Why So Sad? How Propagandists Use ‘Positivity’ to Keep Us in Check

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Negativity has tremendous power to persuade–which is why propagandists use the distraction of positivity to silence critics who expose them.

Humans are easily influenced by negative ideas. That’s because all of us are descendants of early humans whose “negative” feelings propelled them toward ways to hide or get away from danger. We didn’t descend from humans who thought positively about their power and engaged in hand to paw conflict. Why? It’s because those people didn’t live long enough to reproduce.

Our focus on the negative is why political social media can be Fault Finding Central. It’s why Divide and Conquer programs work so well. For example, in the U.S., Democrats and centrists have been very effectively divided on Twitter. If propagandists bash a group repeatedly, people are likely to forget the source of the message and to conclude that the group must be getting bashed constantly for a reason.

This is why so much effective propaganda is negative. It’s in our genes to be affected strongly by negative experiences, images, emotions and ideas. Successful right-wing propagandists incite fear, rage and disgust. They paint negative pictures of Democrats, minorities & immigrants. Think of all the negative images Republicans paint of Hillary Clinton, Barrack Obama, and Nancy Pelosi. This has influenced many Right wing media consumers, as well as politically undecided people and even some Democrats.

Negative messaging and campaigning work just as well for Democrats as they do for Republicans.

“The negative message proved twice as effective a motivator and did especially well with the younger end of the cohort (aged 18 to 27), women, and Hispanic voters. That final category, though hardly a monolith, is especially important to motivate, the research finds, because “non-whites have significantly lower intensity on caring about who controls Congress—particularly Hispanics.”

“As for labeling the opposition, the researchers also tested “names for Republicans that make them sound bad.” In general, the more congressional Republicans were linked with Trump, the worse they sounded. Neither “the establishment” nor “the people in power” performed nearly as well (poorly?) as “Trump’s enablers,” “the party of Trump,” or “Trump’s allies in Congress.” And “Republicans are moving us backwards” or—this was really tested—“Republicans are fucking us over” are found to be more effective than “Republicans are stealing our future” or “Republicans are selling us out.”

Because negative campaigning works so well, propagandists want to prevent their opponents from doing it. Right Wing columnists and pundits constantly offer bad advice to Democrats– advice that will ultimately help Democrats to lose. Some of this bad advice tells Democrats to always be positive—that is, not to criticize Trump or Republicans. If Democrats follow this advice, that helps Republicans. It hurts Democrats by keeping them from using the highly successful campaign strategy of pointing out dangers posed to the nation by Republicans in power.

In addition to giving bad advice to Democrats, Republicans are eager to give bad advice to media too—advice that helps Trump and hurts the mainstream media who expose Trump’s lies.

Media are also advised by to avoid “negative” statements about the Trump administration and to stop being “Left biased”– even though most of them are not. Mainstream media are often accused of covering Trump more negatively than they covered Obama. These act as if it doesn’t matter how destructive a president is—as if media ought to cover him positively, no matter what he does.

An essay by Margaret Sullivan discusses mainstream media’s habit of bending over far Rightward, in order to avoid being accused of being Leftist or of being the “enemy of the people.” Many in media are afraid of being accused of covering Trump in a negative way.

“More insidiously, taking Trump’s ‘enemy’ bait has another, less obvious effect. As the media try desperately to seem evenhanded — unbiased, not left-leaning — they end up overcompensating. As Media Matters for America documented recently, conservative guests often dominate the Sunday TV news shows, across all networks. With an enemy like this, Trump and his cohort don’t need friends.”

At the same time the Right demands that media cover Trump positively, Trump himself speaks negatively about media—and unrealistically so– labeling media as the “enemy of the people.” Trump hurts the media while pressuring media not to hurt his effectiveness as a con artist—demanding that media be “positive” rather than report the truth about what he says and does.

These strategies are typical of those used by abusers, bullies and con artists. Abusers feel entitled to have others treat them far better than they treat others. Much has been written on the topic, and everyone, including those in journalism, can understand the current political scene better by reading books about con artists.

This is an area where Right-wing propagandists take advantage of American cultural values. In demanding that media and Democrats never be “negative”, propagandists are taking advantage of the American cultural value of positivity. We’re used to telling each other to be more positive. So even when this advice comes from a suspect source, such as our political opponents, we may believe it anyway.

So propagandists focus on being negative by bashing Democrats, while advising their opponents to use the non-working strategy of being completely positive and non-critical toward the Right.

Actually, being positive can work to some degree—not as the only strategy but as an additional strategy to the “negative” critical one. Think about John F Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. They positively inspired people with their constructive goals. However, even positive campaigners for human rights are not afraid to call out or criticize injustice. So they are partly “negative” too.

A lot of propaganda is of the Divide and Conquer sort. For example, in 2016, Bannon and Cambridge Analytica bashed Hillary Clinton incessantly and flooded Right Wing media, mainstream media, and social media with negative portrayals of her. This persuaded groups of likely Democratic voters to become disillusioned with Clinton and the Democratic party, and thus to stay home on election day or to vote third party. This was extremely effective.

