The public is not actually that manipulated: it seems that the public is manipulating the possible manipulators

The public is actually not that manipulated: it seems that the public is manipulating the possible manipulators

Leaders, elites, and the media may put collections of glittering ideas on shelves, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people are willing to buy them . And when they do, it can often be better to conclude that the message has struck a chord rather than that the audience has been manipulated into doing something they didn’t want to do.

In other words: it could be that the public is not as manipulable as we think. In fact, it often appears that the public is manipulating would-be manipulators rather than the other way around. Furthermore, after an idea has been clearly accepted by the public, leaders, elites, and the media will often be more pleased to serve the idea than to seek to change it .

The intricate web of memes

In more general terms, this thesis is complemented by studies that find that 90 percent of new products are not sold despite mass promotional campaigns, that advertising in political campaigns has, at best, only a marginal impact, that the media tend to seek stories not only because of their intrinsic importance but because of their ability to generate clicks .

Not all efforts to sell fear, threats, or ideas generally find a receptive audience. People are regularly bombarded with ideas, and as they sort through them, they choose which ones to embrace and which ones to fear. For example, Americans believe that terrorism is a threat, but are not afraid of genetically modified foods, and many remain substantially indifferent to warnings about global warming, even in the face of warnings that sometimes reach apocalyptic proportions .

An example may help explain the dynamics: A famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s inspired great public concern in the United States. This phenomenon is often considered to have been generated by the media because it was only after the famine received prominent media coverage that it entered the public consciousness. But a study by Christopher Bosso suggests a different interpretation. At first, the media were reluctant to cover the famine because they viewed this story as, like other African famines, a common event. However, going against journalistic consensus, NBC decided to do three-day coverage of the famine in October 1984. This inspired a huge public response, after which NBC gave the story extensive follow-up coverage, and its TV and print competitors were then quick to jump on the bandwagon, flooding their customers with information that, to the surprise of the media, was actually in demand.

It is a game of fish that bites its tail, but it is rarely possible to locate the origin. It is not known who bells the cat. It is from the very interaction of thousands of factors that the ideological trend of epidemiological trend emerges .

This experience suggests that audiences can be remarkably fickle about events and the information they choose to be moved by. Some offers become prominent or even go viral, while others don’t arouse interest. People can accept the signals of those who seek to "manipulate" them, such as public officials, party leaders, opinion elites, the media and publicists. They can be affected by social and group influences or identities. They can respond to the facts. They can apply heuristics or pre-existing attitudes. Or they may just succumb to the whim for the whim .

But the prediction of what will happen is uncertain, and the question of what "causes" an opinion to crystallize or even go viral becomes thorny . For example, someone once countered existing fashion by wearing their baseball cap backwards. The response was favorable – a sizeable number of people found the innovation great and followed suit. But does this mean that the fashion leader "manipulated" the followers? It is suspected that if the same person had worn his hat with the brim to one side, the same respondents would have reacted negatively. The relevant "causal" variable seems to be rooted in the psychology of the exposed, or in their neurons or genes, not so much in the intention of the "trendsetter".

It is certainly a new approach to how the world works, where there are not so much leaders or manipulators, as inextricable sets of memes interacting like a non-linear dynamic system (like meteorology) does. In other words: nobody is behind the wheel. Different agents with different values ​​enter the fray. You can delve deeper into this tangle of counterintuitive interactions in the following video :