Okay, let’s take a break from corporate manipulation and let’s look at some government manipulation.

Governments (at least Western ones) tend to be careful when manipulating the electorate, because the press really likes those types of stories (as compared to boring corporate manipulation ones, which are the purview of deluded bloggers alone).That, at least, was true for a while; with the polarization of news, though, and the advent of channels such as Fox News, the media doesn’t do as much expose on government manipulation anymore, because this kind of news tends to be seen as partisan and generates less interest.

Consider this story, for example: A memo, obtained by the Environmental Working Group, back in March 2003, which was written as a playbook for Republican politicians to handle environmental questions.

This memo should be required reading for anyone interested in political manipulation. It was written by Frank Luntz as a “how-to” guide for the Republicans to address environmental issues, which they were seen as weak on. Consider some of his advice:

– “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.”

– “As Republicans, we have the moral and rhetorical high ground when we talk about values, like Freedom, Responsibility, and accountability.”

– Mr. Luntz devotes a lot of space to advice on how to handle climate change. He has helpful “words that work” and “language that works” boxes, with carefully crafted messages to ensure that voters do not come to the conclusion that there is strong scientific consensus on climate change. For example, “scientists can extrapolate all kind of things from today’s data, but that doesn’t tell us anything about tomorrow’s world.”

– “It’s time for us to be talking about ‘climate change’ instead of ‘global warming’.” (Climate change is less scary, apparently, according to focus groups).

I could go on, and you really should read the whole memo. Nothing that is said in the memo is illegal, or even immoral – it is manipulative, of course (careful choice of words, emphasis on ‘story’ over facts, etc…), but it is a how-to, after all, on how to manipulate convince people of a difficult message. In that context, it’s actually pretty good: it has good ideas (appear sensitive to the environment before you start trying to explain your position, etc…), it’s very tactical (down to the choice of words to use), and it has a number of tactics that all build on one another.

Was it successful? Broadly speaking, yes. The Republicans successfully shifted enough public opinion on global warming that no action was taken by the US. This is,  of course, just political success – if global warming causes widespread catastrophes, as it probably will, then “success” here is obviously loosely defined. But these techniques – such as repeatedly referring to “the climate controversy” or “the climate debate“, to suggest that there was debate or controversy where, frankly speaking, there had not been much of either – succeeded in making enough Americans doubt the underlying facts that the question is now one of politics, not of science.

This is by no means a Republican issue alone (although frankly the years under George Bush were very… productive for manipulation researcher; he gave us a LOT of material). Essentially, over the past few years, manipulation techniques that have been used occasionally by corporations have been increasingly adopted by political organization. Consider astroturfing, for example. Astroturfing is the practice of creating an organized pressure campaign and making it look like it was a spontaneous, grass-root groundswell. The technique was pioneered by the cigarette companies who created the National Smokers Alliance and the Guest Choice Network as front companies to push their interests. Recently, though, more and more politicians have been using this technique to create pressure. A Washington lobbying firm, for example, sent forged letters to a Senator to oppose climate change legislation “by mistake”. Recently, other firms have started to use the same technique for political pressure.

This is a trend that bears watching. It’s never a good thing when politicians resort to manipulation. Cynically, you can argue that this is a core part of politics, but that’s not true. Politics is the art of creating consensus. Doing so through force of argument, charisma, rhetoric, or action is productive. Doing so by inventing grass roots groups, or by creating memos to obfuscate and manipulate audiences is destructive. It destroys the process, and even if it succeeds in the short term it’s usually a Phyrric victory. It’s a fine line, but an important one, and one that should not be crossed lightly.