Strict fathers, Trump and Appachchi

These articles quoting George Lakoff, one of the great thoughts leaders on political communication, about the influence moral frameworks and perceptions of parenting have on voters were very intriguing.

He describes the two models as “strict father” and “nurturant parent.” In the former, he says, “the father knows best, the father knows right from wrong, and the job of the father is not just to support and protect the family but also, with respect to children, to teach them right from wrong so they have the right moral views.”

Nurturant parents, by contrast, feel their job is to empathize with their child, to know what their child needs, and to have open two-way discussions with their child. – NPR


So far as I can discern, he always on topic, but you have to understand what his topic is. As I observed in my Understanding Trump paper, Trump is deeply, personally committed to his version of Strict Father Morality. He wants it to dominate the country and the world, and he wants to be the ultimate authority in this authoritarian model of the family that is applied in conservative politics in virtually every issue area.

Every particular issue, from building the wall, to using our nukes, to getting rid of inheritance taxes (on those making $10.9 million or more), to eliminating the minimum wage — every issue is an instance of his version of Strict Father Morality over all areas of life, with him as ultimately in charge.

As he shifts from particular issue to particular issue, each of them activates his version of Strict Father Morality and strengthens it in the brains of his audience. So far as I can tell, he is always on topic — where this is the topic. – truth-out

This was especially interesting from a Sri Lankan perspective, as it was a model that was explicitly (though inadvertently) followed by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the elections of 2015. One of his campaign themes was the idea of him as “Appachchi” (අප්පච්චි ) which is a Sinhala language word that means Father. Interestingly, this Sinhala word is (with a disclaimer that I am not a linguist!) a very rural and traditional way of saying father.

The visuals cues in the video are fairly obvious, with Rajapaksa as a traditional and beloved father / leader who is responsible for national development and knows what is best for Sri Lanka.

 

 

Roundup on politics, media & campaigning.

There’ve been a few articles that caught my eye lately, but these two stood out in the context of this blog.

The always excellent Matt Taibbi had an excellent piece on the current status of the news media in
light of the US Presidential elections.

But young audiences in particular tend to be incredibly turned off by the media-as-cheerleaders model of reporting. News audiences among the young have in recent years declined rapidly, mirroring a corresponding loss of trust in major-party politics.
“Garbage, lies, propaganda, repetitive and boring,” is how a University of Texas researcher described the perceptions of young people vis a vis the news. Corporate news directors, much like the leaders of the Republican and Democratic Parties, seem blissfully unconcerned with the changing attitudes of their future customer base.

As I’ve written on this blog, the role of the news media in relation to a campaign is changing dramatically.

The question is, will the mainstream news industry in its current form, through an orgy of partisanship,  compromise itself to the point of irrelevance?

Post-truth politics and the ability of campaigns to be fast and loose with the facts is another topic that this blog covers.

This Guardian article makes the case that with social media, we are in an unprecedented age of outrageous untruths.

In the age of social media, moreover, dubious political claims are packed into atomised fragments and attract thousands of enthusiastic retweets, while the people who help to redistribute them are unlikely ever to see a rebuttal that comes later or in someone else’s timeline. We’ve all moved on.

Social media is less a conversation than it is a virtually distributed riot of “happy firing” (a term for the celebratory shooting of assault rifles into the sky).

I also had the privilege of attending the E-lection Bridge Asia-Pacific conference, an annual conference that brings together political strategists and campaign managers throughout the region.

As a test to incorporating more multimedia content onto this blog, I recorded some brief thoughts on the event.

Authenticity and Framing

This post about the repackaging of Hilary Clinton (in a manner similar to that of the sitcom character Leslie Knope) struck a cord with me; particularly in the context of authenticity and framing.

She was preening and privileged, removed from the experience of normal people. She was too used to power and money to understand anyone but Washington insiders. She was so focused on her own career that she couldn’t hear the cries of those who were hurting.

