Facts Form Frames

Our Founders expected educated citizens to engage in honest debate to find the right solutions to national problems, but did this happen during the 2016 election? Did substantive exchanges between Trump and Clinton about climate change, the economy, terrorism, health care or guns push us closer to solutions? Many blame the divided electorate, talking past each other in their right-wing and left-wing echo chambers. We can’t have a functional debate if we can’t look at each other. And, while true, the problem is one level deeper. We can’t debate each other because of a broader consensus, written deep into the DNA of today’s marketing and campaign theories, that facts and logic matter less than broad messages. No appeals to facts will fix today’s debate until we first identify this consensus as the broader problem.

In 2016, the Clinton framework was “enlightened vs primitive.” Although Clinton’s website was a treasure chest of verified facts and logical arguments, her dominant message, repeated over and over on TV and radio, presented Trump as a bigot unqualified to enter the American forum. The sentiment echoed Mitt Romney’s powerful criticism of Trump during the Republican primary, Paul Ryan’s outrage at Trump’s comments against Mexicans and Muslims, and the anti-Trump scorn of a wide range of Republican and Democratic business people, workers, scientists, generals, artists, and religious leaders. These voices disagreed on specific policies, but were partners in a lofty democratic process. They were the enlightened establishment fighting primitive, un-American bigotry.

But say the word “racist” or “sexist” to a Trump supporter, and you will definitely not shame them into voting for Clinton. Rather, you’ll run into Trump’s frame of “strong versus weak.” You’ll trigger a passionate, Pavlovian rebuke they’ve memorized from conservative radio or Fox News. You’ll likely hear some combination of these words: “mainstream America is too thin-skinned in its politically-correct, multicultural safe-space of wishy-washy-whiny-weakness.“ The base, sometimes characterized as simple populists, included many business leaders, some military generals, and even a few intellectuals.

To Trump’s base, the world is mean. They ask, what good is democracy when protesters shoot police officers, crony capitalists earn bonuses and bailouts from corrupt bureaucrats, and all forms of secular degeneracy have perverted the traditional order? It’s not “primitive vs enlightened” but “strong vs weak.” There’s nothing sacred about a dignified, polite gentleman wearing a tuxedo when the Titanic sinks. Nothing is unacceptable except being stupidly nice while others screw you. Trump, to them, embodies a smarter, tougher, more coherent thesis for a thriving, orderly American civilization.

Both frameworks kill debate. To the enlightened, any words from the primitive are brutish, hateful, and designed to con those who believe in reason. While the enlightened class theoretically believes in debating each other, they see no point debating the barbarians at the gate. The only answer is to sound the alarm, and form an alliance of the civilized. Similarly, to the strong, any criticism from the weak is the shrill, jealous complaint of a sore loser. There’s no point debating these cry-babies who live in a perpetual state of victimhood, and whose quixotic idealism fails to see the real threats of the world. The only answer is to sound the alarm, and assert the strongman’s rightful place at the top of the hierarchy.

Politicians love to blame the internet for polarizing the country, but these frameworks were not first coded by software engineers. They were first created and purchased by messaging wizards. During the Reagan and Bush years, Democrats complained Republicans spoke through simple “frameworks” that connected intuitively with voters, resonating with their natural emotions and biases. There was, among the Gore and Kerry campaigns, a misunderstood academic’s bitterness at the simple man’s love for bumper stickers, while no one read their hard-written policy papers. But, ever since George Lakoff’s popular book Don’t Think of an Elephant, Democrats had an intellectual justification to do the same. Lakoff used cognitive theories of the brain to explain why frameworks trump facts. After Bush defeated Kerry in 2004, despondent Democrats turned to Lakoff for answers. It unleashed a generation of messaging consultants who now fill the Public Affairs and Public Relations departments of the world. In the constant jockeying for power among DC staffers, Lakoff elevated the status of the Don Draper-like messaging guru. His theories lowered the empirical policy advisor to a subject matter expert, a Google search engine who could talk. The fact people, once among the esteemed wisemen advising the king, became pawns on the frame-maker’s chessboard.

Think about what this really means. The 2 frames of the 2016 campaign, “enlightened vs primitive” and “strong vs weak,” were actually both sub-frames of a larger super-frame so accepted it’s now invisible. By 2016, the communication wizards of the world had largely accepted the invisible frame that “frames trump facts.” Ironically, even though Clinton’s frame was “enlightened versus primitive,” the super-frame prevented her from engaging in enlightened debate. It mean that, despite her wealth of facts and logic, the ultimate choice would be to focus on Trump’s personal flaws, and not seriously debate his policies on energy, trade, guns, and immigration. The invisible super-frame is, by definition, a rejection of honest debate leading to a better answer.

Then came the software. The gradual acceptance of “frames trump facts,” guiding the decision-makers with billions in cumulative marketing and campaign budgets, shaped the messaging technologies that emerged over the past decade. It defined the KPIs that measured the success of brand managers at Coca-Cola and Ford, declaring that clicks and shares were proxies for a resonant message. To quote Y-Combinator, the most legendary of startup incubators, startups make products people want. Said without Silicon Valley spin, information startups make products marketers with budgets buy. The new messaging consensus made clear the future of communications was not to educate or persuade, but to resonate: find something the audience wanted and then use that resonant frequency to feed your own message.

