Pluralistic: 23 Oct 2022 The Persuaders (how minds really change)

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The cover of the Knopf edition of 'The Persuaders.'

The Persuaders (how minds really change) (permalink)

I have always been interested in how people change their minds. I think it started with my Dad's story – he was a conservative, religious Jew until he was 18, then he had an argument with a union activist on a picket line, and within a year had renounced his faith and become a lifelong revolutionary communist.

My dad was and is an arguer, as am I. He was raised on vigorous debate, and when he lost to someone who had arguments he couldn't refute, he returned to the picket line, day after day, to continue the debate to learn, and ultimately to change – forever.

I, too, had an experience like this: as a baby writer, I was raised on the idea that the more copyright there was, the better I – and other creative workers – would do. Then I found myself traveling to conferences in the early 2000s with Fred von Lohmann and Cindy Cohn.

We argued about copyright the entire way across first the Pacific and then the Atlantic, and then through the streets of London and Hong Kong, for literally days on end. Within a couple of months, I had resigned from the company I cofounded and joined EFF.

I had the pleasure of discussing this with Ed Snowden when we appeared together at the NYPL in 2017.

Snowden had the mother of all conversions. He started out as a gung-ho CIA and NSA operative who came from a multigenerational military family and was only prevented from joining the Special Forces when he broke both his legs during basic training.

Years later, Snowden committed the most significant act of whistleblowing in US intelligence history, risking a firing squad and ending up in seemingly permanent exile. His mind changed…a lot. He describes that process in detail in his superb 2019 memoir "Permanent Record":

Snowden – like me, like my dad – realized that a foundational tenet of his life that he'd taken as axiomatic was actually resting on a shaky foundation. He realized that the NSA had no loyalty to the Constitution and that its leaders would brazenly lie to Congress to cover up their lawbreaking:

In Snowden's memoir, we get a look at the slow erosion of his certainty, the hollow it left behind, and the new ideas that rushed into that void. It's an account of a slow, profound, deep change. It's a change I could recognize from my own history.

After the 2016 election, a lot of people got interested in how peoples' minds changed. It seemed that a lot of people had had their minds changed for the worse, as they fell into cultlike panics over imaginary sex rings operating out of nonexistent pizza parlor basements and equally imaginary "migration crises."

A lot of people in my circles – progressive, technologically informed – embraced a theory of persuasion that struck me as nearly as outlandish as the beliefs it sought to explain. They said that the tech giants' algorithms had been weaponized by evil billionaires and Steve Bannon to convert otherwise reasonable people into foaming, terrified conspiratorialists.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and the evidence for the claims of Big Tech brainwashing was pretty thin. Exhibit A was always the boasts of the ad-tech sector, who routinely promised shareholders and prospective customers for advertising services that they were really good at advertising.

They claimed that their "Big Data" troves, combined with their secret algorithms, could convince anyone of anything. The thing is, critics of these companies started from the correct observation that Big Tech lied all the time. These companies lied about which data they gathered, how they processed it, whether they paid taxes, how their treated their workers…all of it.

And yet, advocates for Big Tech's mind control rays claimed that the only time Big Tech wasn't lying was when it was boasting to customers and investors about how totally awesome its products were. They treated these marketing materials as presumptively truthful, even though they were built atop a crumbling foundation of psych research that was a mix of unreplicable junk and long-deprecated ideas like behaviorism.

This despite the fact that there were so many other, simpler explanations – for example, perhaps you believe a false claim at the top of Google's search results because Google a) is generally trustworthy; and b) has a monopoly over search so you don't have a customary second source that would reveal its lapses.

I found the story that Google and Facebook built a mind-control ray to sell your nephew fidget-spinners and then Robert Mercer stole it and made your uncle into a QAnon so obviously wrong that I ended up writing a short book about it, "How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism":

In the years since that book's publication, I've only grown more dismayed at the number of smart people who want to locate the problem with conspiratorialism and rage in "dopamine loops" and other supposed Big Tech brainwashing methods.

This is doubly harmful, first, because it ignores the actual source of Big Tech's power to harm us – monopoly – and actually makes things worse by demanding that Big Tech get bigger in order to police its users:

But second, because when we focus on the means by which scared and vulnerable people encounter conspiratorial beliefs, we don't focus on why so many people – including people we love and have lost – are so scared and vulnerable.

