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Spring Editorial
The Sinister Side of Perception Management

By Hilary Williamson (Mar 2008)

Abraham Lincoln (16th U.S. President, 1809-1865) said 'You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.' I wonder if that well known truism still holds. Several recent reads have emphasized how easily our opinions are manipulated by careful orchestration of events, as well as information seeded in the Internet and then meticulously fertilized by blogger and media attention.

First I read John Grisham's The Appeal, a cross between Erin Brockovich and an expose of corporate manipulation of what should be a democratic political process for the election of state Supreme Court justices. A billionaire essentially buys a supreme court judge at the bargain price of eight million dollars, and readers see exactly how it's done - including a deliberate, and irrelevant, injection into the process of the inflammatory (in that state) issue of gay marriage. I found it very disturbing to learn how easy it is to purchase what should be one of the foundation blocks of a free society. Grisham tells us in his Author's Note: 'As long as private money is allowed in judicial elections, we will see competing interests fight for seats on the bench ... The results are not far off the mark.'

Reeling from that piece of not so far from fact fiction I read The Whole Truth by David Baldacci, which addresses the manipulation of minds on an even greater scale, via perception management. In this incendiary thriller, another billionaire oligarch wants to restructure world geopolitics according to his own end justifies means vision. He hires a world class perception management firm - whose motto is: 'Why waste time trying to discover the truth, when you can so easily create it?' - and places mercenary boots on the ground for associated wet work.

A carefully constructed fabrication is unleashed, the sort of story that shocks as it plucks every sentimental chord in the heartstrings of Internet users, who instantly - and without critical consideration - forward to everyone on their distribution lists - 'What had started as a digital raindrop in the Internet ocean quickly exploded into a pixel and byte tsunami the size of a continent.' In an Author's Note for the Advance Reading Copy, David Baldacci tells us that many PR firms offer perception management services, that many PM techniques described in his novel are standard operating procedures, and that 'the more information we have available, the less truth we actually know.'

Is it really only uber-rich corporate villains who apply these techniques? Not so. In his book on the development of Greenpeace, Rex Weyler talks about their use of the mindbomb, a single image that can 'stimulate mass changes of consciousness' - and they continue to exploit the Internet and the media in support of what most consider to be good causes today.

How about governments? In another recent release, Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell describes how, prior to U.S. involvement in World War I - triggered by a captured German document that may or may not have been fraudulent - President Woodrow Wilson ordered the post office to confiscate 'anything unpatriotic, which is to say anything critical of the administration ... Anyone who protested, or even voiced reluctance, was called a traitor.' Does that remind anyone of elusive Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and can we doubt that governments continue to use such methods today?

How is it done? Grisham and Baldacci describe many modes of media manipulation (and I really hope that the worst are fictional!) For specific techniques related to computers and the Internet, I recommend B. J. Fogg's Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do. The author, who coined the term captology for 'computers as persuasive technologies' that can change our opinions, attitudes and values, argues for its ethical application. In his book (first published in 2002) Fogg discusses 'how the mobile and connected qualities of the technologies depicted boost the potential for persuasion'. We all need to become much more wary as consumers of information carefully designed to capture our attention and belief - and to teach our children to do the same.

If you haven't read the new Grisham, you really should - and don't miss Baldacci's latest (and IMHO his best yet) when it comes out next month. One of the big values of fiction is its ability to present emerging issues, that should concern all of us, in an accessible manner. Of course, that in itself is perception management. Perhaps, if Lincoln had lived in the 21st century he would have said, 'You can fool most of the people all of the time, and all of the people most of the time.' We all need to work harder to ensure it doesn't become 'You can fool all of the people all of the time' and particularly to take Mary Doria Russell's sage advice at the end of Dreamers of the Day and 'never buy anything from a man who's selling fear.'
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