So the Democratic convention did exactly what Parks did — and even suggested Clinton had a bit of Knope in her. She worked so hard she impressed political opponents. She fought for what she believed in tirelessly. She never quit, even when things seemed dire.

Those who attack her, then, are only playing into the Knope-like Clinton Democrats tried to build up — a tireless striver who suffers the slings and arrows of criticism to come out the other side, stronger.

A common refrain about politicians is that they need to be more authentic. While there may be a desire for this in politics, it should also be pointed out that authenticity should not be confused with being likeable (as Donald Trump’s relative success can testify to). In fact, with the proper framing, a candidate who is authentic but not likeable, can be pitched successfully to voters.

If the perception of the candidate is that they are a political insider, policy wonk and technocrat, as in the case of Hilary Clinton (or as we had in Sri Lanka with Ranil Wickremesinghe), it is these characteristics that need to be seen as virtues when framing the choice of election contenders. The pitch to voters should be that these attributes are required to solve to issues of the day.

This a far better expenditure of time and effort, than forcing the candidate into classicly inauthentic-authentic behaviour such as kissing babies.

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Post-truth politics and facts

With media gatekeeping being the topic of my previous post, this article brought up some points that are worth retreading. In many ways, it is a lament for the death of gatekeeping and a statement against what has been described as “post-truth politics”.

This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact had been badly debased.

Correctly, the article ties this into the prevailing distrust of experts. It also brings social media into play, and bemoans the fact that,

In the news feed on your phone, all stories look the same – whether they come from a credible source or not. And, increasingly, otherwise-credible sources are also publishing false, misleading, or deliberately outrageous stories. “Clickbait is king, so newsrooms will uncritically print some of the worst stuff out there, which lends legitimacy to bullshit,”

I have sympathy for both these views, but from a campaigning perspective the implications are clear, particularly if you represent a mainstream organisation that would traditionally rely on mainstream media networks and conventional messaging. The two key points are:

  • Facts and experts have their place but the use of these must connect with the audience. They must be presented in a way that is:
    • personally relevant to the audience,
    • connects emotionally,
    • and be sufficiently consequential to their lives to influence their decision.
  • If the media is no longer a reliable (if tacit) partner for campaigns, then the onus is on the campaign to maximise outreach and engagement via its own media platforms. Owned social media becomes the crucial publishing platform in this scenario.

Media gatekeeping & campaigning

Having made frequent references to media disintermediation, I thought it would be instructive  to take a look at media gatekeeping. Particularly in light of the previous post on Brexit and the idea that electorates were “tired of experts”.

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Source

Media gatekeeping in a traditional context meant that the flow of information and opinion went through a filter consisting of the traditional mainstream media (MSM). This meant that relatively conventional opinions (either side of the prevalent political spectrum) were what the audience was presented with and told they had to chose from.

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 7.23.51 AM

Source

However, digital media now means that the role of MSM as gatekeepers is greatly diminished. A new visualisation of this process would now look something like this:

Screen Shot 2016-07-05 at 8.40.30 AM

In this model, if the news information (N1,N3) from alternative sources and the campaign is discarded by the traditional gatekeepers, they can bypass the latter and reach their audience.

Not only are the options available to organisations to bypass the gatekeepers and communicate directly with the audience far more powerful, there is also a proliferation of information sources. These can be new media such as digital only news providers, powerful individual influencers or the audience members own social networks (e.g. friends and family). It should be noted that the relative weightage given to each news source does have demographic differentiations.

However, for a broad based campaign, the implications of this change in gatekeeping is that not only the content presented have to change but  as I’ve written previously, the media mix that a campaign has to deploy is more diverse and complex.

Experts, framing & communication

“Not only were we facing the British establishment in the government, we also, in some ways, took on the world establishment because all these heads of government [including Obama] were coming out to say that Britain should remain in the E.U.,” he said. “It was quite a challenge to actually win this campaign with all the forces arrayed against us. At the end of the day, this was a people-versus-the-elite referendum. And the people were on our side.” – Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Leave

Given this blog’s focus on campaigning and framing, there is one aspect of the Brexit fallout that  was especially interesting. There has been a considerable amount of wailing over how the Remain campaign was too elitist and failed to address the concerns of Leave voters, who were older, less educated and poorer. Despite this, it was intriguing that areas that benefitted the most from EU subsidies voted for the leave campaign. A case of voters acting against their own self-interests or a failure in political communication?

