martes, 28 de febrero de 2017

Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media

With links to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Nigel Farage, the rightwing US computer scientist is at the heart of a multimillion-dollar propaganda network

Robert Mercer in New York in 2014.

Just over a week ago, Donald Trump gathered members of the world’s press before him and told them they were liars. “The press, honestly, is out of control,” he said. “The public doesn’t believe you any more.” CNN was described as “very fake news… story after story is bad”. The BBC was “another beauty”.

That night I did two things. First, I typed “Trump” in the search box of Twitter. My feed was reporting that he was crazy, a lunatic, a raving madman. But that wasn’t how it was playing out elsewhere. The results produced a stream of “Go Donald!!!!”, and “You show ’em!!!” There were star-spangled banner emojis and thumbs-up emojis and clips of Trump laying into the “FAKE news MSM liars!”

Trump had spoken, and his audience had heard him. Then I did what I’ve been doing for two and a half months now. I Googled “mainstream media is…” And there it was. Google’s autocomplete suggestions: “mainstream media is… dead, dying, fake news, fake, finished”. Is it dead, I wonder? Has FAKE news won? Are we now the FAKE news? Is the mainstream media – we, us, I – dying?

I click Google’s first suggested link. It leads to a website called and an article: “The Mainstream media are dead.” They’re dead, I learn, because they – we, I – “cannot be trusted”. How had it, an obscure site I’d never heard of, dominated Google’s search algorithm on the topic? In the “About us” tab, I learn CNSnews is owned by the Media Research Center, which a click later I learn is “America’s media watchdog”, an organisation that claims an “unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture”.

Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.

It’s money he’s made as a result of his career as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He started his career at IBM, where he made what the Association for Computational Linguistics called “revolutionary” breakthroughs in language processing – a science that went on to be key in developing today’s AI – and later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets.

One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees’ money, is the most successful in the world – generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns – all Republican – and another $50m to non-profits – all rightwing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is, as billionaires are wont, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Donald Trump’s presidential campaigned received $13.5m from Robert Mercer. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Mercer very rarely speaks in public and never to journalists, so to gauge his beliefs you have to look at where he channels his money: a series of yachts, all called Sea Owl; a $2.9m model train set; climate change denial (he funds a climate change denial thinktank, the Heartland Institute); and what is maybe the ultimate rich man’s plaything – the disruption of the mainstream media. In this he is helped by his close associate Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist. The money he gives to the Media Research Center, with its mission of correcting “liberal bias” is just one of his media plays. There are other bigger, and even more deliberate strategies, and shining brightly, the star at the centre of the Mercer media galaxy, is Breitbart.

It was $10m of Mercer’s money that enabled Bannon to fund Breitbart – a rightwing news site, set up with the express intention of being a Huffington Post for the right. It has launched the careers of Milo Yiannopoulos and his like, regularly hosts antisemitic and Islamophobic views, and is currently being boycotted by more than 1,000 brands after an activist campaign. It has been phenomenally successful: the 29th most popular site in America with 2bn page views a year. It’s bigger than its inspiration, the Huffington Post, bigger, even, than PornHub. It’s the biggest political site on Facebook. The biggest on Twitter.

Prominent rightwing journalist Andrew Breitbart, who founded the site but died in 2012, told Bannon that they had “to take back the culture”. And, arguably, they have, though American culture is only the start of it. In 2014, Bannon launched Breitbart London, telling the New York Times it was specifically timed ahead of the UK’s forthcoming election. It was, he said, the latest front “in our current cultural and political war”. France and Germany are next.

A determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends

But there was another reason why I recognised Robert Mercer’s name: because of his connection to Cambridge Analytica, a small data analytics company. He is reported to have a $10m stake in the company, which was spun out of a bigger British company called SCL Group. It specialises in “election management strategies” and “messaging and information operations”, refined over 25 years in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. In military circles this is known as “psyops” – psychological operations. (Mass propaganda that works by acting on people’s emotions.)

Cambridge Analytica worked for the Trump campaign and, so I’d read, the Leave campaign. When Mercer supported Cruz, Cambridge Analytica worked with Cruz. When Robert Mercer started supporting Trump, Cambridge Analytica came too. And where Mercer’s money is, Steve Bannon is usually close by: it was reported that until recently he had a seat on the board.

Last December, I wrote about Cambridge Analytica in a piece about how Google’s search results on certain subjects were being dominated by rightwing and extremist sites. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University, North Carolina, who had mapped the news ecosystem and found millions of links between rightwing sites “strangling” the mainstream media, told me that trackers from sites like Breitbart could also be used by companies like Cambridge Analytica to follow people around the web and then, via Facebook, target them with ads.

On its website, Cambridge Analytica makes the astonishing boast that it has psychological profiles based on 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters – its USP is to use this data to understand people’s deepest emotions and then target them accordingly. The system, according to Albright, amounted to a “propaganda machine”.

A few weeks later, the Observer received a letter. Cambridge Analytica was not employed by the Leave campaign, it said. Cambridge Analytica “is a US company based in the US. It hasn’t worked in British politics.”

Which is how, earlier this week, I ended up in a Pret a Manger near Westminster with Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s affable communications director, looking at snapshots of Donald Trump on his phone. It was Wigmore who orchestrated Nigel Farage’s trip to Trump Tower – the PR coup that saw him become the first foreign politician to meet the president elect.

Wigmore scrolls through the snaps on his phone. “That’s the one I took,” he says pointing at the now globally famous photo of Farage and Trump in front of his golden elevator door giving the thumbs-up sign. Wigmore was one of the “bad boys of Brexit” – a term coined by Arron Banks, the Bristol-based businessman who was Leave.EU’s co-founder.

Cambridge Analytica had worked for them, he said. It had taught them how to build profiles, how to target people and how to scoop up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles. A video on YouTube shows one of Cambridge Analytica’s and SCL’s employees, Brittany Kaiser, sitting on the panel at Leave.EU’s launch event.

Facebook was the key to the entire campaign, Wigmore explained. A Facebook ‘like’, he said, was their most “potent weapon”. “Because using artificial intelligence, as we did, tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.”

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, is an associate of Robert Mercer. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

It sounds creepy, I say.

“It is creepy! It’s really creepy! It’s why I’m not on Facebook! I tried it on myself to see what information it had on me and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ What’s scary is that my kids had put things on Instagram and it picked that up. It knew where my kids went to school.”

They hadn’t “employed” Cambridge Analytica, he said. No money changed hands. “They were happy to help.”


“Because Nigel is a good friend of the Mercers. And Robert Mercer introduced them to us. He said, ‘Here’s this company we think may be useful to you.’ What they were trying to do in the US and what we were trying to do had massive parallels. We shared a lot of information. Why wouldn’t you?” Behind Trump’s campaign and Cambridge Analytica, he said, were “the same people. It’s the same family.”

There were already a lot of questions swirling around Cambridge Analytica, and Andy Wigmore has opened up a whole lot more. Such as: are you supposed to declare services-in-kind as some sort of donation? The Electoral Commission says yes, if it was more than £7,500. And was it declared? The Electoral Commission says no. Does that mean a foreign billionaire had possibly influenced the referendum without that influence being apparent? It’s certainly a question worth asking.

In the last month or so, articles in first the Swiss and the US press have asked exactly what Cambridge Analytica is doing with US voters’ data. In a statement to the Observer, the Information Commissioner’s Office said: “Any business collecting and using personal data in the UK must do so fairly and lawfully. We will be contacting Cambridge Analytica and asking questions to find out how the company is operating in the UK and whether the law is being followed.”

