the worrisome possibility that especially clever individuals holding a weak or unpopular position can get us to agree with that position by arranging to have their message restricted. The irony is that for such people—members of fringe political groups, for example—the most effective strategy may not be to publicize their unpopular views, but to get those views officially censored and then to publicize the censorship.
Now look at your newspaper (or the social media you get your news from). Perhaps this struck me in a particular way because the day I read it my social media feeds had images of violence being unleashed by anarchists against a peaceful protest gathering. Are today's headliners instinctively taking a page from Cialdini's book?

In his Epilogue, Cialdini warns that the avalanche of information we now receive on a regular basis can compromise our judgment: "...when we are rushed, stressed, uncertain, indifferent, distracted, or fatigued,  we tend to focus on less of the information available to us." We revert to shortcuts. We leave ourselves vulnerable to manipulation. Human nature being what it is, we can find ourselves growing sympathetic toward causes that we perceive as suppressed. 

Just another reason we need to promote (and practice!) media literacy.

1 comment:

Maureen said...

Thinking of women's ordination. Proponents have certainly used PJII's prohibition of any discussion of the matter to their advantage although it is not likely to change anything.