Digital Mass Persuasion and the Public Health Crisis Gun Control Frame

It seems like an eternity since I have written anything. A sullen realization tends to sink in when you realize how far-reaching social media censorship goes and how algorithms have taken control of everything. Someday, the American people will see that they have become their own slave masters to a system that feeds them exactly what they want to see. We have all experienced, to some extent or another, how Facebook or some other social media site will send something to our feeds that reflects what we were just thinking or discussing. These algorithms are controlled by what we like. The result is a manufactured opinion that appears to be shared by the majority when in reality, it is a manipulative trick being played on the public. As I discussed in Psychological Profiling and Digital Mass Persuasion, our attitudes and beliefs are being heavily scrutinized and studied, with the purpose of understanding how to frame the message to gain compliance from the targeted audience. They did it with Covid-19, and they are doing it with gun control as well.

According to the article Psychological Targeting as an Effective Approach to Digital Mass Persuasion, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, digital mass persuasion is used from advertising campaigns to methods employed by the government to gain compliance with political objectives. The article uses much nicer-sounding words like “encourage healthy behaviors,” however, we all know what that means when it comes to COVID-19 messaging. The article goes on to say that mass persuasion is more effective when tailored toward an individual or a group’s psychological traits, beliefs, and behaviors. To be fair, the authors themselves do not appear to be pushing an agenda of any kind as they carefully note that these methods could effectively be used to manipulate people to act against their own best interest by exploiting potential weaknesses. Finally, political campaigns also employ digital mass persuasion to mobilize voter bases. This is something that both Obama and Trump did very well. Cambridge Analytica was employed by both candidates to get a feel for the attitudes and beliefs of the targeted audience. When it comes to Trump, I am sorry to say, that much of what you heard was the result of an acute understanding of what the voters wanted to hear. This is why all through his campaign he claimed he was going to throw Hillary Clinton in jail only to thank her and Billie Boy for their dedicated service to the country once elected. Americans should understand that all political candidates are likely to use these methods to convince voters of their sincerity.

“In three field experiments that reached over 3.5 million individuals with psychologically tailored advertising, we found that matching the content of persuasive appeals to psychological characteristics significantly altered their behavior as measured by clicks and purchases. Persuasive appeals that were matched to people’s extraversion or openness-to-experience level resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases than their mismatching or un-personalized counterparts. Our findings suggest that the application of psychological targeting makes it possible to influence the behavior of large groups of people by tailoring persuasive appeals to the psychological needs of the target audiences.” (Psychological Targeting as an Effective Approach to Digital Mass Persuasion)

Most Americans have no idea that this is occurring at all, nor would they understand when it is being used to manipulate their thinking. This is especially true when it comes to gun control and the way the argument is being framed. Despite SCOTUS’ Bruen V. NYSRPA ruling, which was supposed to eliminate any community interest balancing tests when it comes to the Second Amendment, gun control is driving on, and the left is pushing the issue into uncharted territory. The recent stunt by New Mexico Governor Grisham is a great example. She attempted to outright ban the legal carrying of firearms in the name of a public health crisis. Despite the constant propaganda coming from both political sides, claiming that she came under fire from her own party for making such a move, it should be understood that her job is done. The public health frame was taken to the next level and it is permeating the public consciousness. That is the agenda, to define, or dictate, what the public is thinking about. The unfortunate reality, and this is something that Cass Sunstein noted in his book Nudge, is that most people are not the deep thinkers they believe themselves to be. This is what decades of studying the effects of persuasive communications have taught researchers. According to an article entitled Guns, Culture, or Mental Health? Framing Mass Shootings as a Public Health Crisis, (this article was obtained through a university database and is not available for free) the targeted audiences of such messaging are generally those who, and I quote, “are sophisticated enough to understand the message, but not sophisticated enough to know how or why to refute it.” Think about this statement in the context of generations of students who are being overwhelmed with anti-gun messaging in public schools. People who have been taught their whole lives that safety is more important than liberty. This is the targeted audience, and they can understand the message from the public safety perspective but not from the view of the Second Amendment. Why? One, they are bombarded with images of school shootings, and two, the schools are lying to them about the purpose of the Second Amendment.

Think about it like this. Our behaviors tell them what they need to know. COVID-19 taught them one thing, and that is the masses are more than willing to surrender their personal liberty in the name of public safety. They learned that simply by watching how society responded to not only the initial COVID messaging but the tweaking of the message in response to any resistance they were encountering as well. Why does this matter? A public that is more concerned about public safety than personal liberty is ripe for the “public health crisis” gun control message. According to an article entitled Persuasion in 140 characters: Testing issue framing, persuasion, and credibility via Twitter and online news articles in the gun control debate, messages framed from a public safety point of view hold more credibility and have more of a persuasive effect than those that are framed from the personal liberty perspective.  This was a study conducted on Twitter to examine the effects of persuasive messaging. While it can be noted that pro-gun groups played a key role in drawing attention to and driving the conversation, it was the anti-gun groups that were more successfully able to achieve persuasion among the targeted audience. Why? The messages were viewed as being more genuine, denoting a legitimate concern for the safety of society. An intent of goodwill is always seen as more credible, whereas the pro-gun side appeals to personal liberty may come across as being more selfish when the driving beliefs of the targeted audience revolve around guns being dangerous, to begin with. One thing to keep in mind is that the targeted audience was by and large, college students who are known to be concerned about campus carry laws and more prone to be users of social media. It should also be noted that elementary school students from the 2012 (Sandy Hook) timeframe are now likely to be entering, or preparing for college.  

The bigger point I am trying to make is that you can not believe anything in the mainstream, or social media for that matter. Everything is an attempt to persuade the audience into accepting positions they would otherwise reject, or create a perception of one kind or another. It must also be understood that people who are ideologically rooted in their positions are not the targeted audience. People like this are by far the minority in society. Most of us live our lives day in and day out forming our opinions and political beliefs based on two-minute attention grabbers in the mainstream media. The most interesting thing – and this is something I have discussed several times concerning the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion – it is often the people who pride themselves on staying informed through the media that are the most susceptible to this type of propaganda because the message is framed in a way that aligns with their psychological profile obtained from their digital footprint on social media, or the effort they put into elaborating about a certain message reinforces any attitude change that occurs as a result. 

If we want to defend and preserve the Second Amendment I would suggest the conservative movement spend some time studying the effects of persuasive communications and which methods are being used to persuade those sitting on the sidelines to take the anti-gun position.

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