Cambridge Analytica said last Friday they are in touch with the ICO and are completely compliant with UK and EU data laws. It did not answer other questions the Observer put to it this week about how it built its psychometric model, which owes its origins to original research carried out by scientists at Cambridge University’s Psychometric Centre, research based on a personality quiz on Facebook that went viral. More than 6 million people ended up doing it, producing an astonishing treasure trove of data.

These Facebook profiles – especially people’s “likes” – could be correlated across millions of others to produce uncannily accurate results. Michal Kosinski, the centre’s lead scientist, found that with knowledge of 150 likes, their model could predict someone’s personality better than their spouse. With 300, it understood you better than yourself. “Computers see us in a more robust way than we see ourselves,” says Kosinski.

But there are strict ethical regulations regarding what you can do with this data. Did SCL Group have access to the university’s model or data, I ask Professor Jonathan Rust, the centre’s director? “Certainly not from us,” he says. “We have very strict rules around this.”

A scientist, Aleksandr Kogan, from the centre was contracted to build a model for SCL, and says he collected his own data. Professor Rust says he doesn’t know where Kogan’s data came from. “The evidence was contrary. I reported it.” An independent adjudicator was appointed by the university. “But then Kogan said he’d signed a non-disclosure agreement with SCL and he couldn’t continue [answering questions].”

Kogan disputes this and says SCL satisfied the university’s inquiries. But perhaps more than anyone, Professor Rust understands how the kind of information people freely give up to social media sites could be used.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage is a friend of the Mercers.

“The danger of not having regulation around the sort of data you can get from Facebook and elsewhere is clear. With this, a computer can actually do psychology, it can predict and potentially control human behaviour. It’s what the scientologists try to do but much more powerful. It’s how you brainwash someone. It’s incredibly dangerous.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that minds can be changed. Behaviour can be predicted and controlled. I find it incredibly scary. I really do. Because nobody has really followed through on the possible consequences of all this. People don’t know it’s happening to them. Their attitudes are being changed behind their backs.”

Mercer invested in Cambridge Analytica, the Washington Post reported, “driven in part by an assessment that the right was lacking sophisticated technology capabilities”. But in many ways, it’s what Cambridge Analytica’s parent company does that raises even more questions.

Emma Briant, a propaganda specialist at the University of Sheffield, wrote about SCL Group in her 2015 book, Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism: Strategies for Global Change. Cambridge Analytica has the technological tools to effect behavioural and psychological change, she said, but it’s SCL that strategises it. It has specialised, at the highest level – for Nato, the MoD, the US state department and others – in changing the behaviour of large groups. It models mass populations and then it changes their beliefs.

SCL was founded by someone called Nigel Oakes, who worked for Saatchi & Saatchi on Margaret Thatcher’s image, says Briant, and the company had been “making money out of the propaganda side of the war on terrorism over a long period of time. There are different arms of SCL but it’s all about reach and the ability to shape the discourse. They are trying to amplify particular political narratives. And they are selective in who they go for: they are not doing this for the left.”

In the course of the US election, Cambridge Analytica amassed a database, as it claims on its website, of almost the entire US voting population – 220 million people – and the Washington Post reported last week that SCL was increasing staffing at its Washington office and competing for lucrative new contracts with Trump’s administration. “It seems significant that a company involved in engineering a political outcome profits from what follows. Particularly if it’s the manipulation, and then resolution, of fear,” says Briant.

It’s the database, and what may happen to it, that particularly exercises Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician and data activist who has been investigating Cambridge Analytica and SCL for more than a year. “How is it going to be used?” he says. “Is it going to be used to try and manipulate people around domestic policies? Or to ferment conflict between different communities? It is potentially very scary. People just don’t understand the power of this data and how it can be used against them.”

There are two things, potentially, going on simultaneously: the manipulation of information on a mass level, and the manipulation of information at a very individual level. Both based on the latest understandings in science about how people work, and enabled by technological platforms built to bring us together.

Are we living in a new era of propaganda, I ask Emma Briant? One we can’t see, and that is working on us in ways we can’t understand? Where we can only react, emotionally, to its messages? “Definitely. The way that surveillance through technology is so pervasive, the collection and use of our data is so much more sophisticated. It’s totally covert. And people don’t realise what is going on.”

Public mood and politics goes through cycles. You don’t have to subscribe to any conspiracy theory, Briant says, to see that a mass change in public sentiment is happening. Or that some of the tools in action are straight out of the military’s or SCL’s playbook.

But then there’s increasing evidence that our public arenas – the social media sites where we post our holiday snaps or make comments about the news – are a new battlefield where international geopolitics is playing out in real time. It’s a new age of propaganda. But whose? This week, Russia announced the formation of a new branch of the military: “information warfare troops”.

Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated “bots” – accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump – many of them Russian. Last week they have been in action in the Stoke byelection – Russian bots, organised by who? – attacking Paul Nuttall.

You can take a trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it, turn it against the media that uncovered it

“Politics is war,” said Steve Bannon last year in the Wall Street Journal. And increasingly this looks to be true.

There’s nothing accidental about Trump’s behaviour, Andy Wigmore tells me. “That press conference. It was absolutely brilliant. I could see exactly what he was doing. There’s feedback going on constantly. That’s what you can do with artificial intelligence. You can measure ever reaction to every word. He has a word room, where you fix key words. We did it. So with immigration, there are actually key words within that subject matter which people are concerned about. So when you are going to make a speech, it’s all about how can you use these trending words.”

Wigmore met with Trump’s team right at the start of the Leave campaign. “And they said the holy grail was artificial intelligence.”

Who did?

“Jared Kushner and Jason Miller.”

Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. “It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.”

Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called “cognitive warfare”. Though there are many others: “recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism,” explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. “Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives,” says one US state department white paper. “Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.”

Yet another details the power of a “cognitive casualty” – a “moral shock” that “has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking”. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or “fake news”. Or as it has now become: “FAKE news!!!!”

How do you change the way a nation thinks? You could start by creating a mainstream media to replace the existing one with a site such as Breitbart. You could set up other websites that displace mainstream sources of news and information with your own definitions of concepts like “liberal media bias”, like And you could give the rump mainstream media, papers like the “failing New York Times!” what it wants: stories. Because the third prong of Mercer and Bannon’s media empire is the Government Accountability Institute.

Bannon co-founded it with $2m of Mercer’s money. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, was appointed to the board. Then they invested in expensive, long-term investigative journalism. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” Bannon told Forbes magazine. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

Welcome to the future of journalism in the age of platform capitalism. News organisations have to do a better job of creating new financial models. But in the gaps in between, a determined plutocrat and a brilliant media strategist can, and have, found a way to mould journalism to their own ends.

In 2015, Steve Bannon described to Forbes how the GAI operated, employing a data scientist to trawl the dark web (in the article he boasts of having access to $1.3bn worth of supercomputers) to dig up the kind of source material Google can’t find. One result has been a New York Times bestseller, Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, written by GAI’s president, Peter Schweizer and later turned into a film produced by Rebekah Mercer and Steve Bannon.

This, Bannon explained, is how you “weaponise” the narrative you want. With hard researched facts. With those, you can launch it straight on to the front page of the New York Times, as the story of Hillary Clinton’s cash did. Like Hillary’s emails it turned the news agenda, and, most crucially, it diverted the attention of the news cycle. Another classic psyops approach. “Strategic drowning” of other messages.

This is a strategic, long-term and really quite brilliant play. In the 1990s, Bannon explained, conservative media couldn’t take Bill Clinton down because “they wound up talking to themselves in an echo chamber”.

