How To Manipulate Naïve People

Image credit: Warner Brothers

One of the tricks beloved of those who seek to manipulate the naïve is our old friend the false choice. The present-day scourge of populism relies not only on general ignorance and simple-mindedness but also on this hoary old method to corral people’s thinking in such a way as to obfuscate reality and lead people into a mental dead-end.

Let’s take a real example of false choice, recently posted on Facebook by a person whom I know to be well-intentioned but who lacks critical thinking skills and is therefore an ideal victim of this type of ruse.

She was reposting a meme that was created by the National Rifle Association (though there was nothing in the meme that would alert anyone to this fact). It stated:

If you’re genuinely concerned about the lives of children, then focus your energy on banning processed foods instead of banning guns. They are 28 times more likely to die of obesity than be murdered by a firearm.

Let’s look at this carefully. First of all, it’s obviously intended to obfuscate. “Banning processed foods” is clearly an impossibly vague goal as well as impossibly ambitious. What does “processed” mean? We have no idea. It just means, vaguely, “bad.” Secondly where does that “28 times” statistic come from? No idea, but it sounds impressive.

So the false choice begins by presenting a choice between a serious and achievable objective (banning almost all civilian firearms like every other OECD nation already has done) and an impossible and intentionally non-serious choice (banning all processed foods).

But it’s even better than this, because the implication is that people should surrender any idea they may have about banning guns until processed foods have been banned. As processed foods (undefined, intentionally) will never be completely banned this effectively means that the gun lobby is off the hook forever.

There’s a final twist with this particular meme that is ironically entirely to do with choice: anyone can choose not to consume processed foods but no one can choose not to be killed by a random shooter. The parents of those children slaughtered at Sandy Hook could choose to feed their offspring with healthy foods but they had no choice about their precious loved ones being killed by a sullen teen using his mother’s assault weapon. Some of the people killed in the Las Vegas mass shooting may well have chosen not to eat processed foods but they weren’t able to choose not to be slaughtered by a gambler with an assault weapon. The obvious disparity between presence of personal choice and absence of personal choice will not be obvious to the naive, of course, because it requires a modicum of thought to see how empty the meme is — and the meme is aimed at those who are unable to perform such critical thinking.

So a simple meme accomplishes its task of duping the naïve in a mere 37 words. And those words will be mindlessly reposted and retweeted and repeated by those whom it has gulled, without these people ever being aware of how they’ve been manipulated and taken for a ride.

Thoughtful people know the real world isn’t binary. Societies must do many things simultaneously. Imagine a world in which “no money for schools until every soldier has been cured of PTSD!” was the norm. By creating false choices centered on false oppositions, the unscrupulous exploit the inability of naive people to understand how they’ve been tricked.

The powerful technique of false choice isn’t just used by morally repellent organizations like the NRA. It’s used by repellent politicians the world over, and used a lot by Russian troll factories whose intent is to sow fear, confusion, and discord in the West. But today the pre-eminent users of the false choice are the US Republican Party and in the UK the horde of screaming Brexiteers.

The GoP relies heavily on a steady stream of cash from large corporations. Health insurance companies are very profitable and as the paid-for Party of the Wealthy and Powerful the GoP’s job is to ensure they remain that way, regardless of how many ordinary people suffer as a result. And so the false choice ruse is put to work.

Instead of debating policy in a sensible manner, the Republican Party presents the choice as being between the status quo and “socialized” medicine that will, by some magic dreamed up by Republican propagandists, strip Americans of their freedom and result in Death Panels deciding who lives and who dies.

Now who’d want to choose a Death Panel and loss of freedom?

Except, of course, that the choice is entirely bogus. None of the other OECD countries have the USA’s insanely expensive and dysfunctional approach to health care whereby the USA spends twice as much as every other developed nation yet achieves outcomes near the bottom of the pile. Other countries do perfectly well with “socialized” medicine that for the vast majority of their citizens is cheaper and better than in the USA.

And of course no one anywhere has Death Panels except, ironically, in the USA itself where anonymous bureaucrats in the large health insurance companies regularly deny coverage to those who need it most, leading to many avoidable deaths from cancer, heart disease, and congenital illnesses. But the GoP doesn’t want its voters to think about that, of course.

We can all create false choices by starting with two positions we present as oppositional. “You can’t do A until you’ve done B” is the standard setup.

We then make sure the bogus alternative is impossible to achieve. “Don’t provide any aid to refugees until there is not a single homeless person in Britain.”

Job done. We can gull the naïve and and be very confident they will now do the bulk of our work for us by repeating the nonsense we’ve just fed them.

It would be better, of course, if we encouraged people to acquire critical thinking skills so that they would be less easily manipulated by the unscrupulous. But the unscrupulous have no interest in reducing their power — which is why in the USA the Republican Party continues to defund primary and secondary education. Which, of course, they dress up as the necessary consequence of a false choice.

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