The men in suits had decided how to spend their billions in advertising dollars, and Silicon Valley obliged with great companies. Buzzfeed built a billion dollar business by sensing and then amplifying headlines and images that could go viral. Optimizely, now on a million websites including AverPoint, built tools to quickly A/B test the perfect headline for a website or perfect place to position a “Buy now” button. Facebook’s big data algorithms let companies and candidates micro-target the perfect message for each demographic: age, gender, race, and maybe even if you own a dog. Sprinklr built a billion dollar business slicing and dicing the perfect message across texts, tablets, and PCs, sprinkling enough emotional micro-messages to swarm the user’s brain.

The greatest irony of this “data-driven marketing,” the fusion of the new ad tech tools and Lakoffian message-makers, is that it’s premised on the subordination of facts to frames. They are brilliant tools that let marketers and campaigners say exactly what customers and voters want to hear. But it gathers data to sell the most resonant message, rather than figure out how the data and logic can resonate.

Armed with innovative tools to craft the perfectly viral message, it’s only natural that both left and right eventually landed in frameworks that shut out the other side. Clinton learned it was most effective to keep hitting home the Trump barbarian frame, while Trump learned his crowds went wild at birth certificate conspiracies and “Lock her up!” It was, of course, happening in business too, where click-bait advertisers learned the perfect moment to sell a sub-prime loan or phony nutritional supplement, driving up advertising costs for all participants. In journalism, news sites quickly learned that cat videos and listicles would deliver more revenue than deep investigations.

But what if the super-frame wasn’t invisible? Suppose, as a thought-experiment, a citizen or consumer rejects the frame that “frame trumps facts”?

First, she might realize some algorithm has been tailoring a message over-weighted for 1 candidate and against the other. She might look for facts that challenge her assumption that all Trump voters are brutes or that all Clinton voters are weak pushovers.

Second, she might map the different forces that compose both candidate coalitions, and understand what each one wants. She might identify the specific facts and arguments within each group, even if she disagreed with them at a very fundamental level. Most importantly in this age of inequality, she might reject unfounded messages, some in her own party, meant to advance the financial interests of a few.

Third, once she understood each group’s position, she might distinguish areas of agreement and disagreement. When she disagreed, she might suggests facts and arguments — and might learn some facts and arguments she hadn’t considered. Both sides might remain apart, but they’ll start to acknowledge the facts and logic informing the other side. They might also find paths of compromise that grow the pie for everyone, even if each has to make a concession.

In other words, if we reject the super-frame that “frames trump facts,” we might do things that lead to a real debate. Politicians and marketers, who control billions in advertising dollars, can’t lament the decline of facts, blame Facebook, and then continue buying tools based on “frames trump facts.” They can’t, with their big budgets, drive all innovation to make this even more true.

Of course, marketers and politicians will only reject the invisible super-frame if they see a better way to earn customers and voters. So what has to happen for a factual debate to drive purchases and votes? What’s missing? The demand is already there: polls show customers want to buy from a trustworthy company. Similarly, citizens prefer trustworthy leaders, even if they don’t agree with every policy position. It’s also not a supply problem: these honest companies and candidates exist. But they are not winning sales and votes through factual debates.

What’s blocking the transaction? We don’t have practical tools that signal a company or politician is actually trustworthy. That’s what AverPoint is trying to fix. Rather than help companies use data to craft viral messages, we’re building tools to help make data-backed arguments easier to identify, challenge, improve, and spread. We help signal a brand or politician uses facts, exposes themselves to fact-check, balances their bias with counter facts, and exhibits other trustworthy behaviors. We’re focused on how to simplify all this into an easy, emotional signal that fits into the flow of the modern internet. Whether it’s us or someone else, the world needs such tools to connect the supply of and demand for trustworthy brands. We also need investors who will jumpstart these innovations until the brand managers can justify buying these tools.

But marketing tools, even if they successfully deliver customers and votes, cannot sufficiently replace the invisible frame. We also need an inspiring alternative frame that explains why facts and debate matter. To replace the invisible frame that “frames trump facts,” we need a better super-frame that says “facts produce the right product and candidate, while fantasies produce sub-prime mortgage crises and dictators.” We need a culture that says, “I won’t buy or vote for someone who believes frames trump facts.”

AverPoint’s perspective, and the overall argument of these essays, is the alternative frame is a universal worldview. It’s open to all races, cultures, etc. But it’s grounded in the universal truths contained across all groups. It rejects the exclusive parts of each group that would contradict each other. If you accept that common truth exists, you value debate, logic, and facts as your path to this goal. Facts are boring by themselves, but a universal, shared culture that could not just end conflict, but help me buy the right car? Now that’s smart and sexy and profitable… like AverPoint!

We need a counter-culture that celebrates universal truths, and sees free speech and debate as the means. We need a popular mindset that recognizes and rejects manipulative appeals to emotion that cloud our vision. Rather than focus all our studies of the brain on how to trigger emotional responses, let’s study the brain to understand how facts and logic are better accepted — and how fantasies are better rejected. We need voices on both sides to distinguish messages grounded in facts and those designed simply to trigger the perfect reaction. You can argue for or against gun safety in a universal frame — or a fact-free frame. We need the universalists on both sides to stand up to the click-baiters in their own camps.

We need a universal culture, not just software or a pretense of objectivity. That’s why we’re not just building an invisible tool in the background, but also creating a voice through these essays and our brand. Sure we need frames to interpret reality, but the super-frame of American communications should be this: facts are moral, debate is virtuous, truth exists, and anyone who participates with these values makes all of us better. Now, let’s form specific frameworks and build technologies that make that true.