Attention, media (and various other people): Providing alternate narratives to fake news is like talking to four-year-olds. If you say to a four-year-old, “Don’t do that,” all they really hear is the “do that” part. And they comply.
It doesn’t work to just say no. To more effectively change the behavior of a person so short, you need to redirect their attention toward some other activity, preferably one that’s happening at their altitude. And you need to make it compelling. You need to show them something more fun than pulling their brother’s hair or emptying the cereal box onto the floor. As a dad to not one but two little people who are currently of the four-year-old persuasion, this has been a hard-won lesson for me. Actually, it was taught to me by my wife, who has a lot more experience with this than I ever will. But it’s true.
Given the above, then, it’s clear that it’s not enough to write a headline like There Have Been No Fatal Terror Attacks In The U.S. By Immigrants From The 7 Banned Muslim Countries. If you distrust brown Abrahamic peoples, all you’re likely to see in that headline is “terror attacks by immigrants from Muslim countries.” Negating wisdom that’s been received over and over from a raft of trusted sources isn’t as simple as just stating the fact that that wisdom isn’t true. You’re still stating the wisdom, and that’s all that gets transmitted. Instead, alternate wisdom needs to be provided, and often needs to be provided over and over, in ways that make it easy to receive.
Parenting twins is tough in many ways. One of the things that makes it difficult is also one of the things that makes it compelling and beautiful: They each have a little peer, perfectly matched to their developmental stage in life. It’s fascinating to get to witness their growth not just as individuals, but in their relationship with each other as well. They really are connected to each other more than they are to anyone else in the world.
The hard part is that “anyone else” includes their parents. Where “singletons,” as they’re known in the reproductive parlance, tend to model the behavior of the older people they see around them, twins tend to reinforce each other’s behavior. If one is throwing their peas at dad, the other one probably thinks it’s a good idea too. And because their bff is doing it, it’s often awfully hard to convince them that they should do something else with their legumes. Like eat them.
One common parenting strategy is to engage with your children in the activity you’re recommending. Repeated stark admonitions to “clean your room” aren’t as effective as making a game of it, singing a song about it, or even appearing to discover an exciting new skill in the realm of book shelving or clothes folding or stuffy organization.
My kids have trouble going to sleep. They won’t lie down, they won’t stay in their beds, they won’t stay in their room. It drives me nuts, and there was a period in which I was losing it, raising my voice, threatening spankings, showing them the smoke that was coming out of my ears.
Strangely, none of that worked. I could explain and cajole and recommend they get it together all I wanted, none of it was going to convince them. You can’t spank a kid to sleep. The fact is, I wasn’t making sleep an attractive proposition. I was starting every bedtime on the other side of the aisle from them: Here’s what we’re going to do tonight to make things easier, since I know you have it in for me and have no intention of settling down without a fight. In fact, they were doing exactly what I was asking them to do: give me a fight before going to sleep.
It wasn’t until I backed off my demands and just let myself spend some time in the room with them, without asking them to do anything at all, that things got better. I had to get with them before they got with the program of going to sleep. I had to be where they were before I could get them to go where I wanted. I had to chill out before they could stop hopping up and down. I had to lie down before I could ask them to stop sitting up. I was the one who had to get my shit together, to put it politely, not them.
What I’d missed about this was that the childish work of playing games, singing songs, and telling stories was by far the more adult approach to parenting. Shouting at a four-year-old to Go to sleep, now! is like being a four-year-old and shouting Give me ice cream, now! It’s petulant, annoying, and serves to upset yourself as much as it upsets whoever you’re shouting at. More importantly, it doesn’t get the job done.
For a lot of the media — especially those who hope to correct the narratives, weaponized or otherwise, that the new right is putting out — that’s where they’re stuck. News stories, as traditionally envisioned, have a hard time of offering up the type of engagement that would move a child to constructive action. But it’s not impossible. Given the breadth of community and interactive tools that have been developed to support other types of applications over the last 20 years, it would be irresponsible for media organizations not to avail themselves of similar avenues of engagement. And that’s happening, to an extent, though it’s early days yet, at least for the left. (And there’s the mammoth task of just doing the reporting, of course.) There are lots of interesting experiments going on, and the work coming out of MisinfoCon holds promise. But a broad, integrated operation that seeks to weaponize the truth has yet to emerge. For the most part, the left continues to wag their finger and shout, “Clean your room!”
The right, on the other hand, is arguably taking a more “adult” approach to media and messaging over the last several years, or possibly even decades. A chilling and incredibly well funded propaganda-industrial complex now works in support of the newly empowered extreme right. Community-building, engagement, machine learning, repeated signaling, redirection, and many more techniques were brought to bear on the U.K. referendum that led to Brexit, and the U.S. election that put the current administration in office. That machine will not stop there. And with the support of Russia’s “information warfare” troops (whether the efforts are coordinated or not), the situation threatens to become only more lopsided.
Make no mistake, my point here is not that supporters of the right are children — it’s that we all are. The difference is that the left hasn’t recognized that yet. And in fact, it’s the reverse: Raising four-year-olds holds lessons for swaying public opinion and behavior not because the public is childish, but because children are really only adults who haven’t yet learned to hide their coarser impulses.
Making up funny games and goofy songs as a strategy to guide your children toward desired behavior can feel silly to first-time parents. It sounds sillier to speak of these things in connection with media and politics and matters of life, liberty, rights, and death. But maybe there’s value in thinking of effective media practices as one thinks of good parenting. Consider:
- Try doing what the child is doing before asking them to do what you want them to do. In other words, build empathy and community.
- Come up with games and other activities to draw the child’s attention. Use redirection and interactivity to engage your audience.
- Understand what’s really going on with your child, rather than what you think is or would like to be going on. Then come up with some responses you think might be effective, be consistent with them, and learn from the results. Take the time to understand your audience. Apply machine learning and AI to your practice.
- Be patient, and know that you’ll probably have to say the same thing many times, in many different ways, before it sinks in. Repeating a signal often, on multiple channels, is more powerful than a single impression. Advertisers have known this for ages.
There’s the nature vs. nurture debate, of course, that could put the lie to all my good parenting advice. But where effective media is concerned, there’s a lot to be learned from looking at parenting practices through a certain lens. The right seems already to have learned many of these lessons, but the left looks like it has a bit of growing up to do. Those in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere who hold dear certain notions of inclusivity, equality, and human rights need to get their shit together, to put it politely. Just as many parents do.