As, it turns out, the liberal media is now. We are scattered, separate, squabbling among ourselves and being picked off like targets in a shooting gallery. Increasingly, there’s a sense that we are talking to ourselves. And whether it’s Mercer’s millions or other factors, Jonathan Albright’s map of the news and information ecosystem shows how rightwing sites are dominating sites like YouTube and Google, bound tightly together by millions of links.

Is there a central intelligence to that, I ask Albright? “There has to be. There has to be some type of coordination. You can see from looking at the map, from the architecture of the system, that this is not accidental. It’s clearly being led by money and politics.”

There’s been a lot of talk in the echo chamber about Bannon in the last few months, but it’s Mercer who provided the money to remake parts of the media landscape. And while Bannon understands the media, Mercer understands big data. He understands the structure of the internet. He knows how algorithms work.

Robert Mercer did not respond to a request for comment for this piece. Nick Patterson, a British cryptographer, who worked at Renaissance Technologies in the 80s and is now a computational geneticist at MIT, described to me how he was the one who talent-spotted Mercer. “There was an elite group working at IBM in the 1980s doing speech research, speech recognition, and when I joined Renaissance I judged that the mathematics we were trying to apply to financial markets were very similar.”

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Facebook Twitter Pinterest Bannon scorns media in rare public appearance at CPAC

He describes Mercer as “very, very conservative. He truly did not like the Clintons. He thought Bill Clinton was a criminal. And his basic politics, I think, was that he’s a rightwing libertarian, he wants the government out of things.”

He suspects that Mercer is bringing the brilliant computational skills he brought to finance to bear on another very different sphere. “We make mathematical models of the financial markets which are probability models, and from those we try and make predictions. What I suspect Cambridge Analytica do is that they build probability models of how people vote. And then they look at what they can do to influence that.”

Finding the edge is what quants do. They build quantitative models that automate the process of buying and selling shares and then they chase tiny gaps in knowledge to create huge wins. Renaissance Technologies was one of the first hedge funds to invest in AI. But what it does with it, how it’s been programmed to do it, is completely unknown. It is, Bloomberg reports, the “blackest box in finance”.

Johan Bollen, associate professor at Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing, tells me how he discovered one possible edge: he’s done research that shows you can predict stock market moves from Twitter. You can measure public sentiment and then model it. “Society is driven by emotions, which it’s always been difficult to measure, collectively. But there are now programmes that can read text and measure it and give us a window into those collective emotions.”

The research caused a huge ripple among two different constituencies. “We had a lot attention from hedge funds. They are looking for signals everywhere and this is a hugely interesting signal. My impression is hedge funds do have these algorithms that are scanning social feeds. The flash crashes we’ve had – sudden huge drops in stock prices – indicates these algorithms are being used at large scale. And they are engaged in something of an arms race.”

The other people interested in Bollen’s work are those who want not only to measure public sentiment, but to change it. Bollen’s research shows how it’s possible. Could you reverse engineer the national, or even the global, mood? Model it, and then change it?

Google, democracy and the truth about internet search

“It does seem possible. And it does worry me. There are quite a few pieces of research that show if you repeat something often enough, people start involuntarily to believe it. And that could be leveraged, or weaponised for propaganda. We know there are thousands of automated bots out there that are trying to do just that.”

THE war of the bots is one of the wilder and weirder aspects of the elections of 2016. At the Oxford Internet Institute’s Unit for Computational Propaganda, its director, Phil Howard, and director of research, Sam Woolley, show me all the ways public opinion can be massaged and manipulated. But is there a smoking gun, I ask them, evidence of who is doing this? “There’s not a smoking gun,” says Howard. “There are smoking machine guns. There are multiple pieces of evidence.”

“Look at this,” he says and shows me how, before the US election, hundreds upon hundreds of websites were set up to blast out just a few links, articles that were all pro-Trump. “This is being done by people who understand information structure, who are bulk buying domain names and then using automation to blast out a certain message. To make Trump look like he’s a consensus.”

And that requires money?

“That requires organisation and money. And if you use enough of them, of bots and people, and cleverly link them together, you are what’s legitimate. You are creating truth.”

You can take an existing trending topic, such as fake news, and then weaponise it. You can turn it against the very media that uncovered it. Viewed in a certain light, fake news is a suicide bomb at the heart of our information system. Strapped to the live body of us – the mainstream media.

One of the things that concerns Howard most is the hundreds of thousands of “sleeper” bots they’ve found. Twitter accounts that have tweeted only once or twice and are now sitting quietly waiting for a trigger: some sort of crisis where they will rise up and come together to drown out all other sources of information.

Like zombies?

“Like zombies.”

Many of the techniques were refined in Russia, he says, and then exported everywhere else. “You have these incredible propaganda tools developed in an authoritarian regime moving into a free market economy with a complete regulatory vacuum. What you get is a firestorm.”

This is the world we enter every day, on our laptops and our smartphones. It has become a battleground where the ambitions of nation states and ideologues are being fought – using us. We are the bounty: our social media feeds; our conversations; our hearts and minds. Our votes. Bots influence trending topics and trending topics have a powerful effect on algorithms, Woolley, explains, on Twitter, on Google, on Facebook. Know how to manipulate information structure and you can manipulate reality.

We’re not quite in the alternative reality where the actual news has become “FAKE news!!!” But we’re almost there. Out on Twitter, the new transnational battleground for the future, someone I follow tweets a quote by Marshall McLuhan, the great information theorist of the 60s. “World War III will be a guerrilla information war,” it says. “With no divisions between military and civilian participation.”

lunes, 27 de febrero de 2017

Public Diplomacy Explained: What it Means and Why it Matters

What is public diplomacy? And what does it have to do with nation branding? For public diplomats and political communication experts, the answer might be obvious. But since public diplomacy is becoming increasingly important for cities and regions, not just nation-states, we thought it would be a good idea to find out about latest thinking on the topic. So we invited Nick Cull, Professor of Public Diplomacy at University of Southern California, Annenberg, to share his thoughts.

Here’s what Professor Cull had to say about the purpose and importance of public diplomacy in the 21st century.
Nick, what is public diplomacy (PD) about?

I argue that public diplomacy begins with listening and tell my students that the point is not to advance the independence on one country through public diplomacy, but to build an awareness of our mutual interdependence in an interconnected world, and to work for a common good.

States have come to understand that public diplomacy is all about relationships but the old propaganda approach is still so strong that they insist on thinking about ‘winning’. Winning and relationships don’t go together. Seeking to win your relationships is an excellent definition of a sociopath.

In the 21st century the PD professional needs to build relationships of value to all parties; seeking the ‘win-win’ scenario.
How important is public diplomacy in the 21st century?

I was struck by Simon Anholt’s remark at the COP 16 climate summit in Cancun back in 2010 that there was only one super-power left on the planet — public opinion — and feel that fact alone means that public diplomacy must be central to the practice of international relations for the century ahead.

I see more players coming into the mix every year and consider cities and regions as among the most significant of these. I’ve been involved in the project to establish a global parliament of mayors, which is part of this process.
In your view, what does the future of public diplomacy look like?

I think that the future of public diplomacy lies in collaboration. No single player is rich enough or credible enough to ‘go it alone’ as the US or the USSR could do in the Cold War. Today actors need to arrange coalitions and partnerships around issues. This has happened in the past — the anti-Apartheid network of the 1970s and 80s is especially instructive — however I see this as the dominant mode of operation in the 21st century. Partners will include state, regional, commercial and NGO voices.
How does public diplomacy relate to the concept of nation branding?

Interestingly the concept of nation branding has added a domestic dimension to public diplomacy, as the best branding campaigns require listening at home as well as overseas, and sometimes that leads to communications interventions at home to ‘maintain the quality of the brand.’

