If you haven’t been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard that Brian Williams lied about coming under enemy fire while reporting from Iraq. (And you’ve seen at least one well-deserved #brianwilliamsmisremembers meme.) The uproar is understandable. Williams abused his credible persona as a news reporter to tell a self-glorifying story that influenced his succession to Tom Brokaw as anchor of NBC Nightly News.
Lately, I’ve had a few restless nights thinking about the dark side of influential web content. In fact, I haven’t thought about it this much since I wrote Clout, which outlines principles of influence and techniques for applying them to content. Why? Because influential content is a force. While writing “Clout,” I knew the power of making content influential and the impact abusing that power could have. I’ve seen plenty of examples of abuse since then, such as Lance Armstrong using his come-back-from-cancer narrative to cover his cheating and bullying. As I look to the sophisticated future of content and the people who consume it, I see both its promise and its risk for even more abuse.
To avoid that risk, let’s take a few moments to face the dark side of influence. Unlike Star Wars, the appearance of the dark side isn’t always clear. There is no Darth Vader or Death Star to target. There is no obvious line between good and bad influence.
So, the best way to see the dark side is to walk through some examples. Below, I’m sharing two principles of influential web content that can turn insidious and why.
One of my 2015 predictions notes that Americans like having more content and information available than ever before. This proliferation of content, however, puts pressure on any organization who publishes content to stand out. In Clout, I talk about this effort to get attention as raising awareness And, let’s be honest, it’s really hard to compete against cat videos for attention.
One principle for getting attention is to trigger people’s emotions. And one technique for applying that principle to content is using sensory details. In other words, showcase what something looks, tastes, feels, sounds, or smells like. For example, showing a juicy hamburger sizzling on a grill will whet the appetites of hamburger lovers.
But what happens when the lurid details of sexual harassment in the tech industry titillate a different kind of appetite? Sure, that technique raises awareness. But it also perpetuates the problem. Take the Newsweek cover that shows a cursor molesting a woman.
Alexia Tsostis of TechCrunch summarizes the dark side well.
Newsweek’s faceless and sexualized symbol of women in tech is a disservice to these women and countless others. It’s basic and reductive. We have worked so hard to broaden the scope of what we can be, in Silicon Valley, in the world, and here comes Newsweek putting us back in the box with an image that bluntly, sloppily trivializes how painfully that progress was won.
(See her full article in TechCrunch here.)
Plus, these sexy details can distract from more subtle yet insidious problems with the treatment of women in technology (and often in business). I’ve never been groped at a tech company party, but I certainly have been treated with condescension in a meeting. How do you fight that?
One way is to fight provocative sensory detail with a different kind of sensory detail. Upworthy, the fastest growing media company of all time, often shares vivid accounts of hard-to-articulate issues such as depression and gender equality. What does it feel like to be treated like an object? What does it feel like to not be taken seriously because of your gender or sexual preference? A host of video clips like these offer impactful answers.
And I can’t help but love this clip from Amy Schumer, which parodies the objectification of women (among other issues) at places like Hooters.
Let’s look at another example of when applying a principle of influence can have a dark side and potential ways to fight it.
Framing is what it sounds like. Just as a picture frame includes certain things and excludes others for emphasis, framing is all about guiding people’s attention. The techniques to apply framing to content range from a key message to consistently curating content based on your (or your brand’s) point of view.
Used well, framing clarifies your point, who you are, or what you stand for. For example, we’re getting ready to launch a new version of the Content Science website. As part of that effort, we’ve distilled our philosophy into four messages.
The risk of framing is oversimplifying to the point people make uninformed decisions with grave effects. Take child immunizations, for example. I remember several years ago, even before the now-debunked article in The Lancet connected immunizations to autism, talking to an educated and talented colleague who was seriously contemplating not vaccinating her daughter. I was shocked but sensitive to any parent’s desire to protect her child and, as a result, hesitant to contradict her.
Since then, the science has proven more than 40 times that there is no connection between immunizations and autism. And, evidence that vaccinations are safe (even less risk than taking aspirin) continues to accumulate. Yet, many “anti vaccers” have largely ignored or discredited the science and framed the issue as a right to freedom of their personal beliefs.
This oversimplication has been remarkably effective in the U.S., a country that loves freedom. So many children have not been immunized that we’re now seeing outbreaks of once-eradicated diseases such as measles. It’s clear that my first reaction of polite tolerance of my colleague’s decision has very risky consequences for the children of anti-vaccers and our society as a whole.
So, how can you counter a point of view that is stubbornly oversimplifed—that doesn’t include enough information in the frame, so to speak?
The internet has no shortage of suggestions. Huffington Post offers concisely framed counterarguments. The problem here is that this assumes anti-vaccers just need more information (or potentially are stupid) and they will change. But anti-vaccers are well educated. The issue is no longer rational, it’s emotional. What’s another approach? An article on Gizmodo recommends shaming the movement in the same way ridicule shamed the KKK in the 1940s.
I personally have retweeted quite a few jokes about anti-vaccination, as well. While shaming might make anti-vaccination culturally less acceptable to discuss, it doesn’t necessarily change an individual anti-vaccer’s choice. Blatant racism went on for decades after the KKK was shamed.
So, what’s missing? Framing vaccination in terms of the values and motivations of anti-vaccers. To do that, we need another principle of influence, identification. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke defined identification as “any of the wide variety of means by which an author may establish a shared sense of values, attitudes, and interests with his [or her] readers.” We connect with people, brands, and organizations who are like us in some way. Examples of creating identification through content include personas or personality (such as podcast hosts), testimonials or quotes, and user comments.
Some fascinating new research suggests the power of tapping into values to change a person’s behavior. A study published in the National Academy of Sciences discovered sedentary people who affirmed their values before receiving information about living a more active lifestyle were significantly more likely to change than people who received the information alone.
So, one content idea is to showcase a testimonial from a former anti-vaccer who affirms his or her desire to protect her child and factual reasons why he or she freely decided vaccinations were the best way to do that.
I believe this combination of affirmation and education works because it allows people to save face and, consequently, makes the change less intimidating. When people feel defensive, they dig in their heels and do not negotiate change. (I certainly have been guilty of that, as my spouse will attest.;-)
I could go on and on with the possible dark patterns of influential web content and explore ways to address them. My point is not to dwell on the dark but to show the power of our content choices. The line between light and dark isn’t always clear, but this blurred line doesn’t excuse us from our responsibility as content creators, curators, and consumers. I believe more now than ever that content changes the world. Let’s make that change for the better.
Originally published on the now-archived Content Science blog in February 2015.
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