Be Silent No More - An Influencer's Responsibility

In Washington DC, Silicon Valley, Russia, China, New York, Iran and thousands of other locations around the world influencers are developing and implementing strategies that exploit human vulnerabilities to sell products and amass power.  Many of us so called "influencers" and/or "marketers" have studied for years and learned how we can utilize current social and collaborative technologies and databases of followers/contacts/connections to influence people.  We have developed content that appeals to our targeted audiences and collected followers.  Although these technologies and efforts in most cases have been used to distribute useful knowledge and advice, they can also be used for nefarious manipulation. 

For the past month I have been working on a project about the future of information, truth and influence.  The violence and insurrection of the past week in Washington DC has made me regret I had not started this project and shared it years ago.  I believe it is our responsibility, as influencers, to be transparent and share how social and collaboration technologies, databases and networks all work together to impact the way people think.  As recent events have demonstrated, there can be extreme power with real-world impact derived from online influence.  We as influencers have a responsibility to help our readers become more critical thinkers that understand how online influence and mind manipulation happens so all of us can be more alert and critical consumers of online content - and better citizens and more educated participants in our democracy. 

Here are some introductory talking points:
  1. Current and future information related arguments are and will be more dangerous than in the past because of their direct, personalized influence on vast numbers of targeted individuals, businesses, communities, societies, governments and economics.
  2. Targeted influence campaigns over time can change people's perception of reality and can quickly turn into mob, swarm and cancel culture behaviors.
  3. The combination of in-depth individual profiles (consumer/voter data) and targeted social media messaging strategies means external parties can create a personalized "messaging bubble" around each of us that will over time influence how we think and view the world.
  4. Organizations are increasingly using society’s networks to directly attack their opponents' leaders, decision-makers and members in order to destroy their unity, credibility, fortitude, perseverance, confidence and willingness to serve. 
  5. There are increasingly well funded and highly effective influence operations being implemented to change target audiences’ reality based on their emotional vulnerabilities and current perceptions of truth.
  6. The velocity of information and disinformation today is overwhelming gatekeepers, fact checkers and audiences everywhere, and those with nefarious intent understand this and are skilled at introducing misinformation into societies' conversations.
  7. Influencers and information manipulators today have thousands of ways to distribute ideas, and the speed advantage over traditional gatekeepers to get these ideas (true or false) quickly and widely disseminated before they can be fact checked and censored.
  8. The strategic influence advantage goes to the side that fields the most credible and compelling messages for a particular group’s reality and emotional vulnerability.
  9. Information is being used both defensively, offensively to change the way people think.
  10. Those who control what goes into an audiences' brain  – controls them and the power they represent.
  11. Provocative information (both real and fake) fund media and social media’s business models.  It is in their financial interest to amplify engagement, agitation and anger to increase ad revenue, readership and influence.
This is just a start.  Please recognize how this works.  Understand these strategies are funding the business models of social networks.   Organizations that are intent on changing the way people think are willing to invest billions to accomplish this.

All of us connected humans are subjected to a daily bombardment of intentional internet-based mind manipulation, including our customers, prospects, middle schoolers, consumers, elderly, depressed, discontent, agitated, vulnerable, ignorant and criminal.  In a recent study it was found those age 65 and older shared over six times more fake news articles than did the youngest user groups in the study.  This older group simply doesn't seem to understand that influence campaigns are being deployed to impact their thinking, and that they are being unwitting participants in it.  Please make sure you are not one of these.

If you find yourself agitated, angry or motivated to share an opinion or article with others on social media, first ask yourself where did this information originate from, who are the sponsors of it, and what are their motivations for stirring you up?  Who benefits from this agitation?  What are the outcomes the original authors are hoping for?

Social media companies have recently tried to tap down misinformation, however, research indicates that despite these efforts the viral nature of false news continues to take advantage of the algorithms that gin up what people see on those platforms. The [social media] algorithms often reward outrage over accuracy and telling people what they want to hear, or what gets them angry can easily overwhelm the truth. .

All people and organizations today must realize they are immersed in an information and misinformation battlefield and critical thinking and analysis are absolutely required.  Business leaders are starting to recognize this as a survey conducted by The Leadership IQ, consisting of 3,272 business leaders reveals:
  • 59% are concerned about ‘fake news’ in the workplace 
  • 24% rising to the level of ‘very concerned’ 
  • 64% are concerned about ‘alternative facts’ in the workplace 
  • 27% rising to the level of ‘very concerned’
  • 58% believe that nowadays it is easier for people to get away with lying
Misinformation can not only divide a country, but it can also kill hundreds of thousands of people as our current experience with the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates.  Here is how it works, "Fake news operates by ‘masking healthy behaviors and promoting erroneous practices that increase the spread of the virus and ultimately result in poor physical and mental health outcomes’ by limiting the dissemination of ‘clear, accurate, and timely transmission of information from trusted sources and by compromising short-term containment efforts and longer-term recovery efforts." 

Influence campaigns and strategies are so recognizable today many even have their own names.  "The Russian model, rests on the principle that people get convinced when they hear the same message many times from a variety of sources, no matter how biased…If you make a claim that is truly outrageous, it will attract attention and eyeballs, spread far and wide, and ensure that people hear it repeatedly — and over time begin to believe it. 

As I wrap up this article, let me leave you with the basics of a nefarious mind manipulation or influence strategy in the hopes this will help you recognize and understand what is happening when you see it in the future.  People seeking to manipulate others by giving them an "alternative information ecosystem" all seem to follow a similar playbook:
  1. Establish a goal.  What thoughts, mental frameworks and opinions are you wanting to promote or change in your audience?
  2. Identify target audiences.
  3. Understand their emotional vulnerabilities.
  4. Understand the demographic groups most vulnerable to mind manipulation are the lower-middle class, working poor, elderly and blacks. These groups are driven by the insecurity of their place in society and in the economy. They’re easiest to influence by sharing stories that others are out to trick them and the world is out to get them. 
  5. Use high numbers of coordinated communication channels, social networks and messages to distribute and echo messages.
  6. Disseminate truths, partial truths or outright fictions to support your views.  Understand that consistency or credibility is less important than the volume of messages.
  7. Call all dissenting sources of information, truth and influence fake and villainize any and all critics.
  8. Use frequently repeated narratives that support your audiences existing views to harden them.
  9. Focus messaging on improving the “status” of your audience over other groups.
  10. Provide a spokesman willing to say the impolite things others only think.
  11. Find, list and promote your target audiences' grievances.
  12. Blame elites and specific demographic segments for all grievances.
  13. Sow distrust in existing institutions, norms and leaders. 
  14. Offer simplistic solutions to grievances.
  15. Empower your target audiences with "secret" information and conspiracies that make them feel special and valued.
  16. Give them a "holy" purpose and mission greater than themselves to urgently promote and defend.
  17. It's helpful to focus attention on a one of a kind, visionary leader that has easy answers to complex problems, and promote him/her as the only one capable of solving the big pressing problems of your target audience.
These, of course, are necessarily incomplete, but hopefully after reading this list you will be more alert to the impact of the content and information you are consuming.

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Kevin Benedict
Partner | Futurist | Leadership Strategies at TCS
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***Full Disclosure: These are my personal opinions. No company is silly enough to claim them. I work with and have worked with many of the companies mentioned in my articles.
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