Learn more about the history of public diplomacy and nation branding in our interview with Nick Cull.
Latest public diplomacy insights:

Public diplomacy resources:

The USC Center on Public Diplomacy (California, USA) and The Public Diplomat are both excellent sources for latest public diplomacy news and thinking.

Classic Narrative Models Must Evolve in the Digital Age

When It Comes to Story, You’re Not Getting It

The Hero’s Journey was vital to the survival of our species. Ancient storytellers explained the terrifying unknown, instructed us in the hunt, reassured us that if we behaved in certain ways, the gods would look favorably upon us. Stories reinforced, justified, and glorified our ways. They made us right, and did so with drama, appealing to our aspirations and imaginations. And at the core of so many of the best stories was that single element that quickened our blood, giving us a thrill…conflict.

After tens of thousands of years, not much has changed. Any screenwriting teacher will tell you that every film, every scene, every page of your script needs to be brimming with conflict. Without it, they warn, you might lose your audience. And so our primordial conditioning is perpetuated.

In our discussion of Collective Journey, conflict still exists. We are not suggesting that a new narrative model is emerging that is only about sweetness, unity, and light. But because so many of us are now able to express ourselves and have access to one another’s point of view, because the world has become so intensely networked, the nature of conflict itself is changing.

The vast majority of our stories aren’t reflecting this. They are falling out of sync with our sensibilities and our lives. They are no longer telling us the things we desperately need to know.

In recent years, after the relaxation of standards and practices in television and film, we have been deluged with antiheroes. From Tony Soprano to Dexter, it was a shock to watch our protagonists behaving badly, and getting away with it.

Those stories may be well told, but if you look closely, popular antiheroes are still moving through the same process of refusing the call, engaging with mentors, and crossing thresholds that signify Joseph Campbell’s classic Hero’s Journey model. Rebels and outlaws have also been around for ages, so that’s not what we’re talking about. Our new model reflects something bigger than a plot twist.

Before we proceed with describing what is unique and vital about Collective Journey, lets do a quick rundown on about a dozen elements that have become problematic about pop culture’s approach to traditional narrative.

By the way, this is not a condemnation of the some of the fine stories you see in these images. We’re just pointing out that story itself is now rapidly evolving, and there is an imperative for us to keep up with it.
The old model is driven on conflict.

Conflict is perceived by most to be the best way to hold an audience’s attention, so our stories are required to be conflict engines. Our heroes must desire something they can’t have. They’re beset by disagreements, power disparities, physical and psychological opposition. If violence is not explicit, it’s absolutely implicit. We’ve become wired to hunger for violence.

2. The old model is weighted on masculine impulse.

Conflict is naturally perceived as masculine, cause and response, the direct clashing of forces. Only one (or a very few) can surmount the threat on behalf of the community, and he becomes our hero. There is aggression, confrontation, violence, a sense of rightness that must overcome or defeat wrongness. In doing so, the hero reinforces his community’s values, restoring order and the status quo.

3. The narrative has been linear.

There is a beginning, middle, and end, with a clearly delineated path to be taken by the hero. The vast majority of our stories are short; minutes at times, and hour or two at most. At that length, this direct path is the most serviceable way to resolve the plot, and the most conducive as a generator of head-on conflict.

4. A singular villain is favored over systemic change.

Big problems, broad issues, and monolithic institutions are represented or symbolized by a single antagonist. Once the villain is defeated, all is set right in the hero’s world, but the system that spawned the villain persists.

5. A good versus evil binary.

Popular stories tend to polarize characters into heroes and villains, simplifying conflicts with an eye toward crowd-pleasing endings where the evil character gets his comeuppance and complex problems are neatly resolved.

6. The feminine is temptress, innocent, or goddess.

There has most often been very little nuance or complexity in the roles of women and girls, even when the woman is cast as the hero.

And when we do get a “woman of action,” she is cast as a stand-in for the masculine warrior, bearing his weapons, taking the journey in his footsteps.

7. Not conducive to communications technology.

Think of nearly every contemporary movie or TV show you’ve seen for the past decade. What did the writers need to get rid of in order to complicate the plot? It’s actually silly how often we’ve seen storytellers rid heroes of mobile phones, social media, and most any other information resource in order to escalate the conflict.

8. Narrative built on knowledge scarcity.

It’s entirely strange—even frustrating—for us to watch characters running around searching for information that could easily be found in their own pockets. And yet the withholding of knowledge, or the pursuit of some piece of information is still a driving factor in so many of our stories.

9. Mentors are rarefied elders.

The mysteries of life, the training we need, the way forward can only be found through that unique individual that we find through happenstance, or has been gifted to us by the gods. Their age and experience provides us with enlightenment. Without a mentor the hero is lost.

10. Celebration of heroic power and glory.

In popular Hero’s Journey stories, the individual is distinguished and celebrated for saving the many. The means by which the hero achieves victory are equated to power and influence. For his great deeds, we elevate the hero above ourselves.

11. The hero loses.

But in that elevation, the hero is no longer an ordinary and equitable member of the community. The experience has changed him. He has seen and done things the average person cannot comprehend, and so becomes isolated from others. Sometimes the hero makes a deep personal sacrifice in overcoming the villain, and is permanently scarred. In any event, the hero is never the same.

12. The community loses.

Without the hero all is lost for the community. We are dependent on the hero, and without one, we are weak, uncertain, defenseless. Often in the hero’s absence someone far less qualified (and sometimes dangerous) is put into a leadership position.

Even when the hero returns in triumph, our community gains from the hero’s boon, but we never develop self-efficacy. When dark times return, we will need the hero again.

Any one or few of these narrative elements is fine, but far too often we are seeing them clustered in our stories, and that makes even the funniest, most action-packed, or emotional story feel both too familiar, and somehow out of touch with our 21st century lives.

We’re not getting the stories we deserve…or need.

Big Brands & the Awakening of the Docile Consumer

In the Collective Journey the Peoples’ Voice Now Levels the Playing Field

In The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, we watch various communities wage battle with one another. Some of us wonder whether they can surmount their differences and rise together to challenge the flawed system that placed them into conflict in the first place. In both cases, if they fail, they will either destroy each other, or they will be overrun by the undead.

Over the past decade, we are watching a similar kind of conflict play out in the world of advertising and brands. Big business is facing a new kind of challenge, one never encountered before: pervasive communication.

In this case, a system in place for well over a century has radically changed in just a handful of years. Kodak, Blockbuster, Borders, Time-Warner Cable, Sears; these brands and many others failed to understand the nature of this change, and have either faltered or were wiped from existence.
Foundations of Brand as Personal Expression

To better define what is going on today, let’s take a brief detour to the start of mass media advertising, or as Edward Bernays called it in the early 1900’s, “public relations.”

Bernays, the nephew of world renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud, popularized his uncle’s theories in the United States. But his understanding of the dire underpinnings of Freud’s worldview would become the source of Bernays’ greatest success. To put it simply, Freud saw humanity as tribal, barely out of the cave. Sexual impulses and violence lay just beneath the surface of our civilized veneer. We were savages in suits and ties, engaging in a constant struggle to keep ourselves in check.

Bernays took Freud a step further by concluding that in order to maintain civilization, humanity needed to be pacified. It was the job of government, and especially big business, to satiate people, keeping them docile. The key to accomplishing this would be to make us consumers.

At that point in history, most people purchased goods for their durability and functionality. They bought things based on need. But Bernays taught his big business clients to use broadcast media to tell the masses a different story. It was a story not based on facts, but emotions.
In 1928, Bernays started women smoking by associating cigarettes with freedom and power.