As Anna Merlan writes in her indispensable 2019 book on conspiratorialism, "Republic of Lies," conspiratorialism sits at the juncture of real trauma and real systemic failures – people who've been hurt by systems stop believing in them and grasp for alternative theories to explain the world around them:

If we focus on preventing Big Tech from seeding vulnerable people with bad ideas, rather than asking why the bad ideas take root – or how better ideas can compete – then we deprioritize making a better, fairer world.

When I heard that Anand Giridharadas was releasing a book about how persuasion works, I was excited – and a little worried. Giridharadas's 2019 book "Winners Take All" was an incredible, important, scathing takedown of elite philanthropy as a means to launder the reputations of plutocrats who gain their fortunes by creating the harms they claim their giving will save us from:

This idea is well-crystallized in Douglas Rushkoff's new book "Survival of the Richest," where he calls it The Mindset: "I must make enough money to outrun the damage I'm doing by making so much money":

(Incidentally, you can catch Rushkoff, Rebecca Giblin and me tomorrow at the Ottawa Writers Festival!)

Having enjoyed Giridharadas's previous book immensely, I was worried that he might have fallen into the trap of blaming the rise in conspiratorialism, "polarization" and other swift-moving currents of belief on Big Tech mind-control.

I needn't have worried. "The Persuaders" is a fantastic, energizing and exciting book about what it means to really change peoples' minds – how, on an individual, institutional and societal scale, new ideas take hold; and what can and should be done about the proliferation of conspiracies and hate:

The book is structured as a series of case studies of remarkable "persuaders" – people who are doing hard work to change minds at every level. It opens with social justice organizers who are wrestling with the impatience of their peers with potential supporters who haven't mastered nuanced language and with movement struggles over the ways to understand identity and class.

What does it mean for Black organizers to get involved in the Women's March on Washington, when its early days were marred by tone-deaf and race-blind gaffes? Will involvement legitimize the idea that gender solidarity can exist without racial justice? Or will it bring new allies to a movement that sees gender and race as separate, vital issues that can't be addressed on their own?

Though the context of the Trump election is recent, these questions aren't new – organizers like Loretta Ross have been wrestling with questions of principle, solidarity, and effectiveness since the 1970s. In his profile of Ross, Giridharadas describes Ross's "circles of influence" theory:

In this theory, a political actor divides others into "90 percenters, 75 percenters, 50 percenters, 25 percenters and 0 percenters," based on the amount of ideological overlap they share.

For Ross a 90 percenter agrees "capitalism is problematic; racism, homophobia, transphobia and anti-immigration bias are bad." Within these groups, the emphasis should be on the 90% agreement, not the 10% divergence. There's no pressing need to turn 90 percenters into 100 percenters.

Next are 75 percenters, "people who share a good portion of your worldview, but not totally." For Ross, the Girl Scouts aren't with her on abortion rights, but they're committed to the rights of girls and women. There's no need to turn 75 percenters into 90 percenters – "there's enough common ground to work on." With 75 percenter coalitions, "you have to accept large islands of disagreement in a sea of assent."

Next, 50 percenters, "people who share values," but the politics derived from those values are opposite to your own. Ross's parents are religious conservatives, but they share her values of "hard work, taking care of one another and how you ought to treat people." With these people, the mission is to look for openings – such as when Ross connected with her father over the need for health-care reform after he fell ill and was neglected by the VA.

Then are 25 percenters, "people diametrically opposite from you," who "don't share a vision, a basic worldview, or fundamental values…[who] use the exact same words to mean completely different things." As Ross says, "When I talk about patriotism and wearing a mask to keep my neighbors safe, they talk about liberty or their freedom to go get a haircut."

There isn't enough common ground there for easy coalition, but if there's a project that requires support from your 25 percenters, you have to appeal to their sense of themselves as "good people." When you're "calling in" a racist, say, you try to get them to understand that "if you want to be a good person, you've got to do good things." Remember that 25 percenters are motivated by "fear of immigrants, fear of queers, fear of this, fear of that." You have to take their fears seriously for them to be able to listen to you. "If you dismiss their fears, they don't listen."

