4 Easy Steps to Avoid Being Manipulated

Information is not created equally. Some is interesting and captures our attention. Some is boring. Some is accurate. Some is well intentioned and honest, but extrapolates believable half truths into hyperbolic and inflammatory rhetoric.

Much is deliberately created to manipulate you.

Knowing the differences has been one of humanities eternal struggles. Until humans become immortal and have better memory, this is a skill every new generation will need to learn. Or else, risk being manipulated into things they would prefer to avoid.

This has become even more relevant in the last few hundred years due to some recent changes. During this time, more people than ever:

  • Are literate and have some formal education
  • Have access to mass marketing material (text, audio, picture, video)
  • Can produce and distribute content
  • Have careers and lives built on ad and entertainment content
  • Have large amounts of disposable income, resources, and time

This means that more people… have greater access… to create and receive information… in more ways… more often than ever before. So, competition for your attention is higher than ever. Our entertainment, sales and marketing have also monetized, normalized, and positively incentivized mass manipulation. And more people have resources to spend on it. As such, having the skills to filter out the BS and deliberately manipulative information (even if designed for ‘entertainment’) is more valuable than ever.

So, how do you avoid this?

It’s pretty easy. Follow these easy steps:

  1. Pause to think, when you feel emotional.
  2. Everything is questionable. No topics are off limits to discussion.
  3. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
  4. What can be claimed without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

If these rules are applied regularly, life’s onslaught of information becomes much easier to interpret, and you have a better chance to avoid being a victim of manipulation.

On 1: Feeling and thinking are hard to do at the same time. Which is why emotions are exploited in manipulation… they make it harder for our brains to actually think critically about the content in the moment. Therefore, as a first step, we have to begin to counter this with simple awareness and by building in a first step of pausing and reflecting on emotional content when it occurs. Otherwise, none of the rest is possible. Obviously, use wisely and don’t interpret this as suppression of emotions. Rather, it is developing a strategic habit of “immediate and pro-active self reflection”.

On 2: Cultures and people set up personal and social taboos for topics. While there are good reasons for this, they can normalize dismissing arguments from those we may not agree with on “moral” grounds, without any evidence or thought. While there are real variations between ideas, and some are better than others, dismissing ideas outright on ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’ grounds, without evidence, is just as ‘lacking in evidence’, as an opposing and inferior argument, that lacks evidence. And, per 4, both can simply be dismissed.

On 3: While you may in fact be right, or more right on an issue, fact, or idea, claims need evidence. And the more serious and far reaching the claim, the greater the evidence required. Even if you are in fact right.

Unfortunately, this means that any opinion… that lacks evidence… OR is a large claim and only has cursory evidence… can be dismissed outright. Unless, the additional work of researching, testing, and providing compelling and accurate evidence is undertaken. Almost no one does this any more. As a content provider OR as a content consumer. And there are many biological, social, and financial incentives to avoid doing so. Hence our current “post truth” environment.

On actually applying these: Habits are simply ways that we’ve trained ourselves to do things through repetition, so we can apply our focus to other things. If these aren’t developed into habits, and automatic reactions to information, it becomes difficult to apply, and manipulation remains a high risk.

Final thoughts: Safety is required to think critically. When we feel unsafe, our emotions suppress critical thinking. This is why ‘fear mongering’ and ‘scare tactics’ are so popular among mass manipulators. It forces people to take their thinking caps off. It’s also why it’s so hard for people legitimately threatened to make informed choices, and why innovators and thought leaders tend to come from a societies safe, affluent class. It’s also why there is some validity in the idea of “safe spaces” or at least the development of a temporary “safe environment” as a prerequisite for difficult and controversial conversations. While it can and sometimes has been taken way too far, without this development of safety for participants, people aren’t able to get past their fear-based emotional reactions, and on to the tougher evidence based critical dialogue.

Which is why arguing on the internet with strangers is often so incredibly unproductive.

I’ll leave you with some quotes on the topic from someone well versed in the art of modern mass manipulation. Try to read them seriously as someone constantly bombarded by content using identical methods, some for nefarious purposes and some not:

“Propaganda must always address itself to the broad masses of the people. (…) All propaganda must be presented in a popular form and must fix its intellectual level so as not to be above the heads of the least intellectual of those to whom it is directed. (…) The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another. (…) The great majority of a nation is so feminine in its character and outlook that its thought and conduct are ruled by sentiment rather than by sober reasoning. This sentiment, however, is not complex, but simple and consistent. It is not highly differentiated, but has only the negative and positive notions of love and hatred, right and wrong, truth and falsehood.”
“Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively and, in so far as it is favourable to the other side, present it according to the theoretical rules of justice; yet it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favourable to its own side. (…) The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble. On the other hand, they quickly forget. Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. (…) Every change that is made in the subject of a propagandist message must always emphasize the same conclusion. The leading slogan must of course be illustrated in many ways and from several angles, but in the end one must always return to the assertion of the same formula.”

— Hitler, Mein Kampf, Chapter VI, 1925

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