Because of the negativity factor in political marketing and campaigning, it is necessary to re-label who is where on the political spectrum. The new labeling needs to be about their effects on voters and thus government, not their beliefs. We can best determine the political effect on the nation of a political pundit, columnist, TV host, or TV guest, by which side they bash the most.

Think about that centrist columnist, TV host or TV guest whose beliefs are left of center, but who spends most of his/her words criticizing or bashing Democrats for being too politically correct, or for some other flaw that is small compared to what our own government has been doing. He or she is decidedly right-wing in her impact.

Consider that Leftist columnist who keeps bashing establishment Democrats for real and/or imagined flaws, mostly because he doesn’t think they are Far Left enough, but who seldom mentions Trump or the GOP. He’s right-wing in his impact.

What about that supposedly liberal philosopher, scientist or self-help book writer who actually talks mostly about non-political topics on his podcasts? When he does talk about politics though, he bashes the left a lot more often than the Right. He’s right-wing in his impact on elections and government.

Criticism and bashing have a greater impact, on average, than positive comments. And, face it, on political media and social media, positive comments are rare. Because of this, most of one’s political influence consists of helping a group by bashing or criticizing their opponents—whether you realize that’s what you are doing or not.

This is especially so when the criticism is not constructive—when one bashes groups as being irredeemably or inherently corrupt, evil, stupid, weak etc.

Here are some tribal rules that are often and successfully used by bashers of Democrats—whether the bashers are centrists, leftists, right-wingers or Russian trolls:

My tribe is good, no matter what we do. I’ll make up some reasons why we’re good, moral, strong, competent etc.

Your tribe is bad, no matter what you do. I’ll make up some reasons why you’re evil, corrupt, weak, incompetent etc.

This is so, even if both tribes do the same things. I’m not focused on my tribe’s virtue, but your tribe’s evil.

This is taking advantage of the primal human fear of danger.

Do Democrats ever act this way to Republicans? Of course, but our polarization in the U.S. is very asymmetrical. The more typical behavior for Democrats is to bend over Rightwards to be fair and to compromise with Republicans.

Using the above tribal rules and beliefs, propagandists make up lies to sell their party and their candidates, using this formula:

  1. Democrats, or some of their constituent groups such as minorities, do/say something.
  2. The job is to make up reasons why that thing is irredeemably evil, corrupt, immoral, scary, weak, pitiful, snowflake-like, enraging etc.
  3. To find some reasons why Democrats are irredeemably bad, one can cherry pick a few rare facts or events—for example a couple of instances of overdone political correctness by liberal students at universities. If one can’t find even a single event or fact to overgeneralize, to support the badness of the opponent group, one just makes something up.

The propagandist may make up reasons why the Right is praiseworthy too. But that is nowhere near as important as negative campaigning. Don’t believe me? Compare the number of times people at Trump rallies chant “We love Trump” to the number of times they chant “Lock her up.”

People often vote AGAINST someone or something—the dangerous predator, the scary or stupid or corrupt person, the weak leader who supposedly might lose the battle or might let your tribe be captured or humiliated–even more than they vote FOR the supposedly strong leader.

Negative propaganda is highly influential.

Another aspect of propaganda is its use as a distraction from the very most important issues—most of which are “negative” or critical of the Trump administration and/or the Right.

People in media and the general public are just beginning to pick up on the powerful influence of distractions on politics and government. The ability of Trump and the Right to distract media consumers and voters from important matters essentially gives the Right free reign to do whatever they please, under the cover of distractions on which the public is focused.

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff has often discussed distraction. However, most people have no idea how influential Trump and the GOP’s campaign of distraction is. For example, here are just a few important issues that end up on the back burner for the media and thus the public, pushed out of the news by Trump’s latest nonsensical tweet or Melania’s wardrobe choices:

  1. the effects of climate change
  2. the fact that our voting system is extremely insecure; many voting machine companies are owned by Republican donor companies. This is more of a problem that one might think, since voting software can be fraudulently programmed. It is possible to write software that, for example, takes every third vote for the Democrat and assigns it to the Republican. No outside hacking is necessary. Detection is impossible, because voting software is legally mandated to be kept secret, due to patent law.
  3. Whether this has ever happened before, it’s still a problem that could at any time cause the next U.S. election to be our last one. Massive factions of local, state and federal government officials could be suddenly installed. They could keep their party in power forever, due to the population’s acceptance of vote tabulations from voting machines that can easily be fraudulently programmed by secret software code that by law cannot be revealed.
  4. all the other voter suppression and voting system manipulation, from the long lines to the voter ID laws, to deleting large numbers of people from the voter rolls, to counties having inadequate numbers of voting machines or power cords for them etc. .
  5. the fact that Republicans have stated they intend to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, to pay for the tax cuts they gave to people who don’t need tax cuts.
  6. massive corruption on the part of Trump and his administration

It’s not that these facts and factors are never covered. They are, but rarely, and coverage is not often repeated. To better serve the public, media need to make a change to cover issues of such great importance often and thoroughly.

If we want things to get better politically, one solution is to become more “negative” or focused on the most serious problems. If we can help each other to clearly see our bad political weather now by pointing out the dangers of our opponents’ policies, that will help us to move forward and make more progress.

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