To Tell the Truth

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Arthur on 1 June 2005

I’m teaching a course at New York University this coming Fall semester, called “Technologies of Persuasion: Marketing, Politics, and Propaganda in a Digital Age.” And, beyond the title, I didn’t really have anything particular in mind when I pitched the idea to my superiors; only that I was getting sick and tired of students coming to our Interactive Telecommunications Program with little motivation other than to apply new technologies to marketing.

I figured I’d call the course “persuasion,” just like some course I saw in the Communications Department catalogue, in order to fool the would-be marketers into taking it. Then, a few weeks in, after it becomes impossible to “drop” the course, reveal my true intent: to apply some critical analysis of the role that marketing and influence techniques have played in both online and offline society.

Then, it occurred to me that marketers aren’t the only ones who use technology toward persuasive ends. Everyone from Adbusters to employs the latest and most technologically enhanced versions of influence tactics in their campaigns, as well. Sure, many of them might believe it’s to better ends, but who is to say, really? Mightn’t well-intentioned progressives stand to learn a bit about the assumptions underlying their own use of persuasive technologies?

Take a perfectly ethical and justified effort, like the advertising campaigns launched to keep kids from using cigarettes. In one of these commercials, a young teenager is doing pretty well impressing a girl – until he whips out his cigarette. Then, instead of appearing cool, the girl and her friends make it quite clear that the boy is now considered uncool. Another ad, part of the “truth” campaign, shows kids crashing the lobby of a cigarette company, a la Michael Moore, demanding to speak to the lying executives. While the first ad is shot in that quick-cut, off-balance style of the famous late-‘90s AT&T ads, the other is faux documentary – handheld, disorienting, and high impact.

Do the ends justify the means, here? The first commercial exploits what most commercials do: a young person’s deep sense of insecurity. Is it any better for a commercial to use this insecurity to keeps kids off cigarettes than it is to use it to addict them? As far as their lungs are concerned, yes. But as far as reducing their vulnerability to manipulative media, not at all. If anything, the don’t-smoke-because-you’ll-look-uncool ad only confuses the issue further, turning the choice not to smoke into a fashion statement, and ignoring any of its true advantages. And when a choice as important as what to do with your lungs is reduced to a matter as trivial as which brand of jeans or sneaker to wear, the young smoker is not well served. In fact, kids who are self-aware enough to reject people who advertise to them in this fashion might start smoking precisely because TV is telling them it’s uncool.

In steps a more modern breed of advertiser, like those of the Truth campaign, who stage “real” events that inevitably tip the deck in their favor. Like Moore himself, they can create terrific drama by surprising the executives they don’t like, or demonstrating on tape for all to see that an executive refuses to come to the lobby of his office building to explain his Congressional testimony about cigarettes and addiction. But even the hip immediacy of a DV cam, and its nod to bottom-up DIY media doesn’t change the fact that these are Ad Council sponsored spots - meaning adults from big foundations are paying for media to tell kids what to do in a language that might appeal to them.

The question, of course, is whether well-intentioned persuasion is better than evil persuasion. Or, from the perspective of progressives, is it bad when Bush’s people create a fake news spot for local stations to air, but okay when a WTO activist does it? Is it okay for Gore to use NeuroLinguistic Programming (essentially, framing techniques) when he bashes Bush at a speech, but wrong for Bush to recast global warming as “climate change?”

In my opinion – the opinion I’m hoping to persuade you to adopt – persuasion techniques cross the line when they depend on intimidating the target or distorting reality. Most persuasion relies on some form of regression and transference; the commercial or speech confuses the audiences, leads them to revert to a childlike state and then depend on the narrator or presenter to be the parent. Everyone from Clearasil to Farrakhan uses the same basic routine.

New technology figures into this equation quite nicely. The technology itself – be it the web, a holograph, a special effect – becomes the vehicle through which the target is distracted, confused, or intimidated. Those who don’t understand video editing (or that it even exists) can never understand how arbitrarily a news report might be put together. People who don’t understand HTML or, say, fake links and email spoofs, are more easily fooled into Internet scams – from bad investments to Paypal fraud.

Sometimes, this lack of knowledge about a particular persuasive technology just makes it more powerful. I can’t even count the number of journalists and companies that have called me to explain how “neuromarketing” works, and whether they have to go buy some. (It’s a fledgling technique where people are put into MRI machines to see how they react to various words or packaging. And no, I don’t think it really works.)

But as we learn about all these ways that technology can be used to track us, discern our intentions, or fool us into submission, we become increasingly untethered from our own ability to evaluate how we think or feel about anything. Consumer action groups, like Ralph Nader’s for example, take marketers on their word. They protest neuromarketing – going so far as to decry it as a “public health” issue, before the technique is even proven. All they end up doing is giving credence to what may very well be a sham.

The real joke, of course, is that many of these technologies work simply by convincing us they do. Like the mugger who puts his hand in his jacket and says “stick em up,” the influence professionals using new technologies might have no real weapon to back up their attacks. No matter: as long as we think they do, we’ll be susceptible.

Most of us are familiar with the use of persuasion in mass media. Even though media literacy isn’t taught in the United States, and Adbusters appears to have fallen behind “real” marketers in the race to seduce America’s youth, television, billboards, and magazine ads only hold so much mystery. Gone are the days when a television transmission seemed like a magic act, and whoever got his mug on the tube was afforded some automatic awe.

But hi-technology – from iTunes interfaces designed to promote the purchase of more songs, to GPS-enabled cell phones enabling location-based marketing – presents an entirely different challenge to those who might hope to resist the compliance professionals. And by teaching a course – both at NYU and, hopefully, in some form online, I hope to help everyone become more aware of everything that’s being done to sway them towards both literal and figurative “buy” buttons.

What about those who will be taking the course in order to apply the techniques to their own propaganda missions? No, not the kids who will get hired by Coke or McDonalds to sell more sugar and fat, but the ones who hope to create campaigns that make people into activists or compel them to act nicer to each other? Aren’t they entitled to use these techniques? Isn’t it okay for those of us with the best intentions– as shorthand, let’s call ourselves the side that doesn’t want America to succumb to a fundamentalist fascism – to use the same thought weapons as our foes?

No. First off, they’re better at this than we are. Their hearts are in it: they have no ambivalence about lying and manipulating to get their way. Second, and more importantly, the techniques they are using are as much the problem as the beliefs they mean to impose through them.

The shortest way out of this mess is not to learn to manipulate through our new technologies – or even to teach others how to do it. We must instead figure out how to use all these tools to tell and disseminate the truth as best we can discern it, as honestly and transparently as we can. The way we share our partial truths may prove more important than the truths, themselves.