Under Bernays, products and services became manifestations of personal expression. (“I’m a woman, but I dare to smoke because I am a torch of liberty!”) He was the first to place brands with celebrity endorsers, and in movies, the first to make “luxury” an achievable accomplishment to the lower classes. By appealing to our aspirations, he could sell us anything, making us happy, leaving us wanting more. And more. And more. Consumerism grew to become the heartbeat of the American lifestyle.
Bernays: Disrupted

We will revisit Bernays and Freud, and some of the more terrible events of the 20th century in future installments, but for now, let’s look at an example of how almost exactly 100 years later, Bernays’ broadcast model of indulging the docile consumer has finally and permanently been disrupted. The key to that disruption: an entirely new modality of storytelling.

In January, 2006, journalist Benoit Denizet-Lewis posted an article called The Man Behind Abercrombie & Fitch, about then-CEO Mike Jeffries on It was a positive piece about how Jeffries had turned around the brand, generating billions of dollars by hyping semi-nude models and an elite, club-like atmosphere. Deep in the piece, Jeffries made a fateful comment:
“Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny.”

The comment would lay unnoticed, dormant for seven years.

In the 1990s, it would have vanished in the wind.

But nothing goes away forever in the age of the internet. In May, 2013, Ashley Lutz posted a less flattering article about Jeffries on Business Insider called, Abercrombie & Fitch Refuses To Make Clothes For Large Women. She revived the quote from the Salon article.

Those of us who were different begged to differ. Only this time, to paraphrase Freud, civilization had the tools to vent its discontents. The “tribal chieftain” had insulted us, and we were now bold enough to be unkind in our response. So, Abercrombie & Fitch’s troubles began.

The piece had correctly identified the fact that Jeffries (and the brand’s) notions of beauty had become outdated. Bitter complaints flashed through social media, and Jeffries’ quote took on a life of its own.

In what seemed like a matter of hours, thousands expressed outrage. Disdain for the brand started to spiral out of control. Days later, Time magazine picked up the story of #FitchTheHomeless, describing an 8 million-hit viral YouTube video of a writer who was handing out A&F clothing to homeless people on Skid Row in Los Angeles. Within a week, Ellen Degeneres spent nearly four minutes condemning the brand on her nationally televised talk show.

Just over a year later, everything had changed for the company. Jeffries was gone, and as “one of the world’s most hated retailers” Abercrombie & Fitch struggled with a series of correctives. The brand has yet to fully recover.

Like Kodak, Time-Warner Cable, and Sears, Abercrombie & Fitch has failed (and continues to fail) to understand that for the first time, Bernays’ broadcast model of storytelling to the masses is being challenged. Other “tribal chieftains”—American Apparel, Aeropostale, Avon—watched soberly. How could this have happened so quickly?

The “consumer,” the “people of the tribe,” had found the ultimate tool of self-expression, and was not a Marlboro cigarette or fashionably frayed pair of jeans. Brands can no longer simply dance across our screens, casting Hero’s Journey spells before our limpid eyes.
The Novelty of Listening

In the realms of advertising, branding, and communicating to the masses, the Collective Journey posits a radical change to storytelling that is still barely understood by many companies. Story no longer belongs exclusively to an elite set of broadcasters. They are no longer the sole dictators of how we feel about ourselves, what we want, or what we need.

It’s now easy for us to create, easy for us to sell. We can be the brand. Our friends are reacting to us across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, and we respond to them. But many brands still don’t know exactly how to play by these new rules.

The problem is, broadcasters have only ever measured feedback in the form of revenue. There has never been any real need to listen to the audience, and so they either don’t want to engage at this level of intimacy, or they are clueless about how to do it.

Instead, brands still interrupt us. They yell at us for 60, 30, 15 seconds, and then a football player smashes into an old lady. Brands make us wait to get back to our content, when there is no reason to wait any more.

In a time of pervasive communication, our stories vastly outnumber the stories of brands. Our stories now entwine themselves around brands; agreeing with them, making mistakes about them, criticizing them, even directly opposing them. We are ignored at the brand’s peril.

What the brand stands for, what it is contributing to the world, and how it engages people have become even more important than its advertising stories, because these are the elements of lasting dialog.

So Bernays’ rigid and monolithic model, his method of pacifying the masses through the promotion of rampant blind consumerism has begun to crack. It’s crumbling, because people have awakened to the power of social media, and they demand to be heard. Story itself has become porous.

With the click of a mouse, we can now find our way into the stories told to us by big business, and we’re learning that our voices can impact their story, their products, and their sales all at lightning speed.

As opposed to the linear, didactic Hero’s Journey employed by brands for the past century, Collective Journey is signified by the rise of porous, fully participative, nonlinear meta-narratives.

These are rivers of narrative that contain corporate and brand stories, but are also fed by streams of personal stories, blog posts, press coverage, tweets and Facebook posts. Companies (and institutions and governments) have begun to realize that these are extremely difficult waters to navigate.

So, we ask ourselves, is there a specific modality to Collective Journey storytelling? Is there a way to get our fundamental stories right, so that they can stand up to waves of scrutiny and chaos? Is there a better way to listen? And in these anxious times, is there an engine at the heart of this model that can improve on Bernays, and possibly even challenge Freud’s most cynical theories?

The answers to all of these questions is, yes. But first, the darkest hour is just before dawn…

The Power of Propaganda & Multilateral Narratives

Story Can Assert Control Over the Masses

Stories can move us, both on the silver screen and in reality. Images by Lucas and Riefenstahl.

Okay, so I want you to stay with me just a bit longer, before we explore the mechanisms of the Collective Journey, because this next part might get a bit uncomfortable, but it’s super important.

At first blush, this post might seem to some like an anti-Trump screed, or that I’m impugning the methods of the current administration. That is not what it’s designed to do. From the start, we’ve discussed how Collective Journey storytelling is on the rise in television, in advertising, and most critically on global stage in social issues, government and politics.

At the heart of Collective Journey is an engine, a combination of major factors that make this model many times faster and more powerful than any other narrative approach. We believe this is why all around the world strange and spectacular events are happening so suddenly, so confusingly.

Shortly in this series, we are going to take apart the Collective Journey engine, and show you how it’s built. But in order to truly understand it, we have to trace key modes of storytelling to pivotal moments in human history over the past century. We have to understand the power of propaganda and multilateral storytelling.

The Collective Journey engine is a tool. It can be used to empower or enslave. We’ll leave it to you to decide the intentions of those who clearly understand it, and are using it in highly effective ways today. Our main goal is to show you how this tool works.
Making the World Safe for Democracy

Earlier we talked about how Edward Bernays believed that entire populations could be pacified—and nations fortified—by promoting a consumerist culture. In the early 20th century, the United States went all-in on this theory, and so went the Western world. Need became desire. Practical became fashionable. Instead of rational reasons for purchasing products and services, advertisers preyed on our idealism, our aspirations…and our fears.

But the corporate world was not the original testing site for Bernays’ theories. Ground zero was in politics. With the advent of World War I, Bernays was originally recruited to help President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to convince the hesitant American people that entering the war was the right thing to do. Bernays picked up on the narrative that the United States was not so much defending a number of ancient empires, but was instead spreading democracy across Europe.

We went to war, because we were, “Making the world safe for democracy.” The slogan, and the myriad stories that flowed in support of it across popular media, was wildly successful.

