If you want to become the next guru or rock star of your particular field (or just bag yourself hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter) you first need to get to grips with the basic principles of manipulation.
There are, in fact, two audiences you need to manipulate: those who are supportive of your beliefs and those who oppose them. We can do this by tapping into some of the basic principles of human nature and exploiting the often lazy thinking that is sometimes necessary for cognitive efficiency (think cognitive biases). These techniques are pretty straightforward and don’t require too much preparation, and once they’re implemented you can simply sit back and watch the fun begin.
1. Create a narrative.
We love stories, don’t we? You probably still recall the stories you read when you were a child or the ones your parents might have read to you. The way in which stories are remembered can help us in our quest because people often buy into plausible narratives. Conspiracy narratives are particularly useful because they help us to create a sense of us and them.
2. Identify the enemy.
Once you have the narrative and your followers have bought into it, identify those who are attempting to disrupt the narrative. Human beings are tribal; we’ll find common ground with others, tighten our defences and prepare to defend our narrative against detractors. Therefore, we need to ensure that our followers know who the enemy is because this then reinforces the belief that our narrative is under threat. Creating a false dichotomy or reinforcing an existing one is often useful here. We can see this approach in politics all the time, where one political party exploits the narrative that their opposing side is incompetent or a danger to society.
3. Exploit cognitive biases.
A cognitive bias is an error in thinking that occurs as we attempt to process and interpret information from around us. One particularly useful exploitative cognitive bias is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when people favour information that confirms their existing beliefs and discounts evidence that does not. We might, therefore, highlight evidence that supports our narrative but ignore evidence that undermines it. Alternatively, we might simply dismiss such evidence as flawed and, therefore, void.
Always present your audience with evidence that supports your narrative. Scientific evidence (no matter how tenuous) is best, but anecdotal evidence can be useful. A very useful strategy (especially on social media) is to ask for anecdotes from your audience in the form of ‘has this ever happened to you…?’ The results will be very narrowly focused (they won’t include anybody who hasn’t had this experience) but will reinforce the view that your chosen narrative is under threat. Don’t forget to dismiss evidence that doesn’t support your narrative, perhaps by exploiting problems of methodology. Be critical of opposing evidence but never criticise evidence that supports your own narrative – this is a job for your detractors, many of whom won’t even bother.
4. Controversial Bait-and-Switch
(Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson uses this technique to great effect, although I’m unsure if this is intentional).
This is my personal favourite and I’ve seen it used very effectively on social media – it’s also really easy to accomplish but might seem counter-intuitive to begin with. First of all, make a really controversial statement and leave it to fester for a little while. Keep the statement brief and lacking in detail – I’ll explain why in a moment.
This controversial statement will create a bit of storm and will, no doubt, attract a great deal of bad publicity. But stick to your guns, sit back, let the haters thrash it out with your own supporters. Sure, you’ll have people criticising you, but you’ll also grow your following – this is the bait.
Now for the switch…
Clarify your statement, add more detail in a non-inflammatory way, claim you have been misinterpreted by those who oppose your narrative, feign disbelief at the way you have been treated and insist that your detractors are being unreasonable. By this time your audience has grown, thanks to the efforts of your own followers and your detractors. Your followers will come back fighting, defending you with increased conviction
And your audience will grow in number.
5. A big dollop of Gish-gallop.
This involves overwhelming your opponent with as many claims as possible in the shortest period of time. Ensure that most of these claims are valid as this allows you to insert invalid ones that support your narrative. Don’t worry if the facts aren’t relevant to the argument because the general purpose of Gish-gallop is to give the impression of expertise. Again, Peterson is great at this.
6. Sandwich your narrative between valid science.
You need to make sure that you speak about valid scientific topics for which there is lots of supporting evidence. This will allow you to break down the barriers between what is valid and what is invalid (but supports your narrative). This is the long game where Gish-gallop is better used short-term. Peterson, for example, will often lecture on valid scientific topics in experimental psychology and then flip to untestable analytical psychology (based on the theories of Carl Jung). Most importantly, he doesn’t make the distinction in terms of scientific validity, so an audience who knows little about psychology, in general, will view both as equally valid.
These are just a few of my favourite techniques, mainly because they manage to trick your opponents into increasing your influence and, hence, growing your following. They also strengthen your own followers’ conviction to defend the narrative, a narrative that you exploited in the first place for your own personal gain.