Building Better Consumers and Voters
By John Bandler
Today, we face a diverse array of threats to our information gathering and decision making. External forces try to influence our opinions and actions, sometimes with mild spin but sometimes dishonestly and maliciously. Government can do better exercising its authority against some of these threats, but that is a tricky area, First Amendment protections for speech are strong, and we have individual responsibilities. We need to become better consumers and voters and improve our resistance to false conspiracy theories, propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, outrage media, and advertising and marketing.
Advertising and marketing to influence
Billions of dollars are spent on digital advertising and to learn about and influence Internet users like you. The goal is to target, serve ads, and influence. Each online view of a digital ad and each click on a link can be monetized, and a complex economy has evolved. Companies use a wide spectrum of digital advertising techniques to reach the consumer, build awareness of their brand, and increase sales. Many organizations do this properly, in compliance with laws and regulations. Some tiptoe over the line and violate regulations. Others commit outright fraud and deception. Consumers make many buying decisions, need a degree of protection and regulation from government, but also need to exercise responsibility and protect themselves.
This digital influence is broader than just what we buy. It includes what we click on, watch, and who we donate to.
This industry is bigger than many realize. There is a saying, "If the service is free, you are the product". That means that for all of the services we get for free, such as email, website usage, and social media, the provider of that service is using information about us as the product, monetizing and making money on it somehow.
Nation state propaganda
Nation states have long been in the business of public relations, propaganda, and disinformation. Before the Internet, it was a challenge for one country to reach and influence the population of another. They could drop leaflets, run a radio or TV network, or covertly influence the media and prominent citizens. Today they use digital tools and advertising techniques to meet this end. The internet can be used to sow propaganda, disinformation, discord, and division. Foreign powers can have covert influence in the daily lives of our population, and some foreign powers want to weaken and damage us, or tip the scales in favor of a friendly politician. Our government should not allow such meddling, nor any interference with our sovereignty and process of electing our own government. But again, we cannot simply rely upon our government to protect us from this threat.
Outrage media and domestic spin
Rest assured, there are individuals and organizations within our country devoted to putting out their own form of spin and propaganda, and with limited concern for the truth of the information they put out.
There is also an industry of outrage media. Organizations that make money and gain viewership and readership through outrage, anger, and fear. Facts, logic, and reason are boring to some people, but outrage and anger sells and energizes.
Government is important but is not enough
Government plays an essential role protecting its citizens and residents from an array of harms and threats, domestic and foreign. Government even tries to protect us from ourselves – for example the requirement that we use our seatbelts in a car, or even certain vaccine requirements. The criminal justice system is government's attempt to protect us from the more grievous of harms committed by others. Civil laws and regulations provide mechanisms to address other improper conduct, including digital advertising conduct that might violate privacy regulations or other consumer protection rules. Our national defense, intelligence, and diplomacy functions are also essential for protecting our country's sovereignty and for deterring and responding to transgressions by foreign powers, including from their propaganda and disinformation.
But we cannot call upon government to protect us from all misinformation. Only in fascist, totalitarian countries does the government control the information stream. Here we value free speech and place limits on our government's ability to control expression. We cannot call on government to arbitrate the truth for us.
We need to do our part
We need a responsible citizenry and we cannot abdicate our individual role to be responsible consumers of information.
We need to build consumers who are resistant to marketing hype.
(In my area of cybercrime, cybersecurity, and privacy, this might mean choosing companies that respect our privacy rights and that avoid dishonest hype. And considering existing free tools we can use, and not making decisions based on fear.)
We need to build voters who are resistant to propaganda, disinformation, and outrage slogans. Voters who seek facts and apply reason, and choose ethical candidates who will put country interest over personal interest (and even over party interest). This gives us the best chance to select a government that will do their best to serve country and constituents. Simply put, if the candidate lacks morals or is utterly dishonest, their professed political position becomes less relevant. They will always put their personal interests first.
We need to build better consumers of news and media. Unfortunately, selling anger and outrage is profitable. It gains clicks, viewers, and readers. But facts, reason, and logic are the ingredients to make solid decisions that are good for our country. We should not reward clickbait and soundbites at the expense of responsible journalism.
The irony is that some people have effectively self-censored themselves. While they have the choice to consume any media they want (we are not in a fascist, totalitarian country that censors), they have chosen not to consume so-called "mainstream" news, or have chosen to automatically disbelieve anything from there. Thus certain facts will never reach them.
A free press is essential
To obtain facts upon which to base important decisions we need a robust and free press. This free press is never going to be perfect, but will always be a counterweight to dishonesty, corruption, fascism, and authoritarianism. Beware of those who denigrate the value of a free press.
We need to seek and consume reliable fact based news, and not reward clickbait or outrage media, those outlets and personalities that stoke fear and anger at the expense of facts and reason.
We can all do better
We are all consumers and voters with duties.
As consumers, we want to make informed choices for the products and services we purchase, and the news and information we consume.
As voters, we play an important role in selecting our government officials. We should do our jobs diligently and carefully. This starts with seeking facts, not half-truths, angry rhetoric, or conspiracy theories. We can assess the reliability of a source. Then we can assess facts and apply logic to develop sound conclusions and opinions. We should make voting choices based upon facts and reason, not anger or fear. Give great weight to a candidate’s ethics, honesty, and decency, which may be more important than many individual political issues.
As always, this is not legal or consulting advice. And I'm not trying to tell anyone what to buy or how to vote. These are just thoughts on how we can improve our process and thinking, which would benefit our country too.
- My books
- Free Speech, the First Amendment, and Social Media (with commentary about events of 1/6/2021)
- Free Speech, the First Amendment, and Social Media (2) (without commentary about events of 1/6/2021)
- Students, Learning, and Teaching
- More articles
- Voting for Ethics, a book by the late Hana Callaghan at https://www.scu.edu/voting-for-ethics/
- Newseum, Escape Junk News, https://newseumed.org/download-escape-junk-news-poster-bookmark, https://newseumed.org/tools/lesson-plan/escape-junk-news
- Some people believe things for which there is no factual basis, and conspiracy theories span the spectrum. At one end are those who believe the Earth is flat (despite facts, science, and logic to the contrary). This has long fascinated me, and this video covers it nicely: In Search Of A Flat Earth, Folding Ideas (Dan Olsen), https://youtu.be/JTfhYyTuT44
This article is hosted at https://johnbandler.com/building-better-consumers-and-voters. Copyright John Bandler, all rights reserved.
This article is also available (though not kept as up to date) on Medium at https://johnbandler.medium.com/building-better-consumers-and-voters-680795e25f86
Posted 10/21/2020. Updated 1/6/2023.