Hambantota port strike

Originally written for socialmedia.lk.

The comments here show the disconnect between the mainstream media in Sri Lanka and the public. To the MSM, the issue is about the alleged assault on a journalist; to the public, the issue is about a politically motivated strike to disrupt the attempt to make the port viable in the long-term.

This is not to excuse attacks on journalists or strikers. It is an insight as to how blinkered our journalists. They are in such a frenzy over writing about the implications of what happened, that they don’t factor public opinion into account at all. This gap between the elite MSM media and the public is dangerous, as we have witnessed in America.

What we are witnessing is how, though the media played an agenda-setting role in this event (e.g. this was a serious matter), the actual framing of events was done by the politicians.

For the MSM, the framing was about the freedom of the press but the public viewed it through the frame of an economic progress issue.

Voters & Prospect Theory: Trump Lessons Part 3

This concept from Behavioral Economics is important in understanding why Trump won. Simply put, prospect theory posits that individuals are risk averse when facing favourable prospects but are more accepting of risks when faced with losses.

In the case of the US elections, a significant number of voters had negative feelings about their current situation and their long-term prospects. They also felt Clinton would be unable to fix these problems, which they perceived as been systemic to the American political order. This made them less averse to taking risks such a voting for a wild card candidate like Trump.

A new national survey finds that Trump supporters overwhelmingly believe that life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them.” Fully 81% of registered voters who support Trump say life has gotten worse, compared with just 11% who say it has gotten better (6% say it is about the same).

Most Clinton supporters take the opposite view: 59% say life for people like them has gotten better over the past half-century, while 19% think it has gotten worse and 18% see little change. [Source]

Most voters consider Donald J. Trump a risky choice for president, saying he lacks the right temperament and values, but he is seen as more transformative and better at handling the economy than Hillary Clinton, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. [Source].

Prospect Theory in Political Communication

This becomes especially interesting from a political communication perspective as it offers guidelines for messaging. A voting block existed whose perception of their current economic and social prospects was negative. Trump correctly framed his messaging to them about losses. e.g. “Make America great again” implies a loss that can be correct.

This poses a challenge to incumbent governments. If a sizable voting block is in a loss mindset, a continuity message will not be effective for them, even if there is a consensus that the alternative is risky. Negative campaigning that carries anti-risk message will not be effective with these voters.

In a Sri Lankan context, there is a case to be made that this was seen in the elections of 2015, with the effectiveness of the “good governance” message of the then opposition. Poor governance under the Rajapaksa government (nepotism / attacks on judicial independence / ethnic biases etc.) were motivating factors despite the continued personal popularity of the incumbent President and what was seen as a positive economic trajectory. This meant that the electorate was willing to risk a coalition of disparate partners as an alternative.

Ideology: Trump Lessons Part 2

The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

This was a great line from an article in The Atlantic and Trump’s billionaire backer Peter Thiel said much the same thing

 I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. … I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

For the purposes of this post, ideology refers to a broad set of principles and policy refers to the specific rules and activities that achieve these. Tougher immigration is an ideology and building a border wall is a policy.

Ideology vs. Policy

When cynicism about politicians is at record highs, a strong ideology has more weight than policy nuance. Expressing ideologically strong positions can convince voters that you will act on issues out of conviction; particularly to those who have seen successive generations of politicians promise to enact specific policies to fix their issues, only to let them down.

In a practical sense, campaigners will find it to their benefit to use strong metaphors – that they may have previously shied away from – when referring to issues. If there is a feeling that law and order are at a crisis point, saying that “places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities”  confers ideological credibility even if no-one actually believes that.

As cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff has pointed out, metaphors are a powerful idea framing tool, and crucial to the way voters think about issues.

our brains are structured by hundreds of conceptual metaphors and frames early in life, that we can only understand what our brains allow, and that conservatives and progressives have acquired different brain circuitry with the consequence that their normal modes of reason are different.
What progressives call “rational arguments” are not normal modes of real reason. What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different.

“Drain the Swap” is another great example of this kind of metaphor.

Sri Lanka & Yahapalanaya

Bringing a Sri Lankan element into this, it is worth reflecting on the elections Sri Lanka had last year. The coalition of parties and political figures that won both the Presidential and general elections in 2015, campaigned under the idea of Yahapalanaya (good governance). In hindsight, and given the challenges the new government has faced since (with a subsequent public backlash), one wonders how prepared both the public and the election winners were for translating an ideological ideal to policy.

Trump Lessons Part 1: picking your battles

The problem from a political campaigning perspective with the type of handwringing articles we’ve seen about Trump’s sexism and racism is that they focus on the wrong thing. This happens in Sri Lankan politics too. In the latter, there is a tendency in some circles to focus on the wrong aspects of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity and vote base.

While it’s true that most if not all racists are Mahinda Rajapaksa fans, not all MR fans are racist. They vote for him because he represents a nationalist pride (including in economics and foreign policy) that is not perceived as being catered to by his opponents.

One of the many lessons from Trump’s victory is to focus on the correct issues when campaigning against ideologically strong candidates*. In Trump’s case, all the attacks on his sexism and racism were not relevant to voters who felt betrayed by the political and economic system. In hindsight, the focus should have been on relentlessly undermining the perception he was someone who could offer a fix for a broken system. With Hillary though, the Democrats picked the worst possible candidate for that message.

The messaging about sexism and racism, while it had its place in specific audience segment marketing, was not crucial to a large section of voters**. Note Hillary’s relative underperformance with certain female and youth segments.

______

*Ideology will be discussed in Part 2

**The fact that the size and enthusiasm of this segment of voters was underestimated compounded the issue.

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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 9.20.02 AM

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.