Finally come the 0 percenters, those with no common ground who must be "overpowered and overwhelmed," not persuaded. The simple term for those people is "fascists."

Ross's framework really struck me and explained so much about the kinds of activist coalitions I've worked in for decades on digital human rights – coalitions that have mostly consisted of 75 percenters, some 50 percenters and even the odd 25 percenter. It's a framework I knew immediately that I'd be returning to in my own work.

Giridharadas also profiles two important political figures: Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, finding in them a study in contrasts that is revealing and important. Sanders has spent decades refusing to make politics personal; AOC has mixed personal biography with her critiques to make them relatable. Both approaches have persuaded millions of people, and each has changed through their political careers.

This leap from organizers to national politicians sets up the second half of the book, which discusses "messaging," and steers clear of the pitfalls of this subject – the fast-talking ad exec's idea that "messaging" is about bypassing people's critical faculties, rather than engaging them.

Instead, Giridharadas presents the theories of Anat Shenker-Osorio, who works both within parties and within movements seeking to influence parties to craft messages that actually change people's minds by convincing, not by trickery.

But just because Shenker-Osorio is interested in "convincing," it doesn't mean that she wants to argue with you. Her work focuses on formulas (in the best sense possible) for winning over the minds (and hearts) of persuadable people.

Her theory of change starts with that idea of "persuadability." She rejects the idea that people in the "center" want a bit of each – rather, she says they should be viewed as undecided. If you can't choose between a pizza and a burger, you're unlikely to be happy with a pizzaburger. The persuader's job is to move you to their pole, not to muddle their position into undifferentiated slurry.

To reach the "persuadables," Shenker-Osorio says we must "animate the base to persuade the middle." Promising (and delivering) the policies your most ardent supporters want is going to get them to mobilize, and that mobilization will send them out to convince others.

Moderates are best understood as floating around in thinly held, easily shifted beliefs. She calls these "good point" people – you tell them talking about race is necessary for political progress and they say good point! You tell them talking about race only highlights differences and makes things worse and they say good point! Good point, and also, good point!

To reach these people, you must "toggle them into the most progressive understanding they can have of the world, which is latent within them, and keeping that up, up, top of mind, so that is their default." To get there, you need "the base to keep on repeating the set of messages that will activate those progressive narratives that already exist in people."

Another pillar of Shenker-Osorio's tactics is to deliberately alienate the opposition. This is something the right understands in its bones: they talk about Jewish Space Lasers and Great Replacement and we repeat it – "Can you believe the awful thing they just said?" Every time you repeat it, you bring attention to it, and some of that attention comes from people for whom it sounds just fine.

That's a tactic the left can and should use. Rather than hiding behind milquetoast pronouncements, we can use "good riddance" statements that are meant to turn off our 0 percenters, like "a greedy few rigged the game in their favor, now too many jobs don't pay enough for our needs, let alone enable their wants."

One of my favorite parts of Shenker-Osorio's doctrine (one I suppose I should learn to embrace myself) is to stop leading with problems. My inbox is full of fundraising emails from Democrats with screaming phrases like "HAS EVERYONE GIVEN UP?!?!" and "PLEADING with you to reverse this…" As Shenker-Osorio says, the core message is "This is a new crisis. This is terrible. It's very horrible."

This does work on people who are already convinced, to a point. But it doesn't grow the bases. And by making people more and more fearful, you also make them more conservative. The opposition to the left isn't the right, Shenker-Osorio says, "it's cynicism."

To get out the vote and mobilize a movement, you can't promise to "reduce harm," you have to promise to "create good." MLK said "I have a dream" and not "I have a multi-bulleted list of policy proposals."

Shenker-Osorio wants us to say what we're for, not just what we're against. Not "abolish ICE" but "create a fair immigration policy that respects all families." She says "it's a Republican wet dream that they have us constantly talking about everything that we oppose" because "it gives them more airtime" and "it scares the shit out of people."

So don't lead with the terror of the climate emergency – lead with "ensuring clean, safe air to breathe and water to drink." Lead with "paying people enough to provide for their families," not "fighting low wages and poor working conditions." Instead of "the lack of paid leave," go with "helping people be there for those they love."