During the Paris Peace Conference, after the war in 1919, Bernays was awestruck at the public’s response to Wilson. By the hundreds of thousands, they treated him as a kind of savior, a god. The hero had arrived from beyond the seas, a unifier and champion of the people, and he had raised his sword against the invading hordes. After defeating them, he returned with the twin boons of liberty and capitalism to pass onto his adoring throngs.
Image ©Roger Viollet, Paris

Bernays was not the only one watching these narratives bear such fruit. German Doctor of Philosophy, Joseph Goebbels, also observed with interest.
Public Enlightenment

Less than fourteen years later, Goebbels would be serving Adolph Hitler as the Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels believed in Freud’s assessment that the human race were barely controlled savages, and he believed in Bernays solution that carefully designed and transmitted messages can assert control over the masses, both in the name of preserving order, and so that the elite can retain power.

There were just a few big differences, of course. The Nazi narrative tossed aside consumerism, after all the Crash of ’29 and subsequent Depression in America seemed to prove that approach a failure. They tossed aside democracy, because it proved incapable of asserting the kind of control necessary to maintain stability in times of crisis.
Goebbels addressing the public.

But most troubling was that the Nazis decided to provide an outlet for the dark impulses cited by both Freud and Bernays. They pinpointed enemies, scapegoats, targets, and the Third Reich granted permission for people to unleash their pent up anger, fear, and depravity upon them.

This would become Hitler’s Final Solution, the Holocaust.

To do this, Goebbels needed to assert complete control over the German media. He did this over time by impugning and vilifying critics, eroding the peoples’ faith in independent journalism, and becoming the sole shaper of stories from the perception of both those in Germany, and of those overseas.

When story surrounds you, particularly if it is passed down by authority, shorn of contradictions, and singular in intent, no matter how irrational it is, it slowly becomes acceptable. It becomes real.
Slayer of Dragons

In Mein Kampf, the blueprint of the Hitler narrative, there are many references to the perilous journeys of great heroes, a mold in which Hitler would cast himself:
Great, truly world-shaking revolutions of a spiritual nature are not even conceivable and realizable except as the titanic struggles of individual formations, never as enterprises of coalitions.
Siegfried Slaying the dragon Fafnir, Konrad Dielitz (1880) from the epic Germanic cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen

Under the adverse economic and political conditions of a demoralized Germany, it would not take long for Goebbels to shape an epic narrative where culture, lifestyle, and yearning would all be streamlined into the fanatical worship of this one man, Hitler, slayer of dragons, savior of the Aryan race.

The result would be an exponentially supercharged version of what Bernays saw in Paris, and a nation eager to follow their hero into the oblivion of World War II.

While any number of pundits and bloggers have made direct allusions to the work of Goebbels in comparison with the narrative strategies being used by authoritarian governments on mass audiences today, the reality is somewhat different. After all, we are moving from a strictly broadcast model into an age of pervasive communication.
The Rise of Multilateral Narrative

Let’s leap forward to the early 2000s to examine one last kind of storyteller before we arrive at Collective Journey.

Once again, we have an economically decimated and politically demoralized nation, only this time it’s Russia. In an effort to consolidate power in his bid to restore the primacy of his country, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would dip into the time-honored trappings of the Hero’s Journey.

Putin needed to pull the focus of the Russian narrative to himself as a strongman, one who could assert “stability,” “effective management” over the “confusion and twilight” of the 1990s post-collapse era of the Soviet Union. But if the country was still a mess, what kind of story would convince the Russian people that their hero had arrived?

The answer arrived in the form of a leather-jacketed science fiction and theater nerd named Vladislav Surkov, who would become known as the “political technologist of all of Rus.”
Shutterstock/Reuters/The Atlantic

Surkov is the creator of a kind of storytelling that moves beyond the public relations of Bernays or the culturally systemic propaganda of Goebbels. So contemporary, it doesn’t even seem to have a name. The closest we’ve found is Geoffrey Colon’s term, information jamming.

We call it multilateral narrative.
Of Course, the French Invented It

Intrigued with the use of strange and alien signs and symbols to represent modern anxieties, Surkov was impressed with a new post-modern artform out of 1990s France, as described by the philosopher Jean-François Lyotard. The expression was…
Characterised by the recognition of multiple perspectives and micro-narratives. Every utterance should be thought of as a “move” in a game… Dominance of information is power... By subverting dominant forms of media representation through a process of defamiliarisation (chaos) these artists reveal an underlying mechanism of control.
The task of a true artist is to transcend this situation by creating works that are incommunicable and therefore cannot be processed and commodified by information systems.

Surkov would not use a gallery or museum. His installation would be all of Russia. He convinced Putin that if the media were used to generate a climate of uncertainty, confusion, contradiction, a polarizing mixture of truth and fiction, then the people of Russia would be forced to turn to the Kremlin for reassurance, for stability, for effective management.
Three-Card Monte

Documentary journalist Adam Curtis described the Surkovian method in this 2014 news segment on nonlinear war, and “destabilized perception”:
His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theater. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable.

See that? Surkov was not even hiding the fact that he was doing this. Like a three-card Monte player in Times Square in the 1980s, he made it clear that this was theater, but you’ll never know what’s real and what’s not.

Like when Billy Jack called his shot on that Native American-hating sheriff, the only thing you do know is that you’re gonna get whopped in the face.

The result for the Russian people has been exhaustion and resignation. It’s like watching with glassy eyes an endless, nonsensical reality show. The only thing that’s clear is that if the threat is real, the Kremlin will take care of it.
Shock & Awe: The Last Linear War

Compare this with the sophisticated level of narrative used by the Bush administration to convince Americans that war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq was justified in the wake of 9/11.

Their framework for the Iraq narrative was broadly understandable: Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, and had affiliated himself with Al Qaeda. The job of the administration was then to prove these assertions through a complex trail of breadcrumbs, a schematic of story with all the accompanying twists of a techno-thriller (yellowcake uranium, Colin Powell’s frightening United Nations presentation, Judith Miller’s New York Times spy exposé), and a stunning fireball climax (Shock & Awe).

Whether you believed this narrative or you didn’t, you could not fault its logic. The Iraq story was complex, but it stood up to a degree of scrutiny, and most importantly, the evidence presented made some kind of sense.

The multilateral narratives of Putin’s Russia purposefully do not. As journalist Peter Pomerantsev put it,
Moscow can feel like an oligarchy in the morning and a democracy in the afternoon, a monarchy for dinner and a totalitarian state by bedtime.

The layers and clusters of story used in Russia’s multilateral narrative techniques are vastly different from the more conventionally galvanizing Hero’s Journey style of national narrative used as recently as the Bush and Obama administrations. In Surkov’s model, the audience is addled, defeated, and polarized across a dazzling array of issues, even as they infer that a strongman is here to maintain order and protect them.
Drama & Disquiet

Let me confess at this point, a grave concern about the potential for abuse with this new technique. Multilateral narratives are the kind model I both celebrated and cautioned against while I was introducing transmedia storytelling on the world stage, back in the mid-00s.

In the final moments of the TEDx talk I gave in Geneva, Switzerland in 2010, I warned that humanity was entering into a period of rapid change, and that one day soon, we will experience firsthand the dangers of the transmedia conveyance of “pseudo-facts and highly convincing movements that can become destructive.”

We can by made to surrender our freedoms, to become enslaved, and then to commit terrible acts, by this storytelling modality alone.Jump to 17:14 to go straight to the scary stuff.

With no uncertainty, we have arrived at that day.
Light at the End

But there is also a solution. When we step back far enough, we can recognize the methods that people—filmmakers, advertisers, governments—are using to communicate with us.

These are new and sophisticated models of storytelling, so there seems to be an infinite number of moving parts to them. But again, there is an engine at the heart of Collective Journey, a foundational set of factors for how and why this method is so powerful.

If we understand this engine, we can better understand how it is being modified to effect us in certain ways. We can understand how it can be hardwired into our emotional core. We can understand how to use it for ourselves, to exponentially amplify our own messages. And we can understand how to disengage ourselves from it and disrupt it, if that’s what is necessary.