Brexit demographic
Brexit demographics source: https://next.ft.com/content/1ce1a720-ce94-3c32-a689-8d2356388a1f

There is a phrase by a UK politician that has had a considerable amount of coverage in the media – “The British people are sick of experts”.  I agree and think that the prescriptive framing of issues through experts is now a flawed political communication tactic. There is a strong sentiment against top down pronouncements that tell voters to trust in the opinions of experts irrespective of either their own experiences or the frame in which they process the issues.

Ads like this will no longer resonate with voters who feel betrayed by “experts” or “elites”.

In addition to the disconnect between the cultural and economic elites in life experiences, there is another reason for this development. Disintermediation means that issues are no longer exclusively framed by experts or the mainstream media. People now have access to multiple sources of information that independently either reinforce their existing cognitive framework or influences them to adopt a new one.

The implication are significant. If an issue (such as free trade or mass migration) is being processed through one frame, a parade of experts offering counter arguments will not change that. Top down and prescriptive communication tactics are becoming less effective. Campaigners need to re-evaluate what constitutes effective content and the channels through which it is communicated.

Priming and political messaging

In other words, it’s not enough for an ad simply to be clever or have good visuals. It also has to connect with the audience at a time when voters are primed to pay attention to the message.

The use of “primed” in this article caught my attention. It ties into an earlier post about “agenda setting” in political communication. I wrote there about the media’s role in agenda setting for Trump. Priming is closely linked to agenda setting, though the exact relationship is not always clearly defined.  As a useful examination of political messaging and an interesting intellectual exercise, I’ve applied the two concepts using the “Quotes” ad example cited in the article.

Agenda setting is the starting point. It crucial to understand here that the media do not tell us what to think, but rather what to think about.  This provides a context for public discussion of an issue, setting the stage for audience understanding, both at conscious and subconscious level.  For a political message such as the one described in article to produce results, there has to be an effective agenda setting process in place. In this case, one that conveys the idea that Trump is “anti-women”.

Priming is the ongoing effect of exposure to agenda setting. It influences the behaviour of individuals over a period of time making them receptive to the political message. That explains the reason why the ad was more effective two weeks after its release, rather than immediately. The audience was not primed for the message when initially exposed to the ad. However, the coverage of a subsequent event started an agenda setting process that over time primed them to be more receptive towards it.

When the ad was first released and initially tested, Trump’s attitudes toward women, although controversial, were not a prime topic of political conversation. But then, on March 30, in a town hall interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Trump said that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have illegal abortions.

As news rapidly spread about the remark, Trump’s campaign tried to walk it back, issuing a statement saying that Trump believed that doctors who perform abortions should be punished, but not the women who undergo the procedures. The conflicting statements only heightened coverage of the issue.

Agenda Setting in Trump’s Triumph

A note about one of the many things that struck me while observing the Republican primaries. I thought it an interesting exercise to evaluate this using the agenda setting marketing theory.

Agenda-setting theory describes the “ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda.”

Using this, it is apparent that  media’s overwhelming coverage of the Trump campaign acted to prime the electorate to be open to his messaging. This is consistent with the role of the media in an agenda setting context. They did not tell the voters what to think about Trump. Rather, by talking about his attributes, they directed a receptive primary voter audience to Trump and his messaging.

The media’s coverage told voters that:

  • Trump is interesting.
  • Trump is different.
  • Trump is an outsider.

Given the current zeitgeist is anti-establishment, this created a perfect platform for Trump to push his message. With social media providing campaigners their own publishing platforms, the role of media organisations will be increasingly confined to that of agenda setting, while their role as opinion makers will continue to diminish.