Shenker-Osorio proposes a taxonomy of "right issues," "left issues" and contestable issues, and says that we shouldn't frame our cause in right wing terms. When they say "We'll cut taxes and it's good for the economy" and we counter with "We'll raise wages and increase consumption, which is better for the economy," we're still talking about the economy, and the right owns that issue (she says) (I'm not sure I agree!). When the left leads with the economy, they invite voters to prioritize the economy and yet somehow choose the party that is least associated with it. Instead, the left should talk about "people's economic well-being," an issue the right is weak on.

Thus: promote Medicare for All as good for all our health, not better for the national economy. Even if M4A is cheaper (and it is, much!), if you frame the goal of health policy as "efficiency" then you let your opposition sell policies that are bad for health but good for costs. Forget Obama's "bend the cost-curve down" and go for "No matter what you look like or where you come from, when someone you love is ill or injured, you want them to get the very best care without going bankrupt."

When Trump tries to steal an election and we call him a "strong man," we admit that he's "strong." There are people who want a leader who's "brash" and "gets stuff done." Instead, call him "a weak loser, a bumbling idiot who is trying to steal the election" that he lost. The repeated message should weaken Trump in the eyes of his base, not strengthen him.

One contestable issue that Shenker-Osorio wants to see the left claim is "freedom" – an idea that every kind of American consistently rates as one of the highest (if not the highest) virtue. Letting the right claim freedom was a huge tactical blunder and it's not too late to wrestle it back. The freedom to vote, reproductive freedom, freedom from police violence.

She proposes a three-stage process for constructing a message:

i. A shared value: "No matter what we look like, where we come from, or what's in our wallets, most of us believe that people who work for living ought to earn a living."

ii. A problem: "But today, a wealthy and powerful few try to divide us from each other so that we'll look the other way while they pick our pockets and hand the spoils to their corporate cronies."

iii. A solution: "By coming together, we can rewrite the rules so that the wealthiest few pay what they owe and all of us have what we need for generations to come."

Giridharadas calls this "a callout sandwich" – "a generous heap of callout between two thick slices of call in."

There's persuadables, and then there's persuadables. Giridharadas profiles Diane Benscoter, an ex-cult member who has some experience helping to "deprogram" people who've been lost to cults, and who has taken on an interest in the origins of cultlike beliefs. For Benscoter, it's not enough to talk about a generalized psychological vulnerability that we all share, nor is it enough to focus on the Svengali powers of charismatic leaders.

Instead, like Merlan, Bescoter delves into the particular life circumstances of people who fall into cults that make them susceptible to cultlike beliefs – and what kinds of discussions and interventions can create the seeds of doubt that will eventually lead them – like her – to leave the cult behind. She advocates for training therapists and counselors to recognize the warning signs of cultlike beliefs.

More ambitious still are the plans of John Cook, who created a taxonomy of the ways in which conspiratorialists make suckers out of us:

Cook believes that if you teach people these tactics early (as he is trying to do, through fun classroom games) that they will be "vaccinated" against these tactics later in life. We may get our backs up when someone tries to convince us that our cherished ideas are wrong, but we also hate being played for fools.

The book ends with a chapter on "deep canvassing," a technique that has door-knockers spend half an hour with each subject, even ones who say they agree with them, as a means of not just changing people's minds but motivating them to action.

Deep canvassing is a fascinating subject. The first blockbuster study on it had to be retracted when it was revealed as an academic fraud, but the debunkers who discovered the fraud ran the experiment again and found the evidence supported the technique – in other words, there was no reason for the fraud.

Following Arizona canvassers – many of them undocumented immigrants – as they seek to mobilize voters to call Kyrsten Sinema and get her to vote for a replacement to DACA is a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall glimpse of how minds can change in realtime, and how they can't.

By bookending his book with activists trying to find common ground with the wider public, Giridharadas offers evidence-based hope that it's possible to make a difference, to win the day without losing your soul. As we barrel towards an uncertain midterms, books like "The Persuaders" present a roadmap for building coalitions, taking power, and changing the world.

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