The Dishearteningly Safe 2017 Oscars

By Richard Brody

Barry Jenkins reacts as his film "Moonlight" is awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture, following an accidental announcement that “La La Land” was the winner.

The little mishap at the end—when “La La Land” was briefly crowned Best Picture, before the mistake was caught and “Moonlight” received the award—was a welcome touch of spontaneity in an Oscars ceremony so dishearteningly competent and mega-managed that even the calculated improvisation of bringing in tourists for an Oscars surprise party offered the nauseous wheedling of a game show. No slam on Jimmy Kimmel, who stayed alert to the action, but he always seemed to be well within the game plan, and never got anywhere near the show’s limits. The Oscars have long been on their best behavior, tamped down and buttoned up, and everyone wonders why the viewership is down. It’s not because the highest-grossing movies don’t get nominations; it’s because the Oscars ceremony brings the world’s brightest stars together and doesn’t let them do a damn thing. It’s as if, instead of the Kentucky Derby, viewers were urged to enjoy the spectacle of thoroughbreds harnessed as dray horses.

It’s unfortunate that the spectacular mistake at the end of the evening momentarily upstaged the movie that won, “Moonlight,” one of the best Best Pictures ever, an award that reflects its own glory on the Academy—but the slipup has as little actual effect on the film’s victory as the Chicago Daily Tribune’s mistaken headline did on Harry S. Truman’s Presidency. I’m delighted that “Moonlight” won, though astonished that Damien Chazelle won Best Director over Barry Jenkins. But I am, above all, surprised that, in a time of outrage, so many of the speeches were business as usual.

Kimmel’s monologue hit some forceful, comedic political notes, as in his greeting of Isabelle Huppert (“I’m glad Homeland Security let you in”) and, especially, in his extended riff on the “highly overrated Meryl Streep,” which he followed up by asking her, “Nice dress, by the way—is that an Ivanka?” But, upon hearing the monologue, I also wondered whether, instead of setting the tone for the evening, Kimmel wasn’t defusing it—whether he wasn’t letting off the collective steam in the hope and expectation that the rest of the evening would prove lukewarm. And that’s, for the most part, what happened.

The prepared statement by Best Foreign Language Film winner Asghar Farhadi, delivered by the Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari, was a forceful denunciation of “the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.,” and of the enmity that could serve as “a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” Gael García Bernal spoke out against the planned wall on the border with Mexico, and Ezra Edelman, who directed the Best Documentary Feature, “O.J.: Made in America,” spoke of “victims of police violence, police brutality, racially motivated violence, and criminal injustice.” Barry Jenkins spoke sublimely of the Academy and the A.C.L.U. together; Tarell Alvin McCraney spoke of “two boys from Liberty City, up here on this stage representing 305”; and Viola Davis’s passionate speech paid pointed tribute to the political implications of the dramatic art that can “exhume those bodies, exhume those stories.”

Kimmel even goaded the President on Twitter, with the screen of a cell phone projected high above him, but, by and large, the evening was one of professional graciousness and stifled outrage. While the new Administration has been going lower than anyone could have imagined, Hollywood went suavely and glamorously high. A strange spectre haunted the evening—the fear that Hollywood could actually become a conspicuous target of the regime.

One of the great peculiarities of the movie system is that liberal Hollywood provides the entertainment for blue and red viewers alike. Fox News may spew propaganda for the Republican Party and other right-wing politicos, but many of the movies that Fox, as a studio, distributes are as liberal as any—“Hidden Figures,” for instance—and Fox Searchlight released “The Birth of a Nation” and “A United Kingdom.” There isn’t a cinematic Breitbart that has made any significant inroads in the business. And that’s the way Hollywood doubtless wants to keep it; the evening’s caution appeared designed to suppress calls for boycotts, to dispel anyone’s urge to launch an alternative Conserva-wood.

Far be it from me to advise anyone on how to express his or her political indignation. The best thing that the best artists of the time, such as Jenkins and Kenneth Lonergan—who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for “Manchester by the Sea”—can do is to go on making movies. The very nature of public life—for that matter, of social life—is not saying everything that’s on one’s mind. The gracious falsehoods of which the Oscars speeches of other years are built appear to repress mainly personal passions and enmities. This year, even as seen on TV, the theatre felt supercharged with just and righteous anger that seemed ready to burst forth in mighty thunderbolts of apt invective. I can readily understand why they remained largely undischarged. But it’s worth recalling what Freud said about mistakes—that they conceal unexpressed and repressed desires. This year’s Oscars concluded with the most spectacular Freudian slip in its history.

Genuine conversations to establish relationships with users

The net is flooded with content. Brands are in constant movement, innovating, creating and sharing information to attract or keep their customers using their human side. According to the study “Digital in 2016” from “wearesocial”, 31% of the world population is active on Social Media but, what keeps the interest of these 2.3 billion people in Social Media? The conversations and interactions generated by these platforms are leading.

From this starting point, I recall Cluetrain’s Manifesto; I take a glance at it and the first point reads “Markets are conversations”, but it is also about relationships. The following 5 theses from the Manifesto show us the importance of the human voice on behalf of companies: it is simple, consumers of your product are human beings and as such you must talk to them. From now on, we will speak only about the first thesis.

Why should brands talk to their users?

If the conversation is an important part of the connection process between brand and client, we have to check the way we do it. It is not the same to dedicate all efforts to speak to users than to make ourselves part of their conversations.

Users already have friends to talk to; they are not looking to brands for that. They expect their problems to be solved, looking for useful and interesting information or to simply have their needs taken care of. So, how can we make this relationship more effective? I want to share these suggestions that will give a more real feel to conversations that you establish with your crowd:
Your messages as a brand should include an emotional component that allows for a good relationship with your audience.
Speaking with honesty and humbleness gets you closer to your users.
Instead of thinking in brand awareness, think about building trust.
Focus on being part of your crowd’s inner circle and not the other way around.

How to put this to work? It is important to ask questions, offer useful suggestions, let them speak about their experiences with your products or services, share success stories and thank them but, most of all, listen to them and you will have the tools to speak in a more natural way each time. They will keep their brand loyalty and the relationship will be a lot more solid.

What are the brands currently doing?

At this point, I want to show you how the best is being made out of conversations, largely because there are numerous platforms for doing this and here I want to make a pause for a special mention to Snapchat. They recently changed their name to Snap Corp, with a series of improvements that include the sale of glasses for 10-second video filming, which would be their version of the Google Glass.

The so-called “millennial net” already tops Twitter in users, as it already has some 150 million. Brands like McDonald’s, General Electric, HBO, among others, are using it not only to show their content but also as a way to establish a connection with users in the issue of customer service. The advantage is that you can go from offering exclusive content to provide personalized information to followers.

Amazon is an example of this, with a customer service-based campaign for Black Friday. What was the novelty? Its followers were able to see the promotions a day before the rest of users outside Snapchat while at the same time, responded to all inquiries about their offers, purchases, returns and more: the brand added useful information, cleared all doubts and generated trust among its buyers.

So, do you believe it is worth speaking to your users? Of course, it is! And it is important to develop a relationship with them, speaking of the value of sincerity and showing reciprocity: they give you their money, you give them a good product, service and you are useful to meet their needs.

Executives Don’t Live the Brand the Way Customers Do and This is Why CX is Shorted

Brian Solis

Looking over the horizon.

The one thing about CRM is that it often has very little to do with “customers” or “relationships” and more to do with the “management” of dated perspectives, systems and processes. So many executives these days are chasing technology and recruiting new expertise to track customers, analyze their data, map journeys and push the most relevant content, messages, promo on the right device at the right time. You’re probably asking, “what’s wrong with that?”

In many ways, it is exactly the right thing to do. But, it’s just the beginning. This is a time to understand the evolving expectations, preferences and values of your customers (and employees). Otherwise, we are not really moving in any new direction other than applying new technologies and processes to dated perspectives and metrics of progress and success.

We are not our customers and as such, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to engage them in meaningful ways. Without empathy, we will continue to talk at them, usher them through outdated and inconvenient touch points, and serve them through means of which are no longer preferred. We are managers and enforcers of legacy. We lean on innovation to move us incrementally forward. But, this is a time for radical reinvention and invention. We’re competing for market share as much as we’re competing for relevance. That takes understanding. Then it takes vision, purpose, design and execution.

Customers (and employees) demand experiences. We cannot simply improve “what exists” as a solution and expect different outcomes. To architect relevant and meaningful experiences, we must understand first, what experiences people cherish and seek and work backwards from there.

This is what I’d like to speak with you about since you’re here.

While I was in DC speaking at the CRM Evolution conference, I stopped by to meet with Butch Stearns and his crew. In our discussion, I discuss the findings from my latest research on the “6 Stages of Digital Transformation.” More so, I also share that the heart and soul of digital transformation, CX, or any important change in business, must be centered in empathic experience design.

domingo, 26 de febrero de 2017

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.

By Elizabeth Kolbert

The vaunted human capacity for reason may have more to do with winning arguments than with thinking straight.Illustration by Gérard DuBois

In 1975, researchers at Stanford invited a group of undergraduates to take part in a study about suicide. They were presented with pairs of suicide notes. In each pair, one note had been composed by a random individual, the other by a person who had subsequently taken his own life. The students were then asked to distinguish between the genuine notes and the fake ones.

Some students discovered that they had a genius for the task. Out of twenty-five pairs of notes, they correctly identified the real one twenty-four times. Others discovered that they were hopeless. They identified the real note in only ten instances.

As is often the case with psychological studies, the whole setup was a put-on. Though half the notes were indeed genuine—they’d been obtained from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office—the scores were fictitious. The students who’d been told they were almost always right were, on average, no more discerning than those who had been told they were mostly wrong.

In the second phase of the study, the deception was revealed. The students were told that the real point of the experiment was to gauge their responses to thinking they were right or wrong. (This, it turned out, was also a deception.) Finally, the students were asked to estimate how many suicide notes they had actually categorized correctly, and how many they thought an average student would get right. At this point, something curious happened. The students in the high-score group said that they thought they had, in fact, done quite well—significantly better than the average student—even though, as they’d just been told, they had zero grounds for believing this. Conversely, those who’d been assigned to the low-score group said that they thought they had done significantly worse than the average student—a conclusion that was equally unfounded.

“Once formed,” the researchers observed dryly, “impressions are remarkably perseverant.”

A few years later, a new set of Stanford students was recruited for a related study. The students were handed packets of information about a pair of firefighters, Frank K. and George H. Frank’s bio noted that, among other things, he had a baby daughter and he liked to scuba dive. George had a small son and played golf. The packets also included the men’s responses on what the researchers called the Risky-Conservative Choice Test. According to one version of the packet, Frank was a successful firefighter who, on the test, almost always went with the safest option. In the other version, Frank also chose the safest option, but he was a lousy firefighter who’d been put “on report” by his supervisors several times. Once again, midway through the study, the students were informed that they’d been misled, and that the information they’d received was entirely fictitious. The students were then asked to describe their own beliefs. What sort of attitude toward risk did they think a successful firefighter would have? The students who’d received the first packet thought that he would avoid it. The students in the second group thought he’d embrace it.

Even after the evidence “for their beliefs has been totally refuted, people fail to make appropriate revisions in those beliefs,” the researchers noted. In this case, the failure was “particularly impressive,” since two data points would never have been enough information to generalize from.

The Stanford studies became famous. Coming from a group of academics in the nineteen-seventies, the contention that people can’t think straight was shocking. It isn’t any longer. Thousands of subsequent experiments have confirmed (and elaborated on) this finding. As everyone who’s followed the research—or even occasionally picked up a copy of Psychology Today—knows, any graduate student with a clipboard can demonstrate that reasonable-seeming people are often totally irrational. Rarely has this insight seemed more relevant than it does right now. Still, an essential puzzle remains: How did we come to be this way?

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.

Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coöperate. Coöperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

A recent experiment performed by Mercier and some European colleagues neatly demonstrates this asymmetry. Participants were asked to answer a series of simple reasoning problems. They were then asked to explain their responses, and were given a chance to modify them if they identified mistakes. The majority were satisfied with their original choices; fewer than fifteen per cent changed their minds in step two.

In step three, participants were shown one of the same problems, along with their answer and the answer of another participant, who’d come to a different conclusion. Once again, they were given the chance to change their responses. But a trick had been played: the answers presented to them as someone else’s were actually their own, and vice versa. About half the participants realized what was going on. Among the other half, suddenly people became a lot more critical. Nearly sixty per cent now rejected the responses that they’d earlier been satisfied with. “Thanks again for coming—I usually find these office parties rather awkward.”

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us. As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”

Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. They begin their book, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” (Riverhead), with a look at toilets.

Virtually everyone in the United States, and indeed throughout the developed world, is familiar with toilets. A typical flush toilet has a ceramic bowl filled with water. When the handle is depressed, or the button pushed, the water—and everything that’s been deposited in it—gets sucked into a pipe and from there into the sewage system. But how does this actually happen?

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

“One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group.

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention. (Respondents were so unsure of Ukraine’s location that the median guess was wrong by eighteen hundred miles, roughly the distance from Kiev to Madrid.)

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe. The two have performed their own version of the toilet experiment, substituting public policy for household gadgets. In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

Sloman and Fernbach see in this result a little candle for a dark world. If we—or our friends or the pundits on CNN—spent less time pontificating and more trying to work through the implications of policy proposals, we’d realize how clueless we are and moderate our views. This, they write, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

One way to look at science is as a system that corrects for people’s natural inclinations. In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.

In “Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us” (Oxford), Jack Gorman, a psychiatrist, and his daughter, Sara Gorman, a public-health specialist, probe the gap between what science tells us and what we tell ourselves. Their concern is with those persistent beliefs which are not just demonstrably false but also potentially deadly, like the conviction that vaccines are hazardous. Of course, what’s hazardous is not being vaccinated; that’s why vaccines were created in the first place. “Immunization is one of the triumphs of modern medicine,” the Gormans note. But no matter how many scientific studies conclude that vaccines are safe, and that there’s no link between immunizations and autism, anti-vaxxers remain unmoved. (They can now count on their side—sort of—Donald Trump, who has said that, although he and his wife had their son, Barron, vaccinated, they refused to do so on the timetable recommended by pediatricians.)

The Gormans, too, argue that ways of thinking that now seem self-destructive must at some point have been adaptive. And they, too, dedicate many pages to confirmation bias, which, they claim, has a physiological component. They cite research suggesting that people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs. “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong,” they observe.

The Gormans don’t just want to catalogue the ways we go wrong; they want to correct for them. There must be some way, they maintain, to convince people that vaccines are good for kids, and handguns are dangerous. (Another widespread but statistically insupportable belief they’d like to discredit is that owning a gun makes you safer.) But here they encounter the very problems they have enumerated. Providing people with accurate information doesn’t seem to help; they simply discount it. Appealing to their emotions may work better, but doing so is obviously antithetical to the goal of promoting sound science. “The challenge that remains,” they write toward the end of their book, “is to figure out how to address the tendencies that lead to false scientific belief.”

“The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring. ♦